By Nick Cain
If you want to know what has gone so wrong at Northampton that it led to Jim Mallinder being sacked last week, there is a cameo that offers an explanation. It involves Victor Matfield, one of the greatest lineout forwards the game has known, a 2007 Springbok World Cup winner who was a master of his art.
Matfield spent the 2015-16 season with the Saints, and although the South African lock was in the twilight of his career at 37, the depth of knowledge he had at his fingertips after winning 127 caps for his country would be seen as invaluable by most ambitious clubs.
However, when Matfield suggested making some changes to the lineout to one of Mallinder’s coaching staff he was summarily dismissed. A well-respected former player at Franklin’s Gardens takes up the story.
“He was told, ‘look mate, you just hit rucks and mauls and leave it at that’. He was clearly frustrated and said to me that in some areas the club was rotten.”
That blinkered, closed-shop mentality is at variance with the picture that emerged this week of Mallinder. Despite the disastrous nine-match losing run that lost him his job – with the final straw coming in the home European Cup loss to the Ospreys last Saturday– ‘Gentleman Jim’ was almost universally liked by Saints fans and players.
The same was true of the members of the Northampton board who made the decision to part with a director of rugby whose ten-year tenure at Franklin’s Gardens made him the longest-serving head coach in the Premiership.
Among them is Keith Barwell, the millionaire businessman whose investment and hands-on involvement has underpinned the club in the professional era, and who was also instrumental in signing Mallinder.
Speaking exclusively to The Rugby Paper, Barwell makes clear the turmoil involved in putting hard-headed, pragmatic decisions ahead of his, and his family’s, affection for Mallinder.
“It was heartbreaking. My wife cried, and I shed a tear. I brought Jim Mallinder here, and he’s won more trophies than any other Northampton coach – more than Wayne Smith and Ian McGeechan – and he’s such a nice bloke, too.
“No-one ever wrote to me and said he was a liability – but it needed freshening up. Last season we got out of jail, qualifying for Europe through the play-offs against Stade Francais. After the defeat at the weekend one of the directors said to me, ‘Jim looks a broken man’.
“You don’t make these decisions without taking soundings from Dylan Hartley and other senior players like Tom Wood. I went to Dylan’s testimonial dinner on Wednesday night, and they are pros and understand that these things happen – and Jim Mallinder is a pro in the same way, because during his time at the club he also had to let players and coaches go.”
Barwell says that whereas the suggestion that Mallinder had lost the support of his squad is mistaken, his unwillingness to compromise when it came to restructuring his coaching team was more problematic.
Barwell revealed: “We wanted to bring in someone to assist Jim, but that was a stumbling block – he was not happy with it…”
At the heart of the impasse was Mallinder’s loyalty to Dorian West, his forwards coach and right-hand man. When Mallinder and West arrived at Northampton in 2008 they were billed as a rugby version of the Brian Clough-Peter Taylor duo that transformed the football fortunes of Derby County and Nottingham Forest so spectacularly.
That comparison was reinforced when they took the Saints to the 2011 European Cup final, despite eventually losing 33-22 after blowing a commanding lead and being overhauled by Leinster.
Northampton refused to be denied a big prize, and after defeat in the 2013 Premiership final, Mallinder’s men reached the final again the following season to become English champions for the first time after beating Saracens 24-20 in an extra-time epic.
In the aftermath hopes of a successful Saints dynasty took root – but that optimism has been dashed over the last three years with Northampton out of the running for the big prizes in Europe and the Premiership.
When they dropped to tenth in the league table after defeat at home by Newcastle earlier this month, and had also lost their first two European Cup pool matches, the Mallinder-West ticket was looking frayed at the edges.
Lennie Newman, the former Saints forward and team manager who now works as a rugby commentator for BBC Radio Northampton, says that the main question being asked on fans forums is whether West is right to stay.
“I’m amazed that because Jim and Dorian came together, they did not leave together. There is also a strong suggestion that when the board wanted someone to come in alongside Jim, and for other coaches to go, Jim said, ‘no, I’ll go’. Loyalty to people was his downfall.”
Barwell says that the other non-negotiable element was results. “We sell a hell of a lot of season tickets, which we need to do for next season, and the fans are very concerned. It’s no different from any other pro-sport. The fans think you’re not listening, and after eight or nine games without a win you ignore them at your peril.
“Jim pointed out that if we had won the Worcester and Newcastle games we would have been in the top four in the Premiership – but we didn’t win them, and when that didn’t happen the board had to decide, because doing nothing was not an option. You can’t keep telling the fans, sponsors, and players, ‘mañana, mañana’.”
Newman agrees with Barwell that Mallinder never lost the support of the dressing room, but says he and his players lost direction, focus, and, worst of all, commitment.
“There is an old saying that what you see on the pitch mirrors what is going on off it. What results like the 37-5 away European Cup quarter-final defeat by Clermont in 2015 indicated was a soft underbelly of a culture. That was a capitulation, and that’s been happening for the last three seasons. We’ve been smashed by Saracens twice this season, once at home, and the same happened last season against Leinster in Europe, including a great team performance by them to demolish Saints at Franklin’s Gardens (37-10).”
He adds that a sense of energy and togetherness seemed to have vanished from the Saints squad in recent seasons. “The squad is devoid of any enjoyment. God knows when the last time was that they went out together on a social. I guess what’s exciting is that they are so low confidence-wise that now things can only go up.”
Newman believes there was also a serious communications problem, both internal and external, reflected in losing a talented backs coach like Alex King, as well as in worsening media relations.
“It became very insular. Jim started to come out with stereotypical responses (to media questions), and surrounded himself with yes-men. In top professional sport you need people who challenge you, which was what happened when Wayne Smith was at the club. However, over the last two or three years the door was always shut, so when Alex King challenged the system and wanted to change things, he found he was blocked.”
Barwell agrees that Press relations were an issue, and says he encouraged Mallinder to be more pro-active: “I said to him you have to talk to the Press to get a positive message about the club out there.”
However, it is Saints supporters who have been the main catalyst for change. Newman observes that although Northampton are not in a precarious financial position they are very keen to get back into the black, having made a loss last season and with another expected this.
He says a half-full Franklin’s Gardens for the Ospreys match, plus an exodus from the ground in the final quarter was an unmissable message to the Northampton board.
“Northampton is a massive rugby town and the fans vote through their seats and feet. They will not sit and watch indefinitely if it’s not as it should be, and last Saturday night they walked.
“The crowd for the Ospreys match was said to be 8,000, but to me it was more like 7,000 because many season-ticket holders watched it at home.
“The board did what they had to. We interviewed Jim after the game, and if he was broken at Worcester, and empty at Newcastle, after the Ospreys he had nowhere to go. He had asked the players for physicality, and to win the collisions, and when they did neither I asked him what he could do. He said, ‘I don’t know the answer’. You could see it in his eyes, and you just wanted to give him a cuddle.”
What might have given Mallinder a lift was the metaphorical bear-hug he received from Hartley during his testimonial bash at Silverstone.
The deposed director of rugby did not attend because he felt it might be a distraction on his former captain’s big night, but Hartley did not forget the man who backed him despite a disciplinary record that would not have been out of place in the Dark Ages.
During his speech, England captain Hartley said of the honours he’s won for his country and Northampton: “These would not have been possible without the support of Jim Mallinder. Jim backed me all the way.”
That the Northampton board did not feel it could extend the same backing to Mallinder has not come as a bolt from the blue to many Saints supporters.
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