Clark return the highlight as Saints struggle again

IMPRESSIVE RETURN - Calum Clark (Picture: Linda Dawson)
IMPRESSIVE RETURN - Calum Clark (Picture: Linda Dawson)

The battles between Saints and Tigers over the past few seasons have been compelling, edge-of-your-seat games but last Saturday’s encounter was far from that.

It was a poor advert for the game and leaves both camps with plenty of food for thought and some head scratching.

Both sides have been hit hard by England call-ups and injuries but even taking into account those absentees, there was a real lack of quality.

The shining light for Northampton was the return of Calum Clark. It was a mightily impressive comeback considering he has been absent for almost eight months.

To step straight back into first-team action and play for 80 minutes and play so well was a huge boost for the Saints.

He could not have had a tougher environment to make his comeback, but to be fair to the Tigers fans he did not get the stick that I expected him to get and he got on with his job in a very professional manner.

I have always been a big fan of Clark; he is a class player and after his very mature and considered comments on Twitter afterthe Tigers game showed true contrition and regret.

He has clearly learned a huge amount from the incident and will be a stronger individual for it.

I believe he would have been capped by England now had he not had his enforced lay-off and by the end of the season I am confident he will be wearing the red rose.

Looking back to Saints’ overall performance, the frustrating thing from their point of view is that Tigers didn’t have to be at their best to 
win, actually they were far from it.

That will hurt, as teams are given precious few opportunities to win at Welford Road and this was an opportunity missed.

Saints’ discipline let them down again and they have to thank George Ford for having an off day with the boot, otherwise they would have missed the solace of the losing bonus point.

A really big worry for Northampton over the past few weeks has been their inability to get any real impact and go forward from their back line.

Granted they are missing some key players at the moment, but I cannot understand why Luther Burrell has had limited game time recently.

He is raw and is prone to making the occasional error but every time he touches the ball something happens and he generally breaks the gain line.

I would like to see him partnered up with George Pisi more often as I feel that would be a potent attacking weapon.

It was another frustrating display from Ryan Lamb. It’s his decision-making that is the biggest worry.

A classic example of that was his call to take a drop goal when pressuring the Tigers line towards to the end of the first half. It needed a cool head and patience to force Tigers into the error, the option to go for the drop so early in that phase of play was a mistake and spurned Saints’ best chance in the whole game.

It was agonising to watch.

The injury to Stephen Myler against Sarries could not have been more ill timed, as I believe he would have given Saints much more control and shape against Tigers.Saints need him back quickly.

As regular readers of this column will know I have been banging the drum for a few weeks now about selecting Tom May at 15 and he showed a cool head on Saturday.

He should have been used to replace James Wilson a few weeks ago against Glasgow.

The questions are starting to mount up for Jim Mallinder and his coaching team. They have the relief of a couple of weeks of Anglo-Welsh Cup action now to try to build a winning mentality back into the camp before the visit of Premiership new boys London Welsh to the Gardens at the end of the month.

That is a game that will take on a huge significance for Saints’ top-four ambitions and it is looking like a must-win game, but as Welsh have proved, they are no mugs.

It is looking like a crossroads for Northampton’s season.


England head coach Stuart Lancaster has sensibly avoided being drawn by the media on what his target is for the forthcoming autumn internationals.

He is wise to do so as he doesn’t want to put himself into an awkward position and set himself up for a bloody nose.

However, behind closed doors, they will have thought it through and I’m sure they’ve set a realistic target.

Two wins is an absolute minimum for them, starting with Fiji this weekend.

This could be the most physical of all the four games over the next month as the Fijians love that aspect of the game and in my experience are some of hardest hitting players around.

Fiji will relish the opportunity to be underdogs and will feed off the media expectation that this should be a comfortable win for England.

I think it will be anything but, and has the potential to be an embarrassing defeat should England not be on top of their game.

Looking at the matches against the big three southern hemisphere sides over the following weeks I think a reasonable expectation is one win from those clashes.

This new-look squad proved in South Africa in the summer that they can go toe to toe with the top sides and they could and should have won the final Test of the three-match series. And they were far from outplayed in the others.

That should have given plenty of confidence to this young England team that there is the possibility that three wins from four could be a realistic target from the autumn series.

There will be a healthy respect for South Africa and Australia but if they have a positive start against Fiji then all things are possible.

However, in the cold light of day, I simply cannot see them taking the scalp of the All Blacks, who have looked a class apart from everyone over the past 12 months.

England will need an element of luck, but if they get that it should be a successful autumn.