How does it feel to be captaining Northampton again this season?
It’s a good challenge. Finishing seventh in the league last season, there’s only one way to look for this team and that’s up. We tasted success and competed for championships for a good number of years in the past, so I know what it feels like and we want to get back to that level. We’ve got to be looking at the Premiership top four and it’s realistic for us to say that.
Why do you think Saints failed to capitalise on the 2014 title win?
There’s lot of reasons. We’ve had two years of underachieving by our standards and there’s a lot to improve upon, but it’s got to be a collective effort. Staff, players and the club as whole need to be better and the stuff I’ve seen implemented since the start of pre-season has been brilliant, so I’m massively optimistic and enthusiastic about how the season is going to start for us.
Given your England commitments, did you have any second thoughts over resuming the Saints captaincy?
No. In terms of the big job with England it’s not guaranteed, so the way I can guarantee it is by leading my club well and playing well here. Captaincy is obviously a skill that you should practice and here I can do it week-in, week-out, which can only improve me as a captain. That was part of the draw of doing it again. I’ve found a good life balance between rugby and my family and feel I can contribute the right energy to Northampton. If things go well here, I can manage the big job with England as well. Like any job, if it’s going to be done better it needs doing on a daily basis, not just around the odd tournament here and there. I think the timing is right and the challenge of getting the club back to where we expect it to be is a big one.
It’s a hugely competitive Premiership but there’s no reason why we can’t be one of those sides competing at the top because we’ve recruited unbelievably well. I’m excited about the talent we have and the good thing is there’s a lot of local lads who we need to utilise. For example, Tom Stephenson’s had a bad run of injuries but has just been out to Australia with Randwick and has come back looking really good, while Tom Collins is looking really sharp as well. There’s a plethora of local talent here, guys who have real passion the club, and if we can add that to a bit of international experience from abroad, we can have a pretty lethal team. You need to care about your teammates and the team, and I believe we have a group who feel it’s important to play for Northampton.
This is your 12th season at Saints and there was speculation over potential moves to France, Worcester or Bristol before you re-signed. What’s the truth?
I was never going to France and I made it pretty clear when I signed three years ago that I have an ambition to be a one-club man. I know I started my career at Worcester but I didn’t play any senior rugby there so I consider Saints to be my club – my first and, hopefully, my last. I was chuffed to bits when I got the opportunity to re-sign again for the foreseeable future. In three years’ time I’ll be 34 and if I’ve got a few games left in me I might need to find another club if they don’t want me, but I’m immensely proud to be here. This club is 137-years-old and you can’t buy history, can you? To be part of a long line of players who’ve captained this club is pretty special and this place means a lot to our community. It’s a huge part of my life and I only want to increase that.
Was being appointed England captain in January 2016 a life-changing moment?
Development-wise it’s been really good for me. On a personal note, Eddie Jones has been really big on the mentoring side of it and developing me as a person and leader. I’ve enjoyed that. It’s a skill you need to work at and he’s constantly feeding me snippets of information – things to read, things to listen to, people to watch – and it’s good to know that I’ve got someone wanting me to develop. I want to repay that by doing a good job for club and country. But I’m not the only one, a lot of guys are working on developing themselves in all aspects of the game. I just want to be fitter, more skilful and be a better leader as well.
It’s not just Eddie, the team select leaders themselves. It’s optional, you can lead if you want. You don’t have to be a 50-cap player or 30-years-old, you can be a 21-year-old and come and lead. We’ve got people like Owen Farrell, George Ford and Maro Itoje who play like seasoned professionals but have been doing that since they were 16 or 17. I think we’ve got a really strong group of players now with a massive understanding of where we want to go as a team. That’s only increased with the Argentina tour where a number of guys stood up and it’s becoming a hugely competitive and enjoyable environment to be in, like it should be. Playing for England Rugby should be the place people want to be.
How disappointed were you personally with the behaviour of Manu Tuilagi and Denny Solomona, and did you speak to them about their England futures?
Yes, I talked to them.We’ve got team rules and a team code of conduct and two guys did their own thing and let the team down – and they’ve paid the price. It’s really disappointing because they’re two great players and good guys to have in the team. I’m sure they’ll be hurting and doing everything they can to get back in contention. It’s not up to me to pick the team now, though, that’s up to the boss.
Talking of hurt, how disappointed were you to miss out on the Lions?
I wasn’t disappointed. I’d hoped to go on that tour but I also said that if I didn’t go it wasn’t going to define me as a player, so as soon as I found out the news it was, ‘right, next job’. I had a job to do with England in Argentina and that was improving the team. It wasn’t a case of just making do, surviving that tour and waiting for the Lions players to come back, the whole message was we wanted to get the team better so that when the Lions players came back it would be hard for them to break into this team again. The message to the new guys was they weren’t there to make the numbers up, they were there to drive the team on, increase the depth and create the sort of competition in all positions we’re seeing now. Like every campaign, I was hugely proud to be part of a winning tour.
