Northampton Saints’ new season is launching with all the ferocity of a forward hitting the breakdown, writes Hilary Scott.
With huge games against Saracens (away) and then ‘welcoming’ old rivals Leicester to the Gardens as the first fixtures of the league, the men in green (even that eye-wateringly bright lime version) have a tough opening to their Premiership campaign.
With England captain Dylan Hartley back at the helm of his club side, and the disappointment of last season hopefully washed away by pool-side summer breaks, the team is determined to get back to the top of the division.
The squad is fit and raring to go after a pre-season training regime that put the ball-in-hand earlier than usual, according to new boys James Grayson and Jamal Ford-Robinson. “I think it will be good to go into the early part of the season playing against the best, that’s what you test yourself against isn’t it?” says 19-year-old fly-half Grayson. “We’ve had a relatively short pre-season but it’s been really positive.”
Grayson, who has shone at academy and Under 20s international level, has certainty been making his mark with pre-season run-outs with the first team, due to Myler’s injury and Piers Francis’ relatively recent arrival (Francis is now out for the start of the season with an injury received in the Glasgow game). James might be a new addition to the top tier of the club but as a Northampton boy, he’s been at the Saints for almost seven years.
“I’ve been in the Saints academy since I was 13, but last year was my first as a full-timer, and I’ve signed for two more.”
And while he’s proved himself from the off, consistently putting on the points in pre-season games with a cool head that belies his age, what’s it like to be coming into the ‘men’s’ game?
“Pre-season has been good for me,” says James. “Stevie [Myler] has a slight injury niggle and Piers Francis has only just arrived [his recent injury came after this interview], so I’ve been chucked in at the deep end and played fly-half a lot.
“The first couple of weeks feels significantly different, there’s a lot of pressure to perform at the highest level, and there’s also a lot of banter – non-stop! You can’t get away with anything. There’s a couple who lead the banter – Tom Collins and Tom Stephenson – they went through it and love to dish it out.
“If you are an academy player you will get your shot eventually and you need to take it, you can see how it’s worked for the likes of Harry Mallinder, and Stephenson and Collins. I’m determined to take all the chances I’m given, and the mood in the team is really positive going into the season.”
And he’s certainly made his mark so far, scoring prolifically in pre-season games. Faith in the youngsters could make a big difference for Northampton.
MEANWHILE, new boy Jamal Ford-Robinson is settling in to the Saints well since his move up from Bristol just a few weeks ago. The tight-head prop is relishing the chance to play more premiership rugby having come up with Bristol…and then endured the agony of seeing them relegated after just one season. “I think it made everyone realise just how big the gap is [for teams coming up to the Prem],” he said.
He might be born and raised in the south west but his rugby education came just up the road, at Saints’ rivals Leicester where he was in their academy.
“I know the East Midlands, and I wanted a club that’s stable at the top and determined to stay there – you were disappointed to finish seventh? It says something about where the club wants to be. . .”
At this point we’re interrupted by Mitch Eadie, Saints’ new back-row and fellow Bristolian, and banter-sidekick for Ford-Robinson. They need it pointing out that Northampton isn’t a city, but are both looking forward to getting a chance to run out in front of a full Northampton crowd. They’ve heard how exhilarating the experience will be.
Jamal’s potential has been spotted by England coach Eddie Jones too, having been called out to Argentina in the summer on tour. He’s young, at 23, to be pushing for international honours as a prop. “I didn’t do much, I played in the Barbarians game but I didn’t actually get a cap,” laughs Jamal, but at least he’s on Jones’ radar. “He’s a great guy, he’s always got a sense of humour, then gets proper serious when it gets to rugby matters, he’s a proper drill sergeant, which obviously works.”
By the end of this season what will JFR hope to have achieved?
“Personally, obviously, I want to get as many first team games as I can, although I’ve got Kieran Brookes and Paul Hill in the way, so formidable opposition.
“It was part of the reason for coming here though; if you want to progress you’ve got to come up against the best, week in week out, coming up against two England internationals…with actual England caps!
“As a team it feels good at the moment: Sarries, Leicester and Bath as the first three games – that’s some opposition to start us off. We’ve had a lot of heavy sessions in pre-season, the boys are looking really fit. Speaking to Jim and the coaching guys, they’ve introduced the ball into training early on and running plays in the hope we start better this year.”
With Grayson, Ford-Robinson and Eadie champing at the bit for their first run-outs at a full Franklin’s Gardens, we’re sure the Saints faithful will roar them on to a positive start to the season.