Northampton Saints v Ulster: Tom Vickers' big match preview

Phil DowsonPhil Dowson
Phil Dowson
Fixture: Northampton Saints v Ulster

Competition: Champions Cup (pool stages)

Venue: cinch Stadium at Franklin's Gardens, Northampton

Date and kick-off time: Sunday, January 16, 2022, 3.15pm

Weather forecast: 8c, partly cloudy

Live television coverage: BT Sport 2

Referee: Pierre Brousset (France)

Saints: Furbank; Skosan, Litchfield, Hutchinson, Collins; Biggar, Mitchell; Waller, Matavesi, Hill; Ribbans, Nansen; Lawes, Ludlam (c), Harrison.

Replacements: Fish, Iyogun, Painter, Ratuniyarawa, Coles, Augustus, James, Freeman.

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Ulster: Lowry; Baloucoune, Hume, S Moore, McIlroy; Burns, Doak; Warwick, Herring, M Moore; O'Connor (c), Treadwell; Rea, Timoney, Vermeulen.

Replacements: Andrew, O'Sullivan, O'Toole, Carter, Jones, Shanahan, Madigan, Moxham.

Not considered for Saints selection: Emeka Atuanya, Callum Burns, Piers Francis, Oisín Heffernan, Alex Moon, Taqele Naiyaravoro, Matt Proctor, Kayde Sylvester.

Most recent meeting: Friday, December 17, 2021: Ulster 27 Saints 22 (Champions Cup pool stages)

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Tom's preview: On Friday morning, it was announced that Chris Boyd will not be able to fulfil his typical matchday duties at Saints' next two games.

Boyd has been banned for two matches for comments made about referee Adam Leal following the defeat to Saracens earlier this month.

And, consequently, he will only be able to be a spectator during the next two encounters, against Ulster and Racing 92 in the Champions Cup.

But sometimes the world works in mysterious ways and following the news earlier in the week, that Phil Dowson will be stepping up to succeed the departing Boyd this summer, this provides a good opportunity to see what life will be like next season.

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Dowson will be assisted by Sam Vesty, who is switching to head coach from his current role as the attack guru, and these young English coaches will get their chance to shine.

It has been the plan ever since Boyd arrived from the Hurricanes in the summer of 2018.

Saints wanted to appoint highly-rated young English coaches and Boyd would mentor them until he returned home.

That situation has now come to fruition - though Boyd will still be in an advisory role from back in New Zealand - and a changing of the guard will take place at the Gardens this summer.

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And perhaps more than ever before, how fans feel about a close-season appointment of a new director of rugby will hinge on the second half of the season.

Because what has happened at the Gardens in the previous four years will be viewed very much through the lens of what occurs in the next five months.

If Saints stumble to the finish line this season and fail to make the top four again, there will be big questions as to the progress the club is making.

Promoting from within is fine as long as that promotion is seen to be continuing an upward curve.

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And if Saints somehow pull together like Harlequins did last season and win the title during this campaign, elevating the existing coaches and continuing Boyd’s mentorship of them from afar will be widely viewed as a sensible decision.

All in all, this is something of a risky move, though it is certainly not one made on the hop.

If Saints fail to finish the season well, anxiety will start to build.

But if they finish it in successful fashion - i.e. at least securing a Premiership play-off place - then excitement can be the prevalent emotion.

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It is a fascinating situation and one that will only become clear as the weeks and months unfold.

But one thing that is certain is that the board have stuck to their guns.

The plan was always to have Boyd build a prodigious coaching group and a style of play that they could all help to engineer.

That is what he has done so far, but with less success than he and Saints would expect.

And expect is an interesting word here.

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Because while Saints don’t have a big money backer behind them, expectations have for so long been so high.

The achievements under Jim Mallinder until 2015 - winning the league, topping the league, securing trophies - increased demand to its highest level.

Saints have endured some really tough times since then, with a couple of long losing runs and a pandemic bringing plenty of pain on and off the pitch, but there has never been a desire to settle for mediocrity.

And with that in mind, there is no doubt that the pressure would be on for whoever took over at Saints this summer.

Be that Phil Dowson or the oft-mentioned Warren Gatland.

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Gatland is obviously more used to dealing with that expectation, but there is nothing to say that Dowson and Vesty won’t be able to as yet.

They are good men who are highly regarded in the game.

Everyone will wish them success and everyone at Saints is desperate for them to succeed.

But what is most important now is that Boyd signs off in style and gives his young charges something to continue to build from.

Suddenly the second half of this season is starting to look very interesting indeed.

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Tom's prediction: Ulster have been hit by injuries but they are still able to name an extremely strong and experienced squad this weekend. Neverthless, Saints come into this game on a high after their big win at Newcastle, and I'm backing them to edge it. Saints 27 Ulster 23.