Do you sometimes have to pinch yourself about how well things have gone since Stuart Lancaster dropped you for the 2015 World Cup?
I haven’t had time! You’re always looking forward to the next game. Maybe when I retire I might reflect on the last 18 months with fond memories, but at the moment it’s pretty much work-orientated and I’m already thinking of the next challenge. At our recent training camp we were talking about playing Argentina again this November, so you can never sit back and soak it all in. Ultimately we want to be No.1 and win a World Cup, which I think is a realistic goal and I’ll work my backside off to be part of that.
Where do you personally feel you have improved the most over the last 18 months?
Just having that bit of mentoring and guidance from the England coaches, working with people who’ve opened my eyes to game-understanding and leadership. Physically, there’s still room for me to improve and at 31 I want to get better, but if only I’d met some of these people or been willing to learn earlier in my career I could have had a head start with these things. But I’m enjoying the physical and mental challenge of trying to get better.
Are you aware that you have a better winning record as England captain than either Martin Johnson or Will Carling?
I’ve also got other records that aren’t as good! Look, we’ve got work to do as a team and this happened around the last Six Nations; people started talking about world records but as soon as you start thinking about those things, egos can creep into it and you’re doing things for the wrong reasons. We’re playing this game to win and get better and try and win a World Cup, so until we do that none of us are quite there yet.
They’re all young, all pretty keen and that’s good for me. Unless Eddie Jones is suggesting these things it’s just opinion and opinions don’t bother me. I’m just focussing on myself and if I play well for Northampton and lead my team well, I’ll give myself every chance of playing for England.
Would you welcome Eddie confirming your captaincy to 2019?
No, because you’re only as good as your last game and you’d never name a captain two years out from a World Cup. The way Eddie does it, he picks tournament by tournament, whether that’s the autumn, Six Nations or summer tours, and that’s the way it should be. It’s got to be earned every time and I’d be petty uncomfortable if he made that kind of long-term statement. I feel like I want to earn my spot in the team so I’ve got eight games with Northampton to prove that I’m worthy of being part of that first November fixture against Argentina.
Eddie reckons there’s a 15-20 per cent improvement in fitness and skills to come. Agree?
Certainly. The good thing is there’s always stuff to work on and we can definitely get off the floor quicker, we can be more powerful, our endurance can be better and there’s loads of different things we can work on to improve our skills and execution. We need to be fitter because the way England want to play demands it. English rugby is traditionally very structured but if you look at the All Blacks, they’re traditionally very good at unstructured play. If we’re going to be the best in the world we need to go toe-to-toe and play unstructured rugby and if we’re not fit enough, we won’t compete. Eddie will have done his research and I’m sure the numbers add-up.
There’s a lot of chat about the 2019 World Cup, but how important is it to shelve that and concentrate on the autumn and Six Nations goals?
We talk about the end goal which is the World Cup, but we’ve also got to break that down into how we get there. The big thing now is becoming a better team than the one Argentina faced in June. We don’t want to be the same team when they come to Twickenham, we want to show a different hand and then improve again heading into the remaining matches and Six Nations.
How do you think the revised laws around scrum and breakdown will affect the game?
The game wants to be quick and you don’t need guys on the wrong side of a ruck after tackles, so there’ll be huge emphasis on getting people away from the ball and making it playable. That’s one change and the other big one is around the scrum put-in where there’s a big onus on the No.9s and hookers to understand when to get the ball in and out. It’s great they’re encouraging the strike and, ultimately, they want to see the ball in play and speed up the game.
What sort of a Northampton side do you hope people will see?
Traditionally we’ve had a good set-piece and we don’t want to go too far away from that, but we also want to provide good variety off lineouts and scrums. We want to be able to put the ball in the corner and grind teams down with the maul, but we’ve also got some very exciting backs so we need an adaptable game depending on the game plan and who we’re playing against. We want to challenge teams to see if they can survive against us.
You’re on 86 England caps now. How big a target is the century?
I’ll look to get 250 games for Saints first! I’m on 229. But as I said before, as soon as you start talking about numbers it becomes quite personal and ego-orientated. It becomes about ‘me’ but it’s not about me, it’s about the team winning and that’s all that matters.
How strong do you think this season’s Premiership will be and what do you think of wage inflation and guys like Charles Piutau set to be paid a reputed £750,000-£1m-a-year?
As a player, I think bigger salaries are great! The game is so physical now and guys put their bodies on the line, so they deserve every penny they get and that’s just the way the game’s going. Recruitment has been impressive this summer, including us, and every team is going to be hugely competitive. I’m really excited about this Premiership campaign.