Northampton Saints are getting ready to embark on their 2023/24 Champions Cup campaign, and begin the new tournament with a trip up to Glasgow. The Saints head up to Scoutston Stadium, which has become quite the fortress in recent years for Glasgow Warriors.
In their past two seasons, Glasgow have only lost once at home. Currently seated at second in the United Rugby Championship, the Warriors pose a serious threat to Saints, and know what it takes to progress throughout a European competition. Last season, Glasgow reached the final of the EPCR Challenge Cup, yet had to settle for silver medals following their defeat to Toulon.
Northampton Saints Director of Rugby Phil Dowson recognises the challenge, yet is fully backing his side in this trip North of the border. Speaking in today’s Northampton Saints media session, Dowson discussed his opponents ahead of the opening pool stage match;
“Having been in finals and lost than before, numerous times, I think, I think that does re-invigorate you to get back to that mountain top and have another crack at it. They’ve started the URC very well, they were top going into the Munster game at the weekend. They’ve got the highest ball in play in the URC, they have the highest number of maul tries I think. They scored five (tries) against Munster, three of them direct off a maul.
“So yeah, there’s a tonne of talent there. They’ve lost once in two years at Scotstoun (Stadium). So, Friday night up there in Glasgow in December. You know, it’s a challenge. And I think that’s what we’re excited about, is going to places like that and digging in and seeing some of that stuff ‘Radders’ (Lee Radford) has put in, some of the stuff at Sam’s (Vesty) trying to put in. Seeing where that measures up and how we get that out onto the pitch.”
“I think that’s what makes those wins special, as you’ve managed to take someone’s scalp when it is such an impressive record. That’s definitely a marker, and that’s why we’re excited about what we’re going to bring because lots have tried it before.”
Dowson then looked back on the Saints’ rather underwhelming run in Europe last season, which saw his side fail to progress out of the pool stages following four consecutive defeats. The Saints were overwhelmed by La Rochelle and Munster, with back-to-back defeats against the reigning Champions Cup holders and the soon to be URC Champions. The former back-rower reflected on the results, and is eager to rectify recent European outings in this Friday’s trip to Glasgow.
“One of the things we spoke about last year (after) LaRochelle at home, is (we were) seven-three at halftime, and were going pretty well, against the double European champions. I think unfortunately getting a red card curtails our work in that space. But then Munster away, and Munster at home, both games, we could have one.
“So yeah, so I definitely think there’s a talent. And I think the point you raised around strength in depth, and how big squads, and all that, but clearly the financials play a role in that. But there’s only so much we can do. And what we’re keen to do is rip into Glasgow this weekend and get stuck in and see where we measure up against a side that has only lost once at home in two years.”
As Dowson mentioned earlier, the Saints DoR has previously experienced the personal heartbreak of losing the Champions Cup Final. Taking place in Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium back in 2011, Dowson ran out on the open-side flank for Northampton Saints, who were defeated 33-22 by Leinster. Dowson was asked about whether or not he’s gotten over the final defeat some 12 years later, and showed a sense of humour in his response.
“I’m probably going to cry at some point with you mentioning it (2011 Heineken Cup Final). That is the biggest disappointment, Jim Mallinder during his tenure here, he won everything, bar that. We were 21-6 up at half-time, and I think someone got a yellow card, think it might have been me. And we lost that final in the second half.
“But it was an epic game to be involved in. And to be fair, what I think sometimes gets lost, from a Northampton Saints point of view is how good we’ve been up until that point. We’d been unbeaten, on of the only sides to have been unbeaten up until the final. Up until the second half. being one of the sides here. I’ve been up until the final into the second half. So I have very fond memories running up, to just about half-time in that game.”
Despite the heartache of yester-years, it’s now time for a fresh crop of Saints talents to step up and push for Champions Cup action. Despite being amongst the newest faces within the England discussion, the likes of Fin Smith, Fraser Dingwall and Tommy Freeman got to experience Champions Cup action last season with the Saints. However, there do still remain a handful of young newcomers that are yet to step out onto the bright lights of a Champions Cup match, with Dowson excited to see what his young guns are capeable of throughout the tournament.
“I think for the whole squad, as a group, and we’re talking about a lot, but we’re relatively younger, I think there’s a genuine excitement about playing in Europe. I think I love they it as a tournament, because of the experiences you get both on and off the field. The chances to get to play against you know, some of the best sides in the world, some of the best players. Someone like Tarrek (Haffar), I hope relishes in the opportunity to get involved and show what he’s capable of.
“Because you want to be tested as a player, you want to be tested, and you want to challenged anyone to go out too uncomfortable places to find out. And that’s what I want to do as a coach. And I think that’s what the players want to do as well. And so I think someone like ‘T’ (Tarrek Haffar), someone like Tommy Lockett, all those boys, are keen to see where they measure up against some of the best in the world, certainly in Europe. I think that is exciting.”
Another newcomer to the Champions Cup is Northampton Saints Assistant Coach Lee Radford. The former Rugby League star joined the Saints ahead of the 2023/24 season, and has brought a renowned Northern edge to the Saint’s defence. A former Bradford Bulls and Hull FC player, Lee also amassed five test caps for England, before switching to coaching at Hull, and later with Castleford Tigers at the end of his on-field career.
Radford made the code change to union in this move to Saints, with the Franklin’s Gardens faithful impressed by the sharpened acumen of the men in green and black. Dowson spoke about how Radford is settling in despite some of rugby union’s ‘culture shocks’, and how he is learning to love the magnitude of the Champions Cup ahead of Friday’s trip to Scotland.
“He’s not a big fan of chinos. He’s seen a lot of people wearing chinos says “that must be a union thing”. So we’re trying to get him a pair of chinos at the moment but he’s refusing to wear them. We’ll get him in a barbour jacket before the end of the season, I’m sure.”
“So you know, talking about this week in terms of Europe, and we’re talking about some of the great stories that come out here, and some not so great, we mentioned 2011. But all that narrative that comes out of the romance for that cup, is new to him, to a degree. So I think that’s exciting for him to get introduced to, and what those challenges are when you do go and play in Europe. That’s definitely something that he’s enjoyed learning about and seeing and experiencing, as well.”