Stopping the great North express

Having faced an All Blacks back three of Israel Dagg, Cory Jane and Julian Savea, Dave Kearney pretty much ticked every box in one 80-minute period in terms of defending attacking threats.

Yet this weekend in Northampton there lies in wait another unique talent for the Leinster and Ireland wing to cope with: the Saints, Wales and Lions star George North.

During November’s Guinness Series clash with Ireland, Kearney showed himself to be an assured performer at Test level, both in defence and attack, scoring twice off the bench on his international debut against Samoa and then holding his own against Dagg, Jane and Savea in the barnburner with New Zealand a fortnight later.

As far as Kearney is concerned, Northampton’s new signing North is right up there in the same bracket as those All Blacks and in a Saints trio that could also feature Samoa’s Ken Pisi in the Pool 1 clash at Franklin’s Gardens on Saturday, the Leinster ace is predicting a back-field battle royal.

“He’s definitely up there,” Kearney said of North. “Most certainly. At the highest level and in the biggest games, the Lions and things like that, he has performed really well. He’s an unbelievable athlete, even last week for Wales, he moved into 13 as well and was still able to perform at a high level. He’s a quality player and someone we’re going to have to watch out for.”

England full-back/wing Ben Foden will not feature for Northampton having been ruled out for 12 weeks with a knee injury but that still leaves North, a two-try scorer last Saturday in Cardiff for Wales against Australia.

“I think as a defensive unit, we just can’t afford to give him much space. This season we’ve been working really hard at getting off the line, if we can do that and try and close the space off early, that’s going to be the key, because if he gets a bit of space and gets to use that power and pace, he’s pretty tough to stop.”

Hitting North in the right spot is key to halting the former Scarlets man, Kearney said.

“He is very strong in the upper body and very powerful, he’s not a guy you can go high on. I think if you get the opportunity to get him low, in the ankle area, and get him down to ground quickly, it’s going to be an aim.”

Of course, Leinster plan on doing more than just defending in Northampton as they bid to extend their pool campaign to three wins from three, having beaten Ospreys and Castres in the opening rounds. They go into Saturday’s game following a five-try bonus-point win over Scarlets that moves Matt O’Connor’s side into second place in the RaboDirect Pro12, four points behind arch-rivals Munster. Springbok Zane Kirchner grabbing his first try for Leinster since his recent arrival to further increase the selection scramble for starting berths in the Leinster backline.

“You never are sure whether you’re going to be in the team or not,” Kearney said. “Every time Matt names a team, you get butterflies in the stomach. That’s not going to change. Zane had a really good game at the weekend as did Luke (Fitzgerald). There’s a lot of competition but it’s the same every year. When you come back from Ireland, at Leinster it’s just as difficult to get back into the squad.

“I’m happy with how my performances are going of late. It’s good for me to get the first cap and experience rugby at that level and intensity. I can take a lot of confidence and momentum from that. This game is going to be no different, intensity-wise. It’s going to be a Test level game. It’s a positive for me coming into that.”

Nor is Saturday’s game to be treated in isolation, with Northampton making the trip back to Dublin a week later for a showdown at the Aviva Stadium in round four. And the bitter experience of last year’s home and away double header with Clermont Auvergne, when Leinster were beaten first at Stade Marcel Michelin and then on home turf, to effectively end the province’s bid for a fourth Heineken Cup and third in a row, still haunts Kearney and company.

“We know as a squad how important these two games are for us. We spoke about that, how this time last year was the losing of our season in terms of Heineken Cup. I think if you don’t win these two games you put yourself in a tough position to move on and to succeed in the competition.

“I think a lot of guys still get nightmares about this time last season, when we didn’t perform. We know how important these two games are, and it starts this week in Franklin’s Gardens. From what I hear it’s an unbelievable place to play, the crowd really get into the game and their home record has been really good. They’ve only lost one game and none at home. They’re not going to want to lose that record.”

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