Underdog tag gives O'Connell extra motivation
MUNSTER hold a special place in Northampton hearts.
They are team the Saints defeated to land their Heineken Cup title in 2000, while coach Jim Mallinder acknowledged that the victory over Tony McGahan's men at Franklin's Gardens in 2009 was a major turning point for his side.
A year after their promotion from Division 1, that victory gave Northampton the belief that has seen the Saints become annual Premiership contenders and make the Heineken Cup final last season.
That was also the night that a giant, raw second-row named Courtney Lawes announced himself as a major player, turning in a huge display that carried more than a few echoes of his opposite number, Lions captain Paul O'Connell. Lawes made his international debut the following month and has since established himself in the England second-row, and is seen as a shoo-in for the Lions tour to Australia in 2013.
O'Connell rates him very highly and, though Lawes has had his share of disciplinary issues in his relatively short international career, the Munster captain does not believe he is the dirty player many have made him out to be.
"I don't think he's dirty, he's a hard player," said O'Connell. "He's a hard player and that's what you have to be. I think he's excellent, really athletic, big guy, great hands, great technical tackler. He does what he has to do and I think he's going to be a great player."
Lawes is one of the reasons why Northampton travel to Limerick for tomorrow's Heineken Cup clash fancied to triumph at a Thomond Park venue where only one other side (Leicester) has won before in Europe.
The Saints go in on the back of an excellent win away to Wasps last weekend, while Munster lost to Leinster at Lansdowne Road and O'Connell accepts that it puts the home side up against it.
"You'd rather be favourites," he admitted. "You'd rather be coming off a win against Leinster and we'd rather have qualified last year, but those are the facts and that makes us underdogs.
"They're the team that made the Heineken Cup final, they were excellent as well in the Premiership last year and they've shown good form since their World Cup players have come back. Whether being underdogs annoys us or not is irrelevant.
"It is what it is and we need to change that and turn that around."
All week, the scrum has been identified as a critical area in tomorrow's encounter and while Northampton have had the advantage here in recent meetings with Munster, the arrival of BJ Botha has given the home scrum an extra edge.
"It's important not to get ahead of ourselves," said O'Connell. "BJ's come in and he's done really well with his scrum leadership, Wian (du Preez) as well. Damien Varley is probably underestimated in all of that. He's just built for scrummaging and Paul McCarthy is doing great work with us.
"There's great potential there, but we need to keep working on it and keep using it as a weapon. You turn over a line-out and it's scrappy ball for you going backwards. You turn over a scrum and it's either three points or 60 metres down the field, so it can be a serious weapon."
With the trip to Castres next up, defeat against Northampton would put Munster under immediate pressure and after last season's pool exit, there is a massive determination in the Munster camp to wrest control of their destiny from the first match.
"It's a massive two weeks," said O'Connell. "It can really set up our season. We just need a big Munster performance this week and try not to look beyond that. We just need to throw everything at this game and make sure we get a result."
•Munster Rugby have announced their work with three new charities for this season -- Acquired Brain Injury Ireland, C.R.O.S.S. and Motor Neurone Disease Research. Details at www.munsterrugby.ie/club/in_the_community.php