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Pountney backs saints to shine

IN his own words, Budge Pountney was the "little guy hanging off the side" of the monstrous Northampton pack that ground Munster down in the 2000 Heineken Cup final, writes Donnchadh Boyle.

It's a description that hardly does him justice. A one-club man, Pountney demanded huge respect for a host of reasons, not least his decision to return to play just a fortnight after an operation to remove a testicle damaged in a match.

He's also the man Northampton turned to, along with Paul Grayson, when they needed a steady hand for a few seasons during a downward spiral that saw them relegated in 2007. He served as both coach and director of rugby so it's no surprise he's making the trip to Cardiff today.

Three Grayson penalties were enough for the Saints that day in 2000 when Twickenham rocked to a different beat. Northampton is rugby country in the same way Munster is and the atmosphere is the first thing the former Scottish skipper remembers.

"It was incredible," he said. "You had two sets of fans who were hugely passionate. We were patched up for that game and were missing players like Matt Dawson and Nick Beal. Pat Lam played with his shoulder hanging off practically and we were just about able to get a squad together.

"And there was pressure on us too. A few weeks earlier we were in the running to win three trophies but we made a mess of it. We needed to have something to show for it."

The Millennium Stadium should be similarly noisy. The popular opinion is that the Saints will keep it up the jumper with the forwards where the majority of their experience is, similar to 2000 when Pountney packed down with the likes of Lam and Tim Rodber. In the 2011 edition, Dylan Hartley, Brian Mujati and Courtney Lawes are the leaders but Pountney warned against underestimating the Saints backs.

"I think the backs are exceptional. In Ireland you obviously know all about James Downey. And don't go underestimating Jon Clarke, and in (out-half) Stephen Meyler we have a player very similar to Paul Grayson. He's a good boot who can find the corners."

Leinster are favourites and Pountney doesn't disagree. "They have been, consistently, the best team in the competition this season. As ever, it will come down to the forwards.

"Saints have one of the best packs and there are only a few teams that can cope with them and Leinster are one of those.

"People will fancy Leinster if they compete in the forwards -- but you just never know what will happen."

Irish Independent