Budge Pountney: Witness to the break-up of the Sainthood

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The Independent Online

They have one of the best grounds in the country, excellent support and are not short of a few bob, yet, not for the first time, Northampton find themselves among the dregs of the Guinness Premiership. Worcester remain favourites for relegation, but if they can string a couple of victories together it is the Saints who could go marching down.

They remain notoriously fickle and about a million miles removed from the club who won the Heineken Cup at Twickenham in 2000, beating Munster 9-8 in the final. On that day of days Budge Pountney was at flanker, keeping an eye on Ronan O'Gara, whose goalkicking was all over the place. In contrast Paul Grayson kicked three penalties, and that was sufficient for Saints to be crowned champions of Europe.

Pountney and Grayson would hang up their boots and find themselves in the front line at Franklin's Gardens as coaches. There was a Leicester-like hallmark about Northampton when they had Ian McGeechan in charge (he went off to Scotland) or Wayne Smith, who returned to New Zealand to coach the All Blacks backs.

Smith's exit in 2004 saw the arrival of the South African Alan Solomons via Ireland, but his contract was swiftly terminated after a run of defeats. Enter crisis management. Keith Barwell, the chairman and backer, promoted Pountney from assistant fitness coach to head coach, with Grayson as his No 2.

"It was not something I'd hankered after," Pountney admits. "Things were getting out of control and I thought, 'Crikey'. If you're asked to help out you do, but the Solomons business was unfortunate. He was a good guy to work with and crossed a very thin line between success and failure. We lost games by a couple of points, and had they gone the other way he'd have kept his job."

Having tried the overseas approach, Northampton's use of the old boys' network has not worked either. Though the Saints avoided relegation in 2005, by the skin of their teeth, Pountney-Grayson was not a dream ticket. The former - he once received a substantial fine for abusing a referee - was made director of rugby, overseeing players' contracts and recruitment, and the latter became head coach.

Last November Pountney, with six months left on his contract, abruptly left the club he had served for 15 years, saying he wanted a "quick and seamless" move to pursue something completely different. He and his wife, Ali, are preparing to open a branch of Waterbabies, a company who teach infants to swim. "This is a sea change for us," Pountney said. "Our lives revolved around rugby but you have to be selfish to compete at the highest level. Water-babies has turned everything on its head."

The Saints, meanwhile, are looking for a lifejacket. Bottom but one in the Premiership, they have not been out of their depth in Pool Six of the Heineken Cup but then that is a tad shallow, containing Overmach Parma and the Borders. Northampton meet the Borders, who cannot qualify for the quarter-finals, at Netherdale today before hosting Biarritz.

Barwell has stated the club can win the Heineken, but the fans don't buy it. They are more worried, after losing at home to Worcester, about going down; about the effect on recruitment of Carlos Spencer's large salary; about the rumours of Spencer and Ben Cohen falling out; about the possible departure of Steve Thompson to Biarritz or Brive; and the appointment to the board of Phil Pask, the England physio and a Saints old boy.

"I share the supporters' pain," Barwell said, "but I remain positive. This is no time to start turning on ourselves." This was a reaction to an outburst by John Steele, the former Northampton player and coach, who said the club "lacked strong leadership at player, coach and board level". Normally as mild-mannered as Clark Kent, Steele added that there was no long-term vision.

Pountney, it seems, is well out of it. He does not maintain contact with either Grayson or Barwell and he does not go to Frank-lin's Gardens. "Some people you want to keep in touch with, others you don't. I look out for their results. What's happening is quite bizarre. It doesn't take much to move your focus. On paper Northampton have a good squad, but it's not always about names on pieces of paper. It's about other things, like working hard for each other. Look at Bristol. They have got a mix of old and young and have exceeded everyone's expectations.

"For me it was time to go. I miss it and I don't. It was great fun but also mentally and physically exhausting. As a player you are on the edge of being very fit or in very poor health. I knew I couldn't do it any more, so that was easy to solve. I thought I'd sit back and enjoy the rugby, but being 100 per cent involved kind of gets you down. Management is so different to playing."

The son of a farm manager, Pountney, who is 33 and Southampton-born, joined Saints from Winchester as an 18-year-old. He made his senior debut against Coventry in 1994, played 215 games, scored 46 tries and was captain for three seasons. He also captained Scotland, for whom he won 31 caps, qualifying because his grandmother came from the Channel Islands. After losing a testicle (courtesy of a boot to the groin against London Irish) he walked out on Test rugby in 2003, blasting the Scottish Rugby Union for their "amateur" approach. Finding no food or water at training was one thing, and being asked to pay £7.50 for a tie was the clincher.

The following year he broke an ankle in a pre-season friendly and was forced to retire. He had taken out insurance and received £25,000, and in 2005 enjoyed a testimonial year.

"I've been very lucky. I've played with some of the best coaches and players in the world and I look back on it all with rose- tinted glasses. Whatever happens at Saints the club will live longer than anyone else. It's not about individuals it's about Northampton RFC."

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