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Q&A – Chris Boyd: Even if Cobus wanted to stay, that would have confused my plans for Alex Mitchell

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Chris Boyd

Northampton Saints director of rugby Chris Boyd tells NEALE HARVEY that his young stars must push for the next level while reflecting on some of the game’s burning issues.

How are you and Saints operating during the shutdown?

I’m probably doing four or five hours a day of planning and organising so that if the season does get up and running again there are no surprises – and I give absolute credit to the players for the way they’ve adapted.

Our gym equipment has gone out, guys have set up home gyms and they’ve been pretty resourceful around their running and skills work. Sam Vesty’s been setting challenges around juggling and hand-eye co-ordination and they’ve applied themselves well. When we come back, we’ll know who’s really been working hard, but I’m very positive about how they’ve embraced the challenge.

You were fourth at the break, assess Saints’ season up to then?

It shows how important a good start is because for a couple of reasons we fell into a bit of a hole in January and February and lost games we felt we didn’t need to lose, with guys away on international duty and a bunch of injuries around lock/loose forward, where we got pretty thin. At one stage we were 17 people down and the squad just wasn’t deep enough to cover that.

There were games against London Irish and Bristol at home that we let slip at the back end that were really disappointing, but we ended with a win at Worcester to stay in the top four. We’ve played some reasonable football and some average football so consistency is something we’ll keep working on.

International call-ups for guys like George Furbank, Alex Moon, Alex Mitchell, Rory Hutchinson and Fraser Dingwall must have been satisfying?

That was really pleasing but it’s a double-edged sword in that all these guys have had a little window of opportunity at international level but none have made it by any means. In our organisation we have Courtney Lawes who’s a very established Test player but the rest of them are only at the beginning of their journeys at that level, so the message is: it’s fantastic they’ve been recognised but you haven’t really achieved anything yet.

The real question is whether they’re going to be remembered as guys who got called into EPS squads and never played or got one or two caps, or whether they’re going on to play 60 games at that level? That’s the test because none of them is complete by any means.

Eddie Jones talks about Test players being stand-outs for their clubs. Is that the challenge for those guys now?

Absolutely. You’ve got to remember the hand that feeds you and it doesn’t matter if you’re a youngster trying to break into the team or an established guy going strong. If you’ve been there for a long time, you’ve got runs on the board and if you have a bit of a dry period you might get the benefit of history and experience. For example, Courtney Lawes can have a bad game and will probably get picked again the next week, but if a youngster has a bad game, they might not get the benefit of the doubt.

There’s probably ten guys in our organisation who are all homegrown, local boys who know there’s a door of opportunity open to them internationally and if they step through it they can do well, but they’ve got to keep working hard and stay humble because there are plenty of other people who want to walk through that door as well. Play well and you’ll get picked; if you don’t play well, don’t grizzle.

You’ve got some good competition at 15 with Furbank going head-to-head with Harry Mallinder, but how’s your depth elsewhere?

Ahsee Tuala is a very good full-back as well don’t forget and it’s an area where we’re currently very strong, but it’s such a complex question around the depth and breadth of your squad and how many you need in each position.

Last year, for example, we had five senior hookers but then had four injured and had to call others in. This season we’ve been hit hard at lock and, with due respect, Lewis Bean and Alex Coles have been doing a good job for us as our fifth and sixth locks. At full-back we’ve got Furbank, Mallinder and Tuala while Rory Hutchinson and Matt Proctor can play there as well, but at some stage we’ll run out somewhere and others will have to step up and do a job.

Where do you stand with regards to recruitment and retention?

We’re pretty full to be honest. We’ve got two or three of our existing guys to tie up and there’s a little bit of uncertainty around COVID-19 where if there’s a major impact on the club financially we may have to reduce our squad by a couple, which might impact on some existing contracts. But by and large next season is pretty close to being done and dusted.

Any particular areas you might be looking to strengthen?

No, we’re pretty happy. Our key goal was to retain our own talent and backfill it where needed. Last year we struggled a bit at scrum time and backfilled that with Owen Franks, and when we were looking for a replacement for Rob Horne we pulled in Matt Proctor, but we haven’t felt the need to go to the top of the drawer this year. We’ve had some reasonably high-profile people finishing like Heinrich Brussow and Dylan Hartley but we’ve just replaced these guys internally and are happy with that. We haven’t felt the need to go out into the market place for big names.

Not even at No.9, where you’re losing a World Cup winner in Cobus Reinach?

We’re following our mantra of young, English and high potential. Cobus has been wonderful for us but he’s made a decision to go to Montpellier and finish his career there and, if I’m brutally honest, if Cobus had said he wanted to sign for another three years here it would have really challenged me around what I would have done with Alex Mitchell because I think he’s a high potential player.

Northampton Saints scrum-half Alex Mitchell
Next gen: Northampton Saints scrum-half Alex Mitchell. Getty Images

Henry Taylor’s a good player as well, we’ve got Connor Tupai as a youngster and Tom James has just come in from Doncaster as someone we’ve watched for quite a while. He’s got a really good core skill-set and we’re happy we’ve got him, so he’s another who’s English with high potential and we’re well stocked.

You seem wedded to that homegrown player mantra?

Yes, but it’s going to be interesting because the downside of having homegrown players is that you can lose them to international duty. Rory Hutchinson is now playing for Scotland, Dan Biggar’s with Wales and if you have too many Six Nations players, at key points of the season it can be a real hindrance.

It’s fantastic that it gets players within your organisation recognised for their abilities and potential but it does put a strain on you there. In that respect, having some Australian and Kiwi guys who can’t be selected for their countries is advantageous.

