Munster v Northampton Saints, Heineken Cup, April 10
Munster and Northampton renew hostilities
April 9, 2010
Munster's Keith Earls is tackled by the Northampton defence, Munster v Northampton, Heineken Cup, Thomond Park, Limerick, Dublin, January 22, 2010
Munster's Keith Earls is shackled by the Northampton defence during their Thomond Park meeting in January © Getty Images

Munster and Northampton go head-to-head for the third time this season on Saturday night with a place in the Heineken Cup semi-finals awaiting the winner of a mouth-watering Thomond Park clash.

The ledger currently reads one win apiece with the Saints having stunned their Irish rivals 31-27 at Franklin's Gardens before the Munstermen exacted revenge with a narrow 12-9 win in their most recent meeting in January. That last success in Limerick handed the hosts a priceless home draw in the last eight with the final round seedings shake-up setting up a decider between the two sides.

Northampton out-gunned Munster three tries to two in their first clash but a kicking duel decided the return fixture with veteran Ronan O'Gara edging his side home. Only time will tell whether this knock-out showdown will follow the pattern of the first or second game but either way the match-up will not be found wanting for tension with another pulsating encounter on the cards.

Munster may have been some way from their rampaging best in their last euro outing but have shown enough class in this year's competition to hint that they may be ready to reclaim the crown. Five wins from six pool matches saw them power to the top seeding with their demolition of Perpignan at Stade Aime Giral an obvious high point and arguably one of the finest away performances the tournament has ever seen. They will also relish a return to Thomond Park where they have lost only one previous Heineken Cup game - against Northampton's Premiership rivals Leicester in 2007 - but question marks have surfaced about their scrum and lineout with concerns that experience may be giving way to old age in some quarters.

Critics also suggest that the aura surrounding their recently-revamped home may be on the wane with Leinster having scored a valuable Magners League win only last week but they are well-placed for what would be their third Heineken Cup success in the last five years with either Biarritz or Ospreys awaiting the winner of this game in the last four.

The prospect of a vociferous crowd, except for when the famous hush befalls the stadium as kickers prepare, will hold little fear for Northampton having survived the experience earlier this season when they arguably should have completed a notable double. Defeat to Perpignan and a laboured victory over Treviso blotted their pool campaign but in the meantime they have cemented their Premiership challenge and claimed the first piece of silverware on offer this season with victory over Gloucester in the Anglo-Welsh Cup Final. A record of 19 wins from their last 21 games in all competitions speaks for itself and they are also carrying the English flag as the only Premiership side left in the mix.

Northampton are also no strangers to upsets at this stage of the competition having accounted for Biarritz at San Sebastián three years ago but have some way to go to match the Heineken Cup pedigree of Munster who have qualified for the quarter-finals in each of the last 12 seasons and have failed on just three occasions to progress to the final four.

Talismanic lock Paul O'Connell and livewire Keith Earls were both selected to start having missed the loss to Leinster last week but O'Connell was forced out of the game on Saturday afternoon after failing a fitness test. Earls, who like his captain has also been battling a groin strain, partners Jean de Villers in the centre. In O'Connell's absence, Mick O'Driscoll starts at lock with fly-half Ronan O'Gara taking on the captaincy.

James Coughlan starts at No.8, allowing David Wallace to move back to his preferred openside position and Alan Quinlan to pack down at blindside. Coach Tony McGahan is primed for a fierce battle, commenting, "We realise where we are against Northampton, they're a terrific scrummaging unit and we need to perform against them. We need to be at our best Saturday evening if we want to get the result."

Perhaps wary of their failings with the boot when the sides last met, Northampton have opted for stability rather than flair at No.10 with Stephen Myler getting the nod over Shane Geraghty. "The difference between Myler and Geraghty is that Shane has the flair but personally I think Stephen controls the game slightly better," said skipper Dylan Hartley, who has recovered from a wrist injury that ruled him out of their last Premiership encounter. "Then you have people like Shane who you can bring on and turn the game on its head."

Prolific winger Chris Ashton and fullback Ben Foden also start having enhanced their growing reputations in England colours during this year's Six Nations but the guaranteed white-hot atmosphere on Saturday night is set to be another real test of their credentials. Munster's Ireland contingent may have come up short in their quest for Six Nations and Triple Crown glory but they helped ensure Declan Kidney's side were comfortably the second best side in this year's battle for northern hemisphere supremacy.

As is so often the case, the game will most likely be won up front and a powerful front row featuring Scotland's Euan Murray, Hartley and Tongan Tonga'uiha could prove to be the key to the Saints' chances but in Marcus Horan, Jerry Flannery and John Hayes they face an ominously experienced trio. In the loose, the dynamism of lock Courtney Lawes and blindside Phil Dowson could be trump cards for the visitors but they will find little room to manoeuvre with the likes of Alan Quinlan and David Wallace on their heels.

Northampton have shown already this season that they have the quality to take on and beat the best in Europe but this latest hurdle will be decided by how they handle the pressure that comes at this stage of the season. Munster will start as favourites having also been there and done it when it matters most but the Heineken Cup has a habit of throwing up surprises with the Saints hoping that they can write another famous chapter in the competition's history and keep English hopes alive.

Munster: P Warwick; D Howlett, K Earls, J de Villiers, I Dowling; R O'Gara (captain), T O'Leary; M Horan, J Flannery, J Hayes, D O'Callaghan, M O'Driscoll, A Quinlan, D Wallace, J Coughlan

Replacements: D Varley, J Brugnaut, T Buckley, B Holland, N Williams, N Ronan, P Stringer, L Mafi.

Northampton: B Foden; C Ashton, J Clarke, J Downey, B Reihana; S Myler, L Dickson; S Tonga'uiha, D Hartley (capt), E Murray, C Lawes, J Kruger, P Dowson, N Best, R Wilson

Replacements: B Sharman, R Dreyer, B Mujati, I Fernandez Lobbe, M Easter, A Dickens, S Geraghty, J Ansbro


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