Callum Clark determined to make up for 2011 final defeat

‘It was one of my biggest disappointments in rugby and that certainly won’t change’

It’s Houston in high summer and the youngest Irish side in half a century are inching towards America’s 22.

Isaac Boss feeds Ian Madigan and the outhalf, following the pre-planned pattern, flings a skip pass into midfield, where the heavies are waiting.

So too is Samu Manoa.

Over to the US commentators for what comes next.

“Aw, man!”

“Huge hit!”

"Manu Samoa. Hello, hello. Wow!"

Peter O'Mahony is hammered back over the 10-metre line. Granted, Mike Ross and Devin Toner immediately clear the ruck and play continues but the boisterous Texan crowd are on their feet.

"Samu Manoa, Oh!" the telecaster purrs at the replay. "Concussive force there. You talk about crash test dummies."

It's not the lack of rugby knowledge shown by initially calling Manoa a country but the temerity to presume O'Mahony could ever be concussed.

“6ft 6in, 286 and on full tilt. Some dental fillings are being loosened at this moment.”

Actually, the Californian is 6ft 7in and just over 19 stone, but you get the idea.

Searching out more of the Manoa moments on YouTube and a side-step on Alex Goode can added to the concussive force as he was named Premiership player of the month for October.

At least Toner, Ross, Madigan et al know what's coming this Saturday evening at Franklin's Gardens. Courtney Lawes, arguably, hits even harder. The slightly lighter Londoner had an impressive November, finally nailing down a spot in England's engine room.

While we’re at it Calum Clark must be added to this ferocious gang of Northampton Saints forwards.

In fairness to Clark, despite a litany of suspensions dating back to his England under-20 days, the 24-year-old displayed an improving maturity yesterday when batting away a potentially incendiary question about beating Leinster by any means possible.

And then he flooded the three-time European champions with platitudes.

A huge test
"They are a proper team, full of great players," said Clark. "It is exciting because you want to be challenging as a team. It will be a huge test of us, a test of our players and where those players are, and how we prepare to see can we go to that next level.

Granted, Jim Mallinder's Saints have lost valuable attacking weapons in fullback Ben Foden and loosehead prop Alex Corbisero to injury but their pack has improved this season.

They lie second in the Premiership and impressively cushioned the loss of gargantuan props Soane Tonga'uiha and Brian Mujati to Racing Metro 92.

In George North, the Saints have made as good a signing as could possibly have been made.

The two teams that locked horns on that epic Cardiff day two and half years ago have changed significantly. It's also worth noting the brilliant English flanker Tom Wood was injured so Clark played openside.

Like every Northampton forward, he was blitzed at the breakdown by Shane Jennings, and like his surviving teammates that second half will forever haunt him.

“I don’t think you forget about that but we have a different squad and they got a few different players as well,” says Clark.

"But you can't forget those things. You can't forget the lesson that we learnt and how important playing in that final was to us. It was one of my biggest disappointments in rugby and that certainly won't change."

Second-half turnaround
Clark flips a question about the Johnny Sexton-led second half turnaround on its head. "I think it is fair to say they weren't expecting us to come out and perform that way but what it does show when they re-gathered themselves and regrouped what a quality side they are."

Northampton have grown significantly as a team since, perhaps best exemplified by their ability to reverse a 25-6 defeat to Ulster at Franklin's last season by winning 10-9 a week later in Ravenhill.

“We got a proper kicking the week before out here and said afterwards we were going to Ulster and were going to win. We got that belief in early doors and did the job, winning in a place not many teams do. A great memory.

“I think that was a one-off circumstance in that we had a good kicking here and perhaps they thought they were going to walk over us again. You don’t really see that represented all the time but rugby is a funny game and lots of things happen, so we’ll see.”

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent