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It ain’t over ’til it’s over

Ruaraidh Britton is a player and fan and assesses Saints chances against Stade Francais tonight.
This is it. One final chance at Europe’s elite competition. It’s been a stressful experience for Saints fans but all that might soon be put behind us as Northampton’s finest look to secure their place against the Challenge Cup winners Stade Francais. The Friday night lights will be sure to draw the numbers to the Garden, but this is going to be a really close encounter.
This will be the first time we’ve seen the two sides meet in the European Champions Cup, and actually will only be the second time the two sides have met; if you can think back to the year of 2002, you might just remember the Garden’s new Church Stand being fully packed out for the pre-season friendly. Names like Matt Dawson and Paul Grayson were present that day, with the scores finishing at 33-33. It was a high scoring classic, but nevertheless it’s 2017, and this is a whole new Saints team.
Having struggled in this years competition, with a record loss to Pro 12 semi finalists Leinster, and defeats against Montpellier and Castres Olympique, their confidence will have taken a knock in this competition. Yet with so much at stake for the Saints after a lack-lustre season in the Premiership, the players will see this as the ultimate redemption to get themselves back on track and back to winning ways. The squad will be bitterly disappointed to have ended up in seventh place, despite their win over Quins back on May 6, so I’d like to see them really show what they’re worth this weekend and put their nightmarish run in Europe to an end with a big win to close the season on a high.

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Their game against an out-of-sorts Connacht last weekend was a satisfying victory for the Saints, with Harry Mallinder showing his worth on the field yet again. It was a tough one to watch as Connacht simply wouldn’t go down without a fight but inevitably lost out to Mallinder’s three decisive penalty kicks. The Lions-bound boys George North and Courtney Lawes survived a full 80 minutes, as did England’s captain Dylan Hartley; a good sign for the game against Stade, and for the upcoming international tests over the summer. Dylan will especially be keen to impress after surprisingly being left out of the Lions squad, and North and Lawes will really be looking to prove themselves worthy of a starting place for the first test next month. Add two and two together and you get a Saints side that can inflict a lot of damage on their opponents. Keep your eyes on North however, because I’m really interested to see him up against Vuidarvuwala, two massive defenders with some serious defensive power ready to display on the night; it should be a classic battle of the wingers.

Saints fans will really be breathing a sigh of relief however not because of their line up, but because of the absence of a certain someone from Stade Francais. Sergio Parisse. The loss of the Italian flanker is catastrophic to the team, as his recent performances have been outstanding for the team, with him even proving to have a decent ability at kicking now. His tackling and sheer strength will be sorely missed, as his influence in the forward pack was vital in many fixtures, especially the Challenge Cup final a few weeks ago.
Gloucester entered their final with a good run in recent fixtures. They’d played fantastically to get to the final against La Rochelle, yet they just looked like they were being dominated left right and centre beyond the first try. Jonny May did get a fantastic break for the try but after that, Gloucester seriously struggled to maintain that momentum as soon as Stade overturned the 10-point deficit. Laidlaw’s kicking and Moriarty’s late consolation just weren’t enough on the big day and Stade were able to walk away with the trophy. And it was the missing Parisse that was the mastermind behind this comeback as well. Nonetheless, Saints fans will be praying that Mallinder is wary off their recent European performances because if they can maintain good momentum from the opening quarter, this really could go Northampton’s way on Friday night in my opinion.
There is a significant difference in the squads in terms of key players, with Picamoles, Waller and Burrell all set to start on Friday night. Tom Wood is also coming back to the starting line up to captain the side which is great to see for Tom before he departs for Argentina with the England squad. Yet Stade’s southern hemisphere import of Will Genia and his partnership with Jules Plisson has been deadly in recent fixtures. But in my honest opinion, I think Northampton, if they start well, can really overpower this side in the later stages of the fixture. Stade are coming fresh off the back of a dominating 46-21 win over Cardiff Blues despite being behind at half time. Six tries did the job for them however, and their capability to rack up the points tally in quick succession will be a big worry if Saints crumble under pressure attacking pressure from the TOP14 side. If North can find his scoring form, and Picamoles can keep on shoving men side to side, I really believe that pressure can be lifted, the Saints have the ability to win this game, they’ve just got to avoid getting bogged down under pressure from Stade, especially with the big absence of Parisse.
In a week where the Rugby Players’ Association chairman and none other than Northampton’s own Christian Day called a season extension “upsetting”, he and his men will be eager to get the big win and put what’s been a long season to bed. They’ve been desperate for big results and what other way to do it than to get themselves back into Europe’s elite contest. It’s going to be a colossal encounter for definite.
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