Given the mess Super Rugby is in, do you expect more Aussies and Kiwis to head north?

Not sure. It’ll be interesting to see how people react around Covid-19. The world had become very global but whether world travel ever returns to the level it was must be doubtful and whether people become more inclined to stay at home remains to be seen. Nobody knows what Super Rugby will look like in 12 months or what the global calendar might look like so it’s going to take time for the dust to settle.

Those guys who recently signed two or three-year contracts and have set themselves up are in the best positions because with Premiership clubs losing money and Covid-19 coming along, I hate to think what situation the Premiership might have been in had there not been the CVC interjection. Without that increased cashflow it might have been a very different situation, but whether that means the Premiership is still a high-demand place to go, which it has been, will be interesting to see.

Super Rugby looks to be a busted flush, so how about a new full-on Trans-Tasman competition with some proper Pacific Island representation?

Whether Super Rugby can continue in any way, shape or form across four or five countries with all the issues around long-distance travel, I really don’t know, but for the global game to thrive we need to engage Samoa, Tonga and Fiji at domestic level and it would make sense from a manpower and playing point of view.

Having been involved with Tonga at the 2011 World Cup and done coaching education and development in Samoa and Fiji, they’re really tough countries to make things work from a financial model so if they’re going to join Super Rugby the question would be whether they could viably operate in Nuku’alofa, Suva or Apia or whether they would need to be based somewhere else like Australia or New Zealand? That’s a question they need to get their heads around and as we’ve seen at World Rugby level, there’s a lot of politics to be played out as well.

Back to Saints, you have something called ‘Game Driver Groups’. What’s it all about?

We divide our squad into cells and assign a coach to each. For example, Sam Vesty runs the No.9s and 10s group and they’ll regularly look at a game from elsewhere – Super Rugby, Test rugby, the Premiership or wherever – and pull it to bits.

They’ll look at the game organisation philosophies around the two teams, whether they were defence or territory based, how much risk they were taking etc, and we include in this group guys from Dan Biggar right through to a couple of boys who are still at school and won’t join our academy until next season.

The cross-pollination and learning from that is immense because you can have a kid who’s 17 sitting in a meeting with Cobus Reinach and Dan discussing attacking and defensive strategies and these are wonderful development opportunities for young guys to give them a bit of confidence and understanding the depth of what’s required. We do it unashamedly to help our youngsters integrate and it’s a really good process.

Talking of Dan Biggar, he takes some hammer for club and country. You’ve coached top Kiwis like Beauden Barrett, but have you met a more resilient player?

He’s a tough rooster, there’s no doubt about that! Whatever word you use, whether it’s grit, mental toughness or resilience, guys like Dan just do not go away and he’s as good as anyone I’ve ever coached. If you watch the documentary of Michael Jordan that’s going around, he was an incredibly hard taskmaster for the guys at Chicago Bulls when they decided they wanted to be the best in the NBA.

Michael led that and you see exactly the same with Dan who, along with Alun Wyn Jones, has done a wonderful job of making Wales successful over a long period since he’s dominated the No.10 jersey. Dan’s world-class.

Given your increased international call-ups, isn’t it time we got the season structure sorted out to prevent club and country clashes?

There’s nowhere to hide in the Premiership physically or mentally so put that alongside two international windows for northern and southern-bound tours, plus the Six Nations, plus a full-on European competition and I think at some stage we need to work out where the international and club games fit, how they interface and, probably more importantly, how that connects back into the nurseries of schools, clubs, academies and the rest of the national game. That’s a massive piece of work and nobody’s come up with the right answers yet.

Ongoing problems aside, how have you enjoyed your first 21 months at Saints?

It’s been great. COVID-19 is an unfortunate reality but it was a great decision to come to Northampton. I wanted to come to the Premiership and when I first started looking Northampton wasn’t my first option because there was another club looking to change their DoR and Northampton were not. But as those discussions went along Northampton made a decision to make a change and, having been here before in 2003/4 when Wayne Smith was in charge, I remembered the passion of the town. I’ve got to say that the owners, the board, the CEO and all the staff have been nothing but a pleasure to deal with and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the experience and the passion of the spectators. One of the disadvantages of Super Rugby is you’re often playing in international stadiums with just 5,000-6,000 people inside them, but here they’ve got the balance between spectators and size of ground right.

There are not many grounds you’d say are not nice to visit and by and large they all have their own characteristics and the crowds are passionate. Any team can tip over another, which is exciting, and it’s helped that we’ve played some decent footy at times and everybody’s been positive.

I haven’t come across any personal agendas, infighting or squabbling like some other clubs appear to have, everybody here is on the same line of being the best they can be.

Do you see yourself extending your contract beyond 2021?

The only thing that will lure my wife and I away from Northampton is the desire to eventually go back home to New Zealand and spend more time with our family and friends there, but there’s still quite a lot we’d like to get ticked off in Europe.

Would a crack at international coaching tempt you?

I did enjoy going to the World Cup with Tonga in 2011, it was a great experience and I wouldn’t mind finding a way to help somebody out at the 2023 World Cup in France. I’m really enjoying what I do here, though; we’ve got some good youngsters coming through and there’s a lot of enthusiasm.

The academy is in a good space and I really enjoy the young coaching group I’ve got in Sam Vesty, Phil Dowson, Ian Vass and Matt Ferguson and our academy guys because they’re all hungry to learn as well. I enjoy coaching the coaches as much as I do working with players, so I’m happy.

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