Saints face Munster task to reach last eight

Former champions Northampton take on two-time winners Munster on Friday at the Irish side’s Thomond Park fortress and try to reach the quarter-finals of the European Cup.

Elsewhere France are on the brink of securing four places in the last eight for the first time since the 1998/1999 season, a campaign which was marred by an English boycott of the competition.

Both Biarritz and Toulouse have already qualified, Top 14 leaders Clermont should beat Italian side Viadana and collect a bonus point.

That would put the pressure on Ospreys, who were well beaten by Clermont last week, and Leicester in Pool Three on Saturday.

Stade Francais can keep their hopes alive of taking some silverware this season, needing just a point away at improving Scottish side Edinburgh while closest Pool Four rivals Ulster travel to Bath.

Stade need a filip after seeing two of their key players – France scrum-half Julien Dupuy and prop David Attoub suspended in the past 10 days for 23 and 70 weeks respectively – for gouging Ulster backrow forward Stephen Ferris.

Defending champions Leinster lead Pool Six but cannot quite count themselves home and hosed yet as they travel to play London Irish at Twickenham, with the English side needing to beat them but also gain an unlikely bonus point.

However, it is the mouthwatering clash between Munster and Northampton that should get the action off to a sparkling start.

Just once in their proud European record have Munster lost at home – to English side Leicester – but the Saints will travel to Ireland in buoyant mood having romped to a 34-0 destruction of French champions Perpignan last Sunday.

They also collected what could prove to be a crucial bonus point in the process scoring their fourth try in the last seconds of the match and now trail Munster by three points.

Saints can also take heart from the fact they are the only side to have beaten Munster in the tournament this season with a 31-27 victory in the first match of the pool stage.

Northampton’s director of rugby Jim Mallinder said: “The win over Munster in the first match was massive and was good for our self-belief.

“We showed we can compete and, although we only won narrowly, we showed we are close and we have it all to play for. We are really looking forward to this match.”

Leinster will not be taking their match against London Irish lightly and consultant coach Alan Gaffney will be determined to gee his players up for a more polished performance than they produced against pointless Brive last weekend.

“This weekend we are going out to be positive regardless of what London Irish do,” said Gaffney.

“We can’t sit back and think ‘we’ve gotta deny Irish four tries’ or ‘we need to get the losing bonus point’ and then proceed on our merry way into the quarter-finals. That’s not the way we look at it.

“We’ll go out to play rugby.”

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