Saints turn to Heineken to reach those parts

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

Prescribing a match against Toulouse for a struggling team looks like the worst possible medicine, but might just work for Northampton as the Heineken Cup pool stage resumes this weekend.

An otherwise miserable season, which has seen them fall to the foot of the Zurich Premiership - they were expected to contest at the other end - and sack coach Alan Solomons, has been redeemed somewhat by their Heineken form.

Victories over Glasgow and scarcely less miserable Llanelli mean they go into the home and away double-header at the heart of each Heineken pool stage only a point behind perennial contenders Toulouse.

The French team will, of course, see the next two weekends as a chance to sew up the pool before Christmas. But injuries mean they are certainly without scrum-half Jean-Baptiste Elissalde and flanker Trevor Brennan, with doubts over prop Jean-Baptiste Poux and centre Yannick Jauzion. Elissalde's absence means Frédéric Michalak will have to move to scrum-half and take the kicks, two jobs he does with greater skill than relish. They have also lost five of seven away matches in the French championship, including the last three.

Whether Saints can seize this chance to restart their season at a packed Franklin's Gardens depends heavily on two outstanding forwards. New captain Steve Thompson must encourage his team-mates to take responsibility for their performances in the same way that he did last season when taking the blame for England's line-out problems. Predecessor Corne Krige, who gave way to Thompson after they tied in the players' ballot for the job this week, must persuade his supporters to be similarly selfless and put aside the factionalism that has bedevilled the Saints season.

Other front-runners go into the weekend scenting potentially decisive victories. Leinster should see off perennial Heineken failures Bourgoin in Dublin. Stade Français have a 12-man absentee list including three missing props - making uncontested scrums a serious possibility - but will still expect to beat Ulster, rarely the same force away from Ravenhill, and take firm charge of their pool.

Elsewhere in those groups Gloucester, at home to Cardiff, and Bath, at Treviso, will expect to consolidate places as main challengers, although Bath will be wary of the Italians after their remarkable win at Bourgoin.

As Newcastle seek a third consecutive victory at home to Edinburgh on Sunday, attention to the Man Who Isn't There - one J. Wilkinson - should not detract from the efforts of those who are, and have already seen off Perpignan and Newport.

If playing the same team in consecutive weeks seems a bit much, spare a thought for fans of Leicester and Wasps, only two weeks on from a 17-17 draw by two virtual reserve teams in the Premiership. They meet again on Sunday in Wycombe, contesting not only Heineken progress but English rugby's current heavyweight championship. Another draw would delight Leicester, who lost away to the pool's formidable third force Biarritz, and must at least split the series to stay in serious contention.

And somewhere one of the quartet of Welsh teams must start winning unless their challenge - so far no advert for the new regional system - is to end unprecedentedly early.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.