Dowson reflects on difficult first season as a Saints coach

Phil Dowson returned to Saints as transition coach last summer but was quickly promoted (picture: Kirsty Edmonds)
Phil Dowson returned to Saints as transition coach last summer but was quickly promoted (picture: Kirsty Edmonds)

Replacing a colleague in a role can be tough, but it is even more difficult when the man whose job you are taking is not only a friend but was an usher at your wedding.

However, that was the unexpected situation that unfolded in front Phil Dowson at Saints last season as he went from Academy mentor to defence coach in a matter of months.

Dowson's first season as a coach - he retired from playing last summer, having hung up his boots at Worcester Warriors - was to come in one of the most turbulent campaigns in Saints history.

The club suffered an opening-day evisceration at the hands of Saracens before a four-game winning streak significantly lifted spirits and elevated hopes for the months ahead.

But that was as good as it got as Saints then slumped, losing 12 of their next 13 games to finish 2017 on the lowest of notes.

Not only that, but Jim Mallinder, who had been director of rugby at the club for more than 10 years, departed in early December.

And it was soon made clear that long-serving stars such as Ben Foden and Stephen Myler would be following their boss out of the exit door the following summer.

For Dowson, who spent all of his six years as a player at Saints under the guidance of Mallinder and alongside the likes of Foden and Myler, times were far from easy.

And they were made even more uneasy by the fact he had to step into the role occupied by one of his best mates, Mark Hopley.

With Saints shipping plenty of points, defence coach Hopley returned to head up the Academy, with Dowson switching from transition coach to mentor the Saints rearguard.

"He's one of my best mates, we're really, really good friends," Dowson said of Hopley.

"He was an usher for me at my wedding and we speak most days, whether he's in the club or not.

"It was difficult, but we put all that stuff aside and made sure the first and most important thing was our relationship and the second thing was that he would help me as much as he could and I would help him as much as I could.

"From mid-season onwards we tried to improve each week and lock down our defence as much as we could.

"Some days it worked and sometimes we didn't defend as well as we should have done."

The role of defence coach was certainly an unenviable one, especially as there was a severe lack of confidence at the club following a horrible run at the back end of the calendar year.

And though things did improve in 2018, with tough-talking Australian Alan Gaffney arriving as technical coaching consultant, there were still plenty more difficult days to come.

"From a personal point of view, it was my first season coaching and there was a lot going on. It was quite tumultuous," Dowson said.

"The original plan was to work underneath Jim (Mallinder) and learn all about the system and how the game worked from the other side of the fence.

"It was difficult and there were challenges, but you've just got to run headfirst at those challenges and give it your best shot.

"If someone sees some talent in what you're doing and some attributes, that's great. If not, you've got to go away and work out what you can do better and come back stronger."

And someone certainly did see some talent in Dowson.

New boss Chris Boyd, who will join Saints on a full-time basis once he has concluded his commitments with current club the Hurricanes, has decided to hand Dowson the role of forwards coach.

It is good news for the 36-year-old, who will be part of a young and ambitious coaching team that also includes the likes of Sam Vesty, Matt Ferguson and Alan Dickens.

But Dowson never allowed himself to worry about whether he would be retained by the club under new management.

Instead, he solely focused on the things he could control.

And he was eventually thankful that his meetings with Boyd paid dividends, with the Kiwi coach deciding Dowson deserved a place in his team.

"I tried not to worry (about the future)," Dowson said.

"Obviously there are stresses, strains and pressures in any job, especially when results aren't going the way you would like.

"But I'd always back myself to give 100 per cent and I'd always back myself to try to improve.

"You can only worry about things you can control. It's a massive cliche, but it's how I approach the coaching.

"If I give it my best shot and I don't keep my job, that's somebody else's decision. It certainly won't be from a lack of trying or input on my part."

Dowson spent many years working with Dorian West, who is his predecessor at Saints.

West, like Mallinder, had been at Franklin's Gardens since 2007, but departed at the end of last season.

His influence will live on though, with Dowson able to take the best bits from his former mentor's regime.

"Dorian's got a ton of experience and has been massively successful," Dowson said.

"He understands the game and is a very bright man.

"I picked up loads from him when I was playing for him and coaching with him.

"I enjoyed the conversations and sometimes they were pretty lively, but that's the whole point, to try to work out the best way for this group of players to move forward."

Online next week, Phil Dowson discusses his new role at Saints, gives an insight into the personality of boss Chris Boyd and focuses on a bright Franklin's Gardens future.