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Guscott column: Saints need Dean Richards to turn them into a big-time club

(Photo: Getty Images)

By Jeremy Guscott

JIM Mallinder has had highs and lows at Northampton, starting with winning promotion back to the Premiership, to the 2011 European Cup final – which they had won, but then lost – to the club’s first Premiership title in 2014, and then the lows since then.

There had to be an upturn this season, and when there wasn’t Mallinder was always in jeopardy. There were rumours that a few players walked off during training sessions, and if that happens you are shipping water badly.

Coaches also left during Mallinder’s decade as Northampton’s director of rugby, and backroom-wise it became a bit of a revolving door with the likes of Alex King, Ali Hepher, Rob Hunter and Paul Grayson all moving on.

During Mallinder’s time at the club the pitch has been superb – turning from a surface which had boggy patches to one better than most professional football surfaces – but in recent seasons the team has failed to capitalise on it.

When spectators started leaving during the Ospreys game last weekend most people could see that Mallinder’s departure was almost an inevitability — so you like to think that Jim could see what was coming, and it therefore wasn’t a shock to him.

Northampton are potentially a huge club, currently with some decent players, and their fans have been waiting for them to make the best of what they’ve got. The missing link is finding a coach who can do the job.

The best head coaches in European club rugby at the moment appear to be Rob Baxter at Exeter, Mark McCall at Saracens, Wayne Pivac at Scarlets, and Vern Cotter at Montpellier – and then on the international stage there’s Gregor Townsend with Scotland. They are all serially successful coaches, but they are not the norm. In fact, they are as rare as hen’s teeth.

Look at how many head coaches have come and gone at Bath and Leicester in recent years. Northampton will not want what has happened to those two clubs to happen to them, and that is why the due diligence that they undertake has to be the best they have ever done.

So, who are the leading candidates? Ali Hepher at Exeter has been promoted to head coach this season, and while it’s great to be considered the best at what you do at a club, the question for most coaches is whether they can take the next step to become a director of rugby.

Mike Ford is another name that has been floated. Ford was a reasonable defence coach with England, and then he had a good initial coaching stint at Bath – which became less successful when he became director of rugby.

There has also been talk of a return ticket for Wayne Smith. However, I doubt Smith will go back into full-time club coaching after being with the very best during his time with the All Blacks.

Hands on: All Blacks assistant coach Wayne Smith (photo: Dianne Manson/Getty Images)

Smith is one of the best coaches in the world – and one of the best there has ever been – but he also strikes me as more of a pure coach than a director of rugby. I see Ford and Hepher, who has excelled at Exeter alongside Baxter, in a similar light, but they all need someone doing the overall job.

Dean Richards is that man. I honestly don’t believe that there is a director of rugby tracksuit big enough to fit him, and he is obviously well established in the north-east with Newcastle having turned the club around. The lifestyle also appears to suit him, whether hunting, shooting and fishing in his leisure time, or just enjoying the bracing Northumberland air.

Deano has got Newcastle up and running, and, with the help of a strong coaching team, has embedded a style which has got the Falcons into mid-table contention in the Premiership.

Yes, there is the Bloodgate blip, but Richards eventually copped it, and it’s not a mistake he will ever make again. Instead, he has become a go-to man who knows what he wants and is a no-nonsense, clever, smart operator, who can be ruthless in selection – but who makes a difference wherever he goes.

Deano is a big-time coach, and Northampton should be a big-time club – but they are small-time at the moment. Richards also knows Northampton forwards coach Dorian West very well, but if he didn’t feel the set-up was right he would bring in who he thought could do the job best.

There is a place for sentiment still in international coaching – for instance, New Zealand’s Smith wrestling with his conscience over coaching England – but in club rugby less so.

That said, Richard Cockerill joining Northampton would also be surprising. He is a genuine free-speaking coach with integrity – and that’s why I don’t think he’ll leave Edinburgh after just one season. By contrast, Newcastle can already reflect on having had a Deano era.

I love Newcastle as a city, and the job that Richards has done in keeping them in the Premiership has been very impressive. It may be an outpost of the game, but Deano has managed to attract good players and coaches to the north-east.

Will Newcastle win the league? Not at the moment. Top four? Probably not. But could they finish sixth? Yes.

Richards is a seasoned, tough operator who would give Northampton a reality check. He would tell the players they are not as good as they think they are, and that they have to get themselves out of the funk they have got themselves into.

That’s why if I was in Northampton’s position Dean Richards would be the first name on my speed-dial.

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