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Ferguson: First experiences are exactly what Premiership Rugby Cup should be about

We sat down with Northampton Saints coach, Matt Ferguson, with two matches to come this week as the men in Black, Green and Gold take on Saracens in the Premiership Rugby Cup before Sunday’s Gallagher Premiership clash at Wasps.

Q: Just how frustrating was last Sunday’s defeat at Harlequins from a coach’s standpoint?
MF: Giving any team a 14-point head start in this league, never mind a team of Quins’ quality, is going to put you under pressure. That scoreboard pressure and perceived pressure is then going to lead to too many unforced errors. We judge ourselves all the time on our performance and you’re going to get errors in the game, but you want those errors to be caused by the opposition’s prowess, not by putting yourselves in poor positions. Ultimately, we have to be better for longer periods, and I think that’s probably a reflection of the first four weeks.

Q: Saints showed more of what they were about in the last 20 minutes of that game, had you just given yourselves too much to do?
MF: You give yourselves a lot to do by being 14 points down in 11 minutes, really. That last 20 minutes isn’t down to anything dramatically changed by us, it’s the fact that if we keep the ball for periods of time and we play the way we want to play, what that does is put a small dent followed by another small dent into the legs of the opposition. If you look at that last phase of play, it looked like something out of M*A*S*H, where you had players strewn across the field. A lot of that didn’t come from the last ten minutes, or even the last 20 minutes – it came from when we had the ball for periods of time in the last 20 minutes of the first half. We talk about our Saints DNA, but we’ve got to control how we look after the ball and control the periods of the game we put teams under pressure. At the moment, we’re not doing that well enough and consistently enough.

Q: Looking at the front row, how important is it that you’re getting the likes of Alex Waller and Ehren Painter involved after injury?
MF: It’s been tough and if you’d spoke to me in pre-season I’d have said we have one of the strongest loosehead ladders in Europe, with people like Alex Waller and his hundreds of caps as well as Manny [Iyogun], Ethan (Waller) and Danny [Hobbs-Awoyemi]. Like London busses, you tend to get an injury in one and then get a ding in three or four. We’re very grateful for the loan of Marty Mulhall from Bristol, which has allowed us to keep the Premiership Rugby Cup games going. It’s been a tough area and what we saw from Manny at the weekend – an 80 minute performance – was pretty incredible. At the same time, I think someone like Oisín Heffernan, who’s a tighthead by trade, being prepared to blow the cobwebs of his younger loosehead days and put his hand up was, for me, also as big an accolade. We talk about putting Saints first in decisions, and the fact Oisín was prepared to do that was hugely valuable to the team.

Q: How impressive have Manny Iyogun’s last two shifts, against Leicester and Quins, been considering he is still a young man?
MF: He seems to like to go well against the internationals, that’s for sure! I’m delighted with Manny, I think he’s no longer a youngster in terms of his experience. He’ll have learning to do – we’ll always be learning in the front row – but ultimately, if you’ve got the mental desire like someone like Manny has and the physical attributes, he’s an extremely powerful man. Personally, I thought his last 20 minutes against Quins were better than his first 20! We’re really happy with him and we’re really happy with Ethan and Sue as well. Ethan comes on and Moony hits him on the head and he gets knocked out after two minutes [against Leicester]. It wasn’t the start that he wanted, but when we’re back firing that group will go really well and, fingers crossed, in the next few weeks that will be the case.

Q: Has the disruption to the front row affected the scrum so far this season?
MF: It’s not just that reason, it goes back to one of the biggest points that we’ve been extremely limited to what we can do in the week. We’ve been operating with two teams because of the fixtures on Tuesday or Wednesdays and it’s limited us on what we can do. But that’s not the only reason and there are a couple of things we’ve been working on. I think we saw some of that on Sunday, and we’ll get back on the horse with that in the next couple of days.

Q: Let’s look at the PRC game against Saracens. The names on their team sheet might be different, but are you expecting a typical sort of encounter against them?
MF: We talk about Saints DNA and one of the other clubs you could also be pretty sure of their DNA is Saracens. I think whoever comes into the shirt will be pretty clear what that looks like, which is a great opportunity for our boys to test themselves against that and we’re really looking forward to it.

Q: Is there a different dynamic to how this game would have been if it had been played last month, when Saints were due to field a very young side against a team full of internationals?
MF: As it happened, they were having a bye week and they were using the PRC game as their last warm-up, and that was fine. In terms of how we use the PRC, one of the highlights at London Irish last week was having 17-year-olds playing alongside the likes of Dave Ribbans and Ehren Painter. I actually think that’s exactly what this competition is for. Those 17-year-olds can learn about a whole matchday experience, and the level up in performance, and also you’re getting some valuable minutes into those returning senior players – like Alex Waller this evening. Obviously, in my department it’s great to get guys gaining minutes through that, but to combine that with the 17-year-olds making debuts and getting their first experience is exactly what the PRC should be about.

Q: What can our youngsters learn from last week’s last-gasp loss at London Irish?
MF: We talked about the game management. We were 19 points up in that game, and it’s very easy for us to go to the last ten minutes and say the game went away from us then. What I spoke to the group about was there was actually about three or four chances that we missed in the first half that would have put that game to bed at half-time. You naturally go to the two or three penalties or to the maul try at the end and say we could have done this or that better in the last two minutes, but if we had taken more opportunities in the first 15 minutes, the last five minutes wouldn’t have mattered. 

A lot of those younger guys that are in their first year in the full-time Senior Academy will go through a period of pressure that isn’t so obvious in Under-18s rugby. The decisions you make will have bigger outcomes in games like this, and this is why we want to have them step up from Under-18s or step up from playing for their loan clubs. It’s also a step up from a Monday-night Wandies fixture because of the calibre of players you’re up against. Our learning is very similar to what we’re feeling from the first team; there were really good periods of that game and we went 19 points up, but it’s about how you maintain that tension on the line to finish that game off so those last three minutes don’t matter. If you end up in a five-point game in the last two minutes, what can we do to end up on the right side of it was the overriding learning and I’m sure we’ll see that out tonight.

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