Barwell's fallen Saints look for resurrection on day of reckoning

Northampton, the European champions five years ago, could be relegated from rugby's élite today. Chris Hewett reports
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Keith Barwell did not look like a man at his wits' end, but then, he has more wit than most. "The Reverend Watham-Wigg set up this club in 1880 with the idea of taking naughty boys off the streets," said the Northampton chairman and resident moneybags, casting a mischievous eye over a portrait of the good vicar dominating one of the more substantial watering holes at Franklin's Gardens. "It's amazing how little has changed over the last century and a quarter."

Sadly for Barwell, things have changed utterly in the last 12 months, and whatever the poet Yeats may have written on the subject of calamitous upheaval, there is precious little beauty in this sporting corner of the East Midlands just at the moment, terrible or otherwise. Champions of Europe only five years ago and contenders for Premiership honours on an annual basis ever since, Northampton suddenly find themselves up a gum tree the size of a giant redwood. If they fail to beat Worcester at Sixways in this afternoon's ultra-canine relegation dogfight and results elsewhere conspire against them, they will lose their élite status. When Barwell laughs these days, it is laughter in the darkness.

How will he react if the worst comes to the worst? "I'll take it on the chin, at least in public," he said. "In private, it will be more a case of 'Oh *!&$, how did this happen?' But Saturday night will be party night, even if the party turns out to be a wake. I've paid £21,000 for a television feed from Worcester, and I'm expecting 6,000 people to watch the game here on the big screen at a fiver a head. The players will return to the stadium and have a few drinks with the supporters, which is only right and proper, and I'll be around as well. I'm the captain of this ship, so if it goes down, I have to accept responsibility."

Barwell has been responsible for an awful lot at Northampton, most of it entirely positive. His millions eased the club's passage towards professionalism, underpinning both Ian McGeechan's successful exercise in team-building during the late 1990s and the equally impressive development of the finest club ground in English rugby - a project that remains ongoing, with a new round of construction work scheduled to begin any day now. There is no more generous benefactor to be found amongst the Premiership fraternity, no more passionate defender of the faith. Having made a mint out of newspaper publishing - steeped in left-wing politics, Barwell sees himself as a capitalist of the people, a Roundhead blessed with the spending power of a Cavalier - he intends to keep club rugby in the headlines, come what may.

"I hold the view that the sport will develop along similar lines to football - that the club game will grow, that international rugby will go down the drain," he predicted. "I think we're beginning to see it now. Worcester could have sold 20,000 tickets for this match. How long will it be before England struggle to sell out Twickenham for a game with Scotland or Italy?

"As an Englishman, I was almost embarrassed by the overkill that followed the World Cup victory. I remember telling Matt Dawson [the Lions scrum-half who left Northampton for Wasps last summer] after the tournament: 'Matt, you only ever spend half a season here, and all the supporters see of you now is when you're on the telly, drinking champagne. They want you to get your arse back to Franklin's Gardens and play some rugby.' The international game has to be very careful, because the modern spectator gets cheesed off about lots of things associated with it."

A good point, well made. Rising attendances - 15 per cent up on last season, with a 43 per cent sell-out rate - confirm Barwell and his club-owning brethren, the Andrew Brownswords and Dave Thompsons and Nigel Wrays, in their opinion that the Premiership has changed the way rugby folk think about, and watch, their sport. The elderly flatulents of Twickenham continue to insist that Test rugby is the only game in town, and in narrow commercial terms they may still be right. But to the ever-expanding paying public, club means more than country. And where hearts and minds lead, the wallets are sure to follow.

All the same, it is Barwell and Northampton who have most need to be careful right now. The chairman has grand ideas for his club - when was it ever different? - and has been chasing any number of the top-of-the-bill acts in an effort to spruce things up for next term. Mark Cueto, the free-scoring Test wing from Sale, was a target, as was Charlie Hodgson. Both men knocked him back, as did the fast-developing Bath prop Matt Stevens. But Barwell is still pursuing the All Black outside-half Carlos Spencer - "Yes, he's been here for a look around; yes, we've made him an offer; yes, he's made a decision; no, I'm not telling you if he's coming, because he's not saying anything until after the Super 12 campaign" - and is confident of recruiting a high-calibre New Zealand back-row forward to replace Andrew Blowers, who plays his last game for the club this afternoon.

Relegation has its consequences, however, and even though Barwell has secured the services of the vast majority of his current squad for next season, the inevitable drop in revenue will threaten even the best-laid plans. How in the name of all that is holy did Northampton, armed with front-line international players in every department and so wildly impressive in the opening games of the season, manage to foul it up to such a spectacular degree? Can everything be pinned on the failings of Alan Solomons, the South African coach recruited last summer and sacked before the autumn was out?

"We needed a coach because Wayne Smith went back to New Zealand to take up a job with the All Blacks, and as Alan hadn't been totally unsuccessful at Ulster, he was our choice," Barwell said. "We won our first two games to go top of the league, and then lost nine in succession.

"Apart from being whacked at Leicester, those defeats were in the small-margin territory, but they were defeats all the same and we were on the slide.

"We're not a football club and I don't particularly want to see rugby go along similar roads, but my hand was on the tiller and I felt I had to do something. That something was to replace Alan with Budge Pountney and Paul Grayson, who I think have performed extremely well in difficult circumstances."

Not always the most diplomatic of sorts - it was Barwell who raised the barricades when the first club-versus-country rumpus broke out back in the dark days of Cliff Brittle and the RFU wars - he might easily have hurled some verbal darts in Solomons' direction. Some very senior figures on the Northampton playing staff still use the South African for bull's-eye practice, holding him directly responsible for the situation in which they find themselves, yet Barwell, perhaps a more gentle character since recovering from serious illness a couple of years ago, declined to enter into the spirit of recrimination.

"Of course, I'll be very disappointed if we go down," he said, "but I've generally been in favour of promotion and relegation - very definitely a minority position amongst the club chairmen, but there we are. If I've moved slightly on the issue recently, it's because I'm convinced of the need to extend rugby's boundaries, to establish the game in areas where we're weak - we look down our noses at rugby league, but we don't cover the whole of the country either - and develop the top division for perhaps three or four years with no threat of the drop. Basically, I've tried to look at all the problems and solve them in one go, because I'm tired of the nitpicking that happens at every turn. Perhaps a block on relegation would be helpful at this point; certainly, people like Andy Robinson acknowledge that the clubs would be more supportive in releasing players for England duty if they knew they weren't at risk of having their balls chopped off at the end of the season. Perhaps we should be thinking about getting rid of the wage cap. Perhaps we should be moving towards a situation where it's an advantage to have current English internationals in the squad, rather than a disadvantage.

"There again, this relegation thing undoubtedly brings some excitement with it. And if it happens to us, it happens. We're a big club, and we'll regroup. Manchester United got themselves relegated one year, and look what they achieved when they came back up. As I say, if we go down, I'll take it on the chin."