When it comes to teams in the English Premiership who often go under the radar once seasons commence, Northampton Saints are undoubtedly one of the first sides that come to mind. Last season, for example, their fourth-placed finish took many people by surprise, with them not attracting much attention and simply focusing on each game as they came.
However, this season, things have been different, with previous head coach Phil Dowson taking over from Chris Boyd as Director of Rugby, following the latter announcing his intentions to leave the role in the summer and become a club consultant from his native New Zealand, and the campaign has not gone as smoothly as some might have been hoping for.
Nevertheless, it does feel like a long-term plan with Dowson, who made 179 appearances in his six years at the club and who knows what the fans expect at Franklin’s Gardens. In fact, as the campaign has progressed, it has become clear that they are moving in the right direction, despite lacking consistency in performances and results, and this tactical analysis will take a closer look at some of their recent matches to identify what has gone well and what still needs to be on Dowson’s to-do list.
The analysis will also preview in brief their home game against Munster this weekend in the European Rugby Champions Cup, focusing on the tactics that the Irish province tend to play with and how the Saints can ignite their European campaign, having suffered two defeats in two so far.
Northampton under Phil Dowson
With Dowson serving under Boyd for the last four years, it was expected that the Saints would not change too much day-to-day and would stay true to themselves, with their fast style of rugby helping them to catch many of their opponents out. As a result, the fact that they have been using England scrum-half Alex Mitchell to start attacks, whilst also making intelligent runs and demonstrating plenty of pace as a team has not been a surprise at all.
However, Dowson was always going to want to put his own stamp on the team, introducing some new ideas to help take them to the next level, and that has inevitably led to poor consistency, as mentioned earlier. It might be a long-term process, but sport is very much a short-term business, with results ultimately needed to achieve goals, and five wins and seven defeats in 12 Premiership matches is not what they would have been hoping for when the campaign got underway back in September.
What will worry some at the club is that it is not just results that have been lacking, as performances have also been down this season, with various players and coaches admitting almost on a weekly basis that they have yet to play well for a full 80 minutes, and only seem to have strong halves here and spells of positive play there. As has been noted by several analysts and pundits this season, they are either very good or very ordinary, and that is what they need to fix.
The fact that they are starting to realise their potential was shown in the recent league win against Harlequins though, with them demonstrating in that match that they do have a ruthlessness in attack and can put their opponents under relentless pressure. Ultimately, that is what they need to remember and build on as the season progresses, because it is performances like that that will give them a lot of confidence and hope of finishing in the top four for a second consecutive season.
However, another area that needs mentioning and in which the Saints have got largely right so far is their recruitment, because what has been clear about Dowson is that he knows when a player is good enough to fit the profile that he is after and when it makes sense financially to bring them in.
One of the additions that he has made to the side, that of fly-half Fin Smith, has been shown to be a masterstroke, with the former Worcester Warriors standoff (who left after their demise this season) showing himself to be an able replacement for departed Wales captain Dan Biggar, who moved to Toulon at the beginning of November. His ability to identify spaces and link play up has made him an important part of the Northampton side, and, at the age of just 20, there is hope that he will a key player for years to come and someone that the Saints can build their next generation around.
Ex-Wasps centre Burger Odendaal, who originally joined the ex-Premiership side in the summer, is another who has been snapped up, and there are high hopes that the South African’s energetic style of play, ball-carrying abilities and general strength around the field will complement what Northampton have at the club already. It is expected that there will be more arrivals announced between now and the end of the season, most of them being underrated players who can bring a lot of quality, and it is clear that Dowson is trying to construct a side that will be capable of taking on anybody.
Northampton on the field
However, in order to have any chance of challenging opponents in the future, Northampton Saints have to be getting the here and now right, and, as this scout report has already pointed out, that is what they are currently struggling to do.
Again, it comes down to consistency, because they have some good games and some bad ones, often alternating between the two, and that is what has been so frustrating about them. Against Harlequins, they centred their play around Mitchell’s ability to be direct and make territorial gains and looked to be a really dangerous side, but they played Gloucester before that and made error after error, giving the Cherry and Whites a relatively easy win.
The key area that they have lacked quality in this season is their defensive play, because they have often been the source of their own misery when inside their own 22, and this was demonstrated in their matches against both Exeter Chiefs and La Rochelle. The Chiefs were at their rampant best in their meeting with the Saints, to be fair to the East Midlands team, but Ali Hepher’s players were allowed to win by such a heavy margin due to Northampton not showing enough strength as they tried to hold them back.
Similarly, La Rochelle, who faced the Saints in their opening Champions Cup match this season, are a very technical side who are well-drilled and know how they want to play. The contrast between them and their opponents could not have been clearer, with Northampton moving out of line and losing their shape and making it very easy for the French giants to carve them wide open time and time again.
Mitchell has recently said in an article that he knows he has not had his best season, but wants to force himself into the thoughts of new England head coach Steve Borthwick ahead of the upcoming Six Nations and Rugby World Cup. However, he is not the only one who has been guilty of making mistakes, and Northampton as a team know that sport is all about getting results. The simple fact is that, on the whole, they have not been producing them.
The trip to Munster
With the next two weekends seeing teams turn their attentions once again to the European competitions, Northampton Saints will know that they have a good opportunity to regain their confidence and try to rectify some of those mistakes. However, the fact that they will face Irish province Munster and defending champions La Rochelle once again will not fill them with a lot of hope, given that both have already got the better of Dowson’s side this season.
Nevertheless, this is a fresh game and Northampton fans will be wondering about how they can beat Munster this weekend and get their continental campaign back on track. Therefore, when looking at Munster’s European campaign so far, what became clear in their opening match against Toulouse is that they don’t like having pressure put on them, as it leads to them rushing and making plenty of mistakes.
If Northampton play their fast-flowing style of rugby and keep their foot firmly on the pedal, then they should have a good chance of forcing errors and breaking the side coached by former Leicester Tigers and England loosehead Graham Rowntree down. However, if they sit back and invite pressure, then that’s where Munster will thrive, because they demonstrated when they travelled to the Gardens in December that they are difficult to stop when inside their opponents’ 22, with them making several darting runs and scoring two tries through back rower Gavin Coombes from relatively close range.
The Irish province’s set-piece execution is also very good, with a lot of variety in the way that they exit from lineouts and scrums, so Northampton will also need a variety of defensive strategies and will have to adapt quickly at times, because any small hesitations will be capitalised on.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has taken a closer look at Northampton Saints’ performances so far this season, presenting a detailed analysis of their strengths and weaknesses and ideas about how they can get the better of Munster this weekend.
Whilst there are a lot of negative points in this article, what should be made clear once again is that this is a long-term project that the club are going on, and it was always going to be a tough season for them what with their change in management over the summer.
However, whilst their defensive record in the league has not been good (with them conceding 366 points in total – the most of any of the 11 remaining teams), they have also posed a threat when in form and have been difficult to contain at times, with their 343 points scored the second-highest total in the division (and only 49 behind current league leaders Saracens).
Therefore, there are positives for them to build on as they try to secure another play-off finish and reach the Champions Cup knockout rounds, with a lot of rugby still to be played, and that is what the fans, players and coaching staff need to hold onto over the coming months.