Ahead of this weekend’s home Gallagher Premiership clash against Exeter Chiefs, we sat down with Saints’ scrum coach Matt Ferguson…
Q: While the result against Sale Sharks wasn’t what you wanted, when it came to performance, was it a bit more like it from Northampton Saints?
MF: In some areas, yes. We were hugely disappointed with the physicality and intent shown in that [Leicester] Tigers game, and it was a huge challenge set down to the boys that there was a bar that had to be exceeded. I thought that, in both that physicality and intent, against Sale was much, much better. The problem then was the accuracy let us down. You look across the league last weekend and I think six points was the highest winning margin between any team – you look at Tigers v Bath, top v bottom, and they won by four points. You just can’t make a number of accuracy errors – I think it was 20-odd times the ball hit the floor while we were in possession – throughout the game. It’s just too high and you can’t then play the way we want to. So, it was much more what we would expect from our physicality and intent, but still some way short of our accuracy and execution.
Q: Is it fair to say it should never have come down to needing George Furbank attempting a late penalty to win the game?
MF: Those things are icing on the cake; if they happen, and more often than not they do at this Club, then they get the plaudits for it – but the game was well within our control before that. I think the biggest frustration is we had to work very hard to score our points and we gave away points too easily to the opposition, and if you’re giving away points easily and not scoring regularly enough yourself, then you lose. That’s the simple part of it.
Q: In terms of physicality, though, was what we saw against Sale what you want to see reproduced against Exeter Chiefs on Sunday?
MF: In every game of rugby, it doesn’t matter who you play, physicality is the base mark of the game. People often misjudge that, but you have to be physical to be a Harlequins, who people perceive to play the ball the lot. You still have to be physical to get on the front foot, you still have to be physical in order to stop them on gain lines. You play teams like Exeter or Saracens or Sale and everyone goes ‘you have to be physical,’ but that’s no more physical than against everyone else you have to play in this league.
Q: Is winning that battle up front what allows Saints’ back play to click into gear?
MF: That goes across the board, really. That’s not just a forwards-type thing, from 1-15 everyone has a role to play in go-forward, with or without the ball. The message we get from Vassy [Ian Vass] in defence all the time is go forward, be intentful, put shots on people. The one thing that Sam Vesty wants when we have the ball is ‘go forward’, make the defenders answer questions. What I want at scrum time is to get forward on the engagement, put them on the back foot. What Dows [Phil Dowson] talks about at maul time is making that first step forward, so I think from 1-15 everyone has a role in rugby. You get off the floor, you run and you go forward, so I think there’s an intent around that, but it’s not just about the physical battle being for the forwards, it’s everyone.
Q: The matches between Saints and Exeter have been very close recently. How much is that down to progress being made?
MF: Over the last couple of years, some of our most intentful performances have actually been against Exeter and I partly wonder if that’s because you clearly know what their DNA is. It’s very clear in how Exeter play, so if you don’t get off the line and meet them in the tackle, if you don’t meet them on one-on-one carries, you probably know what’s coming from them. Certainly, a couple of our best wins we’ve had has been against them, but on the back of that, if we do show those tendencies, then we start to open the space up and play the way we want to. I think the gap in intensity and physicality has been closed up, or it’s more within our DNA now. What we’ve told the group is they can’t just pick and choose when they do it. We think back to that game away at Exeter last season, in the mud, and we put in some of our best defensive sets and we went into the game this season banging into people. We can’t do that one week and then 12 weeks later decide to go to Welford Road and not turn up.
Q: Are you expecting a different kind of game against Exeter, given they’re a little further down the Premiership ladder than we are used to?
MF: Not really because I think both teams have strong belief in how they play. I think both teams are in an area where they miss their international players in this period, and have a few injuries. It takes a little bit of their leadership away in the way their game works, but what’s very clear about us and them is everyone knows what Exeter do and everyone knows what Saints do. They’re probably more closely aligned in part than what people may see, but this will ultimately be an important game because we want to get back to winning ways. It’s also important because we’re very similar on the points log, so we can’t afford too many more slip-ups if we want to keep in contact with that top four.
Q: Does it feel like Saints need to put down a bit of a statement with how results have gone in the last two weeks?
MF: The ‘statement’ is we need to be more accurate; we need to convert our pressure into points and we need to make teams work harder, in terms of points per visit. We got into Sale’s 22 twice as much as Sale got into ours, yet we’ve lost by a point, so let’s hurt people when we get there. We had similar sorts of figures against Sarries, where we got into a team’s 22, we had them under pressure and we let them off. It’s not terminal yet, but if we do that, and we do that consistently, then we’ll have a real challenge to get back on the ladder.