We sat down with Saints coach Phil Dowson ahead of Northampton’s trip to face East Midlands rivals Leicester Tigers in the semi-finals of the Gallagher Premiership this weekend…
Q: You have been part of many East Midlands derbies against Leicester Tigers, how does Saturday’s Gallagher Premiership semi-final compare?
PD: It feels pretty special, to be honest. We’ve worked hard to give ourselves an opportunity in a semi-final and it works out that it’s a derby as well, away from home, so it’s exciting.
We’ve put a run together and that’s what we had to do because of the position we found ourselves in. It’s as clear as day when you’re sat in ninth that we needed to start winning some games. That put a bit of pressure on us, and the players have responded in a brilliant way – some of our performances have been excellent. We’re in a situation now where we’re going to have a crack at it.
Q: You have had two tough games against Leicester this season, how can you get the better of them on this occasion?
PD: We’ve taken a hiding twice and they’ve been chastening experiences, particularly because they’re in a local derby. We have to learn the lessons from those and I think it’s clear as day, in terms of getting our game on the field, that we need to find a way of dealing with their very aggressive and very dominant performances. How we manage to get ourselves in the game and how we get to put our game on the pitch is integral to the success of our game plan.
Q: What will you need to do differently to ensure a better outcome at Mattioli Woods Welford Road than our last visit?
PD: We have to be better across the board. We’ve got to be better from a set-piece point of view and winning the ball, we’ve got to be better at the breakdown in terms of keeping hold of it, and we’ve got to be better at using the ball and being more clinical when we get opportunities to score. I saw Steve Borthwick write about converting opportunities against Leinster and we’ve got to make sure we convert our opportunities against Leicester.
Q: How can Saints be physical against the Tigers, yet disciplined at the same time?
PD: It’s about doing it within the way you want to play the game: the way you want to defend, the way you want to deal with mauls, the way you want to maul and attack. I don’t think it’s any different to when you’re playing other teams – we had to be physical against Quins in different ways, we had to be physical against Saracens in different ways. At times we weren’t physical enough and they rolled us over, so it’s the same every week. We have to be physical and we have to be disciplined because, whether you’re playing Gloucester, Newcastle or whoever, if you’re on your own five-metre line enough times, you’re going to concede. Leicester are particularly good at that and so we have to make sure that, within our systems and within our game, we are right on the edge and able to deal with that.
Q: Wasps managed to disrupt Leicester quite a bit last weekend, is there anything from their performance you’ve taken notice of?
PD: Wasps played well and the defended particularly well, especially in the maul, and they made big shots on ball-carriers, such as [Ellis] Genge and [Jasper] Wiese, so there’s lots of things you can take from the game. Across the board, you’ve got to be able to defend and that’s the same wherever you play.
Q: This game of course raises memories of that fantastic semi-final against the Tigers at the Gardens in 2014, which you played in. What are your memories of it?
PD: To be honest, I can’t really remember much – I remember the night out afterwards a bit more! I remember there was an overthrown line-out and I actually scored, and they came back for a decision which scratched it off, so I remember being robbed by the referee, clearly! And I remember the end, of course, with that Tom Wood score. There are great memories of the crowd – the atmosphere was absolutely outstanding and, actually, our Friday-night game against Quins recently reminded me of that crowd. That was a throwback to then.
Q: Alex Coles is one of the players who has done well during Saints’ good run of form, how impressed have you been with his form?
PD: When you talk about that run of games we’ve put together, withstanding that Saracens defeat, we’ve done it with lots of guys swapping in, with lots of people injured or coming back from injury. The depth of the squad has been tested and I think it’s really promising from our point of view that guys can step up and do that – and Alex Coles is one of those guys. Dave Ribbans is a big part of our forward pack. He’s been injured for a long period of time now and Alex Coles has led incredibly well from a line-out point of view. Also, all the things that he’s been working on, in terms of his ball-carrying, tackling, understanding of the game, have been outstanding.
Q: Tommy Freeman is another who is bang in form, with six tries in his last four games…
PD: Tommy has been class. He’s a big man who can move quickly, which is always helpful, but it’s his game understanding as well – so he reads the game, he understands the game. He’s got the ability to beat people with footwork, speed, power and with the ball on the floor. We’ve seen his kicking ability too, to put the ball in behind people. He’s a class act and a lovely lad as well in the environment. He keeps being spoken about as the ‘most intelligent’ rugby player that’s knocking around and I don’t know if intelligence is that high up on his list, but he’s a top man and he’s playing brilliant rugby. With all those tries, he’s also benefitting from people like Fraser Dingwall, Dan Biggar and Alex Mitchell playing really well as well, so that backline is providing Freemo with opportunities and he’s jumping on them.
Q: That brings us on to the attack as a whole; is the last couple of months the most cohesive it has been this season?
PD: It is and I think as you go through a season generally, things do tend to get more cohesive, particularly when you have players together for a long period of time. The backline has been a unit that’s been fairly robust – touch wood – and we’ve managed to keep them together and get them out there frequently.