Saturday’s match against Stade Rochelais will be Northampton Saints’ last in this season’s Heineken Champions Cup, and lock Lukhan Salakaia-Loto is keen to ensure their campaign ends on a high.
This has been the 26-year-old Australian’s first experience of European rugby’s premier competition since his arrival from Queensland Reds last summer.
It included a rough introduction against the defending champions, as Les Maritimes proved too strong in beating Saints 46-12 at Stade Marcel-Deflandre last month.
The unforgiving nature of the Champions Cup was then reaffirmed by two losses against Munster Rugby, where in both matches the opposition got on the front foot first.
It was all the more frustrating considering the men from Thomond Park were the team Saints defeated to claim their first – and so far, only – European crown at Twickenham back in 2000.
Nonetheless, it has left Salakaia-Loto wanting to experience more, even though he will have to wait, with only potential qualification for the European Challenge Cup left to play for as far as Saints are concerned today.
“I’ve enjoyed it, I’ve loved it,” Salakaia-Loto said. “I think it’s probably the closest thing to Test match intensity.
“You come up against internationals from all over the world, British & Irish Lions players we’ve stumbled across as well, it’s awesome.
“The stakes are high, the pressure’s on and I think that’s what you want to be a part of as a player.”Lukhan Salakaia-Loto
“You want to be in those big games and play in big stadiums, so it’s unfortunate we haven’t quite got the results, but we’ll keep battling in Europe, prove ourselves against the best and hopefully take this Club back to what it was.”
Salakaia-Loto has impressed many with his performances from the second row during his first season with Saints, but showed he has another string to his bow with his display in the back row at Munster last Saturday.
It was also only the second time he was able to perform in tandem with the talismanic Courtney Lawes, with his fellow powerhouse making his first start in almost four months due to injury.
Following the narrow 27-23 defeat, the squad were able to let their hair down in Limerick for what Salakaia-Loto believes was a valuable night of team bonding.
“It’s good to spend time together as a group, build those connections and the culture, and also to get to know each other more on a deeper level,” Salakaia-Loto said.
“We were lucky enough to spend a couple of days in Munster, I’m sure the boys will tell you it was a good time.
“While the result [in Munster] wasn’t that great for us, we’ve come back a tighter group, and we’re back at home now so everything is there for us to have a good performance.”Lukhan Salakaia-Loto
Saints will be looking to shake off a troubling recent habit of starting slowly, which contributed to the game being put beyond them before half-time during their trip to La Rochelle.
Their last home game – against Harlequins on New Year’s Day – showed what they are capable of when they do impose themselves from the first whistle, but two losses since at Exeter and Munster since have unfortunately shown that old habits die hard.
When asked what has been learned from their last meeting with Stade Rochelais, Salakaia-Loto said: “It was a bit similar to the Munster game, where our first half wasn’t too good.
“We came out in the second half and won the second half, so there are two lessons there from both of those games.
“Hopefully, third time lucky, we can be a bit better [from the start] and we’re also at home now, so we’ve got the crowd behind us and we’ve got no excuse, we’ve got to right those wrongs and learn our lessons because we can’t just keep talking about it.”
Another area where Salakaia-Loto has had to learn on the hoof is getting used to playing rugby during the English winter, where conditions are seemingly never the same from one week to the next.
With matches often becoming tighter contests at this time of year, it means more work over the 80 minutes for forwards like himself, although that is something he will never shy away from.
Salakaia-Loto added: “It’s good, it’s a different brand of rugby, it poses different kinds of challenges and different ways you’ve got play and adapt.
“I’m enjoying it – probably not the weather, but it’s good to be in those battles.
“I actually quite like being more involved and it’s just the dark arts of the game – there are probably a lot of things you guys don’t see happen!
“We’ll expect everything that’s coming our way and we understand that if we put our game on any team, and do that for long periods, we’ll give ourselves a shot to win games.”