Rugby Union: Rugby's home builder

Tim Glover hears McGeechan's plans for long-term domestic bliss
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NORTHAMPTON are out of the foothills and have embarked on a long, steep ascent. It is the first time they have experienced such a journey. Can they plant their pennant at the summit and win the Premiership? "I don't know," Ian McGeechan replied. "We haven't had an easy game yet."

What he does know is that the embattled league is more competitive than ever. "There are six or seven clubs capable of beating each other. If we're thereabouts in the last month we'll be playing for something." McGeechan has some mud on his sleeve - he's wearing his tracksuit - but you won't find his heart there. The Saints coach leaves the hellfire and brimstone to others.

Northampton are on a roll. Their victory at Bath last week made it eight out of nine and their first at the Recreation Ground in 23 years. "To win there takes some doing and was important but there was nothing on offer other than two points." And there's another two points to play for at West Hartlepool today. "The players are working for each other and there's an honesty there. In training they take responsibility and they're being driven by everybody involved in the club. We are setting standards and producing an environment for the team to perform. It is a bit like a Lions tour."

When he returned 18 months ago from the Lions' unexpected success in South Africa, McGeechan had a huge decision to make: stay with Northampton, for whom he had signed a seven-year contract in 1996, or coach England. "I'm glad he stayed," Tim Rodber said. Rodber, of course, was speaking as the Northampton captain rather than as an England player.

The conversion of Rodber from No 8 to the second row has been one of the ingredients in the rise of Northampton. It was an experiment McGeechan toyed with on the Lions tour. "Tim wanted another crack at being the England No 8 and he had to be convinced of his suitability for a completely different role. The idea is to split the pack in half with a front four and back four. People are again talking about him being a world-class player but he has always been there in my book. He has brought a dimension to the pack that didn't exist."

As has the arrival of the extraordinary Pat Lam. After Newcastle had won the league last season, Lam was voted player of the year. "Getting Pat here was a real breakthrough," McGeechan said. "We were quite surprised. We heard on the grapevine that he was available and we acted quickly." Northampton paid Newcastle pounds 100,000 and it already looks like the bargain of the year. Even the great All Black Wayne Shelford, who had a spell at Franklins Gardens, didn't have Lam's relentless drive and dynamism. "He is excellent in training, very supportive and has taken some of the pressure off Tim," McGeechan said.

With the support of his chairman, Keith Barwell, McGeechan made other astute signings, notably the Argentine hooker Federico Mendez from Bath and the lock Richard Metcalfe from Newcastle. Garry Pagel, the South African prop who joined the previous season, rates Mendez as one of the best two hookers in the world. "All of a sudden we have a strong collection of ideas," McGee-chan said, "and a lot of things have fallen into place".

Pagel, incidentally, who was considered responsible for fracturing the eye socket of the Bath captain Richard Webster last Saturday, is not regarded by the Saints as having committed any sin. "He drove into a ruck, that's all," McGeechan said. "It's a high-contact game. There is not one of our first-team squad that hasn't had an operation in the last three seasons."

High contact or not eye contact, there is no halo for Pagel. They belong to Matt Dawson, Paul Grayson and Lam who are featured in a poster campaign as St Matthew, St Paul and St Patrick. No matter that the Samoan has never been addressed as Patrick in his life.

McGeechan - he's also delighted with the progress of Andy Blyth after losing Gregor Townsend to Brive - is wary of buying success rather than cultivating it. "I'm in a privileged position. I'm not just the coach but also a director of the club and Keith has brought me into everything. We have a long-term vision and I want at least two-thirds of the Saints to be home grown. I'm not in favour of teams with seven or eight South Africans or New Zealanders and I don't care whether they've got British passports or not. Clubs keep buying the big players and that's not only an expensive business but a short-term fix. We have to get a strong home base."

Northampton not only have a youth development programme but an academy, run by Brett Taylor and Martin Bayfield, which combines rugby with education. There are nine apprentices and the club has bought a house in the town to accommodate them. "I'm still a schoolmaster at heart," McGeechan said, "and I get a lot of satisfaction seeing players develop. It is a complete structure". Which is more than British rugby has got.

McGeechan's dream season would be a domestic league, a European competition involving 32 clubs and then the Six Nations' championship in the Millennium to be played on successive weekends towards the end of the season. "There's not a big gap between the southern hemisphere and the northern. We haven't put a structure into place to make the most of our talent. We've had years of ifs and buts. If you play the internationals back to back the squads would be together and there would be no conflict between clubs and country. There would be intensity and pressure but the Lions played Tests back to back. If I was an international coach I'd welcome the idea."

Does he ever regret giving up the chance of becoming the Scotsman who coached England? "It's gone, I look forward, not back. I'm enjoying every minute of my involvement with Northampton." McGeechan's involvement with Scotland is limited, although he remains in touch with his Lions strategist Jim Telfer. "He uses me as he sees fit. I might do the odd training session but my club commitments are greater than last year. I don't want to compromise what I'm doing here. We've got a lot of things right and we are just beginning to see the benefits."

So, can the phantom win the league? "It would be easy to say yes but that would be such a bland statement," he said. "You have to get it right every time you play. It is no longer a two club affair between Bath and Leicester."

At the moment it is between Northampton and Leicester. "It's probably heresy to say so but I have always admired Leicester," McGeechan said. "It would be the perfect scenario to keep the two Midlands clubs at the top."