Weight of history: Saints look to seize day in Leinster Champions Cup clash

By his own admission, Northampton’s director of rugby, Phil Dowson, is a history buff. This week he invited the club’s Irish strength and conditioning coach, Eamonn Hyland, to give his players an “incredibly powerful” lesson in the cultural and historic significance of becoming the first English side to play at Croke Park. Players were moved to goosebumps as the size of the challenge that awaits against Leinster on Saturday became all the more acute.

It is 104 years since the Croke Park massacre, in which 14 spectators were fatally shot by the Royal Irish Constabulary and, as Dowson points out, Croke Park is “a landmark of [Irish] independence”. Having spoken recently with Donncha O’Callaghan, the former Ireland and Munster second-row, Dowson is only too aware that when England played at Croke Park in 2007 the result was “almost a foregone conclusion”. Ireland duly swept England aside by 30 points and while Leinster have played there before, against Munster in 2009, Saturday marks the first time an English rugby club will set foot at the headquarters of the Gaelic Athletic Association.

There are other aspects of history Dowson is less interested in. He was part of the Northampton side who led 22-6 at half-time in the 2011 final in Cardiff, only for Johnny Sexton to inspire a barely believable comeback – Leinster going on to prevail 33-22. He scored a try and received a yellow card in that match but Dowson has not seen fit to revisit that day this week.

Equally, there are reminders around Franklin’s Gardens that Northampton’s last piece of major silverware came a decade ago, when beating Saracens in the Premiership final, that Dowson would rather weren’t there. They have not been as well placed to end that barren streak as they are this season, though the prevailing thought is that the Premiership, where they sit top of the league with two regular-season rounds to go, represents a better chance than the Champions Cup, such is the daunting nature of this fixture.

“I’ve always felt this competition has the opportunity to be a romantic competition,” says Dowson. “There’s a great opportunity for big stories and to travel and do things differently and it’s a great example this weekend, to be the first English club side to go and play at Croke Park, that’s epic. That’s something you can really go and get your teeth into.”

Dowson does not subscribe to the theory that Northampton and Harlequins are both flying the Premiership flag because in recent years they have been the league’s most attacking sides, – the theory being that the elite game is now better rewarding ambition – but there is little doubt if either are to clinch silverware they are dependent on their star turns at No 10, their fly-half metalworkers. Smiths Fin and Marcus will be marked men over the weekend but, having produced a coming-of-age-performance away to Munster earlier in the competition, Northampton’s 21-year-old No 10 has demonstrated a taste for the big occasion.

Indeed, it came after another impressive showing against Exeter and just before the Six Nations in which Fin Smith made his first England appearances. “We had a good win here against Exeter and I felt I played well, had a good win at Munster away and I felt I played well, it was a real momentum builder in terms of the season for me,” says Smith. “But coming out of that there was actually a lot to be done and where I was in those games, I’d have good spells, a few good touches and then I’d make an error and actually it’s about being a little bit more consistent and happy to stay at a seven or eight out of 10 for 80 minutes and trust that I’ve got enough quality around me to bring those magic moments in, I don’t need to go chasing them. I think I’ve learned loads from that.

Northampton Saints’ Fin Smith breaks through the Munster defence in the Champions Cup round of 16. Photograph: Andrew Kearns/CameraSport/Getty Images

“You can only take it as a compliment that teams are noticing you and you are someone who they have to look out for. But I think that all ties back to what I was saying about being happy to be a seven out of 10 and just being consistent and knowing that if I am doing my job we have got enough quality out there that guys can inject pace or put people into space elsewhere.

“Teams are always going to try to apply pressure and it is up to me to try to find ways around that. I suppose you could say this is a free hit but it’s a massive game, we’re one game away from a European final and as much as we’re underdogs we’re going there to win the game.”

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Rest assured that Smith has high hopes of continuing his England progression this summer and you can be equally sure that Steve Borthwick will be paying close attention to how both England fly-halves fare this weekend given the calibre of the opposition. Dowson for one is in no doubt that Fin can handle the cauldron that awaits in Dublin.

“You just forget how young he is because of the way he carries himself and the drive that he has,” says Dowson. “Without being someone outside the core group, he’s still in among it with all the other lads. His demeanour and manner and his maturity is incredible really. And he’s also really coachable, he’s got a great relationship with all of our coaching group in terms of how he wants to get better. He’s not sat back and thought he’s made it.”

Evidently Northampton are not going to be cowed by what awaits them. They spent Friday trying their hands at Gaelic football and hurling and if they are looking for good luck omens, the Croke Park groundsman is a Northampton fan and Dowson has had a jersey printed to present him with. “Small world,” he adds. “The first English club side to go there and the groundsman is a Saints fan from Leighton Buzzard. You couldn’t write it.”

The Guardian