Saints farewell interview: Jamal Ford-Robinson

The end of last season signalled the start of a summer of discontent when it came to Saints farewell interviews.

Wednesday, 3rd July 2019, 4:23 pm
Jamal Ford-Robinson has joined Gloucester
Jamal Ford-Robinson has joined Gloucester

Departing player after departing player bemoaned a lack of game time.

Very few felt they had been given a fair crack of the whip, with the likes of Ben Nutley and Tom Stephenson among those who felt hard done by as they were left out in the cold.

Nutley, Stephenson and Co instead had to make do with propelling the Wanderers to back-to-back A League titles as the first team continued to struggle.

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But this year, there have been no grumbles from the players who are leaving Saints.

The likes of Andrew Kellaway and Jamal Ford-Robinson have understood the decisions that have been made.

"As a player who got released from Saints without that being my plan, it would probably make it a lot easier for me if I didn't agree with the decisions Boydy (Saints boss Chris Boyd) had made and I could hold a grudge, but one of the things that's come from being a bit older is seeing things from a different perspective," said Ford-Robinson, who has now joined Gloucester.

"I can't say anything bad about the club and I would have made exactly the same decision they made.

"I spoke to Boydy at one of our end-of-season socials and said the same thing to him.

"I like to think we've got a good relationship and it's great to see the young boys like Mitch (Alex Mitchell), Luds (Lewis Ludlam) and Tei (Teimana Harrison) getting some recognition.

"The club is in great hands."

That will be more music to the ears of Saints supporters buoyed by last season, which saw the club finish fourth in the Gallagher Premiership, reach a Challenge Cup quarter-final and lift the Premiership Rugby Cup thanks to a final win against Saracens.

Ford-Robinson would have loved to play more of a part in those successes, especially because the previous season - his first at Franklin's Gardens - was such a turbulent one.

He moved to Northampton from Bristol in 2017 but after a strong start to the campaign, things fell away badly.

Long-serving director of rugby Jim Mallinder departed in the December of that season, leaving interim head coach Alan Dickens and technical coaching consultant Alan Gaffney in charge.

"The first year was obviously a weird one, somewhat similar to the year before, at Bristol, with the change in coaching," Ford-Robinson said.

"But overall I got some really good experiences from the first year, playing in the Champions Cup.

"Saints finished seventh the year before I came in and I just remember reading how disappointed everyone was to finish seventh.

"It was such a different mindset to what I was used to at Bristol because we were fighting for our lives from day one.

"The idea of going from a club that is trying to fight for everything from day one to a club that is disappointed with finishing just outside the top six was a massive pull for me.

"We won the first five out of six at Saints and then it went downhill from there and there were changes.

"I was sat there thinking 'here we go again, I must be a curse'.

"But as you can see from the past season - the changes have been very positive."

However, having been given plenty of game time in year one, injuries meant Ford-Robinson didn't get a real chance to prove himself in year two.

And by the time he was fully fit, his name was too far from the teamsheet, with the likes of Ehren Painter, Paul Hill and Ben Franks hogging the tighthead limelight.

"In the second year, I was unlucky with injury early on and when I came back, the ship was starting to settle and you can't really ask for any changes when that happens," Ford-Robinson said.

"If the same coaching team had been around in the second year they'd have known what I did in the first year - I played more than 20 games - but the coaches changed and then I got my injury so you got the worst of two worlds in terms of being able to prove yourself.

"If you're a big dog walking around with loads of England caps, the coaches know what you're about but when you're in a position where you need to break through and prove yourself and you can't start doing that you're stuck between a rock and a hard place.

"I picked up what seemed like a nothing injury during a wrestling session and there didn't seem to be an incident that happened. I wasn't like 'oh, my knee's gone', it just started to swell up later in the day and I had scans, which showed I'd done my knee cartilage.

"It kept me out until September, October time and my comeback game was up at Newcastle in the A League and that set it off, which kept me out until Christmas time.

"Obviously you come back from injury and you want to stake a claim as soon as you're back, but at the time we had Ehren, Franksy and Hilly.

"The time I came back was when they were getting the scrum sorted and you can't ask the coaches to mess with something that's not broken.

"If I was in Boydy's position, I'd have made exactly the same calls all the way.

"You might have a player with decent potential based on what you've heard before but you can't manufacture a way for him to play - it's got to come naturally, and those three guys were going well.

"I couldn't ask them to change it."

So does Ford-Robinson feel the Saints fans didn't see the best of him?

"I don't think I even came close really because although I racked up a few games, they were normally off the bench," said the 25-year-old, who had been on England's 2017 summer tour of Argentina before joining Saints.

"And also, the system we played in that first year definitely didn't suit my game.

"I was signed off the back of my performances for Bristol, where we played a similar system to what we played last season with a pod system with forwards across the pitch.

"In the first year, it was very much all eight forwards working round the corner and more like a constant working thing rather than conserving energy.

"You were constantly running round the corner and trying to offer some sort of running line but you never knew whether you would get used because everyone was running in the same direction.

"Whereas what I probably got selected on from Bristol and what we did in that second year was having those forwards straight across.

"You'd get one or two phases off and my game is about short efforts throughout the game rather than one big effort."

Ford-Robinson did enjoy his time with the Wanderers, earning plenty of wins and making many new friends during the A League successes.

"It's got its ups and its downs, the way it worked out in that first year," he said.

"If you speak to most people in that camp in that first year, they would probably say there was a massive divide between first team and Wanderers.

"Naturally boys were getting frustrated because for one reason or another they weren't getting picked.

"It formed a divide between two teams within a team but on the flip side of that, it meant those boys putting on a shirt on a Monday night became really close.

"It was no surprise that the Wanderers went on to win the league two years in a row.

"This year, we've lost games we shouldn't have, at Newcastle and an unheard of home defeat to Wasps.

"Boydy got rid of that divide and it had a knock-on effect (on the Wanderers' fortunes)."

And Ford-Robinson believes that the only way remains up for the club he has just left for Kingsholm.

"I could happily go on record and say Northampton are going to be a serious force to be reckoned with," he said.

"It's about whether the shock factor of a new coach stands the test of time because any sort of new stimulus to a group of lads can result in massive performances but I'm pretty sure from what I've experienced from Boydy and the team, it's not going to be a flash in the pan resurgence.

"It's going to be a continual thing."

For a long time last season, Ford-Robinson may have felt there was a chance he could still extend his stay at Saints, but eventually became clear that his time at the Gardens would end.

"It was pretty late on because there was still talk of me maybe being able to stay and it depended on things that were out of my control," he explained.

"But eventually I did find out I'd be leaving and for me personally, I kind of knew it was coming.

"Boydy always let me know where I stood and when I got the news it wasn't a shock.

"It was then about trying to find a new club and with there not being much to go on apart from playing on a few Monday night it was looking pretty sketchy at one point.

"But thankfully Gloucester came through. They've seen I've come back from my injury and I'm trying to get back to where I want to be.

"It was a no-brainer when they came in for me."

And Bristol-born Ford-Robinson is happy to now be closer to home.

"I've realised just from being at Gloucester for a little while that I'm definitely a south-west boy," he said.

"Being near the water and hearing some strong Rs in the accent means its cool to be back down in this area.

"It's awesome to be joining Gloucester because they're in a similar position to Northampton - maybe a year or two ahead, but still in a transition to a new style of play.

"It seems they have a similar ethos both on the field and off the field so it's going to be interesting."