King still looks back on Saints stay with such joy

Six years on, you can still hear the adulation in Alex King’s voice.

By Tom Vickers
Sunday, 17th May 2020, 1:02 pm
Alex King helped to steer Saints to a memorable double during the 2013/14 season
Alex King helped to steer Saints to a memorable double during the 2013/14 season

He took some time out of home schooling his son to discuss his stay at Saints and, most specifically, their double-winning season of 2013/14.

King even admits he recently rewatched the sensational Premiership play-off semi-final win against Leicester Tigers as Saints showed it as one of their ‘Classic Matches’ on YouTube.

And the former Northampton backs coach, who left the club in October 2016, said: “I watched that semi-final again actually and it was incredible really.

Saints saw off Saracens at Twickenham to claim their first Premiership crown

“It’s become folklore, hasn’t it? Luther’s (Burrell) pass to Woody (Tom Wood) in the corner and the commentary from Nick Mullins and Lawrence (Dallaglio).

“It was just everything because Salesi (Ma’afu) got red carded, Leicester thought they’d won it and then we came back with 14 men.

“And to win against Tigers in that fashion in a semi-final - it doesn’t get any better than that.

“But there are a few games that stay with me from that season.

King was part of a coaching team that also included Jim Mallinder, Dorian West and Alan Dickens

“I think the win in Dublin (Saints beat Leinster 18-9 in Dublin in December 2013) was one of the defining moments - just being able to go away from home against a formidable team having performed poorly the week before (Saints had lost 40-7 to the same team at Franklin’s Gardens).

“The belief to go there and win was phenomenal and it set us off on a good winning streak.

“We had momentum going into the back end of the season.

“The Six Nations is always a tricky time but we came through that and to win two trophies was phenomenal.

“I’ve got some phenomenal memories.”

And another one soon appears in his mind as King continues discussing his time at the club...

“The other game I loved when I was at the club was the one just before Christmas against Leicester (in 2014),” King says, joyfully.

“Dylan (Hartley) got sent off and we ended up winning that one in the last few minutes.

“You were thinking ‘60 minutes without your captain and one of the best players in the world’ and fair play to Mikey (Haywood), who came on and did a great job.

“We got the job done and it was absolutely phenomenal.”

King was drafted in during the summer of 2013 as part of a hugely impressive recruitment drive.

Not only was the highly-rated Clermont Auvergne coach brought in, Saints also added the likes of Alex Corbisiero, George North and Kahn Fotuali’i to a squad that had just lost in the Premiership final to Leicester.

“I knew Saints was a great club, great fans, great infrastructure, great ground, great history,” said former Wasps fly-half King.

“Jim (Mallinder), Westy (Dorian West) and Dicko (Alan Dickens) had done a good job in the years before.

“They obviously came up short in that 2011 Heineken Cup final (against Leinster) where the week before they lost that semi-final at Leicester and it clearly took a huge amount out of them in that final. They were the better team in that first half and just couldn’t get over the line.

“Then to lose the 2013 final to Leicester from where they had been in the league was a huge achievement.

“But there was some big recruitment in that summer and it was fantastic.

“Corbisiero had just come off a Lions tour, George North had just come off the Lions tour and Kahn came in at nine to compete with Dicko (Lee Dickson).

“It was three world class signings and that, with the momentum from 2013, and the ambition and the drive to win a big one all came together.

“Dylan and Woody, the two captains that year, were fantastic.

“There was a real drive, a common purpose and it was the time for that squad to really peak.

“To win two trophies over two weekends was incredible.”

So did King know about the acquisitions of the likes of North and Fotuali’i when Saints approached him?

“I’d been speaking to Jim for the six months from January 2013 to the time I joined, especially regarding the backs, and Kahn and George were obviously going to be a hugely positive influence on the squad, along with the players who were already there and had performed admirably in 2013,” he explained.

“You always need to bring two or three guys in every year if your budget allows it.

“If you can do that, it refreshes things, keeps things competitive and shows the opposition you’re serious about challenging for silverware.

“And it seemed like Northampton should have been challenging for silverware because of where it stands in English rugby.

“That year was phenomenal. We came together and we made the most of it.”

King was often credited by the Saints players for how he helped to shape the team’s attacking game during that most memorable of seasons.

So, in his own words, what did he feel he brought to the Gardens table?

“A lot of good stuff was already being done and to get to the final the year before was an achievement,” King said.

“Jim, Dorian and Dicko are obviously good coaches and there was a bit of a mindset shift, a belief to say ‘let’s not play second fiddle to all these other teams, let’s go out and beat Saracens, and beat Leicester because we’re good enough’.

“Winning finals with Wasps, I was able to bring a little bit of know-how when it came to the big games and I’d like to think I added something in that respect.

“But the team was well led by Woody and Dylan.

“The forwards were outstanding, Samu (Manoa) was on fire, Courtney (Lawes) as well

“I think the team peaked that year - I don’t think we could have got much more out of them.

“We came together fantastically, played some great rugby.

“I remember the Saracens win at home, putting 40 points on them, and it was a real statement to the league that we were contenders that year.”

After winning the Premiership and European Challenge Cup during a memorable May in 2014, Saints went on to finish top of the regular-season league table for the first time in their history a year later.

