Tom Vickers' Northampton Saints v Connacht preview

The Saints supporters will be eager to see top level European rugby at the Gardens next season (picture: Kirsty Edmonds)
The Saints supporters will be eager to see top level European rugby at the Gardens next season (picture: Kirsty Edmonds)
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Fixture: Northampton Saints v Connacht (Champions Cup play-off)

Date and kick-off time: Saturday, May 20, 2017, 4pm

Venue: Franklin's Gardens, Northampton

Saints: Tuala; Foden, Tuitavake, Burrell, North; Mallinder, Groom; A Waller, Hartley (c), Brookes; Lawes, Day; Gibson, Harrison, Picamoles.

Replacements: Ma'afu, Haywood, Denman, Ratuniyarawa, Wood, Dickson, Olver, Hutchinson.

Outs: Saints: Stephen Myler (knee), JJ Hanrahan (shoulder), Calum Clark (calf), Jamie Elliott (shoulder), Paul Hill (neck), David Ribbans (not registered)

Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France)

Most recent meeting: Saturday, April 11, 2009: Saints 43 Connacht 13 (Challenge Cup)

Tom's preview: A couple of years ago, Saints would have been looking forward to Premiership play-off semi-finals at this stage of the season.

Back then, finishing in the top four almost seemed a given and trips to Twickenham always appeared to be on the radar.

But this weekend, Jim Mallinder's men face a very different sort of play-off.

While Wasps, Exeter, Saracens and Leicester challenge for a title, Saints are bidding to avoid the Challenge Cup.

Supporters will be hugely disappointed that their team are not dining at the Premiership's top table at the end of this month.

But what the players will know is that they must make sure they are dining from the best menu in Europe next season.

Because ending up in the Challenge Cup would be a very bitter pill to swallow.

For the more downbeat fans, it would be used as a symbol of the club's fall from grace.

From champions in 2014 and table-toppers in 2015, they have since dropped to fifth and seventh in the Premiership standings.

But Saints must make sure there is now some light at the end of a gloomy couple of campaigns.

They have been given a second chance - and they have to take it.

Playing in the Challenge Cup group stages can often be hollow, similar to the Anglo-Welsh Cup pools.

There is a chance to keep players fresh for Premiership matches as the opposition can often be far weaker.

But who wants to watch minnows rather than a club like Munster at the Gardens?

Saints would still enjoy plenty of support in the Challenge Cup, but the appetite for it would not be as great.

Playing in that competition rather than the Champions Cup is like eating at McDonald's rather than a Michelin-starred restaurant.

The glamour games in the Champions Cup are worth getting excited about.

But would an encounter against one of Europe's lesser lights in the Challenge Cup carry the same anticipation?

It would not.

That means Saints would earn less revenue from ticket sales and in an era when money talks increasingly louder, they know they need Champions Cup rugby.

The door is still ajar and with the squad they have at their disposal, they have every chance of walking through it.

Pat Lam's Connacht provide intriguing opposition this weekend in the first of two hurdles Saints need to clear to qualify for the Champions Cup.

Connacht, too, have slipped of late.

They won the PRO12 title in 2016, but finished eighth this season, winning nine of 22 league matches and Saints legend Lam will leave them for Bristol in the summer.

He will be desperate to go out on a high by beating Saints and then winning against either Stade Français or Cardiff Blues next Friday night.

But Saints will be desperate to ensure it is they who will host the winners of the France-Wales battle next week.

Win that, and there won't be a Big Mac in sight, except perhaps after the celebratory night out.

Tom's prediction: Saints 25 Connacht 16