With Northampton Saints’ final match of 2021 now behind them and the side preparing for a New Year’s Gallagher Premiership clash against second-placed Saracens, we sat down with Club captain Lewis Ludlam…
Q: How frustrating was the result at Harlequins, particularly after the way Saints started the game?
LL: It was a really frustrating weekend for us – we definitely feel like that was an opportunity missed against the reigning champions down at Twickenham, in front of 70,000-odd to go out there and make a statement. It’s something that we’re upset about, but we’ve got to pick ourselves up quickly and get ready for this weekend because another quality outfit is coming down here and trying to turn us over. We were disappointed, but we’ve got to take the learnings out of the weekend as quickly as possible.
Q: Was the biggest learning the penalty count that went against you at Twickenham?
LL: When the penalty count is so high, it never allows you to build pressure on teams and it gives them way too many opportunities to come and attack us, especially a team with the attacking flair of Harlequins. If you give them that many opportunities in a game, they’ll take a fair few of them. That’s something we’ve had a look at and it’s something we’ve spoken about that we’re going to work on for this weekend, because that is a massive part of our game that’s really killing us at the moment.
Q: How important is it to sort out the discipline when you’ll be facing Saracens?
LL: They’re a team that’s so clinical and so accurate in what they do, so when the penalty count is high against you, that’s when they get a roll on, that’s when they gain momentum. When they get going, they’re hard to stop so this week, even more than others, our discipline will have to be a big work-on for us.
Q: I’m guessing it’s been no surprise to see Saracens do so well since their return to the Premiership?
LL: None at all. When you’ve got so many quality players in your side, you’re going to produce results and it’s no surprise that they’re fighting right at the top of the league. We’re under no illusions; they’re going to come here and turn up with a world-class side. It’s going to be no easy challenge, but we’re excited, we’re feeling good and we know that if we go out there and put our game on them, we’re good enough to get a result.
Q: There’s been a great rivalry between Saints and Saracens down the years, do these matches feel as fiery as in previous seasons?
LL: At this stage in the competition, every game is massive and the historic rivalry between the two teams is there as well. It’s the first game of the New Year, in front of a packed-out cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens, so there’s no shortage of motivation for this one. I remember growing up watching the team face Sarries at Twickenham, and here at the Gardens. I have some fond memories of watching the lads go and play Sarries and it’s now about creating our own memories and our own occasions to go out and remember against these guys. Like I said, they’re a quality outfit with a bunch of world-class players. It’s easy to play those games because it’s exciting and it’s something I think the boys are massively excited for as well.
Q: You had Nick Isiekwe with you last season, did he speak about Saracens much while he was part of the squad?
LL: Having Nick here was great for us – he brought some areas of Sarries’ game to our game and that definitely helped us as well. He’s been fantastic back with them and I’m sure he’s taking stuff that we’ve done here back there as well.
Q: How do you view Saints’ 2021 overall?
LL: We’re well on our journey now, as a group of lads, and I think we’re starting to realise our potential, which is an exciting thing. If you look back to the start of the year, I don’t think we really backed ourselves as much as we should have. I don’t think we knew what our identity was as a team, and I think we’ve now got that figured out. It’s just about finding those small bits of our game that are killing us, such as discipline and going off-script. We’re at a point now as a team where we realise what we are capable of, and we want to reap the rewards of it because everyone here is capable of doing so. I think 2022 is exciting because 2021 was a massive year of growth for us as a team.
Q: How do you look back on your own year, which included an England recall and being named the Club’s sole captain for the first time?
LL: For myself as well, it’s been a year of growth, but we still left 2021 empty-handed with no trophies and no medals, so in that regard it’s been unsuccessful. Hopefully, 2022 brings more success and we’ve got to continue to evolve and continue to grow and see where that gets us.
Q: Are you still enjoying the extra responsibility that comes with being Club captain?
LL: I’ve been loving it. This is my Club – the Club I grew up supporting – so to be able to pull on the jersey as captain is a massive privilege every time and it’s something that I’m trying to pour all my energy into as much as possible, on and off the pitch. It’s a role I’ve really enjoyed but, taking the focus off myself, I’ve been blessed that I’ve got really good people around me to help me with that as well – Tom Wood, Alex Waller, Courtney Lawes and Dan Biggar, to name a few.
Q: Looking ahead to 2022, is it fair to say Saints are heading into that in a better shape and a better frame of mind than they were at this point 12 months ago?
LL: We’re in a way better shape and frame of mind, and we’re hungrier than ever. You can see that in the boys at training when they come in on a Monday morning – they want to get better and they want to win games at the weekend. They want success now, they want trophies, they want medals, they want to make memories and I think that has been a real shift for us in 2021; lads are really starting to believe that we can go out and do something special. It’s no easy task but we’re in a good place and 2022 is going to be an exciting year for us.