Northampton Saints’ Director of Rugby Chris Boyd admits he’s been taking the concept of ‘home-schooling’ to a new level during the Premiership’s hiatus.
The 62-year-old coach has been studying matches back home in his native New Zealand to spot the trends emerging from the Super Rugby Aotearoa competition – which has seen the five Kiwi franchises lock horns with each other since mid-June.
With the Gallagher Premiership resuming in just under a fortnight’s time, Boyd is confident the lessons learned from watching how rugby has returned from the layoff enforced by the Coronavirus pandemic across the world will also translate to the game in England.
“I’ve really enjoyed getting up at the weekends and watching the matches from home, I think the rugby’s been pretty decent,” he said.
“I think the Premiership will pretty closely mirror that standard when we kick off again. If you asked all the clubs, I am sure they would say their guys are in pretty good physical shape because we’ve had a long time to condition.
“In our own environment about 80% of our players have set personal bests in the gym or in speed or mass tests, and we’re now going through the actual conditioning to play rugby.”Chris Boyd, Director of Rugby
“So, the intensity and intent of the matches will be very high to start with, although the skill level might not match that– so we’re working hard on getting our skills under pressure up to the level to cope with the physical side of it.
“The speed of the matches will be high for sure, and then you throw into that the varying interpretations from the referees – if we follow the Super Rugby trend we might see more penalties than usual which will of course have an impact on the games.
“Once everyone settles down a bit though, by week two or three we might have a little more sensibility, but I imagine the first couple of matches will be really hard and fast.”
Saints have been back in full contract training for several weeks now, preparing for the resumption of the delayed 2019/20 campaign on Sunday 16 August – with Wasps their opponents at Franklin’s Gardens for Round 14 of the Gallagher Premiership.
The lack of a partisan crowd to get behind the men in Black, Green and Gold will be the most noticeable difference to the norm, with all matches being played behind closed doors until government health and safety guidance changes.
And while Boyd admits he will miss the vociferous home support almost as much as Saints’ players, he tipped his cap to everyone involved in the process of getting the matches played safely.
He said: “Everything’s been great coming back the last few weeks, probably with the exception of the actual COVID-19 testing itself as I’m certainly not enjoying having a swab stuck up my nose.
“But otherwise it’s been fantastic getting back in with the lads and everyone is keen and frisky.
“It’s been a massive exercise to get everyone back into training, and the work is ongoing to get back to playing now – we’re having meetings around all sorts of areas for matchday; where the teams are based in the stadium, how do they get to the field, how do we avoid people crossing each other, how do the ball boys do their job, where do the media go…it’s a huge piece of work to think about all that.
“With COVID still being prevalent in our society at the moment, if we can successfully get back to actually playing some games of footy that will be a huge achievement for a lot of people involved in that process.”
Nine more rounds of Premiership action, plus a Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final skirmish with Exeter Chiefs, await Boyd’s Saints side in a jam-packed schedule once professional rugby does get back underway.
The Kiwi coach is preparing for the remainder of the season to pass in the blink of an eye, but admits he will have to be at the top of his game – and get his fair share of luck – to come through and be contending for silverware at the end of it.
“The season here, if you use an athletics analogy, is normally a bit of a marathon,” Boyd added. “This end to the season though will be more like a 200m race – it’s not quite 100m, but blink and you’ll miss it.
“It’s going to go really quickly, and teams are going to have to manage players well, with everybody in the squad having to make contributions.”Chris Boyd, Director of Rugby
“There’s certainly going to be a degree of luck that will come into it around keeping as many players fit as possible, and how you manage people both on and off the field is going to be absolutely critical.
“It’s going to be pretty intense for everybody, but all the stakeholders in rugby have been fantastic in dealing with the hand that COVID has dealt us.
“The players, coaches and staff members at the clubs have all had to take a bit of a hit, but it’s a testament to the rugby fraternity that by and large everyone has got on with it and accepted that we’ve had to make choices we wouldn’t necessarily usually want to.
“So we’re nearly there now, nearly at the start of the end of this season, and we’re really looking forward to it.”