We sat down with Northampton Saints’ Director of Rugby, Phil Dowson, with several weeks of the men in Black, Green and Gold’s preseason campaign now completed, the new Gallagher Premiership fixtures confirmed, and the annual ‘Blakiston Challenge’ on the horizon…
Q: Phil, we’re coming to the end of the first training block of preseason, so how do you feel the Club’s new arrivals have settled in so far?
PD: The new arrivals have been really good. They sort of arrived in dribs and drabs really, particularly the likes of Chunya Munga and Tarek Haffar who we signed from London Irish – we’ve given those guys the right amount of time to move up late notice and get themselves set up in Northampton. They’ve been able to immerse themselves in the Club, and have worked incredibly hard, so I’ve been really impressed with all of them in training so far – they’re top men. We’re still waiting for Tom Pearson, obviously, as he’s at England camp, but the likes of Burger Odendaal, Tom Seabrook, Curtis Langdon, and Elliot Millar Mills have all been here for a good few weeks. Burg came straight in from his wedding and honeymoon, so he timed that very well, but he’s carrying a slight shoulder knock at the moment so we’ve not seen too much of him on the pitch yet. Curtis came in a little bit later because Montpellier’s season lasted longer, but Seabs and Elliot have been in from the word ‘go’. I’ve been really impressed with them all and it feels like they have already been here for quite a while, which is a really good sign.
Q: There’s six new players who have joined the Senior Academy as well on their first full-time contracts – Henry Pollock, Archie McParland, Ewan Baker, Toby Cousins, Will Glister, and Reuben Logan. How have they adapted to life as professional rugby players?
PD: They’ve done really well, and I’ve been impressed with all of them actually both in terms of their capability as players, and their physical ability as athletes. Dealing with what has been a pretty tough first six weeks, to a man they have been excellent. They are also willing to engage, they take a full and active part in meetings, and are confident enough to say what they think. The older boys take the mick out of them a bit as young lads, and they get stuck in and take that on the chin. I’ve been very impressed with this crop of young lads.
It’s obviously the first chance they’ve had to play professional men’s rugby, so there are obvious challenges for them in that everything’s a bit bigger, a bit faster. You probably get a lot more input from coaches, there’s a lot more going on around the scenes, a lot more that they need to keep on top of. Going from that school system, which is a very high level, to a professional system, where you have to be much more accountable as an individual, is the biggest challenge. But to a man they’ve been very good, and that speaks volumes about the stewardship you get in the Saints Academy system from people like Mark Hopley, Will Parkin and Jason Sivil who prepare these young guys in the right way for senior rugby.
Q: The annual ‘Blakiston Challenge’ is coming up for the squad at the end of this week, so what are you looking for from the players on that day?
PD: Well the sweepstake hasn’t been drawn yet, so we’re not sure who the main runners and riders will be in terms of winning the event! But the Blakiston Challenge is about more than that for us; it’s a big part of our squad’s culture in terms of understanding our history, and embodying the commitment and courage of some of the great Saints players of the past; Freddie Blakiston on this occasion but also the likes of Edgar Mobbs, Blair Swannell, Tom Collins and all those we celebrate every year on Remembrance Sunday. It’s not a rugby test, it’s not a test of how you play the game, but it’s a test of resilience and digging in. We’ve talked a lot this preseason about competing, and The Blakiston Challenge is all about how you compete and commit. It’s nothing to do with rugby at all, but a test to see what the lads are like under a different type of pressure.
Q: How do you strike the balance between fitness and rugby during preseason?
PD: It depends a little bit but we always have a good discussion with the entire Strength and Conditioning department about how we think the game is changing, how we think it’s moving forward, what we need to be better at from a physical point of view, and how we can hone those attributes. Those areas will dictate what we do in preseason. We’re also very conscious of the fact that it’s a long preseason, due to the Rugby World Cup and the delayed start to the Premiership with five Cup games to start the campaign, so we’re not jumping into too much rugby straight away. There’s a higher threshold of injury risk the more rugby you play, and we’re also conscious that we don’t want to bore the players with too much detail too early, so we’ve talked about going back to basics and fundamentally trying to make sure that we get our defensive plan nailed. We need to give Lee [Radford] the best support we can, give him time to implement all his ideas, and keep the lads as fresh as possible while also making gains physically from where we were last year.
Q: How has Lee Radford settled in as our new Defence Coach, you must be happy to have him in working with the group?
PD: He’s settled in very well, but that’s to be expected as he’s very experienced, he’s been a Head Coach in various environments, and he’s coached at a World Cup. He’s learning a new sport of course as well, coming from a rugby league background, so I think he’s been under some pressure to really get to know the nuts and bolts of union. That’s been really positive, and he’s had a huge amount of support from the likes of Jim Henry, Matt Ferguson, James Craig and Sam Vesty. The players are really responding to him – he’s got a great character and personality, a good bit of craic as well, so he’s already a very popular member of the group.
Q: After a fourth-place finish last season, how are you looking to build in 2023/24 and what are the goals for the season ahead?
PD: It’s a pretty generic answer, but the goal for the season ahead is always the same; to get better in everything we’re doing. We want to be better in Europe, as we’ve been pretty poor there in the last couple of seasons. We want to make sure we get better and qualify for the knock-out stages of the Champions Cup, although clearly that will be tough with a difficult group draw. In terms of us finishing fourth again last season, we know to improve on that we need to be more consistent.
We were good at home last season, and we want to continue that obviously, but we need to be better away from home and more resilient defensively in every match we play. There’s a couple of metrics that we’ve been going after, such as what we’re targeting at the breakdown. We’re looking at how we win the ball at set-piece, how we defend when the opposition have the ball, trying to continue to improve our attack (because if you’re not evolving, you’re standing still), and obviously the defence overall was something we spoke a lot about last season, so we’re expecting to see some changes in some of our behaviours and the way we play the game in that space. But, generally, our goal is to be a better group and to give ourselves the best opportunity to ultimately achieve what we want to.
Q: Do you think the Rugby World Cup will have any impact on Saints at the start of the season?
PD: It has a big impact in terms of our own fixture list, how the season is structured in September and October, as well as potentially some more of our players getting called up. We have three guys in the squad at the moment with Courtney Lawes, Lewis Ludlam and Tom Pearson all training with England, and several others on the fringes as well on standby in case of injuries. But generally speaking I think the World Cup will have a positive impact on the popularity of rugby, as once it all begins there’s plenty of national interest in the team. It will generate some energy and interest, and hopefully encourage some more people to follow English club rugby, which we all know is an incredibly exciting product on the pitch.
Q: How can those players looking to break into the starting XV put their hands up to you during preseason, and has anybody stood out so far?
PD: Players can put their hands up in training, in the gym, in meetings, but most of all on the pitch in terms of how they apply themselves. When the games start that’s the litmus test of where they’re at and how they’re performing, that’s the best way to lay a marker down in terms of the selection. But, if they’re being accountable throughout preseason, and they’re being conscientious around their development, then as a group of coaches we’re pretty happy.
I don’t want to single anyone out in particular, but a lot of the guys who have come back into their second or third years from the Senior Academy have been really good so far. You often see that, what you’d call a ‘penny drop’ moment, where they know they have an opportunity to play more first-team rugby over the season ahead. There’s certainly some lads in that space that I’ve been really impressed with, who have come back with a renewed vigour and a really professional mindset. We’ve got a good group of players, a good group of coaches, and I’m excited about what lies ahead.