What’s going on at the Saints?
Jim Mallinder took over in 2007 when Northampton were in the Championship. They were promoted in his first season.
Over the course of his decade-long tenure, Northampton had the third highest winning percentage in the Premiership. They won the European Challenge Cup twice, the Premiership title in 2014 and made the 2011 Heineken Cup Final. They were comfortably leading Leinster at halftime; this was the famous Jonny Sexton final.
Since their Premiership win, however, Saints have been slipping further off the pace each year. While they are not really relegation candidates, Saints are out of Europe and the fans are beginning to stay at home. After several desperately poor performances, most recently a heavy home defeat to the struggling Ospreys, Mallinder was sacked.
There are lots of things being said in the media right now about various coaches at Northampton having a negative influence. One popular story is that on his arrival at the Saints the former Springbok great Victor Matfield asked if the coaches would like to sit down and discuss lineouts with him. He was apparently told to jump straight and let the coaching staff worry about the rest. If true, this would explain a lot about the decline of Northampton.
Head Coach Candidates
The rumour mill is in full swing about who will replace Mallinder. Some of the names the media are speculating about are:
- Stuart Lancaster, who seems like he is happy at Leinster and hasn’t been approached.
- Wayne Smith, who has seemingly turned the job down.
- Wayne Pivac, the Scarlets coach.
- Mike Ford, who is said to have put his name forward and is currently coaching in America.
- Aaron Mauger, who would be a very interesting appointment because he is a former Leicester Tigers player and coach.
- Exeter backs coach Ali Hepher, who is an ex Saints player.
- Warren Gatland, who would be the most surprising of all. He recently turned down the Chiefs back home and said he is not moving until after the 2019 World Cup.
- And finally, Newcastle boss Dean Richards. He is another former Tiger and reportedly happy in the North East.
It would seem from the outside that the new man in charge should refresh the backroom staff.
This would not be about blaming individuals for the current problems, rather freshening up the voices and ideas the players are hearing. The new man will want some familiar faces, and given the desperate need to develop a new playing style (more on that later), the coaches need to be comfortable with a different way of playing.
The second job will be to resolve the fly-half position for this season.
Dan Biggar will be joining next season and will presumably slot in as the first choice. The options available this year are Piers Francis, Harry Mallinder, Steven Myler or the rookie James Grayson. The new coach must back one player as his starter for the rest of the year.
Harry Mallinder has been one of the few success stories this season at 15, however, I would like to see him play 12 with Francis at 10. Once Biggar arrives, this gives Saints depth in the 10/12 positions, with players who can perform both roles. It will allow them to develop a stable way of playing and some consistency.
Once this season is out of the way, the new coach will have had a chance to see who he wants to keep and which players he needs to bring in.
The existing pack has some good players. There are stars like Courtney Lawes, Tom Wood and Dylan Hartley. A good set of front rows includes Campese Ma’afu, Jamal Ford-Robinson, Alex Waller, Hartley, Mike Haywood, Kieran Brookes and Paul Hill. The back 5 of the pack is a little short of quality, although some young players are coming through. Lewis Ludlam, Ben Nutley and David Ribbans all look promising.
I would look to add a second row and a number 8 to the group. Saints never replaced Louis Picamoles and miss his ball carrying.
They are light in the second row because Lawes often plays at 6. As a result, Northampton could do with an athletic carrier at 5. Samu Manoa also hasn’t been replaced. Saints should look for the best players they can get, who are in the mould of Picamoles and Manoa.
Northampton have the players for a dual playmaker system already. They don’t need half backs because Dan Biggar is arriving and Steven Myler is an adequate backup. They also have 2 good scrum-halves in Nick Groom and Cobus Reinach. In the centres, they have Rob Horne or Luther Burrell at 13, with one of Francis or Mallinder at 12.
To complement this, Northampton needs some pace in the back 3. Here we find one of the major problems.
Saints currently have a relatively slow backline. In Ben Foden, Ahsee Tuala and Ken Pisi, Northampton don’t have express pace. In addition, they lose George North at the end of the season, leaving Tom Collins as the only really quick back 3. I would sign 2 very quick wingers to complement Collins. There is plenty of experience at 15 in Tuala or Foden, and at 13 with Burrell and Horne. Therefore Saints can afford to look at younger players if necessary.
Once the squad is settled in the close season, the new coach can really bed in the spine of the team.
The other job in this second season will be establishing a new playing style. Ben Foden has recently admitted this needs to change. It should be easy to utilise Northampton’s strengths.
Saints could have a very strong pack with good ball carriers and a strong set piece, particularly the lineout. They will have 2 playmakers, a hard carrying centre and pace on the wings. They would have all the elements necessary to play a strong territorial game. Once in the right areas, they would also have everything needed to break teams down.
In conclusion, Saints need a major overhaul. However, it’s a big club and the foundations are there for quick improvement. If the new man gets it right, they could be good again in 18 months. I think they need a coaching overhaul and 4 new players along with Dan Biggar. 2 very quick young wingers, an athletic second row and a ball-carrying number 8 would be perfect.
If they do this, Northampton can get back to their 2013 levels again soon.
Author: Daniel Pugsley
I am a 31 year old from Yorkshire, England. I have played social rugby for 25 years in England, Japan, Italy, Poland and the UAE. I teach English as a foreign language, which explains why I’ve lived in so many places. I recently moved back to England and have had to take a break from playing, but I hope to pull on the boots again soon.