Northampton Saints v Perpignan, Heineken Cup semi-final, May 1
Hartley: Every week is like a cup final now
April 28, 2011
Dylan Hartley packs down with his Saints team-mates during training © Getty Images
Northampton captain Dylan Hartley admits every week feels like a cup final at the moment as the Saints prepare for Sunday's Heineken Cup semi-final against Perpignan.
The Saints have all-but secured their place in the Aviva Premiership play-offs after beating London Irish 26-20 over the Easter weekend, leaving the Exiles with a mountain to climb to overtake them in fourth spot. Northampton are also the last remaining English side in the Heineken Cup and face Top 14 outfit Perpignan at stadium:mk this weekend.
More than 20,000 tickets have already been sold and Hartley believes the players are in a position to triumph, especially after last season's disappointment.
"If anything we are probably refocused now," he said. "As a group we sat down and spoke about last year. We got to that point of a semi-final in the Premiership and a quarter-final in the Heineken Cup.
"Then within a week it was all over. No more games, see you next year. Luckily enough we are in the same position this year and we have refocused. Every week is like a cup final for us now.
"It is quite good to sit back and look at these games coming because if you don't win them you are off on holiday next week really. We have everything to play for and the motivation is there."
Northampton are the first Premiership side to reach the last four since Wasps in 2007 and will need to reproduce the form they showed to beat Ulster in the quarter-finals to progress to the Millennium Stadium showpiece. And despite the Saints' perceived inexperience in the competition, Hartley is confident of progression against the French team.
"It is a big stage," he said. "I spoke to the lads earlier in the week and kind of went around the room. Very few had even got to a quarter-final so this is a big thing for this group of players and it is exciting.
"[The inexperience] does not worry me, I think we learned enough last year. I think in knockout rugby this is the sort of team that can turn up and win any game."
Perpignan languish in ninth place in the Top 14 and head into the clash on the back of a defeat to Toulon. Despite the 2003 runners-up's poor form, Northampton head coach Jim Mallinder insists the French side will not be taken lightly.
"They will be disappointed to be in the position that they are in their league but I think they have some quality players," Mallinder said. "If, like we have done, you do your research on the side you know that up front they are a formidable unit there.
"Some very big men, experienced at playing hard, tough, French physical rugby and again behind they have some match winners so it is going to be a tough game.
"I know that the French teams rate the Heineken Cup and their priority is always to qualify and to be in it. I think they probably had a little look at their league and their position and they think they have a very good chance of qualifying through this competition."
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