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Mark Darbon: We’re excited about Saints’ coaching transition

After a significant week of announcements at cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens – in which it was confirmed that Phil Dowson and Sam Vesty will move into senior management roles at Northampton Saints next season – we sat down with the Club’s Chief Executive, Mark Darbon…

Q: Within this long-term succession plan in place at Saints, how were Phil Dowson and Sam Vesty identified as the right coaches to take over from Chris Boyd?
MD: It’s interesting thinking back on the journey of these last few years. I remember in the very first conversation I had with Chris, we talked about building a high-potential group of coaches with an ambition of having them take over at the point at which Chris left. Obviously, at that stage, we had no idea when that moment would be, but we knew that day would come. So quite early in Chris’ tenure, we set about recruiting that team. Phil Dowson was already involved at the Club at that stage, but we brought in Sam Vesty, we brought in Ian Vass and we brought in Matt Ferguson and we’ve talked about upskilling that group, preparing them for the moment Chris left. So, we’ve had this long-term plan – that’s always been ‘Plan A’ – and I feel we’ve got to the point where we can be excited about their ability to step up. We’re sad to see Chris go – he’s had a great impact here at Saints – but we think those guys have got fantastic capability. 

Q: Could you take us through what each of them will bring when they do make the step up.
MD: Phil Dowson is a natural leader. He was a big leader on the pitch for us, he’s a big leader around the environment now, and he’s a really clear communicator. He sees the bigger picture, he’s very well respected by our playing group and we think he’s ready to run the programme for us; to take ultimate accountability for our rugby activities. 

Sam Vesty is also a brilliant coach. I think Chris sums this up nicely; he says Sam’s got one of the brightest rugby minds he has seen in all his years of coaching, and we’ve seen during Sam’s tenure his ability to shape our game plan but also, and importantly for us, to make our individual players better. There are countless examples of players Sam has made better.

We always hoped we’d be bringing together a group that could step up as and when that was required. Chris and I spent a long time talking about that, as you would expect, over the last three-and-a-half years and we feel really confident that we’ve got ourselves in a position where we can make that transition now.

Q: How would you reflect on the job Chris has done?
MD: I’d describe Chris’ impact here as transformational. He joined us at a tricky time and I think if you break down what he’s done, starting on the pitch, with results, I think Chris would be the first to admit that we had a really disappointing run in the calendar year of 2020 – certainly below our expectations. Outside of that, we’ve been pretty decent. We’ve consistently qualified for the Heineken Champions Cup, we’ve challenged for the top four and I think, with the resources Chris has had available, he’s done a good job on that front. He’s achieved that while transforming our style of play and creating what we think is an attractive brand of rugby that people enjoy watching – we hear that time and time again. 

In terms of our playing group, Chris has really evolved our squad. At the time he joined, not only had we had a poor few seasons strung together, but we also had an aging playing group. We were quite reactionary in a lot of our recruitment and retention choices and I think if you look at the squad now, you’ll see a big transformation. We consistently have the youngest matchday squad that’s playing week in, week out in the Premiership. We consistently have the highest proportion of homegrown players.

The work that Chris has done with those individual players has meant that not only have many of them broken through from our academy into our first team, but they’ve gone on to win international honours, so we are really excited about the platform that gives us to go out and be successful in the future. Make no bones about it, we’re an ambitious club – we’re not satisfied with the results we’ve had over the last three to four seasons, and indeed going back much longer than that, but we think we’ve got a really good platform to kick on and that’s in no small part down to Chris’ fantastic work in evolving our squad.

Q: How has Chris also developed the coaching staff that have worked with him?
MD: You only have to chat to Phil and Sam – and Ian Vass and Matt Ferguson, and others – to see the impact that Chris has had in their development, and we believe will continue to have on their development. That’s what has given us a lot of confidence to ask them to step up and take the reins from the start of next season.

Q: What will Chris be doing in his consultancy role and why was it so important to retain him in that capacity?
MD: Firstly, Chris has had a big impact for us and we felt like, as we go through this transition, we’d be mad to not continue to tap into his experience and his capability and his perspective. Chris is going to be moving back to New Zealand – a big part of this decision is about him being closer to family. It’s obviously been a challenging couple of years, having a pretty tight-knit family separated on other sides of the world, so it feels like the right time for Chris to go back.

He’ll largely be based in New Zealand and his primary role will be to continue to develop our coaching group, so he’ll be there for them as a sounding board in a mentoring capacity, offering his insight and his judgement on a regular basis. Knowing Chris, I have no doubt that he’ll be reviewing our matches and looking at our opposition and will, if the coaches want it, be prepared to share his views and insight, as we make our way through the season.

We expect Chris, on a handful of occasions during the season, to visit us back at cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens. Certainly from a management perspective, it will be really helpful having his view on the environment and the culture. He’s done such a brilliant job reshaping the culture, and we’re looking forward to benefitting from that experience as we move forward.

Q: How will Chris’ support – whether that’s virtually or in person – help Phil Dowson make that transition from coach to Director of Rugby?
MD: We think we’ve got the right structure in place. There are a few things that will help; Chris’ involvement and counsel from afar, undoubtedly. We also feel pretty good about this because we’ve rehearsed this model. By design, Chris took an extended break back in New Zealand during pre-season and we ran this exact structure during that period. Phil ran the programme, Sam led the coaching on the turf. We got to see it in action, we had good feedback on that from our playing group and the rest of our performance department. It worked well, we started the season really brightly, and so that has given us a lot of confidence in terms of how we move forward.

Q: Will Phil bring a different approach to Chris when he does take charge next season?
MD: They are very different characters, for sure, but I think they share quite a few similar traits. They are both big leaders – you’ll have seen that from Phil Dowson from his playing career. He was a leader here, he captained the side and always had the respect of players and staff within this organisation. I think what he’s been able to do really effectively is take the leadership skill set he developed as a player and quickly apply that from a coaching perspective.

He and Chris are also extremely good communicators – they have a very different communication style, but in their own way they are very good at motivating and rallying the squad and bringing clarity to what we’re trying to achieve, both in the short term and the longer term. I think those key traits – leadership and strong communication – we believe will give you a really strong platform to work from when you’re taking on an extremely difficult role, as a Director of Rugby in a club that is craving success. 

Phil has undoubtedly developed that skill set under Chris and he will have also learned a lot about the intricacies of the role because he has had a lot of exposure to that. Chris gives a lot of autonomy and creates an environment where there’s a lot of involvement for the coaches and so Phil has had a great chance to assimilate that knowledge and learn from it, and we think that will stand him in good stead.

Q: Separately, we will toast Courtney Lawes’ 250th match for Saints on Sunday afternoon – how important a figure is he still for Saints after 15 seasons at the Club?
MD: This is a very significant milestone to celebrate. In a career jam-packed with remarkable achievements, Courtney moves into an incredibly exclusive club to have hit 250 matches for Northampton. I think it is clear, and I’m sure all our supporters will also agree with me, from his outstanding efforts on the field that Courtney still relishes every occasion he pulls on a Black, Green and Gold jersey. He will lead out the team at the Gardens, so – to all our supporters coming along to the game – please give him the rapturous reception he deserves, and keep the noise going for the full 80 minutes!

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