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Northampton issue injury update, react to Croke Park history talk

By Jon Newcombe
Northampton's Ollie Sleightholme (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

Northampton will become the first English club side to play a competitive rugby fixture at iconic Croke Park when they take on four-time European champions Leinster in the Investec Champions Cup semi-final this Saturday.

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Croke Park was the location of the Bloody Sunday massacre in 1920 – when British forces opened fire and killed 14 people at a Gaelic football match – and its place in Irish history transcends sport.

Leinster have only ever played one previous game at the headquarters of the Gaelic Athletic Association (against Munster in 2009). England famously played Ireland there two years before that in the Six Nations, and a cauldron-like atmosphere is now expected for the visit of the Saints.

Understanding and respecting the history of the semi-final venue has figured in Saints’ preparations for their biggest match in a decade with their Irish S&C coach Eamonn Hyland giving the squad the lowdown on Croke Park on Monday morning.

“It is absolutely fundamental that we have an appreciation of the history and significance, both culturally and historically in the Irish battle for independence and the psyche and the GAA and where that is held in terms of the Irish culture and how important that it is,” explained Saints director of rugby Phil Dowson.

Fixture
Investec Champions Cup
Leinster
20 - 17
Full-time
Northampton
All Stats and Data

“We had one of our members of staff, who is Irish, deliver a very brief and succinct history of Croke Park and what that entails and what that means. That is important for two reasons.

“Mainly it is important because we should have an understanding of the history, regardless of whether we are playing rugby or not. And secondly, we have to understand the influence that is going to have both on the playing group and the crowd and the implications of that around the atmosphere.

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“But at the same time, we are not playing against ghosts. We have to get our game on the field and we have got to make sure that we play appropriately and give it the respect it deserves of being in a semi-final at Croke Park, which is hugely exciting.”

Dowson’s try got Northampton off to a flying start when Saints were on the receiving end of a famous Leinster comeback in the 2011 Heineken Cup final in Cardiff. Leinster blitzed Northampton by scoring 27 unanswered points in as many minutes to win 33-22, but 13 years after one of the most painful experiences of his playing days, the now-Saints boss has called it “ancient history.”

He said: “It’s the one trophy in the 10 years that Jim Mallinder was here that we didn’t win. We got pretty close but all that is ancient history. It is long gone and it has not even been mentioned this week. I very rarely think about it.”

The Gallagher Premiership leaders could go into the match without star winger Ollie Sleightholme, while Lewis Ludlam is also a doubt due to a shoulder injury. Sleightholme, the Premiership’s leading try scorer this season, suffered a concussion in his team’s 32-41 defeat to Harlequins at Twickenham last weekend.

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The recently-turned 24-year-old scored his 11th Premiership try of the season before leaving the field in London and his availability is being assessed this week before Dowson names his team on Friday.

“Ollie had a concussion at the weekend. He is going through that return to play (protocol), so he is not definitely ruled out but also not definitely in. Ollie has been fantastic; you can’t defend raw speed and he has got that.

“He has been in good form so, hopefully, he can turn that around. But James Ramm, Tom Seabrook, George Hendy… all these guys have done minutes and been good as well.”

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