BY common consent, Leinster are the odds-on favourites going into Saturday’s Heineken Cup final, but no-one seems to have told Northampton’s Courtney Lawes.
Instead, the towering second row, one of the men who will pose the biggest threat to Leinster’s expected hegemony at the breakdown, believes his side should be regarded as serious contenders to win their second Heineken Cup.
It is a bold claim considering Leinster’s greater experience, but the 22-year-old is firm in his belief that Northampton’s young side can upset their elder counterparts.
Whether that is wishful thinking shall be seen on Saturday, but the likes of Lawes, Chris Ashton and Tom Wood — if fit — are spearheading a new era, both with England as well as Northampton.
The smart money may be on Brian O’Driscoll and Leo Cullen having the answers, but Lawes is having none of it. “We are the underdogs, but I don’t think we should be,” he says. “We are just as strong, if not stronger, than Leinster, and we just need to go out there and prove that. Leinster are strong, but on our day I think anyone will struggle to beat us. We need to turn up switched on and ready to play, but if we are then I think any team will find it difficult to handle us.
“Look at when we beat Perpignan in the semi-final. They had been doing well all season in the Heineken Cup and were a very strong side but they came to play us and we put in a really professional performance and won 23-7. This game is a great chance for us, and all the boys are really excited.”
And if there is a reason for Lawes’ confidence, it is that this side has been together for three years, minimising the effect of the individuals’ youthfulness. The combinations smack of a side who know each others’ games, and if there is one area in which Leinster should be wary it is the scrum. The front row of Saone Tonga’uiha, Dylan Hartley and Brian Mujati ripped Perpignan apart in the semi-final, and Lawes believes there is plenty of evidence to prove his confidence is not misplaced.
“We have grown up together, and we are a team that knows our strengths and weaknesses,” he said.
“And we have a lot of quality. On top of that we are such a strong unit, and for every one of us it feels like being in a family with Jim Mallinder as our leader. We also have such a good pack and a strong scrum — we showed that against Perpignan. We know we can get on top of teams, and we also think we are a lot fitter than many sides.
“We feel we can keep going at the highest level to the end of every game. We have a really powerful scrum that can turn it on for 80 minutes, and we’ve found that a lot of teams just can’t live with that.”
It is strong stuff from Lawes, whose confidence in interviews is now approaching the precocious self-belief he demonstrates on the pitch. The youngster has only been assured of a starting Saints’ spot during the last two seasons, but he is now one of the first names on Martin Johnson’s England team sheet. Even Lawes himself is slightly surprised at how far he has come.
“Yeah, it has come pretty quick,” he smiles. “Recently, though, I think I have been in the form of my career. Now I just want to keep that going.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved