Saturday 16 December 2017

Foden relishing chance to silence Thomond

Hugh Farrelly

A MUCH-HYPED England full-back arrives in Thomond Park confident that he can play a central role in Munster being dumped out of Europe at their Limerick stronghold. It sounds familiar.

For Ben Foden 2010, read Henry Paul 2003 and the Northampton and England 15 could do worse than study the video of Paul's experiences in the now legendary 'Miracle Match' against Gloucester seven years ago.

The New Zealander was a high-profile cross-code convert who was talked up consistently across the Irish Sea but ultimately failed to establish himself in the England side that would claim the World Cup that November.

Paul's spectacular implosion in Limerick that afternoon, as Munster dramatically secured the unlikely four-try, 27-point winning margin they needed to progress, undeniably influenced the England selectors that he was not the answer.

Bayed on by a fired-up Thomond, Ronan O'Gara tormented Paul with a succession of up-and-unders and the Munster out-half will be there again on Saturday to provide a similar barrage to test Foden's mettle. It helps that Foden has experience of Thomond from last January's pool clash, when he was part of the Saints side that could have claimed a famous victory had they shown a tad more ambition.

Foden had been capped once -- as a replacement scrum-half against Italy in 2009 -- before his last trip to Limerick, but he arrives this time as established first-choice full-back for his country as two impressive cameos against Ireland and Scotland secured his selection for the final trip to Paris.

As one of the few England players to exhibit some wit and flair during their dour Six Nations campaign, Foden has been seized upon by the English media as something of a beacon of hope and there is no better team than Munster to destroy reputations.

However, his team-mates believe the 24-year-old is more than capable of fronting up to the challenge and Foden has been a major contributor in Northampton's impressive run since that 12-9 defeat at Thomond -- they've clocked up nine victories in 10 matches, picking up the Anglo-Welsh Cup along the way.

After Foden struck for a superb try three minutes from time to earn Northampton victory over Leeds last weekend, the full-back earned the highest praise from team-mate and former New Zealand international Bruce Reihana, who compared him to All Blacks legend (and former Munster full-back) Christian Cullen.

"He should have won more caps but he's in his early days as a full-back," said Reihana. "He reminds me of my fellow New Zealander Christian Cullen. Fode's got a great outside swerve, he's not the biggest but very tough and very confident in his own ability.

"He's a world-class player and would be knocking on the door for the All Blacks alongside Mils Muliaina if he was a New Zealander."

Rather than be intimidated by the famed Thomond atmosphere, Foden claims he can use it to his advantage and has spoken of how much he enjoyed the crowd, who gave him some light-hearted ribbing last January over the fact that he is going out with Irish girl Una Healy, from popular band The Saturdays.

"I could hear the heckling while I was warming up," said Foden. "It was, 'Stop stealing our Irish girls' and stuff like that. All good banter. I enjoy that intimidation; I relish the opportunity to score a try and put my hand to my ear and say: 'Who's shouting now?' It's what they want to see, a pantomime, having a hero and villain."

Reihana is equally bullish about the Saints taking advantage of their January experience to go the extra step on Saturday.

"The atmosphere was absolutely fantastic and I can't wait to taste that atmosphere again," said Reihana, who believes Northampton can emulate their famous 2007 quarter-final win over Biarritz in San Sebastien.

"That was a huge day and this could be one as well. We have just got that winning edge about us now and we know never to say die."

If Northampton are to upset the odds, Foden will have a big say in it. His pace and ability to find gaps gives the Saints back line a cutting edge, but it will be his capacity for avoiding the Paul-type pitfalls under the high ball which may ultimately be of the greatest significance.

Irish Independent

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