Saints do not fear title rivals despite big summer recruitment drive

Semi Radradra and Kyle Sinckler at Bristol, Manu Tuilagi at Sale and Jonny Gray at Exeter - there have been some big signings made by Saints’ fellow top-four clubs this summer.

Saturday, 25th July 2020, 7:00 am
Manu Tuilagi has signed for Sale

At Franklin’s Gardens, the crucial contract negotiations have been done within, with the club keeping hold of prized assets such as Courtney Lawes, Dan Biggar and George Furbank.

That is not to say that there aren’t new arrivals, but the black, green and gold emphasis has been on unearthing diamonds rather than polishing them.

The likes of Tom James, from Doncaster, Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi, from London Irish, and Nick Auterac, from Harlequins, have come in.

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And while those names may not have Saints supporters salivating, it does bring back memories of a successful era gone by.

When Saints secured a sensational Premiership and European Challenge Cup double in 2013/14, they did not just base their success on big names.

Yes, George North, Kahn Fotuali’i and Alex Corbisiero arrived in the summer of 2013 to boost their bid significantly.

But some of the other star performers were players who were far less heralded.

The likes of Sam Dickinson, who had come from Rotherham Titans, and Luther Burrell, a signing from Sale, played starring roles.

Not much was known about them before they made their way to Northampton, but when they were given the regular chance of playing top-level rugby, they took it with both hands.

And Saints are again looking to discover gems, just as they did so often during the halcyon days of Jim Mallinder’s reign.

With a coaching staff that gives even the kit man belief, Saints are now capable of helping players realise potential again.

And that, along with the ever-relaxed attitude of boss Chris Boyd, puts the building blocks of belief in place at Franklin’s Gardens.

For his part, Boyd is far from fazed about stellar signings at other clubs, fully feeling he has a squad capable not only of staying in fourth, where Saints sit ahead of the resumption of league action next month, but also of challenging for another league crown.

“There’s no doubt Bristol have signed some quality players in the past 12 months and they’re looking like a pretty decent side,” said Boyd, when asked about the recruitment at other clubs.

“Sale have recruited a lot of South African players so you’d imagine in the short term it’s going to be a pretty decent Sale side.

“The problem with bringing in so many foreigners is that they’ll come and go, but they might build something really special and good luck to them.

“You wouldn’t write anyone off and there’s good strength across all sorts of clubs.

“Often it (success) depends what else is happening around the place.

“You actually might be an exceptionally good team but there might be another team that is better.

“Often you win things because the other teams around you might be rebuilding.

“I think there’s a lot of good sides in the Premiership and the difference between first and 12th is very little.

“There are some consistently good sides here.

“We don’t fear playing anyone, but we know if we don’t play to our potential and our ability, there are a number of sides we’re going to come out on the wrong side against.

“The nice thing is that we have a belief we prepare well, train well and perform well, we’ll get our share of results.

“If we don’t do that, we don’t deserve results so we feel we’re in control of what we need to be in control of.”

Saints have won seven of their 13 league matches so far this season, while winning four of their six Champions Cup pool matches to book a place in the quarter-finals.

That last-eight tie will come at Exeter on Sunday, September 20, meaning Saints face one of the most hectic schedules of any club.

They are set to play three midweek matches in the Premiership to complete the season, with the league’s grand final taking place on October 24.

And Boyd knows astute squad management will be hugely key to success in months to come.

“You don’t have to be terribly smart to work out where the pinch points are,” said Boyd, whose side resume their Premiership campaign against Wasps at Franklin’s Gardens on Sunday, August 16.

“We knew that Wednesday games had to happen if they wanted to finish the league because there are not enough weeks between now and the ultimate pinch point, which is the Lions tour (in South Africa next summer).

“You could work out quickly what it looked like and we were certain we’d play Wasps first up at some stage so we’re pretty well planned on that.

“It will be interesting when we get a fixture list for next season to see what that looks like and how much rest we get, but again if you use the Lions as the pinch point, it’s pretty easy to work out what the season is going to look like.

