Saints excited by Heineken return
October 5, 2009
Jim Mallinder is excited by the prospect of Munster's visit to Franklin's Gardens © Getty Images
Northampton Saints are set to kick off their Heineken Cup season against two-times winners Munster at Franklin's Gardens on Saturday, with coach Jim Mallinder excited by the prospect of testing his maturing side against one of Europe's biggest names.
Having lifted the Heineken Cup in 2000 and the European Challenge Cup last season the Saints have a strong European pedigree and will need every ounce of effort if they are to progress from a group also containing French champions Perpignan.
"We were pleased with the way things ended up last year - we were good at home and that helped," said Mallinder. "To finish eighth in the league in our first season back was satisfactory and to win the European Challenge Cup was very encouraging.
"That finished off a good season for us but now we've got to move on and we've got to improve. It's going to be tough and it's going to be competitive but we're looking forward to the challenge.
"You'd never pick to play Perpignan, Munster and Benetton Treviso but we've got that and, actually, it's a brilliant draw for us because it will see how far we've come. Northampton is a big club and needs to be playing and competing on that big stage."
Mallinder believes that the Saints' success abroad last season gives them a vital reference point as they seek to find upset victories at two of the most volatile grounds in the game, Munster's Thomond Park and Perpignan's Stade Aime Giral.
"I think the confidence in the squad has always been there but what the Challenge Cup has done is show us that we can compete with some of the big teams," he said. "We proved that we can play away from home in the Challenge Cup, winning all our games in France.
"It's also showed us that we really want to go on and challenge and prove ourselves against the very top teams. Winning the Challenge Cup has given us the opportunity to do that, especially with the draw that we've got in this year's Heineken Cup.
"However, people won't underestimate us this year and they'll know that they've got a difficult game. But for us, it's just about making sure we do the right things at the right time; that we continue to work hard; we continue to stay tight as a group; and we go into every game giving it our best effort. As long as we do that, I think we'll be competitive."
Meanwhile, the Saints will have to wait to introduce former Australia lock Dan Vickerman to European action. Vickerman is still a full-time student at Cambridge University and will not be available for his new club until the end of the Varsity season in December.