We sat down with Northampton Saints’ Director of Rugby, Phil Dowson, ahead of a massive Gallagher Premiership clash against Sale Sharks this weekend for the men in Black, Green and Gold at cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens…
Q: How have you kept Northampton Saints’ players fresh during the two-week break from Gallagher Premiership action?
PD: Time off is good and is integral because the game is brutal. Guys need time to rest and recover – they can’t play flat out every week – but at the same time you don’t want to have too long off. Once you get beyond two weeks, players are getting itchy feet and want to get back out there. We’re looking forward to getting the boys back in the mixer, getting back into the Premiership. It was disappointing last Friday night [against London Irish] because I felt that was a side who could really challenge in the Premiership Rugby Cup. It was really frustrating because we started well, and it sort of drifted away in different areas of the game. We were frustrated about that, although it was good to spend a week with lads who don’t get many minutes and are looking for an opportunity to impress.
Q: Are you going to need to show the same level of physicality you showed at Leicester Tigers in order to beat Sale Sharks on Saturday?
PD: You need it every week. There are not many sides who win games when they’re not winning physical battles. It’s a cliché but all the fundamentals of the game are essential, particularly against one of the top two sides in the country. So that physicality element is absolutely crucial, the set-piece element, the breakdown, our defensive integrity and our energy in the kick chase. All those things are fundamental every week. That’s difficult to do, clearly, in terms of what you need to train and how you need to put emphasis on different things, but we’re aware of the challenge this week.
Q: What have you made of Sale this season?
PD: They’ve been excellent. Alex Sanderson has really got his mark on that, in terms of them having a very strong pack. Their maul tries against Bath show how powerful they can be, but you also see now Rob Du Preez at 10, if it’s not George Ford, just creating so much for that backline. Sam James is a class act, and they’ve got speed too – Tom O’Flaherty for example has been a cracking signing for them, so they’ve got an all-round game. They really challenge sides both up front and around the backline, so they’ve got a good balance in their game.
Q: Are you able to give us an update on the availability of some players ahead of the weekend?
PD: There are three players we don’t get back from England, so Courts, Luds and Mitch have stayed in camp. But the rest are here. Mike Haywood is recovering from concussion and Sam Matavesi is recovering from his hamstring injury. Mike is not training but Sam is moving around and back into some training, so it’s good to see him back. He drives a lot of energy within our group, so it’s good to have him back in the mix. Ollie Sleightholme is going through the return-to-play protocols, so we’ll have to see how that works. He’s had one concussion earlier this season, so there is a different sort of protocol as a result. Fraser Dingwall has had a frustrating couple of weeks, obviously being banned, but he’s very excited about playing. He’s a good, solid leader in our group and he’s someone who really drives the standard in training, and it’s great to get him back in the side.
Q: How much of a boost will it be to have Tommy Freeman, Fin Smith and David Ribbans back from international duty for the match against Sale?
PD: The feedback I’ve had from the coaches at England has been very positive about those lads, quite rightly, working hard and staking claims for positions at international level. One of the things you talk to those players about is going through the emotional rollercoaster of getting really excited about going to play against Scotland or Italy, and never having the opportunity to go on and execute those plans, play those games, play at Twickenham. Now they just want to play a game, they want to show what they’re capable of and enjoy the opportunity to play at Franklin’s Gardens in front of a full house. They now go through the emotional rollercoaster of prepping, but then get a chance to express themselves in a game as well.
Q: You must also be pleased to see James Grayson back in action after a few months out with injury?
PD: James had a good half of rugby at Bedford, which is brilliant for that relationship, for him to get some minutes, and then to play 80 minutes in a semi-final and play as well as he did, I thought was outstanding. He’s a competitor and he wants to get better and he wants to challenge for a starting spot every week.
Q: What was your reaction to the news that David Ribbans will be leaving Saints at the end of the season?
PD: We’re gutted about Dave leaving and we were desperate to keep him, but obviously in the current climate that’s tricky. We’re looking to replace him, clearly, and we’ve got irons in the fire and we’re talking and trying to make sure to make the best decision possible to give us the best opportunity next year. It’s happened later than we would have anticipated, but that gives us a challenge, an opportunity to find someone to replace him.
Q: On a brighter note, Saints have reached another Premiership Under-18 League final and face London Irish on Sunday – how well does that reflect on the work the Academy is doing?
PD: Mark Hopley and his team there, with Will Parkin and everybody else, have been brilliant in the last couple of years in terms of developing those players to come through to our main squad. I think the system that he runs there is absolutely integral to the success of the Club. That’s not underestimated, it was great to see those boys get a good result up at Newcastle and we’ll celebrate that and make sure we push on and hopefully have a good final as well.
Q: It’s a Double Header at cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens this weekend as well, with Loughborough Lightning facing Sale Sharks after your game…
PD: That’s very positive, the relationship between the clubs. Loughborough is a very strong set-up and some of our men’s Academy guys are at university there, playing for the university side. The women’s team play down here and we’re going to get as many supporters to stay around as possible afterwards. My daughter is very excited – she’s got a Loughborough Lightning shirt as well! It’s great for the relationship and it’s great for the game because we want to be the fulcrum of women’s rugby in the area.