Tom Vickers’ Northampton Saints v Leinster preview

BITTER MEMORY - Leinster players celebrate their Heineken Cup win over Saints in 2011
BITTER MEMORY - Leinster players celebrate their Heineken Cup win over Saints in 2011
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To be the best you’ve got to beat the best – and that is exactly the scenario standing in front of Saints in the next two weeks.

They don’t come much better than a Leinster team possessing 14 of the Ireland squad which pushed world champions New Zealand all the way in Dublin recently.

A Leinster team packed with experience of winning major trophies, including three of the past five Heineken Cups.

A Leinster team who have beaten Saints in all three Heineken Cup meetings between the sides and who are unbeaten in their past nine games against English sides.

No, it doesn’t get much tougher than this, but there has been no fear emanating from the Northampton camp this week.

There is a respect for Leinster, but no trepidation about facing them.

Every Saint speaking in the build-up to the game has mentioned what a good test this is. A barometer of where this Jim Mallinder team sits.

They may have won their past seven games in all competitions, but they are under no illusions that Saturday evening’s encounter will be a huge step up from anything they have faced before.

Much tougher than the trip to Leicester. Much tougher than the home humbling of Saracens.

Leinster will come to Franklin’s Gardens sniffing a win which would put them in a position of immense power in Pool 1 ahead of the return date in Dublin eight days later.

For Saints defeat is simply not an option.

They cannot afford a repeat of last year, when Ulster came to the Gardens and proceeded to surge to a 25-6 win, leaving Mallinder’s men with a mountain to climb.

Climb it they did, warming the hearts with a 10-9 win on a memorable night in freezing Belfast, but there was still too much to do for qualification.

Saints eventually bowed out with a last-gasp defeat at Glasgow, a loss that was a microcosm of the campaign: full of highs and lows, but ultimately ending in disappointment.

It was the second year in succession that Northampton had exited the Heineken Cup at the pool stages.

The last time they made it through? When they reached the final in 2011, seeing a 22-6 half-time lead overturned as a Jonny Sexton-inspired Leinster stole the spoils.

That game has obviously been mentioned in the build-up to the latest clash between the two sides, but it has not dominated the thinking.

The two teams are very different to the ones which took to the field on that indelible day at the Millennium Stadium and it should only be used to provoke rather than evoke emotion.

Saints will need a similar level of performance to the one they produced in the first half in Cardiff throughout Saturday’s showdown.

They will need to open the bottle and bring out what they did in Belfast.

They are capable.

And if they can claim that priceless win, we can start to place this team among the pantheon of Europe’s current elite.