Phil Dowson and George Furbank: In-form Northampton relishing European challenge

George Furbank and a confident Northampton Saints side begin their European adventure away at Glasgow Warriors
©Northampton Saints

Looking ahead, Northampton Saints are keen to prove themselves against some of Europe’s finest teams and they begin their Investec Champions Cup campaign this Friday when they face Glasgow Warriors at Scotstoun Stadium.

In the past two seasons, Glasgow have only lost once at home and are currently seated second in the United Rugby Championship.

Last term, they reached the final of the EPCR Challenge Cup, falling short to Toulon in the end.

Northampton Saints Director of Rugby Phil Dowson expressed his excitement about participating in the prestigious European tournament and shared his thoughts on visiting Glasgow on opening night.

"That’s one of the fun things about Europe is you haven’t played them for a while, you never know what to expect," Dowson said.

"Having been in finals and lost them before (Dowson lost the 2010-11 Champions Cup final as a Northampton player), I think that does reinvigorate you to get back to that mountaintop and have another crack at it.

"Glasgow Warriors have started the URC very well, they were top going into the Munster game at the weekend. They’ve got the highest ball in play in the URC and they have the highest number of maul tries I think. They scored five tries against Munster, three of them direct off a maul.

“There’s a ton of talent there. They’ve lost once in two years at Scotstoun Stadium so Friday night up there in Glasgow in December, you know it’s a challenge and I think that’s what we’re excited about is going to places like that and digging in and seeing some of that stuff Lee Radford (Saints defence coach) has put in and some of the stuff that Sam (Vesty) is trying to put in.”

Dowson acknowledges the challenges of facing teams like Glasgow and despite these obstacles, he remains confident and views the tournament as an opportunity to measure his side's progress and compete against Europe’s elite.

Saints had a disappointing performance in the Champions Cup last season, which resulted in a failure to get out of the pool stages after four defeats.

Looking back over the past few years, Northampton’s George Furbank reflected on several close encounters against top European teams.

He highlighted last year's matches against La Rochelle and Munster as missed opportunities, where the Saints felt they were capable of better results.

"I remember at half-time last year against La Rochelle, we were up then had a red card,” he said.

"Munster at home, we pushed them and it was probably a game that we let slip away from us. We know we can challenge these teams if we feel we can get our performance right then we genuinely believe we can come away with some results here."

These experiences seem to have instilled a firm belief within the squad that they can compete against the best in Europe but focusing purely on their first assignment, both Dowson and Furbank are aware of Glasgow’s hunger for European success following their runners-up finish in last season’s Challenge Cup.

Furbank expects extra motivation from the Scottish side and has noticed their good form in the URC, but the 27-year-old maintains his team’s belief in going toe-to-toe with the Warriors.

Exciting times await as the Saints are set to face some tough away fixtures and having never played at Glasgow before, Furbank knows the challenges they and Munster will pose.

He said: “It’s an unbelievable place to go and play at Thomond Park. They’re both pretty exciting and then we have two French clubs (Toulon and Bayonne) coming to our place and Saints under the lights on a Friday night in particular against Toulon is going to be a really good atmosphere. I will be playing against some old friends as well which will be fun."

If Saints want to have a successful European journey, Furbank highlighted the skill and maturity displayed by 21-year-old fly-half Fin Smith as someone who can steer the team to positive results.

He emphasised Smith’s ability, despite his young age, and also the fact that he possesses a calm head and exceptional game management skills, making him an asset to the Saints.

The likes of Smith, Fraser Dingwall and Tommy Freeman got to experience Champions Cup action last season with Northampton and there still remains a couple of newcomers to set foot in Europe’s elite competition.

And Dowson expressed his excitement to see what his young players are capable of. 

“I think for the whole squad as a group, and we’re talking about a lot, but we’re relatively younger, I think there’s a genuine excitement about playing in Europe.

“I think they love it as a tournament because of the experiences you get both on and off the field. The chances to get to play against some of the best sides in the world and some of the best players.

“Someone like Tarek Haffar I hope relishes the opportunity to get involved and show what he’s capable of.

“I think someone like Tarek Haffar or Tommy Lockett, all those boys are keen to see where they measure up against some of the best in the world, certainly in Europe. I think that is exciting."

Reflecting on the feasibility of an English club, like Northampton Saints, contending for European glory, Furbank highlighted the need for consistent performances throughout the pool stages.

He also noted the depth and financial resources of the French clubs, making it crucial for English teams to minimise injuries.

Despite these challenges, Dowson and Furbank remain optimistic and believe in their current form. Saints have won five of their last six in the Premiership and are now viewing the Champions Cup as a true test of their European credentials.