But things fell flat as Saracens sneaked into the play-off picture again and turned the tables on Saints, winning the play-off semi-final at the Gardens.

“It’s strange because finishing top, you’d arguably say you had a better season because you’ve score more points over 22 games than any other club in England,” King said.

“We beat Saracens at Milton Keynes in March, April time and it was a massive result but our expectations we so high that if we didn’t win with a bonus point and we weren’t playing beautiful rugby, there was almost a feeling of ‘we’re not as good as we were last year’.

“Mentally we probably weren’t as free in our play the year before when our expectations were a little bit less than the year we actually topped the league in 2015.

“When we went into that semi-final against Sarries, we were a bit hurt going into it and we lost two backs early on in the game, they scored a try and we could never get the momentum back.

“They ended up winning by six points and it was really frustrating because we put so much into the season.

“We had a poor performance at Clermont in the quarter-final in Europe and it knocked some wind out of our sails.

“I just don’t think we went into the semi-final with as much confidence as the year we won it and confidence going into that last four or five weeks of the season is massive.

“Teams who have it usually go on and do really well in the play-offs.”

From then on, Saints struggled to regain their spark, with the coaches struggling to find a way to bring it back.

“It’s difficult and it’s something you can’t really put your finger on at times,” King said.

“When you review the season after 2014 and after 2015, we probably got a lot more things right in 2015, but did we actually go into that last block of games with the same intensity and same confidence that we did the year before?

“Invariably you want your best team on the field as well and if you don’t, you lose a bit of that confidence because those players give you that in those games.”

One criticism often levelled at Saints surrounds their recruitment after those halcyon days of 2014 and 2015.

They stuck with many of the men who had taken the club to glory when, in hindsight, a fresher approach may have been needed.

And King said: “It’s always difficult because you want to reward players who have pulled on the shirt, sacrificed themselves and won trophies, and all those players had.

“The hardest decision is knowing when to re-sign or to let players go and bring in other guys and Academy guys.

“It’s impossible to get every decision right but I felt at that time there was a huge investment at the club in the new stand and maybe the priorities went towards the stadium and the infrastructure rather than the playing side.

“We’re talking small margins because I think we missed out on the play-offs in 2016 by two or three points.

“Saracens scraped in the year before in fourth place and went on to win it, so it’s tiny margins at that level.

“Did we get everything right? No.

“But the club had a priority to build the Barwell Stand and that takes your attention away from your budget on your players, I’m sure.”

Saints finished fifth at the end of a tough 2015/16 season and did not start the next one in the best fashion.

It led to King’s departure being announced in October.

And he explained: “We had a mixed start to that season and it was a personal decision.

“I spoke to Jim and said it wasn’t working at that time.

“I said I thought it was the right time for me to move on and it was all done very well.

“I loved my time at the Saints and my son is a Saints supporter, but professionally for me, it was the right time to leave.

“In hindsight, I probably should have left that summer because I had a slightly different philosophy on how I saw the club evolving.

“I had a very good conversation with Jim and I didn’t leave in any bad taste or anything.

“It happens in professional sport.”

King’s departure wasn’t announced with a standalone story, despite all he had achieved at the Gardens.

It was only a footnote at the bottom of a team news story for a match against Montpellier, the club he would eventually join the following summer.

So did the way his departure was revealed leave a bitter taste in the mouth?

“It’s so long ago that I haven’t really thought too much about it,” he says warmly.

“Saints gave me some fantastic memories and they’re the bits I’ll remember.

“I’m not too worried about how it all came across - it’s not a big thing for me, that.”

It is clear how much his time at Saints and the memories he packed into his suitcase for the move to Montpellier in 2017 still means to King.

And he is enjoying seeing their progress from afar these days.

“I still keep one eye on the club,” said the 45-year-old.

“A good friend of mine, Vassy (Ian Vass), is defence coach now and I’ve still got a lot of time for the club and I keep in touch with him.

“It’s good to see Chris Boyd, Dows (Phil Dowson) and Sam (Vesty) coming in and really freshening things up and it’s great to see the young guys who have come up through the Academy with Hoppers now performing on the biggest stage in Europe and the Premiership.

“I think the club is going to go from strength to strength.

“Saints have got some of the best fans in club rugby and it was a privilege to be there and be part of the success in 2014 and 2015 when we topped the league for the first time.

“I’ve got nothing but good memories, but sometimes, professionally, it’s the right time to move on.”

Just after leaving Saints, King went on to work with Wales during the 2017 Six Nations.

He then linked up with Montpellier that summer and stayed there until last year.

King explained: “We moved to France in 2017, joined Montpellier, which was great.

“In the first year we topped the league and came up short in the final against Castres.

“It was a tough one because we topped the league from the first week to the end.

“Not to get the job done in the final was tough.

“Then we started the second season under pressure, lacking confidence but we turned it around and got to the play-offs, where we lost to Lyon in the final.

“It was a huge achievement from where we’d come from.

“There was a change of management and I left in summer 2019.

“I’ve been doing some consultancy work with another club and it’s been good.

“I’ve got more balance with time with the family and we’re now just waiting to see what’s going to happen next.”