Christian Day: unsung Saint who's looking after the pack

Day, the Rugby Players' Association chairman, who faces Clermont on Saturday evening, takes care of on-field business for Northampton and off-field for whole rugby community. He speaks to Chris Hewett

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The Independent Online

Tucked away at the bottom of a drawer somewhere in Christian Day’s home are a couple of Stade Français shirts. They are not just any old shirts – the Parisians are the last rugby folk on the planet to dirty their hands with “any old” anything – but the full pink and turquoise number, with decorative lilies: part sports jersey, part Laura Ashley curtain material. Day loves them not for aesthetic reasons, but because they remind him of the moment he fell back in love with the game.

After a lengthy “man and boy” stint with Sale, during which he pocketed a Premiership winner’s medal as a 22-year-old, the second-row forward from Blackpool suddenly found himself in a bad place. “My career had nose-dived off a cliff,” he recalled this week. “Philippe Saint-André and Kingsley Jones were in charge at the time and they told me they wanted to move me on, which was hard to take for someone who had come up through the age groups and the academy.

“It seemed the things I was good at were no longer important to them and it left me wondering what was left for me in professional rugby. I’d knocked back the offer of a place at Oxford University because I wanted to play professionally – I remember an interesting discussion with my headmaster on the subject – and now I was at another crossroads.

“In fact, I was quite a long way down the road towards packing it in when, out of the blue one Friday night, I was told that Stade Français were interested in me. They’d lost Pascal Papé [a future World Cup finalist and captain of France] to injury and needed what they call a ‘medical joker’. I flew out on the Sunday and played the following weekend – yes, in a pink shirt.

“Thank God it happened the way it did. During those weeks in Paris, I rediscovered what union meant to me.”

As cathartic moments go, it could hardly have been better timed. The following season, Day was snapped up by Northampton, where he was happily reunited with Jim Mallinder, who had coached him at Sale before Saint-André’s arrival. In the seven seasons since, his contribution has been on the generous side of vast: thanks primarily to Day, the Midlanders are blessed with the most reliable line-out in European club rugby, a near-faultless operation that has been one of the principal drivers behind their rise to domestic supremacy.

No one at Franklin’s Gardens undervalues him for a second. Yet it remains the case that when the Northampton pack is at full strength, Day, 31, is the man with the lowest profile, surrounded by celebrated England internationals – Alex Corbisiero, Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes, Tom Wood – and such lauded imports as Samu Manoa, the United States Test player who, along with Jacques Burger of Namibia and Mamuka Gorgodze of Georgia, is the most talked about forward to be found among the so-called “developing nations”. Does this frustrate Day? Infuriate him, even?

“Teams have their own dynamic within them. A coach works out the way he wants his side to play, brings in the people he thinks can deliver it and, if it goes to plan, sees them grow into their roles,” he said. “There’s a role at Northampton for someone like me. I suppose I’m the organiser, the steadying influence, the provider of direction. I can’t do the things Samu does, for instance, but that cuts both ways. So no, it doesn’t frustrate me. I’m very proud of the part I’ve played at a fantastic club in a true rugby town.”

He could talk technical all day long, but is he really an obsessive in the tradition of Steve Borthwick – a man so completely fascinated by the mechanics and moving parts of the line-out in all its variety that nothing else mattered?

“If you’re calling me another Borthwick, I’ll take that,” he replied, more than happy to be bracketed with the much-maligned England captain of the late Noughties. “He was the master, yet he was massively underrated by a lot of people. Look at Saracens this season: they’re not quite what they were when Steve was there. He changed the way line-outs operate, coming up with ideas that we all buy into now.”

There was a time, during his sunnier days at Sale, when Day was assumed to be an England lock in the making: he won honours at school, under-19 and under-21 levels, captaining the last of those sides. More recently, he has played for the second-string Saxons and attracted flickers of interest from the national coach, Stuart Lancaster. But a first cap seems as far away as it ever was, and as he closes in on his 32nd birthday, he sees little point in holding his breath.

“Test rugby is not really in my thoughts,” he confessed. “That doesn’t mean I’m not ambitious, and I’m not an old player in second-row terms, but England have someone who does what I do in Geoff Parling [the Lions lock, who plays just up the road at Leicester]. If I get a little down about things, it’s when Geoff picks up an injury and the selectors don’t pick a like-for-like replacement. But there’s no point in whingeing about it. Whingeing is always counter-productive.”

There may be a good side to all this, for Day has taken on the chairmanship of the Rugby Players’ Association – the players’ union, for want of a better description – and is therefore in a position to make as great an impact on the sport in this country as anyone who spent time in the engine room of the red-rose scrum, Bill Beaumont and Martin Johnson included.

He is in the thick of the debate about concussion and its potential consequences and sees another battalion of welfare issues massing on the near horizon.

“My involvement grew out of a feeling that as players we weren’t quite valuing ourselves in the right way,” he said. “I’ve been one of the lucky ones: I was able to study at Manchester University [he has a degree in engineering and material science] while playing professional club rugby. Those opportunities don’t often arise now, and as there aren’t many players who will earn enough from a 10-year career to see them through life, I’m keen to ensure people get themselves properly skilled.

“Welfare challenges change every year: concussion happens to be the issue at the moment, but we’re dealing with a far broader range of concerns – education and career development, insurance, competition structures, the whole lot. It strikes me that if the three organisations at the centre of the game here – the Rugby Football Union, Premier Rugby and the RPA – work together effectively, the English game could be in a ridiculously strong position. I want to do my bit in making that happen.”

Day is fully aware of the looming debate over Premiership ring-fencing and the divvying up of the broadcasting treasure trove resulting from the top-flight clubs’ extended deal with BT Sport. This has the potential to cast his fellow RPA members in a poor light: if the freshly negotiated millions go straight into the players’ pockets, they could easily be accused of greed.

“I see two sides to the ring-fencing discussion,” Day said. “Yes, there would be increased financial stability, which in turn might increase opportunities for talented young English players. Also, I don’t see anything wrong with our best talent turning down £600,000-a-year contracts in France to earn £250,000 a year here, in the knowledge that they’ll be properly managed and looked after in the Premiership.

“At the same time, who can deny that the top league has been enriched by Exeter, who have shown us what is possible when a promoted club has the right foundations in place? We need to talk this through extremely carefully.”

But first things first: this evening, Day will be part of a Northampton squad charged with winning a Champions Cup quarter-final against Clermont Auvergne in the distinctly unpromising surroundings of Stade Marcel Michelin, where the Frenchmen have not lost a European game since 2008. Despite being troubled by hamstring hassles, he is straining at the leash.

“Clermont are like Northampton in many ways: it is not the most fashionable spot in the world, but rugby means everything to the locality,” he said.

“When Tom Wood scored the match-winning try for us in the Premiership semi-final against Leicester last season” – he pointed to the exact spot on the Franklins Gardens pitch – “I’d never heard a crowd noise like it. I’m told it’s the same at Clermont. Not the biggest ground, but one of the loudest. The intensity is what I love most about rugby. It will be another day to remember.”

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