We sat down with Phil Dowson, after Northampton Saints’ Forwards Coach was last week named the Club’s new Director of Rugby from the start of the 2022/23 campaign onwards…
Q: First of all, congratulations on being named the Club’s new Director of Rugby from the start of next season. How long have you known that Chris Boyd would be stepping back?
PD: Chris had said earlier in the season that his family ties back home were pulling him back to New Zealand, so we obviously had an idea about it. But I think Chris still feels like he’s got work to do here. We’ve got the rest of the season in which to try and win something, so although he’s leaving at the end of the season, we’re fully invested in trying to make sure this second half of the season is a really successful one for him, and for us. The conversations around the transition and how it might work have all been very easy; Sam and I have Chris’ backing and having Chris stay involved in future was important for everyone.
Q: The set-up you’ll have for next season, with Sam Vesty as Head Coach, is something you ‘rehearsed’ during pre-season, while Chris was spending time back home in New Zealand. How much did you enjoy that environment?
PD: I really enjoyed that, I really enjoyed working with all of the heads of department. All the staff were super helpful, and the coaching staff supported everything that Sam, Vassy [Ian Vass], Ferg [Matt Ferguson] and I tried to do. We worked together really hard on it, tried to be really organised and we took some lessons out of that as well, because it was good to have that experience at the start of the season and have a dry run at it.
Q: Just how much will it help the team to have a smooth transition with familiar faces next season?
PD: I think it’s a huge help because we’ve already got those relationships with people within the environment, relationships with the players, and also an understanding of the Club – the history and prestige in which it’s held. We have a really good understanding of the place and the people, which can only help in the smoothness of the transition when Chris steps away from the Director of Rugby role. We’ll try and help that transition along and make the environment better and better.
Q: What do you think Chris’ legacy at the Club will be?
PD: A good example is to look at those four lads who’ve been called up by England this week; they’re all out of the Academy. The pathway that Chris has created from the Academy, and the investment he’s made in youth – with all of those guys getting an opportunity and stepping up – has really transformed Saints’ group. Likewise, with the coaching, that the Club are confident to promote myself and Sam in his place speaks volumes about the work he’s been doing as a mentor for us. Alongside Mark [Darbon], I think he’s done a fantastic job in getting the Club through a tricky time with Covid-19, and put us into a strong position where hopefully we can kick on and continue some of that good work.
Q: Going back to the here and now, what were your reflections on the match against Ulster?
PD: Ultimately, frustration, just because we felt we had an opportunity there but – a bit like against Saracens – didn’t turn that territory into points. So there was that frustration that we’d done enough to give ourselves a crack at it, and didn’t convert. Conversely, whenever they had a chance, they normally converted it. It came down to small margins, especially at the start of the game, when we conceded quite cheaply, and just before half-time. That was the difference, and we didn’t quite get over the line on some of those opportunities.
Q: How costly has conceding early tries been in Saints’ Heineken Champions Cup matches this season?
PD: We’ve not started particularly well in any of the games, but we got it back to 12-10 on Sunday and started to play some decent rugby. However, we’re not good enough at turning our pressure into points – we had a line-out five metres out, which we failed to win, and we didn’t go above three phases in the opposition half in the second half at all. So we weren’t looking after the ball to create that pressure. Defending is hard work, both psychologically and physically. They made us defend lots of phases and when we had the opportunity to have the ball in hand, we didn’t make them defend lots of phases, so weren’t clinical enough in that area.
Q: Our last match of the Pool stage is against Racing 92. The Paris La Défense Arena is a unique stage and will be a new experience for a lot of the players.
PD: That’s right, it’s a fantastic opportunity because it’s such an unusual place to play. There’s a lot of excitement about that, and it’s one of the great world stages to have a game on. It’s exciting to be in that environment, against a quality side. It’s very different to their old place [the Stade Yves-du-Manoir] which was very old school! Even the grass was very long, so it felt like you were playing in the 1980s, and it couldn’t be much more different now. I’m looking forward to seeing it and I’m looking forward to seeing our boys have a good crack at it.
Q: Do we need to right a few wrongs from what was a disappointing home game against Racing last month?
PD: Again, that was a game in which we invited pressure on ourselves and gave them a bit of a run at it, and because they’re a good side, that got their tails up. They scored easily and raced off into a lead and then it was an uphill battle – so we want to make sure that we start properly, defend properly, and make sure that we put the pressure on them.
Q: Several Saints players were named in various international squads for the Six Nations this week, how pleased were you for them?
PD: I’m thrilled for all of them. Especially pleasing for Tommy Freeman because it speaks volumes about him. He went into camp the first time, and clearly Eddie Jones sees something good in him. He’s obviously had a few injury issues, so he hasn’t played as much recently. But when he has, he’s been very impressive and he’s a big lad, a good athlete who is keen to learn and improve. He’s a top lad as well so I’m really excited for Tommy and it speaks volumes about where he is that Eddie thinks so highly of him already. The Club are very proud of Courtney Lawes captaining England during the autumn, and to have Dan Biggar doing the same for Wales now in the Six Nations. We know what top lads they are, how they run the environment and how they work, how professional they are. Getting trusted to lead their international teams says a lot about how they are as people and we wish them all the best of luck during the Six Nations.