“You’ve got to have a lot of faith in your squad and we’re lucky that we’ve got a pretty flat squad in that if you look at a lot of positions at player A, B, C, D, there’s not a lot of difference between them.

“For example at full-back we’ve got George Furbank, Harry Mallinder, Ahsee Tuala and they are all good footballers.

“In most positions there is rest, regeneration and relief available for pretty much all the players.

“The biggest part of my job over the next 12 months is going to be managing people’s loads and being really tuned into who needs physical rest, who needs mental rest.

“How we control and work players is going to be massive because if we get that right and everyone’s got real clarity on what their requirement is then it makes it much easier for everyone.”

Saints’ squad has taken a hit due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with the club being forced to lose the likes of centre Andy Symons and back row forward Jamie Gibson, although Gibson is now back at the club as injury cover for Tom Wood.

And Boyd said: “Mate, it was really tough, but at the end of the day, those conversations were not about ability, they were financial decisions.

“It was just unfortunate that we had half a dozen guys who were left off contract and we had to shave a bit off our budget and lost two or three players as a consequence.

“It was really sad because I enjoyed working with them, they’re good men and they would have made good contributions to the Saints.

“But we had no choice and they were redundancies in a lot of ways.

“We’ve been conscious that we wanted to keep our family together and we almost did it, but not quite.”

However, it wasn’t all bad news for Saints. Far from it, in fact.

They tied 19 players to new deals at the end of last month, allowing them to boast a settled squad saturated with potential for years to come.

And Boyd, whose contract currently runs until the summer of 2021, said: “Certainly if I look at our situation, we’re not looking to add much to our squad over the next three years.

“There are some little windows in our squad with people finishing up and maybe we might need to replace them and we may need to strengthen a couple of areas but you’ll be able to count the number of new players - if you exclude Academy players - on one hand.

“I think it will be the same in a lot of clubs.

“I think the market will flatten out and be quite stable.”

While other clubs have struggled to keep players happy during the Covid-19 pandemic, Saints have done a fine job in communicating with their staff.

So good has their handling of it all been that players continue to openly praise the powers-that-be at the Gardens, despite what is understood to be a 10 per cent pay cut being enforced across the board for the next 12 months.

“The feeling I got when I joined the club, right from the top, the ownership, head office and rugby staff and players - we’ve been very lucky we haven’t really got any bad apples,” Boyd said.

“We made a decision early doors that we really needed to stick together on this, people took pay cuts across the board, with the exception of the lower incomes, and we just thought it was important that if we were going to get through this, we needed to do it properly and with some dignity.

“No one likes to be in that situation, but you have to accept the world is a little bit different for a period of time even if it’s not your first choice and you’ve just got to get on with it.

“I’ve been incredibly pleased with the way the players have all reacted, and the staff, to a very difficult situation and it’s made us stronger together.

“We can feel pretty good about the fact we’ve got through this together and hopefully when the world comes back to normal, we’ll get going again.”

Boyd continues to build a formidable squad at Saints, bringing through a plethora of talented young players and trusting them at the top level.

And he added: “On top of those guys who signed new deals last month, we’d already signed quite a few guys to two or three-year contracts.

“Guys were going to be out of contract in 2021 - we had a lot of youngsters who had come on nicely in the past two or three years on that list - and all of those guys have recommitted long term so we’ve got a very stable environment here for the next two, three, four years.

“Hopefully if we’ve got our selections right and we can keep growing the individuals and the coaching group and S&C group and the medical group - I’ve got faith in all those areas - we can get some return on our investment.”

Saints will hope to get that return when the action resumes next month.

But it is set to be in an extremely strange environment, with no fans likely to be allowed into grounds for some time yet.

Boyd has watched closely, seeing how behind-closed-doors action has worked in football.

And he said: “It’s interesting, eh?

“Obviously I’ve watched quite a bit on TV and you get the crowd noise piped in on the TV, which they don’t get on the ground.

“It’s going to be eerie to be honest and we’ll talk about what that might look like at some stage.”