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Dowson: Saints’ players relishing opportunity to impress on Big Game stage

We sat down with Saints forwards coach Phil Dowson ahead of Northampton’s Gallagher Premiership clash against Harlequins on Monday…

Q: The Heineken Champions Cup result at Ulster wasn’t what Saints were looking for, but were there more positives to take out of that game than the previous week?
PD: We didn’t start very well, again, and we gave ourselves a bit of a mountain to climb, but I thought the effort and intent throughout the squad to stay in the game and to stay within ten points, and then a score to finish just five points adrift was excellent, considering the start. There were loads of positives from the game, but again we’re frustrated because we thought there was more in that game for us and a couple of things we’d do differently would give us a win away from home, at a difficult place to win.

Q: Is the biggest thing to come out of the last two weeks the need to start games well?
PD: I think so because otherwise you give yourselves a mountain to climb. There were also details around the breakdown, such as looking after the ball and making sure we do the simple things really well that, at a high level against world-class opposition, you get found out if you slip off things ever so slightly. Consistency of accuracy, and things like that, are really important and there were some really good lessons from that experience.

Q: Did the way you played in the second half at Ulster mean that the mood in the squad has been good this week?
PD: I hope so and I hope that we’re excited about playing at Harlequins, the incumbent champions, at Twickenham. I hope that we’re excited about taking those boys on. We’ve got to keep learning and growing as a group, including the coaching staff, and generate that energy within to keep improving.

Q: Let’s look ahead a bit more to Harlequins, the big games just keep coming!
PD: They’re champions and they’ve got some brilliant players across the park – I know eight, nine and ten [Alex Dombrandt, Danny Care and Marcus Smith] get a lot of credit but they’ve got people like Joe Marler, Stephan Lewies, Andre Esterhuizen and Tyrone Green. They’re all playing brilliant rugby and they play a very exciting and thrilling game, so we’ve got to make sure that, defensively, we’re on our mettle and we’ve got to make sure that we turn up prepared to take them on.

Q: This week we shared a video of Ollie Sleightholme’s try at the Stoop from last season, which was one of the most extraordinary passages of play you’ll ever see. Can we expect to see more of that at Twickenham?
PD: We want to play good attacking rugby that takes advantage of space and I get the impression – a strong impression – that they want the same thing. We don’t want the game to be loose or to just throw the ball around, but we want to move the ball to space and take advantage of that space. Hopefully, we can do that and negate some of the threats they have and give ourselves an opportunity.

Q: How much of a different feel does playing Quins at Twickenham bring, compared with playing them at the Stoop?
PD: It is different, purely based on the stadium. It’s fantastic and hopefully it’s full of people. Around Christmas time, a lot of your family will be watching and a lot of your family will be in there as well, so that makes it special because you know you’re on show, on that front. It’s a good time of year to play, it’s a good place to play and at the moment, with the form that they’re in, they’re a good opposition to face as well.

Q: It will be a first time at Twickenham for some of the players, do you hope that will inspire them?
PD: There’s the opportunity to get back there later in the season, but lots of the guys would love to play international rugby at the stadium as well. If they haven’t been before, it’s a great opportunity. There are lads that have played there before and they’ve never played enough – you never get enough opportunities to play at Twickenham.

Q: How is the injury situation, ahead of the game?
PD: We didn’t pick up any knocks from the Ulster match and there are always lads on the way back. It’s been good to see Teimana Harrison running around outside and Dan Biggar running around outside – though they’re not quite back in full training, they’re not a million miles away. Boys getting back to training is always really positive. We need all our players available to give us the selection headaches that we want.

Q: The players felt they had a bit of a point to prove at Ulster, is there still any of that feeling around, after a couple of defeats in Europe?
PD: We always look for a reaction, in particular when it was so disappointing against Racing at home, so we have to create our own energy so that we’re ready to compete on Monday, with an intent to beat sides, however that comes across.

Q: Just how important are these next two games, against teams that Saints are among at the top of the Premiership?
PD: Quins is a massive game at Twickenham – they’re one point behind us – and then we’ve got Saracens at home and they’re two points in front of us, in second. We’ve also got Newcastle away, which is often a very tricky place to go and play in January. That’s three games there, straight off the bat, which are tough and we need to get as many points from those as possible.

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