Saints a growing force as hurting Leicester are eliminated

Jim Mallinder believes Northampton are a growing force in European rugby following yesterday’s bruising 23-13 victory over Ulster at stadium:mk.

Saints booked their passage into the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup where they will meet Perpignan in three weeks’ time, also in Milton Keynes.

The win swept them one stage further than last season when their lack of big-game experience was exposed by Munster at Thomond Park.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

“It can only help the more the team plays in these occasions, the more these lads play international rugby,” said Mallinder, the club’s Halifax-born director of rugby.

“We’re a young side and we don’t have any players who have played in the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup.

“We’re inexperienced in those terms but we’re learning all the time.”

Saints trailed 13-10 at half-time but scored the game-turning try in the 56th minute through scrum-half Lee Dickson.

It may have been Dickson who crossed, but the try was created by the vision of England pair Chris Ashton and Ben Foden who swapped passes down the touchline to clear a path to the whitewash.

“In a good team you need a powerful set of forwards and some class finishers out wide,” said Mallinder.

“We’re fortunate that we have both of those. In Ashton, Foden and Paul Diggin we have good finishers. Give them half a chance and they’ll always be dangerous.”

Dylan Hartley was heard complaining to referee Romain Poite in the second half that he had been bitten, but the Northampton hooker refused to elaborate on the incident.

“I can’t remember – I think I got sun stroke,” said the England hooker. When he was told he was overheard via the TV microphone worn by Poite, he responded: “Really? That will teach me for trying to pull people out of rucks by the head.”

Title favourites Leicester will resume Aviva Premiership business next weekend following their European demise with England star Tom Croft admitting: “We are hurting.”

Tigers’ hopes of ending a nine-year wait for Heineken Cup glory ended at the hands of Leinster at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.

Fly-half Jonathan Sexton played a major part in the opposition’s downfall, kicking 12 points to underpin Leinster’s punishing 17-10 Heineken Cup quarter-final triumph.

Croft said: “They ran the ball hard, and the small margins let us down. If you get into that red zone, you have to take the points. We didn’t, and fair play to Leinster.”

Perpignan dashed Jonny Wilkinson’s hopes of playing in a first Heineken Cup semi-final after beating Toulon 29-25 in Barcelona. Wilkinson kicked four from five attempts but failed to inspire his team in both his, and the club’s, first appearance in the last eight. Yannick Nyanga scored a dramatic last-minute, extra-time try as Toulouse held on for a thrilling quarter-final win at Biarritz.