Tommy Freeman celebrates a try against Munster. Ben Brady/INPHO

Leinster are 13-point favourites but this is a fine Northampton side

Sam Vesty’s creative attack should pose problems for the Irish province.

THE BEST THING about Northampton is the balance in their game. It means Leinster have to tick a fair few boxes as they prepare for Saturday’s Champions Cup semi-final at Croke Park.

Most people would identify Northampton as an ambitious, attacking team. That’s accurate because the English side score lots of tries and make lots of linebreaks.

They have notched 31 tries in the Champions Cup so far, ahead of Leinster’s 27. With 42 linebreaks, they’re also just in front of the Irish province’s 39.

With creative head coach Sam Vesty driving their attack, Northampton tend to score quickly. The vast majority of their tries come in the first three phases of possession, whereas Leinster have shown a far greater tendency to score after multi-phase attack.

As Munster experienced in the Round of 16, Northampton strike with great accuracy from lineout and scrum, with their slick back play thriving off strong set-piece foundations. Just over 60% of Saints’ scores originate at the set-piece, according to Opta.

Scrum-half Alex Mitchell and out-half Fin Smith are strong decision-makers, while fullback George Furbank – who missed the Munster game – is another excellent distributor. With strike weapons like Tommy Freeman, Ollie Sleightholme, and James Ramm available to them, the Saints’ creators pose relentless challenges to defences.

Like Leinster, the Saints don’t tend to throw high-risk offloads as they put a premium on accuracy in their handling. That’s not to say these teams don’t offload but it’s generally done when they’ve dominated a collision or clearly have their hands through the tackle.

The English side have some excellent ball-carriers, meaning they are more than capable of being direct and confrontational. No one has made more in-contact metres in the Champions Cup than Northampton with 1,173, according to Opta. 

courtney-lawes-is-tackled-by-jeremy-loughman-and-gavin-coombes Courtney Lawes is having a superb season. Ben Brady / INPHO Ben Brady / INPHO / INPHO

The likes of back rows Courtney Lawes, Juarno Augustus, and Sam Graham, as well as hooker Curtis Langdon, are key ball carriers but it’s notable how often the Saints’ backs carry the ball. The powerful Freeman and Sleightholme are key men in this regard.

It’s also worth pointing out that halfbacks Mitchell and Smith are frequent carriers on top of being the main distributors. Mitchell is clever around the fringes of the breakdown, constantly scanning for space to scoot with the ball and either break or tie in defenders before passing. Smith likes to dart at the line and his run threat has to be respected.

The Saints number nine and 10 are the directors of what is an excellent kicking game. Under director of rugby Phil Dowson and Vesty, the English side have tended to kick accurately and purposefully, as shown most memorably in their pool-stage win over Munster at a rain-soaked Thomond Park.

Leinster have averaged more kicks per game [31] than Northampton [26.5] but Dowson’s men are capable of kicking long through Mitchell and Smith, as well as hanging up contestables. Smith’s attacking repertoire includes clever cross-field kicks, while fullback Furbank also contributes to the kicking game.

Leinster have the best defence in the Champions Cup so far having conceded just nine tries in their six games, but Northampton will be relatively pleased with their own defensive return up until this point.

Former rugby league star Lee Radford is in charge of their defence, which has conceded an average of 2.5 tries per game in this competition. That’s clearly not as impressive as Leinser’s 1.5 per game on average, but it means the Saints are more miserly than most other Champions Cup clubs.

Northampton have attempted more tackles than any other team in the competition and yet they have the highest completion rate of 81.9%. According to Opta, only La Rochelle and Exeter have made more dominant tackles than Northampton.

Back row Graham and lock Alex Moon have contributed the highest number of dominant hits, while experienced and in-form flanker Lawes is well known for his power in the tackle. Tom Pearson is another player to watch in contact. 

Lawes is their leading jackal threat with six breakdown steals so far, while wing Sleightholme must be targeted in this area too having won four turnovers up until this point.

fin-smith-prepares-to-take-a-kick 21-year-old Fin Smith is a clever out-half. Ben Brady / INPHO Ben Brady / INPHO / INPHO

Northampton’s lineout, coached by former Saints lock James Craig, has an 84% success rate which is just behind Leinster’s 85%.

Second row Alex Coles is generally their lineout leader and obviously a key jumper but Lawes has had the most lineout takes for the Saints by some distance with 30. Lawes also has a team-leading three lineout steals, while Coles and fellow lock Alex Moon have picked off opposition throws.

The scrum could be a well-contested battle given that Leinster have won 15 penalties at that set-piece to Northampton’s 14. The English club have conceded fewer penalties at scrum time [9] than Leinster [13].

As with any semi-final, discipline will be important on an evening when Mathieu Raynal of France will be in charge. Northampton have averaged nine penalty concessions per game so far, which is better than Leinster’s 12 per game.

Northampton have had one red card this season with hooker Langdon sent off against Munster for reckless contact with the head of Tom Ahern in a ruck, while they’ve had two yellow cards. Leinster haven’t seen red yet but have amassed five yellow cards.

Leinster out-half Ross Byrne has kicked at 83% so far in the Champions Cup, while Northampton’s Smith is on 72% having taken more than double the number of shots at goal.

Dowson’s side are top of the Premiership after 11 wins in their 16 games, while they have won all six of their Champions Cup matches so far, beating Glasgow, Toulon, Bayonne, Munster, Munster again, and the Bulls to reach the semi-finals.

Munster were badly hit by injuries and illness for their Round of 16 visit to Northampton, while the Bulls left most of their frontliners at home for the quarter-final, but Leinster know that this is a fine Saints team.

Leinster are 13-point favourites as things stand and while they’ll be confident, it will take another strong performance from Leo Cullen’s side to grab a spot in the final in London next month.

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