'I want to get them loving defence' - new coach Vass arrives at Saints

Ian Vass barely had time to have a coffee with his new colleagues before heading up the South Stand steps to conduct his first media interviews.

Thursday, 23rd January 2020, 1:42 pm
Updated Thursday, 23rd January 2020, 1:44 pm
Ian Vass was in attendance at Saints training on Wednesday (pictures: Northampton Saints/Roberto Payne)

The 38-year-old got a little taste of training at Franklin's Gardens on Wednesday before taking part in the weekly press session, introducing himself to the local reporters.

And his enthusiasm for his new role was immediately evident, having moved to Saints to take over the position of defence coach, which was vacated by Alan Dickens in November.

"It was a decision I made because the team are competing in the right part of the league, they're on the way up and all the conversations I had were positive ones," said Vass, who has moved back to England after a spell in France with Top 14 giants Montpellier.

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Vass (right) watches on

"I'm very fortunate to be able to come to a team in a positive situation where hopefully I can add to that.

"There are some big games coming up and if I can help to win those games, it's the reason I'm here."

The positive situation Vass speaks of is that Saints currently sit second in the Gallagher Premiership and have a Champions Cup quarter-final at Exeter Chiefs to look forward to in April.

They have become one of the most swashbuckling attacking forces in Europe following the arrival of men such as Chris Boyd and Sam Vesty.

Vass can't wait to start work officially at Franklin's Gardens

But their defensive resilience has not always measured up to their obvious attacking ability.

And that is something Vass is here to change.

"The enthusiasm here to get better and to play with ball in hand is there for all to see," he said.

"Everyone's alive in the attack and wanting to make a difference and really I just want to replicate that in defence.

"I want to get them loving and enjoying defence because at the end of the day, that's 50 per cent of the game.

"It's about bringing a bit of ying to the yang.

"Because of the work ethos of the players and the drive from the coaches, I don't think it's anything different but maybe it's a slight change of mentality about how they see defence.

"It's not something negative, it's something positive to build your attack on.

"If you defend well, you get the ball back more quickly and more often to attack.

"It's about reselling the product."

Vass is the final piece in Boyd's coaching jigsaw at Saints, with the Kiwi boss overseeing a team of young, hungry, English mentors.

And joining that team was something that clearly held huge appeal for Vass.

"Chris spoke strongly around having young English coaches - not that I'm so young any more! - who are trying to push through and one the first things he said to me was about how he wanted to coach here in this country with those sort of coaches," Vass said.

"He's definitely a big driver behind it.

"I've only been in the office for about half an hour but from playing against them or coaching at various age grades, I know most of the other coaches here.

"It makes that transition slightly easier and they've all been really welcoming, making me coffee and things like that so there are no worries there."

Vass is, of course, well known to many Saints supporters as he enjoyed two spells at the club as a player.

And the former scrum-half clearly understands what is means to be part of Northampton life.

When asked what is so special about Saints, he replied: "It's the history in relation to the town, with the houses around the ground and it's in the same place it was 150 years ago.

"It's renowned as a rugby town and it's the history that goes with the place, with the shirt and all that.

"There are probably five clubs with a similar background and it's nice to be at a proper rugby town where it's the main focus.

"There are still a few familiar faces kicking around from when I was last here.

"I've got some good memories here and it's important to use them and take them with me to help with the role.

"It gives pride in the job and the shirt."

Vass came through the Academy at Saints but left to join Stade Francais in 2003.

He played for Bedford and Harlequins before returning to Northampton in 2006.

He moved to Bedford two years later and went on to enjoy success in coaching, serving as England Under-20 head coach and working as academy coach at Saracens before spending the past two years as defence and skills coach at Montpellier.

"The challenge and the experience was definitely why I went to Montpellier," Vass explains.

"To work with people like Vern (Cotter), Alex King and Nathan Hines in an international level coaching team at a top European team was why I went.

"It's an eclectic club with lots of different nationalities and cultures within the team so it was a challenge to align them in the same way and push them in the same direction.

"I learned from the other coaches and tried to build team ethics as it wasn't all quite aligned where you'd want it to be in the first year."

But when Dickens left Saints to become England Under-20s head coach, it was time for Vass to return home.

"It (the move) was over a fairly long period really," Vass said.

"When Alan left to take over the England Under-20s, the role became available and Chris likes a certain profile of coach.

"With the change around of coaches from last season to this season at Montpellier, once I spoke to Chris it was more about coming here at the end of the season.

"But we found some middle ground with Montpellier and a way we could get the release done early.

"Fortunately after a couple of months we managed to do it.

"The work behind the scenes was done amicably and it allowed me to come here during this break so the timing was quite good."

So how different is life at Saints now to what it was when Vass was last at the club?

"It's been a while and they've obviously had their ups and downs," he said.

"They've gone through cycles like most clubs do.

"They've been up near the top winning stuff and then fallen away slightly but now they're part way through the rebuilding stage.

"They're on their way back to being one of those top three or four clubs again, and it's where they want to be and need to be.

"Everyone I spoke to talked about a positive environment with loads of enthusiasm from the players and the coaches.

"Chris promotes that fairly strongly.

"You want to be working at a top-two or three team rather than one of the bottom ones and it was definitely one of the reasons I came back here to work."

And Vass can't wait to get stuck in as he officially starts his new role ahead of the game against Bristol Bears at the Gardens on February 16.

"I only got back to England on Saturday so I just managed to move house, get that all sorted and I just came in to say hello to everyone on Wednesday really," he explained.

"I wouldn't say I've settled in yet, I'm just starting really.

"I'll start properly after the break so I just wanted to come in, see how things run, have a look at training and things like that.

"I wanted a quick view of the setup before we jump in against Bristol.

"It's always nice to have a break to work in and everyone will be refreshed and ready to go when we head into the second half of the season."