We sat down with Director of Rugby, Phil Dowson, ahead of another hectic week at cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens – with two matches against London Irish in the Premiership Rugby Cup, and Harlequins in the Gallagher Premiership, fast approaching...
Q: It’s a busy week ahead at the Club with two games in five days coming up – is that just what the squad needs after the result against Leicester Tigers on Saturday?
PD: It’s good we get straight back into it with the Premiership Rugby Cup. There are lots of guys desperate to play, people desperate for minutes on the pitch and to put their hand up for selection. So in some ways it’s a really, really good thing and we’re looking forward to seeing how those guys go.
Q: How tough, physically, has it been to recover from a game like that?
PD: Every game is tough to recover from to be honest, but for most of those involved in the Premiership matches, they will have the benefit of having a slightly longer week (Saturday to Sunday) to make sure we get that out of our system. We’ll make sure we can train really well this week in preparation for Quins, and try and get that game out of their system, physically, at least.
Q: With eight matches in the next five weeks, Marty Mulhall has signed on loan from Bristol Bears – how important was it to get some extra cover?
PD: It was vital because Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi had surgery in the summer, so he’s out of action at the moment. We saw Ethan Waller go off with concussion on Saturday, Alex Waller had a concussion the week before against London Irish, and Manny Iyogun didn’t train very much last week because he’s been recovering from an injury picked up against Irish as well. We’re very short on numbers at loosehead, but Bristol said they had a player who wanted to come over and get some game time, and he’s been cracking on in the environment. He’s been really good in terms of integrating very quickly, and we’re really excited to see how he goes. Hopefully he’ll be given an opportunity to run around in a Saints shirt and be part of the crew.
Q: Does the fact Manny did not train much last week put the shift he had to put in against Leicester into some perspective?
PD: Yeah, big time. He’s 21 and going up against a very experienced British & Irish Lion and England international [in Dan Cole and Joe Heyes]. Scrummaging is an eight-man job and it’s not because of Manny that we were under pressure on Saturday. Our scrum has been under pressure for the first three games and Matt Ferguson is working his tail off to make sure that we rectify those problems, and we get back to where we were towards the end of last season – when we were really strong in that space and doing some really good work. It is one of those things that is a work in progress, but Manny put in an almighty shift at the weekend and it’s a shame we couldn’t quite pull it around.
Q: It must have been a big boost around the Club yesterday to see seven Saints players being called into England’s training squad?
PD: It’s brilliant for them, and testament to how the guys who went on the summer tour have performed and carried themselves – and also to guys like Alex Mitchell, who’s been outstanding for a couple of seasons, and Alex Coles to be in that frame as well. I’m really pleased for those guys to get an opportunity to get into that environment and show what they’re about. You learn a lot from watching people train, being in there and chatting to them and understanding them, and I’m sure Eddie [Jones] will be impressed with their attitudes because they’re all top men.
Q: It's also Alex Coles’ first senior international call-up, has he picked up from where he left off at the end of last season?
PD: He’s a very fast learner and a very bright man, so he picks things up very quickly and he’s been working very hard on his physical development. He’s put some size on, his power has gone up, his ability to stop people in the tackle is much improved and, with his carrying, he’s always had an innate ability to play the game. He understands where the game is going to be, he makes good reads, he’s a very good player and I hope in that environment he learns loads. I’m sure he’ll impress.
Q: A real boost for Alex Mitchell as well, with scrum-half suddenly being one of the most competitive positions in the England squad…
PD: They’ve come from a point where they were scratching their heads and looking around to having a glut of different guys there who have the ability to play quickly and do special things. We’re pleased for Alex because we see him every week and (I’m going to be biased) he’s been outstanding.
Q: There were a couple of head knocks over the weekend, how are Courtney Lawes and Ethan Waller recovering?
PD: They both seem OK. They’re going through the protocol of coming back, but there’s clearly no rush. They’ll go through the different steps of that process, but they were both OK post-game, so hopefully they’ll get through that quickly and we’ll see how they go.
Q: Let’s look ahead to the Premiership Rugby Cup match against London Irish, for which you’ve named a stronger team than some might have expected?
PD: It’s really good in terms of a blend of experience – we’ve got Callum Braley in at nine, who is an Italy international, and David Ribbans has just been called into that squad with England. But we’ve also got Henry Pollock on the bench, who is from the Under-18s squad, and Archie McParland as well. Both of them have been in South Africa with England Under-18s and we’re giving them an opportunity in the environment to get them to know the players and to know the setup – and put them under a bit of pressure – playing in a PRC game.
Q: It’s also a good chance to give some players in the squad some much-needed minutes on the pitch…
PD: Courtnall Skosan, Brandon Nansen and Robbie Smith are all guys who are desperate to play and who knock on my door and say: “I’m looking for a game, I want to play”. This is a great chance for them to go out there and put their hand up for selection for the weekend.
Q: Finally, how disappointed were you for Duane RatuVilai Willemsen, who has had to retire from rugby aged just 21?
PD: It’s tragic, really, because he’s such a young man and such a good lad as well. Duane always had a big smile on his face, and was always a big part of the crew as he’s a sociable guy. It’s very sad that he has had to retire immediately, and he’s heading back home to Australia. He had so much potential as a ball-player and as a ball-carrier. It’s sad to see that happen, but obviously the club wishes him all the best for what he does next. He will be missed, but we’ll keep in contact with him.