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HomeSportRugbyHow Saints are revving up for their Premiership semi-final clash with Leicester

How Saints are revving up for their Premiership semi-final clash with Leicester

Phil Dowson wants Saints right on the edge as the play-offs give Northampton another crack at derby rivals Leicester

Everyone is trying to stay sensible about this. After defeats home and away to Leicester Tigers during the normal run of the season Saints must now go to Welford Road for the Premiership play-off semi-final.

Tigers have not lost at home during this record-breaking campaign and have finished top of the table every round.

Saints season has been a story of picking themselves up from ninth and putting together an extraordinary run of games to now be in contention.

New signing Aaron Hinkley is enjoying the buzz of being involved at such a high octane moment.

“Where I’m from the derby was Gloucester – Bath. It’s like that. It’s good to be part of a game with some bite. You can feel it revving up in the squad during the week. We are peaking at the right time. We can’t wait,” he said.

“When I got put on loan to Coventry I was thinking about retiring. I wasn’t enjoying my rugby, I wasn’t enjoying my life much. To be here now is incredible and to manage to get a place in the squad at this stage of the season is unbelievable. It’s a good brand of rugby, it’s good to be around a team that is so proactive about the way they play. I’m just pleased to be part of it.”

Both East Midlands sides have been through a transition in recent years. Steve Borthwick got a grip of Tigers and had them doubling down on their traditional strengths: brutal uncompromising defence and clinical set piece opening doors for some world class talent in the backs.

Chris Boyd’s mission with Saints has been about harvesting the potential of the club’s youth. On the dark days it gets called ‘risky rugby’ but when it goes right Saints are one of the most exciting sides to watch in the Premiership.

At the moment the difference between the sides encapsulates one of the great debates about how rugby should be played. It used to be said that a ‘fancy dan’ southern hemisphere ‘ball through the hands’ style rugby wouldn’t work in the northern hemisphere. Our winters were too wet to promote ball handling skills. English rugby was just too good at trucking it up into contact, recycling and smashing on another six yards and then another, to really invest in another way.

Leicester beat Northampton 26-55 at Franklin’s Gardens and 35-20 at Welford Road

But things have been changing. The laws now seek to support speedy rucking. At the top of the tree Eddie Jones has been looking for internationals who can play a fast, sophisticated game. The current champions are Harlequins, a team with the ball-playing ethos at their heart.

At the start of his time in charge Chris Boyd said coaches had to find a way to win against teams that fielded 15 big units and it is some measure of his success that Saints are now in the position that they are.

Phil Dowson, who will be heading up the coaching team when Boyd leaves, is pleased with the way the team has responded to the challenges they have faced.

He said: “It feels pretty special. We have worked hard to give ourselves an opportunity in the semi-final and it works out that it’s a local derby as well. We have put a run together because of the position we found ourselves in. It’s clear as day when you are sat in ninth that you need to start winning some games and that put a little bit of pressure on us. The players have responded in a brilliant way, some of our performances have been excellent. We’re in a situation now where we can have a crack at it.

“We have got some trust and belief and confidence in the group. We have got trust and belief and confidence in the way we want to play. I think that is clear from the way we are playing.”

The comprehensive nature of Tiger’s results against Saints this season in some ways makes it a simple coaching message this week: get better at everything.

“We’ve taken a hiding twice,” said Dowson “They have been chastening experiences, particularly in the local derby. We have to learn the lessons from that. I think it’s clear as day in terms of getting our game on the field and dealing with their very aggressive and very dominant performances, how we get into the game and get our game on the pitch is integral to the success of our gameplan.

“It’s the way you want to play the game, the way you want to defend, the way you want to deal with mauls, the way you want to maul and attack. I don’t think it is any different to playing any other teams. We had to be physical against Quins in different ways. We had to be physical against Saracens in different ways and at times we weren’t physical enough and they rolled us over.

“It is the same every week. We have to be physical and disciplined whether you are playing, Gloucester, Newcastle or whatever. If you are on your own five a lot you are going to concede and Leicester are particularly good at that. We have to make sure that within our own systems, within our game, we are right on the edge.

“We have to be better across the board. We have to be better at set piece and winning the ball, better at the breakdown in terms of keeping hold of it and better at using the ball and being more clinical with opportunities to score.”

I'm the editor and owner of The NeneQuirer.

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