Finn Russell Matt Williams: intriguing European tests for Leinster and Munster

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Over the last 20 years Northampton have gone from Heineken Cup champions in 2000, to the bottom of the English Premiership, then into the Heineken Cup final in 2011, then back into the doldrums, to currently lead the English Premiership.

It does not matter at what stage of their erratic performance cycle they are in, Franklin’s Gardens remains one of the toughest away games in Europe. Northampton are a club steeped in the history of the Champions Cup. They get Europe.

The Saints have a host of overseas players including the Fijian-born Wallaby, Teqele Naiyarvoro, who at 130 kilograms is a behemoth.

Dan Bigger is in great form as their on-field general and his goal-kicking has been match-winning. However, with injuries to both Owen Franks and Courtney Lawes, Northampton have lost two brilliant players that will significantly weaken their pack.

Chris Boyd, their Kiwi coach, is a shrewd and experienced campaigner. He is straight out of the “say little, grumpy headed, hard nosed farmer” coaching school that the New Zealanders seemingly mass produce. He has transferred his success with the Wellington Hurricanes into early season hope for the Saints.

But Europe and Super rugby are two very different beasts. The back-to-back weekends in the Champions Cup are unique. They are the examination rounds. The white-hot glare of playing the same club two weeks in a row exposes every weakness and strength of the individuals and the teams.

Finn Russell Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw in action for Leinster at Franklins Gardens in 2016. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw in action for Leinster at Franklins Gardens in 2016. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

There is no place to hide. You get severely tested and you either pass or fail.

Leinster are giants in the Champions Cup. Packed full of talented and experienced players, they know how to win on the road in Europe. They are well rested and in peak physical condition. Leinster are rightly favourites because this version of Northampton remain unproven in the Heineken Cup.

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