We sat down with Northampton Saints’ Forwards Coach, Phil Dowson, after a busy week at cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens, to look ahead to this weekend’s away clash against Gloucester for the men in Black, Green and Gold…
Q: It’s obviously been a busy week, in terms of comings and goings. We’ll start with Callum Braley, who will be coming to Northampton Saints from Benetton Rugby next season…
PD: He is a quality scrum-half who has played a lot in the Premiership. He’s also been in leadership positions, he’s got a ton of experience, he’s played abroad – all those things we think will add to our group, in terms of our game management, which there has been a lot of chat about. Callum spoke to us really well on the couple of occasions we Zoomed with him, and I’ve just been really impressed with his desire to come back to the UK and be involved in the group, to lead and to try and help us win silverware.
Q: How good is it that a familiar face in Ethan Waller is on his way back to the Club?
PD: He joined Worcester back in 2017 just as I left, and he was under the impression that I was going to be there. He dug out an email from me which said: “Don’t worry, I’m going back to Northampton and I’ll bring you back one day.” – I had completely forgotten about that! He’s going to send it on to me. Eth is a great character, and very good player. Last week, Worcester played on the Friday night and he came off the bench and was really dominant both at the set-piece (which is his fundamental skill) but also in the loose with his carrying. He fits into the way we want to play, but also, off the field, he’s such a good person to have in a group and I think that’s important as well.
Q: What can you tell us about Australia lock Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, whose signing was announced on Tuesday?
PD: He is big and athletic, he’s young and he’s very ambitious. The thing that really struck me when I chatted to him was how self-aware he was about his game, from what I’d seen, how much he wanted to improve and how keen he was on testing himself in a totally different environment. The set-piece in the Southern Hemisphere, from my limited experience, is viewed differently to the Northern Hemisphere and that transcends into international rugby. He wants to educate himself, learn and become even better. That was really apparent from chatting to him and I was really impressed by desire to become one of the best in the world. We want to help him do that and we know that his physicality is going to be a huge boost to our group as well.
A big new signing joining us for next season 💪— Northampton Saints 😇 (@SaintsRugby) March 1, 2022
Will you be at the Gardens with Lukhan??
Q: How did he first come onto Saints’ radar?
PD: In fairness credit has to go to [Academy Coach] James Craig and Paul Shields [Head of Recruitment and Retention]; they are constantly highlighting lots and lots of players that become available, or who might be available in the next couple of years, because it’s not a short-term thing. They work through a lot of footage, basically, and it can become quite time consuming, in terms of looking for the player we think fits our game, fits our squad and who’s available. You then have to do some kind of character reference, as to what sort of person he is, and you try and get a handle on that. I spoke to Rob Horne, actually, about the opportunity and there were some glowing references from Rob, and a few other people we know in Australia.
Q: There’s been a departure as well, with Frank Lomani leaving for Super Rugby…
PD: He’s heading to Fijian Drua. Frank made great strides, he’s a cracking player, and he’s a great bloke – but he just wasn’t playing enough in this environment, with Alex Mitchell and Tom James playing so well. What Sam Vesty and I have said is that we wished we’d had more time with him, to really see him flourish and play in the Premiership because he would have been excellent. I’m sure at some point he will be back because he is so good, but unfortunately he wasn’t playing enough to give him the best opportunity to get better. You don’t just want to be training every week, you want to be playing and he wants to be on the international stage as well, so playing in Super Rugby is going to be great for him. He'll be playing week in, week out, but we’ll miss him because he’s been great in the environment.
Q: Looking back at last week, how frustrating was that narrow defeat against Exeter Chiefs?
PD: It was hugely disappointing and annoying because, with 20 minutes to go, you’re 11 points up and there are games in this league that are very compressed and very tight. People are leapfrogging each other and you can move up or down the league quickly. They’re games that you have to win, and we didn’t manage to get over the line. It’s hugely frustrating because throughout the game we did some very good things – I think in the start of the second half we were excellent, but we didn’t manage to control that last 20 minutes.
Q: What do you think is behind these late defeats? The players have put in a lot of hard work the last couple of weeks, without getting the result…
PD: If it was easy to nail down, we’d change it very quickly. Looking at the last three games, against Leicester we weren’t at the races, and that was a big wake-up call, but in the last two weeks we’ve done enough to win and we should have won. Both of them were at home too, so as frustrating as it is, there were lots of positive things and we don’t need to change everything. We have to change the things that we can change and we have to make sure they’re the things that are going to have the most impact.
Q: How tough a game is Gloucester away, on Saturday?
PD: They’re all tough and Gloucester are particularly good at home. I’ve mentioned before that George Skivington has done a fantastic job with them and they’re on a bit of a roll. They believe in what they’re trying to do as a group and you can see that they are very invested in what they’re trying to do, and that will be quite a challenge.
Q: How impressed are you with the Cherry and Whites’ pack?
PD: You listen to George in the media and how he’s spent a lot of time on that maul, how he put a lot of emphasis on the set-piece to start with as soon as he came in and how that’s evolved. He came in with a plan and it’s really worked and they’ve added the backs play on there, with [Mark] Atkinson going hard at the line, and they’ve got a very quick back three – Thorley, Rees-Zammit, those guys – so they’ve got a load of threats, they’re playing to a plan and it’s very effective.
Q: Tom Wood has had surgery on the shoulder injury he picked up at Leicester, do you think he could be back before the end of the season?
PD: Knowing Tom Wood, he probably wants to play next week! He’ll do everything in his power to get back before the end of the season because you know what Tom Wood is like – I’ve absolutely no doubt he’ll be badgering and annoying the physios for the next two months to make sure that he is. From Woody’s point of view, the thing which will help him is that he’s been through a situation like this loads of times. He’s recovered from injuries before, so he knows how rehab works, he knows where the pain thresholds are, he knows what it takes to get back ahead of schedule and I’m sure he’ll do all that.
Q: Finally, Saints’ Under-18s were defeated in their Premiership Academy League final against Bristol Bears last week, but how impressed were you with the season they had?
PD: It speaks volumes about our Academy coaches and the Academy system. Chris has put so much emphasis on producing those young, talented guys who are going to be the backbone of the group, so to see that next generation come through is fantastic – I watched their game against Newcastle here and a few of our coaches went over to Worcester after our game against Exeter to support them and watch. To make the transition for some of those guys, and as many as possible of those guys, into this environment would be brilliant. A special mention has to go to Will Parkin, who’s running that system with the Under-18s. They’ve had a fantastic season and I look forward to seeing quite a few of those lads in the senior group next year.