For a grand old club with an enviable, newly enlarged stadium, the modern history of Northampton Saints RFC is strangely fraught. Every team has its highs and lows but the Saints are currently besieged on all sides, trapped by unhappy accidents and assorted misjudgments of their own making. The George North saga, Dylan Hartley’s suspension, looming European oblivion: there is not a lot of jaunty, jazzy marching in at Franklin’s Gardens right now.
These have been particularly testing days since their 37-10 home drubbing to Leinster last Friday. Their England captain Hartley has been banned for six weeks, the investigation into how North’s most recent head knock was handled is due to be made public on Monday and they are now in Dublin to face more Irish chin music. “If we’re honest, the mood is not the best,” conceded the full-back Ben Foden, his personal outlook further clouded by a dislocated finger in training that has sidelined him for Saturday’s return fixture. “What we have all realised is that things need to change because there is something wrong.”
With other influential international players Tom Wood, Courtney Lawes, Luther Burrell and Louis Picamoles also conspicuously absent from the matchday 23, it will appear to many that Saints have already thrown in the European towel. In previous years they have rebounded instantly from similar heavy losses, not least against Racing 92 last season and Leinster in 2013-14. If something similar unfolds it will be from the most unstable of platforms.
According to Foden, who won the last of his 34 England caps in 2013, worrying alarm bells have been clanging for a while. It was not so much defeat by a fine Leinster team that stung as the “rock bottom” home defeat to Newcastle a fortnight previously. Even before kick-off against Leinster, the club skipper Tom Wood said he noticed something flat about his side’s body language which translated into a horribly sluggish first quarter. This week’s team meetings, accordingly, have focused on springing out of the blocks, cutting out the recent disciplinary lapses that have yielded bans for Hartley, Kieran Brookes and Calum Clark, and, crucially, playing with more collective enjoyment.
The darkest hour is supposed to preface a brighter new dawn. The Saints director of rugby, Jim Mallinder, and his assistants Dorian West and Alan Dickens could certainly use a ray of sunshine. For too long there has been little to enthuse supporters, with boos audible at the final whistle last Friday. The social media message boards have not been awash with consolatory words; even the parallel travails of neighbours Leicester are not offering the succour they might normally do.
It is all a far cry from the days when Saints, with many of the same players, made the 2011 European final and won the 2014 Premiership. Whatever golden touch Mallinder and co possessed has gone missing; since the colossal Samu Manoa departed for Toulon in 2015, things have seldom felt the same.
Maybe, like Leicester, the club has been too slow to recognise the game has moved on, that bullying sides up front is no longer enough. Stephen Myler is a decent goalkicker but Saints are not exactly frightening teams at half-back. There have also been mutterings from at least one senior Northampton figure that Hartley contributes more often for England than his club. When a record-breaking, apparently fit England captain cannot make the starting XV for a massive home European game something is not quite right.
A fourth straight defeat for a side currently ninth in the Premiership and marooned at the bottom of their European pool would also suggest little has improved since Alex King, just snapped up to coach Wales’s backs, departed in October. Mallinder has been in charge almost a decade but senior players are now questioning fundamental areas.
“The main thing is making sure everyone is seriously up for the game,” said Foden, admitting this critical element “hasn’t been there for the last couple of games”. For a player with more than 200 club appearances to be stressing the “need to make sure we put the passion back in the shirt” is revealing in itself.
No one likes to see a proud club down on its haunches. The handling of the latest North affair, however, has raised further uneasy questions. It would be wrong to pre-judge the inquiry’s outcome but the clearest testimony so far has come from his team-mates.
“Northampton are a struggling team so you want their best players back as soon as possible but I think George needs to be allowed to go away, clear his head and let his headaches – or whatever he’s having – settle down,” said Foden, North’s friend and neighbour. “Once head injuries become serious you need to look at them like an ACL knee reconstruction … it might take six months to get right. You only get one brain, it’s not the easiest thing to fix. Hopefully he’ll be away with the Lions in the summer and I’m sure we’ll see him back soon but we’ve got to look after our players. I think Northampton realise that.”
Inside the Saints dressing room there is also frustration that Hartley will miss the next six weeks when his club needs him most. “It’s annoying when you lose someone like Dyls because he is important to us and England,” said Foden. “To have a guy like that on the field is crucial but he has to take his medicine when it comes around. Dylan was on top of the world last week … all of a sudden he’s back on the shooting block with people saying he should be stripped of the England captaincy, that he shouldn’t be playing for Northampton any more, that he’s a thug. Dylan knows he’s messed up more than anyone.”
It has been left, instead, to others to pick up the fragments. “There’s no point being negative and moping,” said Foden. “We’ve been to European finals, we’ve won the Premiership but you’ve got to wrestle through the lows as well. It can be like quicksand: the more you struggle the more you sink. We haven’t been performing but I still think we’ve got a great bunch of players and we should be competing strongly in the biggest competitions. You just need to relight that fire and that’s what the coaches and us senior players need to do.” If not, a winter of serious discontent looms.