Nick Cain: Grayson stricken by Midlands fly-halfitis

Paul GraysonPaul Grayson’s exit from Northampton after being at Franklin’s Gardens as an assistant coach and player for 19 years suggests that the former England and Lions fly-half has carried the can for a virus that seems to afflict the big East Midlands clubs on a regular basis. It’s called ‘fly-halfitis’, and its main symptom is not knowing which way is up when it comes to selecting or grooming No.10s.
The Saints have marched round in circles when it comes to fly-half selection under the stewardship of Jim Mallinder and Dorian West.
To be fair, when Mallinder arrived in 2007 it was a mess with Carlos Spencer signed when the Kiwi showman was way past his prime, and Barry Everitt nearing retirement. However, it was compounded when Mallinder shipped-in Shane Geraghty from London Irish as the new fly-half maestro, only for his lack of consistency to allow Rugby League convert Stephen Myler to get his foot in the selection door despite being cast in the role of the understudy.
Myler’s tenacity, allied to his superior kicking, both tactically and for goal, contrasted starkly with the quicksilver Geraghty’s less structured, hit-or-miss attempts to get the Saints backline firing, and it started the Northampton No.10 merry-go-round which eventually cost Grayson his job.
It has been a protracted business because Geraghty decided to leave Franklin’s Gardens to try his luck with Brive in 2011, only for Northampton to look again to London Irish for a like-for-like replacement, with the quixotic former Gloucester pivot Ryan Lamb making the trip up the M1 last season to extend Mallinder’s fly-half conundrum.
Since then Lamb has been in and out of the team in the same way that Geraghty was before him, with Myler refusing to go quietly despite sometimes being pressed into service at full-back. The reality is is that neither fly-half is the full package in the way that Nick Evans is for Harlequins. Their goal-kicking stats are middling rather than exceptional, and where Lamb is a box of tricks – some of which work while others backfire spectacularly – Myler is the flip side of the coin, steady, but short of game-breaking inspiration.
cartoonOne of English rugby’s flaws in the academy era is a habit of producing fly-halves who do not have a rounded skill set. They either produce kickers and distributors who do not have the crucial attribute of being a line-breaking threat, or runners and jugglers who are flawed when it comes to having a tactical head on their shoulders and are able to mix their game, including kicking accurately for goal or territory.
The real difficulty for Mallinder and West, and the one that they have been unable to resolve, is that any team struggles to come to terms with the frequent switches in tempo and style brought by different fly-halves. While mavericks like Lamb and Geraghty like to play it off-the-cuff depending on what they see in front of them, with an instinct to keep the ball in hand, a more structured fly-half like Myler is more likely to play for territory and put boot to ball.
The lack of a regular starting No.10 means that the rest of the Saints team struggle to find their rhythm, having to check and think about how their fly-half will play from week to week, rather than knowing instinctively what he is going to do and being ready to react.
Mattie Stewart, the former Saints prop who was part of Northampton’s Heineken Cup winning side in 2000 alongside Grayson, says elsewhere in this edition that the chopping-and-changing between Lamb and Myler results frequently in the copious quantities of ball and territory won by the Saints pack going to waste.
With Northampton losing five of their last seven matches in all competitions, including their three most recent Premiership games, Stewart suggests that Mallinder needs to fix the problem urgently because he is running out of time. The former Saints chairman, Keith Barwell – who despite handing over the reins to his son, Leon, is still a driving force behind the club – is impatient that there are still no trophies in the cabinet.
Leicester, the Saints arch-rivals, had a similar situation in 2004 and it contributed to Dean Richards losing his job as director of rugby at Welford Road despite winning back-to-back Heineken Cups two years earlier. The Tigers talisman fell out with his board because he was unable to land a world-class No.10, with the shirt being passed between Andy Goode, Austin Healey, Pat Howard and Ramiro Pez, the Italian fly-half Richards signed from Rotherham.
Whether Leicester can unwittingly provide Mallinder with a solution to his problem in the shape of George Ford, the former England U20 star jockeying for the Tigers fly-half shirt with Toby Flood, remains to be seen. This week Mallinder refused to confirm any interest in Ford, but the fact that he is is out of contract with Leicester this summer, and is keen to get regular Premiership rugby, makes him an obvious target for the Saints.
Irrespective, Grayson has taken the bullet, and, Mallinder has been left in little doubt by the Barwells that unless the Northampton’s fly-half conundrum is sorted out the rifle is loaded and ready to fire.

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