The Argentine city of Salta, situated on the lower slopes of the Andes, is the capital of a far-flung province that shares borders with Bolivia and Paraguay and is therefore, in pure rugby terms, a very long way from everywhere. It may be the perfect place for Lee Dickson to continue his long march back from nowhere in particular – a sporting wilderness trek that will, he hopes and prays, end a couple of years from now in the more familiar surroundings of a Twickenham decked out in World Cup paraphernalia.
Twelve months ago, the Northampton scrum-half was first choice for his country. One of his great rivals, Ben Youngs of Leicester, had fallen off his game and crash-landed on the replacements’ bench; the other, Danny Care of Harlequins, was serving time on the naughty step after a series of what might euphemistically be described as drink-related miscalculations. Dickson, an entirely different kind of No 9, had no such issues: combative, energetic, a veritable Trojan in his work rate – he was the stoker of the red-rose fires, the beating heart of Stuart Lancaster’s new team.
Then, the pecking order changed: Care was rehabilitated for the summer tour of South Africa, scoring the try that squared the final Test in Port Elizabeth, while Youngs rediscovered his mojo. When the autumn internationals came around, Dickson was the man suffering the “Tuesday night torment” – the miserable drive home from the England hotel made by those frozen out of the match-day squad.
“I was so frustrated – first through the autumn Tests, then through the Six Nations,” he admits. “What went wrong? I’m still not completely sure. I wasn’t at my best over the mid- season stretch and I admitted that to myself, but it’s not always easy to pinpoint the precise problem. Certainly, I wasn’t out there on the field thinking, ‘I’m off it again today’. In retrospect, perhaps I was guilty of worrying too much about what people wanted from me. I was trying to do everything at 100mph, when I should have understood that playing with tempo doesn’t mean you have to play at the same speed all the time.
“After speaking to Stuart and finding out what he thought I should be working on, I set about making some readjustments. I’m still the same kind of scrum-half I always was – first and foremost, I want to get the ball into the first receiver’s hands as quickly as possible – but I believe I’ve added something to my game and I think the last five weeks or so have shown that I’m back in the groove. I’m smiling again. That’s always a good sign.”
Lancaster indicated the other day that if anything untoward happens to the flanker Tom Wood, his tour captain, on the trip to South America, he might turn to Dickson as an alternative leader. “That’s the first I’ve heard of it and I’m massively honoured that he should have said that,” remarks the 28-year-old, a racing certainty to start the Test against the Pumas in Salta a fortnight tomorrow. “But my job is to make things tick for the team. I’m just desperate to get back in.”
That process gathers pace at Twickenham this afternoon, when he goes eyeball to eyeball with Youngs in a Premiership final that has all the makings of a minor classic – perhaps even a major one. Youngs has a bigger, better tour ahead of him over the coming weeks, having been selected for the British and Irish Lions jaunt to Australia, but if Dickson has been forced to set his sights a little lower, his motivation levels today are every bit as high. Youngs already has a Premiership winner’s medal tucked away at the bottom of his undies drawer. Dickson will be making his first appearance in English club rugby’s showpiece event.
Together with his clubmate Wood and one or two other individuals who have created this Northampton side in their own image – the hooker and captain Dylan Hartley being the most obvious example – the scrum-half has earned this shot at the silver pot. When Dickson plays well, the Saints do likewise. Jim Mallinder, the rugby director at Franklin’s Gardens, has signed Kahn Fotuali’i, the brilliant Samoan rated by some as the world’s best No 9, for next season. The newcomer will have to be every bit as good as his supporters say he is to force his way into the team.
Dickson does not feel the East Midlands derby rivalry as deeply as some – he was born in Lower Saxony, not Lower Benefield, and spent his early professional career at Newcastle – but he is acutely aware of the sense of yearning among the Northampton public, the vast majority of whom consider rugby union to be the only game in town. If the Saints could win this one today, against Leicester of all teams on God’s earth, it would amount to something very special indeed.
“It would mean everything,” he says. “The Northampton crowd come to watch us week after week and they give us fabulous support. We want them to be as loud at Twickenham as they are at Franklin’s Gardens and we want to reward them with the trophy. The players want it for themselves, too. I’ve been here five years, lost in three Premiership semi-finals and suffered all the pain. This is the big one for us. The chance of winning something like this with your mates, the people you train with all day and go out with at night – for a nice cup of coffee, before you ask – is the thing we all crave.
“We’ve had a funny old season in some ways: we’ve taken a couple of bad beatings at home, one of them from Leicester, but balanced that with some big wins on the road – particularly at Ulster in the Heineken Cup and at Saracens in the Premiership semi-final. I can’t put my finger on the reason for the inconsistency: it’s all wrapped up in the mental side of the game, in the fact that when it comes to the major matches, if you don’t turn up you get shown up. But the good thing is that no one here points the finger when things go wrong.
“At Northampton, we don’t do that kind of thing in-house. We’d rather leave it to people outside the club so we can concentrate on putting things right as a group. A lot was said and written when Leicester beat us heavily at the end of March, but it wasn’t an ‘Oh my God’ moment in the dressing room. It wasn’t a case of panic stations. That’s not Jim’s style. He just sat us down and reminded us that we had to be spot on in everything we were doing if we wanted to win the important matches. The biggest games are generally decided by the smallest margins.”
The margins were anything but small the last time the two clubs met, but this will surely be different. Dickson is convinced of it. “Leicester are terribly difficult opponents: their record – nine Premiership finals in nine years – speaks for itself,” he says. “To beat them, you have to be right ‘there’ from the start and still be ‘there’ at the end.
“But this is the kind of game that makes everything that went before seem irrelevant. Beating Ulster in Belfast, beating Saracens at their place… they were important victories for us, but they don’t matter now. There are no tomorrows after this match. We won’t be sitting down together on Monday to review the game, looking at this bit or that bit and saying we’ll get it right next week. The season ends here. Next week isn’t available.”