TOP BAR - Fixtures

Tom Wood relishing the chance to face Europe’s best as Northampton Saints start their Champions Cup campaign

Northampton Saints skipper Tom Wood has challenged his players to find a new level of performance if the Saints are going to be successful in this season’s European Rugby Champions Cup.

Jim Mallinder’s men start their European campaign with a home game against Montpellier on Saturday, while they also have Leinster and Castres in a formidable looking pool.

Inconsistency has dogged Northampton’s Aviva Premiership Rugby campaign so far and Wood has called for an increased effort in Europe.

England flanker Wood believes the Champions Cup is as close to playing a Test match as you can get without plying your trade on the international stage.

And with Montpellier the visitors to Franklin’s Gardens first up, Wood knows Northampton must click if they’re to progress through a tricky looking pool.

“It’s a great opportunity to test your performance against the best in Europe,” said Wood.

“We always have great occasions in Europe, there always seems to be an extra bit of atmosphere, a little bit of extra buzz about it and it’s a change up from the Aviva Premiership and the week-to-week grind.

“It’s a fresh start for us and sometimes perhaps you’re not going so well in the Aviva Premiership and European rugby is a chance to springboard your season and get into it that way.

“You just want to be testing yourself against the best opponents possible and it’s perhaps as close as you can get to international rugby without actually playing it, so it’s a good opportunity to put your hand up for international honours too.

“There are extra levels of physicality. There’s loads of things to adapt to – the refereeing is slightly different, the interpretation of the laws, the breakdown in particular, it’s certainly different.

“When you have to adapt to those things and play on the edge, trying to find where that edge is all the time, then you improve as a player that way.”

All of Europe’s heavy hitters will be involved in this year’s Champions Cup but Wood insists the aim at Franklin’s Gardens is still to win the competition.

That statement might seem a little farfetched considering Northampton are yet to find top gear domestically, but Wood is refusing to change his lofty expectations.

“Our expectation is to go out and win it,” he added. “Our only ever expectation is go out full on and commit wholeheartedly, we don’t target any given competition, we don’t prioritise anything.

“We just prepare from week to week and put the best team we can out on the field and give it our best shot.

“We recognise that we don’t have a God-given right to win it, there are some damn good teams out there, but we want to be competing, we want to qualify from our group and be in the knockout stages, certainly.

“We love our trips away in Europe; we love the big occasions at the Gardens as well.

“We’ve had some brutal matches against the likes of Castres in the past – we seem to draw them every year.

“Leinster as well – we got a pasting off them at home but then managed to turn it around the following week and beat them at their place.

“There’s a little bit of history building there already and a few ‘what not to dos’ on opening night against Leinster so we’ll enjoy all of that, it’s just another game of rugby for us though.”

European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) is the organiser of the European Rugby Champions Cup, the European Rugby Challenge Cup and the Challenge Cup Qualifying Competition. Follow all the excitement of another thrilling season of European action at www.epcrugby.com.

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