Good morning from Franklin’s Gardens. Usually at this time ahead of a home match, my programme notes are published on the Club’s website – but as no doubt you will all have seen yesterday, our Gallagher Premiership fixture against Newcastle Falcons was subject to another cancellation today.
We are extremely disappointed that we have now had three league matches cancelled, and two European fixtures postponed, since the turn of the year as a result of the pandemic. It has been fantastic to see the team continue its upward trajectory these last two weeks when we have been able to play, and gather some momentum heading into the game today. We were expecting a really good battle with the Falcons, but of course in light of the positive Covid-19 cases at Kingston Park the correct course of action has been taken, and first and foremost we wish everyone affected at Newcastle a speedy recovery.
I know many of you will have been excited to see Saints run out at Franklin’s Gardens for the first time in 2021 from the comfort of your own homes. Unfortunately, the wait for that must now go on a little longer (with Bath our next opponents on home soil in a fortnight’s time), but the Club will be streaming a repeat of our 2018-19 Premiership Rugby Cup semi-final match against Newcastle on our website at 12pm today – so those supporters who are craving a flurry of Northampton tries are in for a treat!
“It has been fantastic to see the team continue its upward trajectory these last two weeks.”Mark Darbon, Northampton Saints Chief Executive
The victories over Gloucester and Wasps on the road these last two weeks were incredibly important for the Club. After an excellent win over Worcester on Boxing Day it was important to continue to build our momentum, and in securing both results the squad has shown a great deal of maturity and character to overcome some adversity on the pitch and get the job done. We have now propelled ourselves up the league table and – as we always look upwards rather than down – our top-four ambitions are well and truly alive as things stand.
With a long run of consecutive Premiership matches ahead of us still (today was due to be our third match of a nine-game block), our squad management is going to be vital in the coming weeks. A large number of the playing group will play their part and every side’s squad depth is going to be tested. On that note, it has been fantastic to see some more of our Academy prospects coming to the fore recently, with the likes of Tommy Freeman stepping in seamlessly with a maturity beyond his years. Ollie Sleightholme also returned last weekend from a long injury layoff, and I know many supporters would have been thrilled to see him charging down the wing for Northampton again.
It would be remiss of me to not mention the news that broke yesterday regarding the suspension of relegation for the 2020/21 season. A collaborative agreement across the RFU, Championship and Premiership Rugby means that the top flight will be expanded to 13 teams from next season – with one club coming up into the Premiership, provided the winner of the Championship meets the criteria to do so.
The new temporary structure has unanimous support of the Premiership Rugby clubs, and while I know many people will be concerned about the impact this may have on the competition moving forward, these are extraordinary circumstances. A significant number of matches across the league have now been cancelled as a result of Covid-19, and with the points allocation structure in place (which was agreed by all clubs before the season), and no room in the schedule to rearrange any matches, the possibility remained that cancelled matches could have a material outcome on final league positions. It would have been extremely regrettable had any club been relegated from the Premiership on the basis of which games were cancelled, rather than on merit, so I am confident we have arrived at a pragmatic solution for this season.
I am also certain that, on the pitch, the matches still to be played this season will remain as competitive as always, with just a handful of points separating the majority of clubs and both play-off and European places yet to be decided. I know for sure that this announcement will not impact the desire of Chris Boyd and the entire staff of Northampton Saints to win each and every match we play – we continue to represent the Town to the best of our ability every time we take to the field, and every game matters deeply to us.
“Dan Biggar has been selected for his ninth straight Six Nations and Courtney Lawes his tenth – two remarkable achievements and testament to the class and longevity of both players!”Mark Darbon, Northampton Saints Chief Executive
Having 13 teams in the Premiership will lead to a restructure for the 2021-22 season and we will update on that in due course – but we do already know that every club will have two rest weeks in the season. Premiership Rugby will now be working with the RFU and all our stakeholders to agree an exciting new strategy for the betterment of the professional game in the long term, and we expect to make some decisions on that before the end of the current season.
Despite our own fixture cancellation, there will be two Saints in action this weekend with Dan Biggar and Courtney Lawes starting for Wales and England respectively in their matches today. Dan has been selected for his ninth straight Championship and Courtney his tenth – two remarkable achievements and testament to the class and longevity of both players! Meanwhile Alex Mitchell, George Furbank and David Ribbans have also been named in England’s ‘shadow squad’ for the tournament, so while it’s fantastic to see them earn some recognition too, we are also lucky to be able to keep them in our ranks over the next few weeks.
We’re now already looking forward to a huge test next weekend as we travel down to Exeter to face the Chiefs in what is always one of the toughest assignments of the season. Despite our recent improvements, we’ll have to raise our levels once again at Sandy Park if we are to come out on top, but with a couple of gritty performances under our belts, I’ve no doubt Chris Boyd and his charges can deliver another display to be proud of.
Even as we approach a full 12 months since we were able to enjoy a packed-out Franklin’s Gardens, we know you are still with us, and your unrivalled support continues to mean the world to the team.
We March Together.