Northampton Saints v Ulster: Tom Vickers' big match preview

Fixture: Northampton Saints v Ulster

Friday, 9th April 2021, 12:52 pm
Lee Dickson roared for delight after scoring for Saints in their quarter-final win against Ulster in April 2011

Competition: European Challenge Cup (quarter-finals)

Venue: Franklin's Gardens, Northampton

Date and kick-off time: Saturday, April 10, 2021, 8pm

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Weather: Cloudy, 4c

Live television coverage: BT Sport 2

Referee: Alexandre Ruiz (France)

Saints: Freeman; Sleightholme, Hutchinson, Francis, Naiyaravoro; Biggar, Mitchell; Waller (cc), Matavesi, Hill; Ribbans, Coles; Isiekwe, Ludlam (cc), Harrison.

Replacements: Haywood, Auterac, Painter, Moon, Wood, James, Tuala, Dingwall.

Ulster: Lowry; Baloucoune, Hume, McCloskey, Stockdale; Burns, Cooney; O'Sullivan, Herring, Moore; O'Connor; Treadwell, Reidy; Murphy (c), Timoney.

Replacements: Andrew, Warwick, O'Toole, Rea, Jones, Mathewson, Madigan, McIlroy.

Outs: Saints: Owen Franks (foot), George Furbank (calf), Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi (Achilles), Courtney Lawes (pectoral), Matt Proctor (calf), Api Ratuniyarawa (shoulder), Kayde Sylvester (Achilles).

Most recent meeting: Saturday, December 15, 2012: Ulster 9 Saints 10 (Champions Cup pool stages)

Tom's preview: When Saints and Ulster last met in a European quarter-final, the black, green and gold were building something special.

They would beat the team from Belfast and make it to the 2010/11 Champions Cup final, where they lost to Leinster in the most gut-wrenching of circumstances.

It proved to be a salutary experience as, under the stewardship of Jim Mallinder, they eventually claimed Challenge Cup and Premiership glory during the sensational 2013/14 season.

Saints had to overcome agony to enjoy ecstasy, but this team, who are building in a different, yet not insignificant, way will hope to complete their journey without the need for such lessons.

Either way, the experience of hosting a top team in a knockout game can only be good experience for the plethora of young players Saints possess.

For the likes of Alex Mitchell, Ollie Sleightholme and Tommy Freeman, this is learning at the sharp end.

It is learning to keep your composure under the utmost pressure against a side who have all the tools to dismantle you, as they showed against Harlequins last Sunday.

And if Saints can claim the win they desperately want on Saturday night, what a fillip it would be.

As Teimana Harrison said after the stunning comeback success at the Dragons last weekend, seasons so often go by with nothing to distinguish them from others.

But Saints still have a chance to win two trophies this year and while they are building for the future with so many talented youngsters, they now they must take their chances when they come.

They showed incredible character to stay in the hunt against the Dragons last weekend, roaring back from 39-24 down before eventually delivering the knockout punch.

But they will need more than steel and late swagger this weekend.

This will have to be one of Saints' best showings of the season against a side who have only lost to Leinster during 2021.

Ulster are a formidable force, just as they were when Saints beat them in 2011 and when they did it again in 2012.

Mallinder's men also took a hiding at the hands of Ulster in between, suffering a big defeat at the Gardens.

They bounced back, bagging that 10-9 win in Belfast on the following weekend.

But this time there will be no second chances.

Saints' time has to be now.

Tom's prediction: This is going to be a huge test for Saints against a team who rarely lose, but Chris Boyd has been able to pick many of his big names and he will expect big games from them here. Saints 27 Ulster 24.