2010/2011 Heineken Cup Semi-Final Preview: Northampton V Perpignan
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The Northampton Saints, winners of the Heineken Cup in 2000, will meet the only team left in the 2010/2011 tournament not to have claimed Europe's most prestigous domestic title. Perpignan, French champions in 2009 and seven-times the winner of the Top 14, did make it to a H-Cup final in 2003 but lost to old rivals Toulouse 22-17.
The Saints, in some pundit's eyes the best English domestic team, will bring a mighty squad to the penultimate match of the championship minus test flanker Tom Wood.
The twin attacking foils of Ben Foden and Chris Ashton might attempt to take all the headlines, but it is a remarkably powerful engine room for Northampton that has seen them supply quality ball to their class back division.
Jim Mallinder has molded his team into an obvious champion outfit, but the Saints will want to start confirming this potential by winning at least one major cup this year.
The Saints are fourth in the current Aviva Premiership and a threat to the English crown, but they are attempting to become the first ever unbeaten team in Heineken Cup history, with Leinster (twice), London Wasps, Bath Rugby, Biarritz Olympique, Scarlets and Cardiff Blues all whitewashing their pools throughout history but failing to claim the title.
Nine wins constitutes a perfect Heineken Cup season - never achieved in the North.
In the South, the Crusaders in 2002 went 11 wins in the regular season through to beating the Brumbies in the final to achieve a perfect 13-from-13 Super Rugby campaign.
Former New Zealand based player and Saints' veteran Bruce Reihana said his team was ready.
"This semifinal is absolutely massive for the club and for the supporters," Reihana said.
"We have worked so hard all season to get to this point, and we are all hugely excited about playing Perpignan in the semifinals. Any side you meet in the last four are going to be at the top of their game and Perpignan are no different. We watched their quarterfinal and they are a class outfit, so we will spend the week looking at them and preparing for the game. Coming through the Pool stage as the only unbeaten team was a fantastic achievement and of course we are using that and taking confidence from it going into the one-off games, but we know just how tough Perpignan will be on Sunday."
Milton Keynes is only just down the road from Northampton and it has become a ‘home’ ground with the supporters packing it out like they do at every stadium we go to."
The Coach of Perpignan, Jacques Brunel, who will assume the reigns of Italy after Nick Mallet steps down, wants to inflict some revenge on the English.
While the French side won the Top 14 title two seasons ago and contested last year's final, a ninth place position in this year's championship shows the powerful team has struggled, getting a hammering by Toulon last weekend.
But they defeated the same team in the quarter-finals of the H-Cup, reaching the first round of the finals courtesy of qualifying ahead of the Leicester Tigers, beating the English champions in France and drawing with them at Welford Road.
Brunel, who suffered defeats as assistant French coach to England in 2003 and 2007, said he wanted some revenge for what happened in the World Cup, with the 57-year-old famous for breaking Perpignan's 54 year French championship drought.
"The English really made me suffer when I was with the French side," Brunel said.
"I can't forget that I lost two World Cup semifinals to them. I will remember that for a long time.
Both times we thought we were close and on for it, but it slipped out of our hands: the rain in Sydney, that tap tackle by [Lewis] Moody on [Vincent] Clerc in Paris."
Perpignan will rely on their brilliant front row and reliable set piece to impose themselves on the Saints, while the Northampton pack will probably try to gain advantage in the loose.
Out wide the French can attack, but their willingness at times to run with the ball does leave them susceptible to counterattack and suspect defence, which the Saints will use to their advantage with their two English three-quarters roaming wide.
Date: Sunday, May 1
Referee: George Clancy (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Alain Rolland (Ireland). Simon McDowell (Ireland)
Northampton: 15 Ben Foden, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Jon Clarke, 12 James Downey, 11 Paul Diggin, 10 Stephen Myler, 9 Lee Dickson, 8 Roger Wilson, 7 Phil Dowson, 6 Calum Clark, 5 Christian Day, 4 Courtney Lawes, 3 Brian Mujati, 2 Dylan Hartley (capt), 1 Soane Tonga'uiha. Replacements: 16 Brett Sharman, 17 Alex Waller, 18 Tom Mercey, 19 Mark Sorenson, 20 Mark Easter, 21 Stuart Commins, 22 Shane Geraghty, 23 Joe Ansbro.
Perpignan: 15 Jérôme Porical, 14 Adrien Plante, 13 David Marty, 12 Gavin Hume, 11 Julien Candelon, 10 Nicolas Laharrague, 9 David Mele, 8 Damien Chouly, 7 Bertrand Guiry, 6 Grégory Le Corvec, 5 Robins Tchale Watchou, 4 Rimas Alvarez Kairelis, 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 Guilhem Guirado, 1 Perry Freshwater. Replacements: 16 Charles Geli, 17 Kisi Pulu, 18 Jérôme Schuster, 19 Henry Tuilagi, 20 Kevin Boulogne, 21 Manny Edmonds, 22 Joffrey Michel, 23 Guillaume Vilaceca.
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