Dowson delivers Saints injury and availability latest ahead of Exeter encounter

Phil Dowson is delighted to have England stars Courtney Lawes and Alex Mitchell back in training at cinch Stadium at Franklin's Gardens.
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And the Saints boss admits selection continues to get trickier as he prepares his side to face Gallagher Premiership table-toppers Exeter Chiefs on Sunday afternoon.

Dowson's men have won their past two matches, showing real resilience to edge past Newcastle Falcons and Bath.

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And with Lawes and Mitchell returning, he now has to decide whether they come straight back in, with the likes of Angus Scott-Young and Tom James performing well at six and nine in their absence.

"It's where you want to be, you want to be really competitive and want those guys to be really hungry," Dowson said.

"We talked about it a lot in terms of games back to back, you have to be able to rotate guys, so having that hunger throughout the squad is really positive.

"It (team selection) is difficult every week but clearly the more players you have fit and the more players there are back, the trickier it gets, especially when you come from a situation of winning.

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"We have to balance it up, always do what's best for the club and for the team, and push on in that direction."

Trevor Davison missed the clash with Bath due to illness (photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)Trevor Davison missed the clash with Bath due to illness (photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
Trevor Davison missed the clash with Bath due to illness (photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

On the return of Lawes and Mitchell, who helped England to secure a bronze medal at the Rugby World Cup, Dowson said: "It's fantastic and I'm sure there's DORs around the country saying the same thing. It's great to have top class internationals back training and involved.

"We're excited about having those characters back."

But it won't be an easy call to bring Mitchell straight back in as James played a starring role against Bath last weekend, playing a part in all three Saints tries.

"He's been fantastic and to be honest, he has over the past few seasons," Dowson said of James.

"Every time he's been called upon, he's stepped up.

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"He's got a wand of a left foot and he is getting better and better at managing the game.

"He created a try last weekend for Colesy (Alex Coles) just through his physical ability so we're really pleased with TJ, he's a cracking bloke."

Saints were able to welcome Ollie Sleightholme back last weekend as he was named in the 23.

"He's not played a lot of rugby so we need to get him back firing and playing as often as possible because he's had a tough run of injuries and he just needs to get some minutes behind him so he feels really confident, really happy and to see him tearing up at Franklin's Gardens will be a good sight," Dowson said.

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But Saints lost Ethan Waller to injury during the second half last Saturday, with Alex Waller coming back onto the field to replace his brother at loosehead.

"Ethan's not too bad," Dowson said.

"He had a bit of a stinger on his shoulder but he's okay.

"He won't do much at the front of the week and we'll hopefully get him right for the weekend, otherwise Tarek (Haffar) is back training, which is positive. This weekend might be a bit soon for him.

"Also, the old dog, Alex Waller, is still charging around."

Saints were without Trevor Davison against Bath due to illness.

"He's on antibiotics so we're just waiting for that to clear up so he can train," Dowson said.

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James Ramm has missed the past two matches due to an ankle injury.

Dowson said: "He's not too bad.

"He's back running and he did some of the session this morning.

"Sometimes when you do sessions and they're not full on, you think 'he might play at the weekend' but you have to wait and see because as you build towards the game you get more and more contact and then when the game starts, it's absolutely brutal.

"So we need to make sure we manage all those guys who are coming off lay-offs to make sure they're not doing too much, too soon."

Hooker Robbie Smith has also been sidelined recently.

"Robbie's calf is improving," Dowson said.

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"There's no timeline on that because it's soft tissue and we've got to be careful we don't push too much, too soon."

Saints have a few long-term injury issues to contend with, with Juarno Augustus (bicep), Manny Iyogun (groin) and summer signing Temo Mayanavanua (knee) sidelined.

"I saw Juarno in the gym this morning and he seemed pretty happy," Dowson said.

"He wasn't giving too much away in the gym, he never does.

"But he felt pretty good and the medics are happy the injury is healing the way they would expect it to.

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"Manny is the same and unfortunately for those guys when you get injured, you're out of that team dynamic, you're with the physios on your own, training one on one and that's hard.

"It's probably the period of time that is the hardest because you get injured, you have your operation, you feel like you're getting better but it's still some weeks or months before you can play again.

"They're slogging it at the moment but it won't be long before they're back on the pitch, loving life and back amongst the crew."

On Mayanavanua, who sustained a knee injury on World Cup duty with Fiji, Dowson said: "I haven't seen him play very much because of his knee.

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"He's obviously recovering from a pretty substantial knee knock so he seems to be good.

"He's sitting, watching and learning and getting used to the Northampton environment.

"I've no doubt that when he starts training he'll accelerate into that really well."