Jim Mallinder is not bashful about saying he wants to coach England one day; he sees it as setting the same goal for himself as he does for his Northampton players. "We want every player to represent his country as it means they're striving for improvement," says the Saints' director of rugby. "Coaching England is something I want to do but I've got a lot more to achieve in club rugby before I move on. I've never won the Premiership and I've never won the Heineken Cup."
Chewing the fat before yesterday's match with Leeds, it does not faze Mallinder noticeably that he could tick both those boxes in the next three weeks; Northampton have an away play-off semi-final in the Premiership next weekend and face Leinster in the Heineken Cup final in Cardiff a week later. He appears settled and ready to see out the two years remaining on his club contract. But who can be sure? Martin Johnson's deal as England manager is up after this year's World Cup. He may stay or go or decide his coaching staff needs a shake-up. Mallinder, the deceptively mild-mannered Yorkshireman who has ruled over Northampton's rapid rise since their promotion from the second division in his first season, 2007-08, admits there is appeal in stepping off the club treadmill.
"What you love and hate about this job is that it's full on, you very rarely get a day off," he says. "When you're winning there's pressure to keep winning and when you're losing there's pressure to win. It is relentless but enjoyable in a funny sort of way." He cannot say it caused him to lose his hair – that started a long time ago when he was a Halifax lad playing at full-back for Old Crossleyans and then Roundhay while studying at Carnegie College in Leeds. He gained a BEd Hons teaching qualification and worked for the next five years at William Hulme Grammar School in Manchester. "I'd love to lie and say I was a highly intelligent maths teacher but I was a PE teacher who took a few junior classes for maths." Joining Sale, he bridged the transition from amateur to professional rugby. He won two England caps in Argentina, in the summer of 1997, when the first choices Tim Stimpson and Nick Beal were touring with the Lions.
Seamlessly, playing turned into coaching. In his mid-30s, Mallinder guided Sale to second and fourth in the Premiership, and they won the equivalent of the European Challenge Cup. But it wasn't good enough for the Sale owner, Brian Kennedy, and Mallinder left for the RFU in 2004 to look after England's national academy (with Brian Ashton), U21s and A team. In doing so he bolted on what he calls a "priceless" knowledge of the country's young players – some of whom have transformed Northampton from a relegated team into title challengers containing five members of the current England XV.
The influence of Saints forwards coach Dorian West has been crucial. "I need a good strong forwards coach who knows their stuff," says Mallinder, and the Northampton scrum is evidence of West's work. Mallinder knows, nevertheless, where the buck stops. "It's about having a successful team but you do need somebody ultimately to make that final decision, whether that's setting the discipline or setting the tone, or deciding selection." He has guided the development of Lee Dickson as a quality scrum-half; nurtured the volatile Dylan Hartley as club captain; brought Chris Ashton through a difficult first season in the Premiership when the Wigan wing considered jacking in union and returning to league.
More recently, Mallinder had to handle Ben Foden, Northampton's England full-back, who was arrested, kept in a police cell and cautioned after a night out in London for Dickson's birthday ended with a mate of Foden's allegedly stealing the car keys from a taxi driver. "I'm aware these players are generally young lads who want to enjoy life," Mallinder says. "And we've got to let them to a certain extent. I do get them to be aware of their responsibilities. It was a minor thing with Ben. You could not say he was innocent. It was a shock to him to be in the cells. But it wasn't worth a £1,000 fine or anything like that."
It has been a season of contrasts. Six successive league defeats in midwinter but crucial Heineken Cup wins away to Edinburgh, Cardiff Blues and Castres – that gave Northampton a home quarter-final against Ulster – and last Sunday's home semi-final win over Perpignan.
There have been calls from fans, TV pundits and Northampton board members to swap Steve Myler at fly-half for Shane Geraghty. Last year they interchanged regularly. But Mallinder put his foot down with a heavy hand, as they might joke in Halifax. He stuck with Myler. So far, he has been vindicated.
With the European final in mind, I ask Mallinder what he recalls of Sale's win away to Leinster in January 2004. He was 37, a coach still learning. Leinster – with Brian O'Driscoll et al – were building too. "It's funny, I was thinking exactly of that match this morning, cycling into the club," Mallinder says, smiling. "We went there as underdogs and turned them over on their own patch. It's one of the highlights of my coaching career. But we lost the return match. This is the success, this season. We've done the hard work in away games, when we were always conscious that losing might give us an away draw in the quarters. Now we're in the final. We'll give it a good crack."
Contenders to follow Johnno...
Northampton directior of rugby began at Sale before coaching the national academy, England U21s and Saxons.
Became Leicester Tigers' head coach as much by accident as design but won the 2010 Premiership.
Not quite able to keep London Irish at the top of the Premiership pile but highly rated in club circles.
Star has waned with Wasps and Wales but that is judging the Wiganer by his own high standards.
Calmness personified, has used a clear gameplan to guide Exeter to promotion and keep them in the Premiership.
Gave up part-time job as England Saxons' assistant coach to concentrate on similar role with Saracens.
Long linked with the job given to Johnson, career interrupted by three-year ban over "Bloodgate".
Regrouped in Championship with Worcester after mixed experiences in Premiership and France.
Ex-Bristol coach has turned to broadcasting since losing his Gloucester job.