Jack McGrath warns Leinster must draw the sting out of Northampton

It’s three years since Northampton and Leinster last crossed paths twice in the space of a week and both clubs will be drawing on lessons learned the hard way as they approach the first of their latest engagements, at Franklin’s Gardens.

Even at the time, Leinster’s 40-7 victory in England was extraordinary. Now it stands even higher in the general estimation as it was one of maybe the few times during Matt O’Connor’s time in charge when the three-time European champions truly hit their straps.

Leinster cut the Saints to pieces that evening. They employed all sorts of clever running lines, chased Northampton players away from rucks with abandon and basically negated the physical strengths of a team that at the time was England’s form legion.

“Embarrassing,” was the home boss Jim Mallinder’s take on the whistle.

Six days later and his Saints side was high-fiving an unlikely 18-9 win in the return at Lansdowne Road after a week spent stressing the need to turn the screw in the tight at scrum and maul.

By the end, Leinster were suffocated of oxygen on their own patch.

“We got the better of them over there and then I just remember when we came back to the Aviva it was 60 minutes of scrum and maul and we were just soaking up pressure,” said Jack McGrath this week. “Fair play to them, they were good at that.

“I don’t think much has changed.”

“What has changed is they’ve brought in some dangerous guys. The likes of JJ Hanrahan, he can make a play from anywhere, George North too and the likes of (Louis) Picamoles picking up off the back of the scrum.

“All these guys - and (Ben) Foden at the back, Luther Burrell - there is a lot of experience and danger around the park.

“It’s maybe something they didn’t have the last time we played them. If anything they will be stronger.”

He would say that, wouldn’t he?

Fact is Northampton are struggling to keep their heads above water right now. Ninth in the Premiership, they have won four and lost six of their league games and a close-run win at home to Montpellier at the start of their European campaign was followed with a trouncing in Castres.

There may be something in McGrath’s assertion that the Gardens can make for an intimidating stage when the home team gets on top and he adds the rider that their hosts on Friday will be looking towards a quartet of England internationals enoying life under Eddie Jones.

This being sport though, there is a counter to every argument and Leinster will know that the benefits of a good start for them this week will draw much of that sting from the stands and ask questions of Messers Hartley, Lawes, Wood and Harrison after their imposing Test window that ended just last Saturday.

As hooker and skipper, Hartley stands at the heart of what England have done this calendar year under Jones and his chequered past makes him a figure of some curiosity when his name appears on the teamsheet opposite one of the provinces or the national selection.

McGrath was forthright in stating that some of Hartley’s past indiscretions have no place on a rugby field but the Leinster loosehead has been impressed by the manner in which his fellow front row forward has eradicated the gross lapses of indiscipline and moved on.

“Like a lot of players he has matured and he has been given that opportunity now to be English captain and I don’t think he has put a foot out of place since,” said the Dubliner who may well tour alongside Hartley with the Lions next summer.

““Some people are a bit mad when they are younger and he seems to have grown out of it. Again, I don’t know the guy.

He’s shown that he can eradicate that (behaviour) from his game. It’s been really good for him because he has had a successful time since he’s done that.”

Curbing Hartley and his chums in the tight would set the perfect tone for Leinster as they brace for two games in eight days against the Premiership side and break free of Pool Four’s shackles.

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