Monday 27 January 2020

Saints still trying to balance Premiership demands with Europe

Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

At the end of a humbling fortnight, there was nowhere left to hide for Northampton as they were given a ruthless lesson in what it takes at the highest level in Europe.

For all of their exploits in the English Premiership this season, Saints were miles off the blistering pace set by Leinster on Saturday.

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Chris Boyd is an impressive character, and while the Kiwi does have Northampton on the right path, they are a couple of years off challenging for the Champions Cup.

He, nor his players, looked for excuses as they acknowledged that Leinster are much further along than they are, but no one could ignore the elephant in the room.

Before Leinster came into the back-to-back meetings, Leo Cullen was able to send a second-string team to Glasgow and still win in what should be one of the tougher PRO14 venues.

The same day, a fully locked and loaded Northampton side beat Leicester. It doesn't take a genius to work out which preparation was more beneficial.

Negative

Those involved in the Premiership love to gloat about how great their league is, but there is no doubt that the demands of it has a negative knock-on effect in European competitions.

By and large, the English teams have struggled in the Champions Cup this season and that the Premiership leaders got embarrassed two weeks running is not a good look for anyone.

"I'm still getting used to this European thing," Boyd admitted after watching his side be dismantled by Leinster.

"There are a whole lot of things that are different. It was interesting, when we played Leinster last week, I think only two of their players had played the week before.

"The ability for them to rest and rotate, regenerate, keep their players fresh.

"One of the things about the Premiership is that it's a slog in regards to all of those games are so tough, you can't be resting guys easily, so there is an accumulation of fatigue around that."

From a players' perspective, Dan Biggar has experienced both sides of the coin having only joined Northampton from Ospreys last year.

The PRO14 is struggling - which is why the Wales out-half sought a fresh challenge elsewhere - and while his salary will have handsomely increased too, it is all about playing in big games for Biggar.

"It's a good thing that we don't have to play Leinster every week," he said. "They are by far the form team in Europe, aren't they?

"We have gone really well at the start of the year in both competitions but we have come up against something that we haven't quite faced yet. That's what everyone as a side wants to get to.

"I think it helps that a lot of them play so much rugby together whether that's with Leinster or Ireland.

"As a player, the Prem was a massive reason why I moved to this club - to be involved in the best competition.

"I don't think there is too much wrong with our Premiership at the minute. There are competitive games every single week. There are packed house(s) every single week.

"We are fully aware that the Premiership tests your squad, week in, week out with relegation as well. It's not as if you can just write one season off as having a bad year and then go again next year."

Not that it is his problem, but as Leo Cullen pointed out, England's player pool is much bigger than Ireland's, so it is up to the clubs to tap into that and nurture the young talent.

That's exactly what Leinster have done so well and although they are playing catch up, Cullen believes Saints are on the right track.

"You have to give credit to Northampton because they are still in their development cycle with this team and they have a huge amount of young and talented players coming through," Cullen maintained.

"We see Ireland and England in the U-20s. They're the same players that we have.

"We're not getting them from somewhere else, they are playing in those games.

"The amount of players Northampton have under 21 or younger is a very healthy place for them. They will reap the rewards of that down the track.

"That's my tuppence worth on the models," he added.

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