Tom Vickers’ Northampton Saints v London Irish preview

CUP WIN - Saints beat Wasps last Saturday to make the LV= Cup final four, but they will have to travel to Saracens in the semi-finals (picture: Sharon Lucey)
CUP WIN - Saints beat Wasps last Saturday to make the LV= Cup final four, but they will have to travel to Saracens in the semi-finals (picture: Sharon Lucey)
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Fixture: Northampton Saints v London Irish (Aviva Premiership - round 14)

Date/kick-off time: Friday, February 13, 7.45pm

Venue: Franklin’s Gardens

Weather forecast: 6C, chance of rain

Referee: Andrew Small

Saints: Wilson; K Pisi, G Pisi, Stephenson, Elliott; Myler, Fotuali’i; A Waller, Haywood, Ma’afu; Manoa, Day; Clark, Dowson (c), Dickinson.

Replacements: Williams, E Waller, Denman, Craig, Harrison, Dickson, Olver, Tuala.

London Irish: Fenby; Ojo, Mulchrone, Sheridan, Fowlie; Gergahty, Steele; Court, Paice, Aulika; Skivington (c), Sinclair; Treviranus, Gilsenan, Guest.

Replacements: Stevens, Halavatau, Palframan, Cox, Narraway, O’Leary, Brophy-Clews, Lewington.

Outs: Saints: Fisher (foot), Lawes (ankle), Foden (knee), Wood (ankle), Corbisiero (calf), Hartley, Burrell (both international duty), North (rested). London Irish: Geoff Cross, Blair Cowan (international duty).

Most recent meeting: Saturday, October 4: London Irish 12 Saints 19 (Aviva Premiership)

Tom’s preview: If Saints are to win a cup competition this season, they will have to do it the hard way.

It is not something they have ever had a problem with before, with Jim Mallinder’s men often thriving in the heat of the most ferocious battles.

And they will again have to display that grit, that innate desire if they are to prevail in the Champions Cup or the LV= Cup, or both.

Because in April, the special beast that is Clermont Auvergne will await, boasting a formidable 22-match European winning streak at their Stade Marcel Michelin citadel.

And in Anglo-Welsh competition, a trip to a Saracens side gunning for revenge awaits on March 14.

Mark McCall’s men were slayed by Saints in the semi-final at Franklin’s Gardens last season and will want to prove a point on their own (artificial) turf next month.

So, in knock-out competition, Northampton will need all the firepower they possess to progress.

And when those intriguing tussles arrive, you can bet they will be ready for them.

But first, Saints need to secure the route of least resistance in the Aviva Premiership.

They will not want to add an away play-off semi-final to that list of challenging games on the road.

Instead, they will crave home advantage, as they enjoyed last May, when wave after wave of Gardens support drove them to victory against local rivals Leicester Tigers.

Had that game been at Welford Road, Tigers would have enjoyed the cliched extra man.

And it would probably have been Tigers who headed to Twickenham to take on Saracens in the Premiership showpiece.

But, as it was, Saints’ achievements in the regular season gave them the platform on which to build their first Premiership title win.

They know how crucial setting up a home semi-final will be again this time.

And after what feels like months away from league action - the last time they played a Premiership game was at Sale on January 10 - they return to it sitting pretty in pole position.

Bath are breathing down their necks a point behind - and the two teams meet in the mouth-watering match-up next weekend.

But a good win against London Irish on Friday night can at least ensure Saints stay at the summit ahead of the trip to the Recreation Ground.

Four successive games in the bread and butter of the Premiership now await.

Saints won all four of them during this period last year.

And if they can do so again this time round, they will be well on the way to making life a little easier for themselves in the bid to eclipse last season’s double delight.

Tom’s prediction: Saints 33 London Irish 16