The Saints went from zeroes to heroes in the space of a week in the Heineken Cup earlier in the season after their shocking home defeat to Leinster. in round three. Seven days later they comprehensively turned over the three-time champions in their own back yard with a display of direct running and rugged physicality that knocked the Irishmen out of their stride.
Now Gatland wants his strike runners behind the scrum – Jamie Roberts, Scott Williams, George North and Alex Cuthbert – to follow suit and blast holes in the Irish defence.
“We have to be very direct against them and a good example in how to be direct, which I’ve mentioned to the players this week, is to look at how Northampton played against Leinster in the Heineken Cup,” said Gatland.
“They were embarrassed at home one week and then turned it around the next. That is a pretty good blueprint of how to play against this Ireland side and we have got to use our power, our size and our physicality.
“There wasn’t anything flash about what Northampton did to Leinster at the Aviva – they ran hard and just fronted up physically. They were blown away the week before and embarrassed by that performance and they fronted up physically in Dublin. Their two midfielders that day, George North and Luther Burrell, did a fantastic job and we have some physicality in our back line, so expect us to be pretty direct.”
The bad news for Gatland from their opening day, 23-15 win over Italy was an injury to second row Luke Charteris that has ruled him out of Saturday’s match. He joins the injured Bradley Davies and suspended Ian Evans on the sidelines, leaving the Dragons skipper Andrew Coombs to join Alun Wyn Jones in the second row with the uncapped Jake Ball coming onto the bench.
But, on the positive side, British & Irish Lions skipper Sam Warburton is able to return to the side in place of Justin Tipuric, while another Lion, Gethin Jenkins, is fit to resume in the front row.
The Lions centre Jonathan Davies wasn’t considered fit enough for consideration after only one game back after surgery. “We know it’s going to be a tough, physical game. We know it is going to be tough at the breakdown, but we are looking to compete hard there. We’ve got two pretty decent 7s and Sam is one of the best around at pinching ball and getting penalties in that area,” said Gatland.
“In the end, Ireland cruised to victory and looked pretty much in control against Scotland. It was a pretty good performance from them, although by all accounts they have spent the last two weeks just preparing for this game.
“We are aware of that and, with the two teams having won their opening games, we know it is a massive game for both teams on Saturday. We’ve had a good look at the way Leinster played under Joe Schmidt and with 17 players from his old club in the squad there is a lot of familiarity there.
“There are a lot of trick players out in the backs, with their flicks, loops and run arounds, and we have been working hard on finding ways to shut them down. Peter O’Mahoney and Chris Henry were both good at getting over the ball last weekend and I’ve been impressed with Tommy O’Donnell every time I’ve seen him play for Munster.
“We haven’t lost away from home since March, 2011, which is a pretty good record, and we are quite comfortable in this tournament. There is no team that we fear and it is great to be able to go away from home and have the confidence you can win, even if it means grinding out an ugly win.
“The ironic thing about this fixture over the past 20 years is that it has favoured the away team. We’ve been over to the Aviva Stadium once and come away with a win and, hopefully, we can do that again.
“The record books say that Wales has had a lot of success in Dublin and we feel that in recent years the bigger the occasion, and the bigger the match, the more we have been able to front up. If you go back to the 2011 Rugby World Cup quarter-final against Ireland in Wellington I thought that match was absolutely outstanding.
“Two years ago in the Aviva we were very strong in the first 35 minutes and could have been further ahead, but they got back into the game and we were lucky enough to get a penalty to win it. We’re expecting another close encounter.”