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JON SLEIGHTHOLME: I’ve earned the right to have my say on Saints

HARD-FOUGHT - Saints were worthy winners at Worcester last Saturday (Picture: Linda Dawson)

HARD-FOUGHT - Saints were worthy winners at Worcester last Saturday (Picture: Linda Dawson)

 

Sometimes the real mark of a team is how they respond to pressure and criticism, and there has been plenty of that for the Saints camp to deal with over the past few weeks.

I have been one of those critics and I stand by most of what I have commented on.

If, by putting the microscope on the situation at the Saints has caused me some friction personally, and if my views and comments are used as a fuel for the squad to ram back down my throat, then that’s not an issue for me.

In fact, I am happy that it can be used as such.

For anyone that has met me or knows me, or has chatted rugby with me, there is no bigger Saints supporter than me.

I arrived at the club in late 1997 from Bath and one of the main reasons I came here is that it was a proper rugby club with proper rugby people and passionate supporters.

As a player I was as proud to wear the Saints jersey as I had the famous Bath colours and even the England jersey.

When I see elements of the fabric of what has made the Saints a great club threatened or players wearing the jersey, and the coaches that are coaching them, not coming up to the standards that the club deserves, then I will comment and I will criticise.

I think I have earned that right to do so.

That is not born out of any other motive other than to see the club continue to fly the flag at the top of the domestic game in England.

It is not about personalities and not about seeing people lose their livelihoods just for the sake of causing controversy.

Having said that, no player or coach is bigger than what this club represents, and no amount of blind loyalty should cloud anyone’s view of that.

Objectivity is the only way.

So, looking back to last weekend, no-one was happier and more relieved than me to see the Saints grind out a critical win at Sixways.

It was a performance largely built on the ferocity of the heavyweight Saints pack, which eventually hammered Worcester into submission.

It might not have pleased the home fans too much, but in conditions as they were – a quagmire – there was really no option but to keep it tight, keep it simple and hopefully wear down the opposition.

Worcester are desperately trying to develop their game and become a team that can play with width and flair but if they are to achieve that they will need to do some work on their pitch.

Granted the weather has been shocking, but you simply cannot play that type of game on a surface like that.

It will be a much bigger test for Saints this coming weekend against Bath.

They are on an impressive run of form and Saints will not have it all their own way up front. They will also be missing their England contingent who, despite the yellow cards, made an impact against Worcester. Bath have not won at Franklins Gardens for 13 years but they are heading here in good form and with confidence brimming. With Saints’ confidence still pretty fragile, it will be a tight game.

Despite the fact that the win at Worcester was much needed and keeps Saints in the hunt for the top four, there 
are still major worries about their ability to open up defences and create opportunities, particularly outside the forwards.

Worcester was not a day to throw the ball around so it’s difficult to judge whether the backline have responded yet to the questions fielded about them.

It was a solid defensive effort but with a relatively dry week and dry forecast this weekend, the conditions should be better suited for them to prove their point as the forwards did so well last weekend. A win for Saints against Bath is a must if they are to keep tabs on their top-four ambitions.

With Wasps playing Irish and Gloucester facing Worcester, there is a real threat that they will put some breathing space between themselves and Saints in the race for fourth place.

ENGLAND MUST BE WARY OF WOUNDED FRENCH

Le Crunch may have lost some of its impact in recent years, due mainly to England’s inconsistencies and by France’s poor start to this year’s campaign, but I expect Saturday evening’s game to be just as tough as any of the classics of the past 20 years or so for England.

There is every chance the real France will show up on Saturday, not the imposters we have seen wearing blue shirts over the first two weeks of the tournament.

There is far too much quality in this French team to write them off and England will be taking nothing for granted – there is no chance of that happening under the watchful eyes of Stuart Lancaster and his coaching team.

The cacophony of boos heard at Stade de France when they lost to Wales two weeks ago will quickly fade in the memory if France do upset the form book, beat England and ruin their Grand Slam hopes.

There, I said it.

I have been holding back from mentioning the G and S words but the reality for England is that if they continue their progress and win on Saturday it will be a question they cannot avoid, one thing is for certain, every Welshman is desperate for England to show up unbeaten in Cardiff on the final weekend of the championship.

I expect this to be a battle royale up front on Saturday as France will fancy their chances of causing some real headaches at set-piece time.

England will need to have a forward performance of a higher level than we have already seen so far this year as France will ask much bigger questions of them than either Scotland or Ireland did.

 

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