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Craig: Longer training weeks ahead will be golden for Saints

We sat down with Northampton Saints coach James Craig, ahead of the men in Black, Green and Gold’s trip to Bath Rugby in the Gallagher Premiership on Saturday…

Q: You’re in your debut season as a first-team coach with Northampton Saints, could you tell supporters about your new role? 
JC: Primarily, I look after the line-out and defence. I also look after the second rowers and back rowers, making sure they’ve got their individual plans, and then that’s extended, from a forwards point of view, into developing the attack. That’s mainly the line-out and mauls.

Q: What is it like coaching players who you played alongside at Saints, like Courtney Lawes?
JC: Coaching Courtney is really easy, he’s obviously a very good player who is very receptive to feedback – he wants to be coached and that’s something that I probably wasn’t sure about going into it. But you’ve got a player who’s at the top of his game and one of the best players in the world in his position, and you tend to find the best players really crave feedback because they’re always looking for that little edge in how they can develop. Working with all the second rowers and back rowers, we’ve got a very talented group there and there’s a lot of competition for places. That makes it difficult to select a side, but it’s brilliant for me as a coach to work with those lads every day. 

Q: How are you enjoying working under Phil Dowson, who was another team-mate during your playing days? 
JC: Everyone will say that the things Dows was good at as a player was his leadership, his ability to speak in front of a group, and judge the emotional place of that group. That skillset lends itself being a Director of Rugby and he’s obviously pretty astute and smart, and he has a long-term plan over where the Club can go. He sets that ambition out very clearly for the group. 

Q: Had you always wanted to become a coach? 
JC: I wanted to work in sport and I started doing a Masters in Strength and Conditioning, but I quickly realised there were a lot more qualified, intelligent people who had a bit of a head start on me! I really enjoyed the part of helping people get better and working in an elite environment, so I quickly turned my attentions to coaching, and I had more of a head start in rugby than I did in the S&C area.  

Q: What are your previous roles in coaching? 
JC: I actually coached down the road at a local club, Bugbrooke RFC, doing the senior side there for about two or three seasons. That was really enjoyable, having your own thing to head up. I then helped out with the Under-16s at the Saints Academy, and then the Under-18s, taking more and more of a role when I was coming towards the back end of my playing career. I remember doing training with people like Manny Iyogun and Kayde Sylvester, and a few of the guys from the Academy there, so it’s nice seeing those guys come through now.

The first job I got [after retiring] was as the Club’s DPP (Developing Player Programme) Manager, which is not really a coaching role but managing a programme, putting a curriculum in place, trying to work through other people rather than just me delivering stuff, which was definitely a learning experience. It was one that was pretty valuable to me and then I worked through the Academy with the Under-16s and Under-18s, working with Will Parkin and Mark Hopley, which was obviously a fantastic experience – they’re doing a great job in that area. Last season I was looking after the Senior Academy and did some coaching at Bedford Blues as well. 

Q: You’ve been with Saints for 12 years as a player and coach, how do you reflect on that time? 
JC: I’ve probably seen the Club go through its best period and a period where we had a downturn in terms of on-field performance. We’ve spent the last few seasons coming out of that, and we’re very much on our way back up with everything that Chris Boyd started in the past four seasons, and obviously what Dows is doing in the current campaign.

Q: How good has it been to see so many Saints Academy products break through into the first team in recent years? 
JC: It is obviously brilliant to see the guys not just play for Saints, but play very well for Saints, and go on and look towards international level as well. We’re certainly producing a lot of players, but we’ve focused on how many of those players can be developed into top, top Premiership players, and international players as well. It’s brilliant that we’ve seen young guys start to do that. 

Q: Four Academy products – George Furbank, Alex Coles, Lewis Ludlam and Courtney Lawes – along with David Ribbans, were called into the England squad for the Autumn Nations Series… 
JC: That’s massive credit to the work the lads have put in during the last four or five years, both on the training field and in games. I can’t speak highly enough of them. Those guys have done a great job and I’ve worked with a lot of those guys reasonably closely. They fully deserve the recognition that they’re getting. 

Q: Let’s look ahead to Bath on Saturday, how much work is going in to ensure the game is not as frenetic as some recent matches have been? 
JC: Ideally, they won’t be that close going forward and for us that ultimately boils down to giving an 80-minute performance, rather than 20 minutes that are really good, 15 minutes not great, and so on. If we perform to our good level for 80 minutes, there are games we should win. When we don’t do that, we’ve seen teams score points pretty quickly past us. The exciting thing for us is that’s all in our control and we do believe that if we perform well, we’ll win more often than not. 

Q: Is it hard to put your finger on why these dips in performance from Saints have been happening during matches? 
JC: Part of it is our game isn’t the most simple – we ask a lot of our players, in terms of making decisions, executing skills, which is clearly why some of our players, pretty quickly, have gone on to represent their country. Obviously, to do those things you need to train them to a high level consistently and over the last month, our lack of training time – due to the Premiership Rugby Cup, due to short turnarounds – might be showing on the pitch slightly. We’re looking forward now to a more normal turnaround going into Bath, going into Bristol the week after and then Exeter the week after that. Those normal turnarounds, for me as a coach, are actually gold because we get to work on developing our skills as a group and as individuals, as well as preparing the team for the weekend. 

Q: What did you make of Bath’s performance at Saracens last week? 
JC: That game was an interesting one and all of their games have actually been very close, and they’ve managed to fight back in quite a few of them. From our point of view, they’ve obviously got some dangerous open-field runners – Ollie Lawrence and guys like that – so we need to limit opportunities for people to do that. We didn’t do that very well against Newcastle, with [Mateo] Carreras scoring a worldie try. We do believe we’ve got a game plan where we can beat Bath if we perform, but they’ve clearly got some big threats in their team and, as a group, they’ve got some threats in their forwards.

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