Fifth, First and Champions, so reads Northampton’s finishing position in the last three Aviva Premiership Seasons. The Franklin Gardens faithful are forever expectant of results to match those of their feline East Midlands neighbours. Judging by the Saints form in the opening nine rounds of the season, those heights appear unassailable, having picked up only twenty points and lost to Newcastle, Harlequins and Wasps along the way. Scraped wins against Gloucester, Exeter and Worcester did not convey the sense of a team on the up, either. Instead Northampton lie seventh in the table with nearly half the season gone and the problems are stacking up.
Firstly, discipline. I won’t labour this point as I believe the IRB’s new regulations regarding head contact in general play are myopic at best. As a rugby supporter who grew up watching Danny Grewcock ferociously hitting rucks and Springbok indiscretions aplenty, I cannot help wondering whether the IRB has become so scared of the possible results of concussion legal cases that it has employed a knee-jerk reaction, which could change the game we love out of sight in ten years. Still, this is off point. In Northampton’s most recent match at home to Newcastle, they had prop Kieran Brookes sent off whilst clearing out at the ruck, and inadvertently making contact with Scott Lawson’s head. Credit to Lawson, he did not make a deal of it and it was to Jim Mallinder’s disapprobation that Brookes was given his marching orders just before half time. This is nothing new however, with Callum Clark having been stupidly sin-binned against Worcester the week before, an action that very nearly led them to losing the match. As a matter of urgency then, Mallinder needs to address the red-mist element within his dressing room and instil the importance of remaining on the pitch to his players, who lack the star power to cope a man down for extended periods.
Secondly, there has been a lack of investment at the Saints in the playing squad over the last couple of years. In the last window, Saints signed a desperately needed eight to replace the much-missed Samu Manoa in the form of Louis Picamoles. Their other signings though give the impression of speculation purchases rather than a dedicated plan to improve the team. Letting Kahn Fotuali’i leave was also a bad oversight. Similarly, during the summer of 2015, a few gems were found such as Paul Hill and the reliable Michael Patterson, but the others, Victor Matfield, Pat Howard and Tom Kessell among them, could not compensate for the losses of Manoa and Phil Dowson. If Northampton are to begin firing again, the back division needs an urgent injection of international quality, with Jamie Elliott, Tom Collins and Luther Burrell appearing as followers, rather than leaders in the absence of George North and George Pisi during the Autumn Internationals.
Amongst those underperforming backs, one in particular deserves criticism for his performance against Newcastle, and that is scrum-half Tom Kessell. Although admittedly third-choice at the club, Kessell failed to control the game against Newcastle, his passing technique often acting as hindrance to his team’s limited forward momentum. His tendency to pass above head height is particularly worrying, as not only does it force players to check when running onto the ball, but it also increases the likelihood of unforced errors, as Mike Heywood discovered in the dying stages of the game. All players have off days and this article is not designed as a personal attack, and yet if Kessell wants to remain with the Saints, I would not be surprised to find him putting in extra hours this week under the floodlights.
Finally, an attack coach to replace the recently departed Alex King is desperately required to reverse the slide of the Saints’ once famed attack into a state beyond disrepair. Admittedly, at this time of the season, top-level coaches are hard to come by, but the results have not picked up since King left, but dropped off and Alan Dickens and Mallinder appear unable to cope. In the professional era, to achieve the heights aspired to by the Saints, an inventive, but stable coaching set-up is invaluable to ensure that the backline remains fluent and adaptive throughout the season, with an understanding of developing players and those that can be counted upon week-in-week-out. Northampton are not there currently and that’s just one of the reasons why they are struggling.