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Guscott column: New half-back pairing key to Saints’ revival

By Jeremy Guscott

DAN Biggar is a quality, proven, high-level international performer, who knows what he has to do at Franklin’s Gardens. That’s because last season the Wales fly-half was part of an Ospreys outfit that achieved a European Cup pool double over the Saints, beating them home and away.

Although Biggar did not play in either game he will have seen Northampton at their worst, with their 43-32 home defeat – in a game in which they trailed 43-8 going into the final quarter – leading to Jim Mallinder’s departure as rugby director.

I don’t know what Biggar would have thought when he saw the side he had just signed for getting walloped, but he is experienced enough to know that nothing stands still for long in this sport, and also that Chris Boyd, the incoming Kiwi coach he will be working with, has a strong reputation.

Northampton have everything aligned to be successful. They have a lovely stadium, as well as great support including a large number of season ticket holders. They have also had a decent squad for quite some time.

It is not so long ago that they were challenging for titles when Samu Manoa was so inspirational for them that it looked like a return to the days when they were a force with Tim Rodber, Matt Dawson and Paul Grayson leading the way.

However, they have struggled for consistency, especially in terms of the management getting the best out of the Saints squad. This has included having a number of fly-halves who have struggled to make their mark. As a result they have never replicated the understanding and effectiveness that Dawson and Grayson achieved as a half-back pairing – and an enduring half-back partnership has a great bearing on the success of a team.

If you have a very strong pack and a solid 9-10 partnership then the team will at least be decent. However, the challenge facing a lot of coaches is that if they do not have a dominant 9-10 pairing and there is fierce competition for places, sometimes players are unable to develop at the rate you would expect because of the pressure on them.

The good news for Biggar is that Cobus Reinach is a quick scrum-half who challenges defences around the base, and that could give the Wales fly-half a bit more time on the ball. Biggar is an 8/10 performer, a class player, but he is  not renowned for line breaking attacks – however, if Reinach gives him breathing space, he may look to do more of it.

Overall, there are not many great running, line-breaking 10s in the Premiership, with Owen Farrell, Rhys Priestland and George Ford more distributors and tactical kickers like Biggar.

The Welsh fly-half’s biggest challenge is to get the best out of the Saints backline, and to do that he will have to keep a cool head. In the past he has sometimes become too involved and tried to referee the game, but he is old enough and wise enough to eradicate that now he’s in the Premiership.

He has to get the best out of Luther Burrell and Harry Mallinder, who have both experienced recent dips in form. Burrell is currently out of Test rugby and Mallinder has gone from being a big England U20 fish to having to make an impact on a weekly basis in the Premiership, and it has been a shock to the system.

Mallinder has to work out quickly what he does best and where he is most effective, which is something that Biggar has done, and which he could learn from. Mallinder has got the physique and skill set to play in a man’s world, but he hasn’t got it all together yet. He should be looking to use his size and skill to challenge for an England place, but to do so he must get tougher in defence.

What Biggar brings is a very effective kick-pass ability, whether it’s a dink over the top for others, or for himself, and he also has a good Garryowen which he is very accomplished at winning back himself, or giving other chasers the chance to do so.

Burrell and Mallinder have the height to make the most of such a good attacking weapon, and you would hope the same is true of Taqele Naiyaravoro, the heavyweight 6ft 5ins Fijian-born Australian wing who is joining Northampton from the Waratahs.

Man mountain: Wing Taqele Naiyaravoro joins Northampton from the Waratahs (photo: Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

With centre Andy Symons, who has arrived over the summer from Gloucester, also 6ft 5ins, Saints should field one of the tallest backlines in the Premiership, so Biggar should have no shortage of targets to hit.

Northampton’s other high profile import is James Haskell. The former Wasps captain will be very keen to stay in the eye line of Eddie Jones – and if he makes a big impact at Franklin’s Gardens he will do so.

Haskell wants to be involved in the next World Cup, so he has to play at the top of his game. There are big challenges for Jones, especially when it comes to filling the openside shirt, and if Haskell puts in sensational club performances against the main contenders at 7 he has a huge shout.

Another Saints forward with a massive amount to play for is Courtney Lawes, who should be refreshed and firing after his summer off. Lawes does not quite operate at the same level of consistency as Joe Launchbury, and he may not be as effective a carrier as Maro Itoje or George Kruis, but at his best he has an energy and drive that can change momentum almost as much as the big hits that used to be his trademark.

Lawes is an international lock, but I don’t see him as a blindside at all. Although with the number of tackles he makes and his line-out ability I can see why he has been used there, the best blindsides are more dynamic in attack and defence than Courtney is currently.

When you look at the number of international players in the North-ampton squad there is no reason for them not finishing in the top four. However, it will require Dylan Hartley to get fit, and Lawes and Tom Wood to get back to their best.

Despite Northampton having players of Test calibre they have not delivered on a regular basis. That is why Boyd will have to set his standards high, and really find out what guys who’ve been in the Saints squad for so long are worth – and if they are not performing he has to be ruthless and drop them.

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