Northampton supremo Chris Boyd has allayed fears over the future of Dylan Hartley, insisting the Saints talisman is “optimistically positive” and will not be hanging up his boots.
Hartley, 33, has not played since last December and his World Cup hopes with England appear over, with Jamie George, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Jack Singleton in line for selection.
Saints recently recruited ex-Bath hooker Michael van Vuuren but Boyd insists that is to cover for injuries within his wider hooking group rather than being specific to the plight of Hartley, who continues his fight for fitness following knee surgery in February.
Asked whether he feared Hartley might have to quit, Boyd told The Rugby Paper: “No. There’s no indication about that at all. It’s been a long road, much slower than he thought, but Dylan’s mentally tough and resilient and he’s optimistically positive about playing again.
“A lesser man might have gone away already but he’s not going to hang his boots up and give it away. He’s still got the bit between his teeth and is working hard to get the result he’s looking for.”
Boyd refuses to put a timescale on Hartley’s return and with Mike Haywood (ACL) and Reece Marshall (badly torn hamstring) also on the injured No.2 list, he says he had no other choice than to bring van Vuuren on board following his summer release by Bath.
“It’s tough for Dylan,” Boyd said. “He’s battling to get that knee right and it’s a problem for him. He’s had disappointments around World Cups and British & Irish Lions tours more than most but he’s just doing his best right now to get fit and be playing for us again.
“Whatever that looks like and whenever that is, I don’t think anybody’s particularly certain, but what I do know is he’s working really hard to play another season for Saints.
“In the meantime, with Mikey Haywood coming back from a pretty nasty ACL and Reece tearing a hamstring off the bone at the end of last season, it means we’ve only got one fit senior hooker at the moment in James Fish, so we’ve brought Michael as cover.”
Haywood is close to a return and even better news for Boyd is that full-back Harry Mallinder and centre Andy Symons are nearing full fitness after also missing most of last season with ACL injuries.
“Along with Mikey, it will be like having new players,” said Boyd. “Harry and Andy ran personal bests last week and are looking pretty dangerous. They’re getting itchy and when guys have been through the darkness and finally see the light, they do get a bit frisky.
“Our medical staff are not going to release them until they are fully ready, but in Harry, Andy and Mikey there’s a lot of experience and talent going to be available to us.”
Meanwhile, Boyd has taken on board the learnings from last season’s fourth-placed Premiership finish and is setting about closing the gap on runaway pair Saracens and Exeter.
He insists there will be no compromise on his side’s attacking style, explaining: “I don’t think we can get big enough to compete (physically) with some of those teams, but it’s really important for the league that there’s not only one way to skin a cat.
“Saracens and Exeter play that physical, ball-dominating, smothering, squeeze-you-out-of-the-game rugby and both do it very well, but I think it’s important that other teams find a way to play their way out of pressure situations rather than just squeeze it out.
“People often say a good big man will always beat a good little one and clearly we have to be better at holding on to the ball and winning it back under pressure, but we also have to be brave and courageous with our decisions and our skills under pressure to negate the physicality of these two teams. We want to bring something that challenges them.
“We need to be more consistent in terms of results to get into that top two, but what I will say is that we’re a long way ahead in this pre-season from where we were last year as far as bedding down our game and the fundamentals of how we want to play.”
One of Boyd’s major successes last season was to bring together a group of young English coaches who earned widespread respect.
Sam Vesty (backs), Phil Dowson (forwards), Alan Dickens (defence) and Matt Ferguson (scrum) proved their worth by taking Saints into the play-offs and are bound to come under consideration by England in the inevitable post-World Cup coaching shake-up.
With Neal Hatley returning to Bath and attack coach Scott Wisemantel likely to head home to Australia, Red Rose vacancies require filling ahead of the Six Nations. However, Boyd hopes his men will remain at Saints for many years and create a coaching dynasty to rival the longevity of those at Saracens and Exeter, who reap the benefits of stability.
Former Hurricanes boss Boyd said: “I’d been advised by a couple of people who’d been up here that it might be a good idea to get a couple of foreign coaches in. But when I met the people up here it was a pretty easy decision to make that I was going to put my weight behind developing some young English coaches and giving them an opportunity.
“I see that being part of my role as DoR at Northampton Saints and I really enjoy coach development, so nothing would please me more when I’m finished here and waddle off into the sunset than if those existing boys were to carry on. One of the best choices I made was appointing Phil, Sam, Alan and Matt and they’ve got plenty to give to this club.”
Asked if he feared losing coaches to England, Boyd added: “Everybody has to make choices about where they want to be and what they want to do, but coaches might have 30 years in front of them so there’s no hurry around doing your apprenticeship.
“Doing your time, not being in a big rush and building the skills that are required to take you to the top of the game, wherever you want to go, is a luxury coaches have if they want to be disciplined around that rather than hopping around different jobs.
“I think if you’re solid with your decision-making you can have a long and fruitful career and my aim for all four of these guys is to give them a really good foundation and springboard to whatever they want to do, but hopefully that will be at Saints.
“I’d love it if in ten years’ time all four of them were coaching a very successful Northampton Saints team.
“Is that going to happen? Probably not because people do move on. But it’s certainly what I’d like to see happen and it would be a big victory.”
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