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Northampton Saints prepared for hostile Croke Park

History lessons might be a thing of the past for most people, but Northampton Saints spent a good chunk of the Monday morning taking in one of the most important in the clubs history, as they prepare to venture to Croke Park. 

Phil Dowson’s side take on Irish juggernauts Leinster at the home of Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) this weekend in the Investec Champions Cup semi-final, but a history lesson delivered by strength and conditioning coach Eamon Hyland has left the players with ‘goosebumps’.

“We had a bit of a history lesson on Monday about Croke Park and everything that it meant,” said star fly-half Fin Smith. “I was pretty moved by it, I had goosebumps. It was a great tone setter for the week coming up.”

He added: “I think it was probably a real eye-opener of all of that and probably a real eye-opener to how hostile it’s going to be, but good to find that out at the start of the week then when I’m taking my first kick at goal.”

“Eamon’s a big proud Irishman and he did a really good job of it. Not the type of guy that usually talks in meetings, but I think he’s earned himself another slot if he wants it. It was very impressive.”

“It’s fundamental that we have an appreciation of the history”-Phil Dowson

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – APRIL 30: Phil Dowson, Director of Rugby of Northampton Saints poses for a portrait ahead of the Investec Champions Cup Semi-Finals at cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens on April 30, 2024 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images for Investec)

Croke Park plays has huge significance within Irish culture. The 82,500 capacity stadium is the historic home of GAA, however it was also the location of the Bloody Sunday massacre in 1920; a day in which 14 people lost their lives.

With the stadium having such an important part in Irish life, Director of Rugby Phil Dowson believed it was ‘fundamental’ his team knew the history before the game.

“It’s absolutely fundamental that we have an appreciation of the history and significance both culturally and historically in the Irish battle for independence and where that’s held in terms of the Irish culture. Secondly, we have to understand the influence that’s going to have both on the (Leinster) playing group and the crowd and the atmosphere.”

“We have to make sure that we have an appreciation and respect for that, but then we have to get our game on the field. We’ve got to make sure we play appropriately and give it the respect it deserves of being a semi-final at Croke Park. It’s hugely exciting.”

Dowson himself has also taken in some of the history too, with a visit to Kilmainham Gaol left Dowson knowing ‘why Ireland hate England’.

“I knew some of it from from visiting Dublin in the past. There’s a museum at Kilmainham, and I went round there and I realised ‘that’s why Ireland hate England’. I find it extraordinary it’s not taught in English schools.”

Embracing the atmosphere

Fin Smith kicking-Credit: IMAGO

Fin Smith kicking-Credit: IMAGO

Tickets for the Saturday’s game sold like hotcakes, with the vast majority snapped up by Leinster fans. The history lessons they had in the week, coupled with the knowledge of a partisan crowd leave Fin Smith already planning ahead.

“I might play around with some stuff on Thursday. Just trying to deal with a bit of crowd noise when I’m kicking; or putting some headphones on with a bit of white noise. As much as you can say it doesn’t affect you and you block it out, when you’ve got 82,000 people for the first time, especially at my stage of my career, getting on your back as you’re trying to focus it’s bound to have some bearing.”

He added: “I think it’s important for me, especially at my age, to take as much of this weekend in because it’s going to be the biggest occasion I’ve played in.”

The ground sold out in a matter of hours, and a maximum capacity crowd is expected for the game.