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Home / News / Northampton trip has all the traits of a Munster ambush

Northampton trip has all the traits of a Munster ambush

Munster have their backs to the wall ahead of a big European tie with a well-fancied English high-flyer. We’ve seen this movie before.

Following the build-up to this afternoon’s Investec Champions Cup Round of 16 meeting between Northampton Saints and Munster at Franklin’s Gardens, it has all the traits of an old-fashioned Munster ambush.

It even has the added ingredient of a late cry-off from a marquee player – RG Snyman was ruled out yesterday.

On Wednesday morning, Saints scrum-half Tom James gave Graham Rowntree’s side the first headline to pin up on the dressing room wall.

“There’s no chance that these guys are going to be more desperate to win than we are,” James said, as he looked ahead to the knock-out meeting of the pair.

In James’ defence, he’s not wrong.

While Northampton went to Thomond Park and produced a smash-and-grab of their own in the final round of the pool stage in January, it will count for nothing unless Phil Dowson’s side can back it up on home soil this afternoon.

But, anyone who has watched the first couple of episodes of the brilliant new Springboks’ docu-series ‘Chasing the Sun’ will know that context is irrelevant when it comes to bulletin-board material.

Nobody does ‘nobody believes in us’ better than Munster.

It felt appropriate that the province had Denis Leamy (below) up for media duties this week.

The defence coach has history with the Saints from his playing days. The teams were best of enemies between 2009 and early 2012, playing each other five times in two-and-a-half-years.

The most famous of those meetings came back in November 2011, when Ronan O’Gara’s drop-goal after more than 40 phases saw the province snatch a dramatic win in one of the great European games.

It often slips through the cracks that it was Leamy who delivered the pass back to O’Gara for that drop at goal.

It was a highly fancied Northampton that went to Munster in 2011, and while the English team don’t have the same pedigree as that side, they are top of the Premiership, and playing an exciting brand of rugby.

Phil Dowson has put together a powerful and exciting squad in Northampton, although listening to Leamy, one would think his side were travelling to the 2005 All Blacks rather than a team they defeated both home and away last season.

“I think it wouldn’t be unfair to say that we’re not being given a whole lot of hope going over to the best team in England, with all their England internationals, with all the ability they have,” Leamy said.

“It’s Europe, it’s Munster in England against the Premiership leaders. Written off. It’s Munster.”

Munster’s best performance of the season came away to Toulon in January

Even in Rowntree’s short tenure so far as head coach of Munster, they’ve shown they can tap into that underdog mentality.

Their run to the URC title saw them finish last season with five away games unbeaten, three of those coming in South Africa, while their best display of this season was also when they were backed into a corner, away to Toulon in January.

The issue for this current Munster group has arguably been producing the goods when it’s been expected. They limped into the Round of 16 with just one win from four in the pool stage, when they should really have completed a clean sweep.

In the opening round they gave up a 14-3 lead to a second-string Bayonne at Thomond Park, eventually drawing 17-17, while a week later they produced what had been their best rugby of the season to score four tries and lead Exeter 24-13 away from home with just over 15 minutes left to play. Somehow, they lost 32-24.

When they hosted Northampton in the final game of the pool stage, they once again grabbed a defeat from the jaws of victory.

Munster had been 20-10 in front against the Saints early in the second half, who were playing with 14 men after a red card for hooker Curtis Langdon, but the hosts’ game management again went missing as the Saints pulled off a memorable comeback.

Northampton hooker Curtis Langdon was red-carded when the sides met in January

Hindsight isn’t much use now, but those second half collapses were the difference between between being the third seed and the fourteenth for the knockouts. If they can get revenge over Northampton this afternoon, it will still require another arduous journey to either the Bulls or Lyon in the quarter-finals next week.

While Munster may have looked out of sorts in last week’s scrappy 20-15 win over Cardiff, they have got their season back on track with four URC wins in a row, while the return of Mike Haley’s composure at full-back makes them look stronger this weekend in comparison to the side that were beaten by Northampton in January.

They will, however, miss Snyman and Shane Daly, who were ruled out yesterday afternoon due to illness and a knock, respectively.

The Saints are much changed from that win in Limerick, with seven new faces in total. George Furbank and Rory Hutchinson are notable absentees from their backline, while flanker Tom Pearson – who also missed the January game – has picked up a fresh injury.

Captain Lewis Ludlam does come into the starting side to join Courtney Lawes in the back row, but Dowson has gambled by leaving Alex Mitchell on his bench, and going for a 6:2 split with his subs.

Munster’s hopes have been dented by John Ryan’s three-game suspension, following last week’s win over Cardiff. With Oli Jager and Roman Salanoa injured, it leaves the province with Stephen Archer as the only recognised tighthead prop in their squad.

Mark Donnelly (above) replaces Ryan on the bench, but the 22-year-old hasn’t packed down at that side of the scrum since the 2021 U20 Six Nations. Ironically, Donnelly is available to play after having a red card overturned two weeks ago, following a high tackle during Cork Constitution’s All-Ireland League meeting with Terenure.

Jeremy Loughman, who starts at loosehead, has filled on at tighthead for Munster before when they’ve been depleted, and may be required to do so again if Archer picks up a knock.

The Ryan ban puts a spotlight on Archer, who turned 36 in January.

Northampton will be well aware that Munster’s record appearance holder will potentially have to do the full 80 minutes, and as such will go after him at the scrum early on to try and tire him out.

There will be pressure, literally and figuratively, on the tighthead’s shoulders this afternoon, but Munster fans will be quick to point out his back-to-back 80-minute shifts in Durban and Cape Town this time last year.

That saga will only have served to draw the walls up around this Munster camp.

Nobody believes in them, or so they think. Whether it’s true or not is irrelevant.

Follow a live blog of Northampton Saints v Munster on rte.ie/sport and the RTÉ News app


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