Scrum battle the key in renewal of fierce rivalry
IT'S the tie-breaker. Munster and Northampton have met four times in the Heineken Cup and have two wins apiece in a well-contested rivalry that sees Munster just 12 points ahead on aggregate (80-68).
It adds an extra spice to Saturday's Pool One encounter at Thomond Park (the venue for both of Munster's wins in this fixture) -- and it is not as if this particular rivalry is short on flavour.
Their previous meetings have been sparky affairs, dating back to the final in 2000, when Munster felt Mick Galwey was unfairly sin-binned, through to their next encounter in Franklin's Gardens nine years later, when the visitors felt referee Christophe Berdos should have brandished yellow for persistent Saints infringement.
The return clash at Thomond was another fractious affair, as was the quarter-final at the same venue, when Northampton unwisely talked themselves up in the build-up, predictably provoking a furious Munster response when the contest began.
The rivalry is accentuated by the fact that there are a lot of similarities between the two sides. Like Limerick, Northampton is a rugby town, with the Saints players readily accessible to the community they represent, which conveys an extra sense of responsibility.
And, while both teams possess their share of backline game-breakers, their games have always been founded on abrasiveness up front.
Back in 2000, it was the Northampton heavyweights of Tim Rodber, Pat Lam and Federico Mendez against Munster's Peter Clohessy, Galwey and Anthony Foley -- and Saturday will pit another set of fiery characters against each other.
Alan Quinlan will be missed by Munster in this regard, but Peter O'Mahony looks like a ready-made replacement, while the Saints can call on the combativeness of captain and hooker Dylan Hartley, as well as fellow enforcers Courtney Lawes and Soane Tonga'uiha.
The last-named will have a major impact on how Saturday's game pans out, for his scrum power can set the tone if he is allowed to exercise it.
The Tongan was immense in the pool game at Thomond Park in January 2010, when Northampton would have won if his team-mates had been more clinical, and the giant loose-head goes into the match high on confidence after picking up a try in the Saints' excellent win away to Wasps at the weekend.
Jim Mallinder singled out the front-row for special mention afterwards and, worryingly for Munster, believes his in-form side have more in them for this weekend.
"The front-row is playing well, we have some good players now," said Mallinder. "We are moving in the right direction and we have gained a little bit of momentum, but we need to get better for the threat of Munster next week.
"We have won the last five games and now we can put that on the back burner and concentrate on Europe for the next two weeks."
Mallinder is an impressive, plain-spoken coach who has been touted for the England role, and Northampton's former Ulster No 8 Roger Wilson is a big admirer of the coaching policy at Saints.
"A lot of times you can have good players but they don't come together too well as a group, but I think Jim man-manages the squad well and unifies the players," said Wilson.
"Himself and Dorian West as coaches are of the old-school amateur ethos way of thinking, where you can treat the players as grown-ups and let them do what they want to do, like have a few beers together, as long as whenever you arrive at the training ground you put the effort in and you are fully focused.
"I think that treating players as adults rather than schoolboys is good for the environment of the squad and there is a good buzz."
West has responsibility for the forwards and the ex-England and Lions hooker will believe they can do a number on Munster in the scrum, but this is a different proposition than last season.
Following the Ospreys' demolition of the Munster scrum for their crucial pool victory last December, a breaking point was reached -- the upshot of which was the signing of Springbok tight-head BJ Botha from Ulster.
Botha's display in defeat against Leinster last weekend demonstrated his importance and Munster need him fit and firing on Saturday.
Not only does the South African go after the opposition loose-head, he hones in on the hooker alongside and if Botha can get after Tonga'uiha and Hartley on Saturday, Munster will be well on their way.
For his part, Mallinder professes to be focused solely on his Northampton role.
"I'm very much focused on the job in hand at the Saints and am enjoying myself at the club.
"We've got some big games coming up and I'm concentrating on making sure we get positive results and put in some positives performances in the Heineken Cup."
However, Mallinder knows that beating Munster in a Heineken Cup match at Thomond Park -- which has happened only once before, when Leicester won in 2007 and Munster were already qualified -- would be major entry on his CV for the England job.
It is another fascinating aspect to a compelling Heineken Cup rivalry, while his counterpart Tony McGahan is driven by the consequences of failure with a trip to Castres next up.
As ever in this competition, there is so much at stake so early on and for Munster and Northampton it could all boil down to four small words -- crouch touch, pause, engage.
Four mighty collisions
May 27, 2000 - Twickenham
The great regret. Munster were not rated going into the competition but played superbly on their way to the final, a stunning semi-final triumph against Toulouse in Bordeaux establishing them as favourites against a battered Saints outfit who were chasing three trophies. However, Northampton brought a grizzly pack to Twickenham based around the likes of Tim Rodber, Budge Pountney and Pat Lam and, despite the boost of a David Wallace try, Declan Kidney's side could not shake them off. Ultimately the final came down to the gust of wind that blew what would have been Ronan O'Gara's match-winning penalty off target.
October 10, 2009 - Franklin's Gardens
Shane Geraghty (remember him?) picked up the Man of the Match award after his 21-point haul, which included a brilliant individual try. Munster went into the game on the back of a 30-0 hammering by Leinster and lack of confidence showed at critical junctures as they came off second best to a Northampton pack in which Courtney Lawes delivered a breakthrough performance. Referee Christophe Berdos didn't help the Reds' cause, blowing for time as Munster were pushing for the winning score.
January 22, 2010 - Thomond Park
Squeaky-bum time at Thomond as Munster clung on for victory despite being dominated by the Northampton pack. They survived through a combination of resolute defence, notably when the Saints were chasing a critical score with Paul O'Connell in the sin bin, and the excellent goal-kicking of O'Gara.
April 10, 2010 - Thomond Park
A tougher quarter-final than the scoreline implies but Munster were full value for their victory, with Doug Howlett (left) striking for two tries, to add to touchdowns from Paul Warwick and Jean de Villiers, with O'Gara contributing 13 points off the tee. Northampton had arrived in bullish form, highlighting their scrum power and determination to storm the famed Limerick fortress but, even without the injured O'Connell, the home pack stood up to the challenge, led by veterans Marcus Horan and John Hayes at scrum-time.