Saints' class of 2000 'were held together by sticking plaster'

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The Independent Online

John Steele has not been short of work since he took up his role as the chief executive of the Rugby Football Union last September, nor of criticism since. Steele was up to his eyebrows in media speculation last week after the RFU went through one of their navel-gazing exercises over the appointment of a performance director.

He has already transformed the union's administrative side with a raft of new appointments, designed to carry the union forward to a successful management of the 2015 World Cup in England. Now, though, Steele is at odds with some members of the RFU management board over both the job description of the performance director, and whether Sir Clive Woodward fits the bill.

The Twickenham spin machine has been in overdrive and the politics of the union may have caught Steele on the hop. But next weekend he can, at least, look back with misty eyes 11 years to the first Heineken Cup final to be played at Twickenham and the day when Northampton, where he was then in his first season as director of rugby, became champions of Europe, a title they seek to reclaim when they meet Leinster in the 2011 Heineken Cup final at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff on Saturday.

The Northampton side of today is far removed from that of 2000: the players coached by Jim Mallinder and led by Dylan Hartley form a young squad seeking to make a name for itself. That of Steele's era was replete with internationals from six countries, many of whom were nearing the end of their careers but had never won a significant title, despite the fact they had been prepared by arguably the best coach to emerge from Britain and Ireland, Ian McGeechan.

"We had a strong team but it had not managed to convert that strength into silverware," Steele said. "By the end of the season we were still in the running for the league title, the domestic cup and Europe, which made it very congested. The league fell away, we lost the Tetley's Bitter final to Wasps which left us with the last match of the season."

That was against Munster. "We were held together by sticking plaster but there was a huge desire not to let a really successful season come to nothing," Steele said.

Injury-time goal kicks had carried them through a quarter-final with Wasps and a semi-final with Llanelli, the successful kicker on both occasions being Paul Grayson. Yet Grayson, a seasoned England fly-half, played against Munster out of position, at full back.

"We had Dom Malone and Ali Hepher at half back but Tim Rodber and Garry Pagel were pivotal and Pat Lam was inspirational." Lam, the Samoa No 8, brought succinct New Zealand tones to that squad, just as Hartley (born in Rotorua) does now; he also brought a courage which set the tone against Munster, playing as he did with a shoulder dislocated earlier in the season.

Grayson kicked three penalty goals and that was enough to beat Munster 9-8 on a day when Ronan O'Gara, just entering his lengthy career, missed every kick at goal. "That day was incredibly special," Steele said. "One match delivered what we all wanted but there was a strange feeling on the coach back to Northampton, a stillness as everyone took on board what had happened. We were trying to come to terms with so many aspirations being realised. I look back on that day with a lot of pride and enjoyment and what I'd say to this Northampton team is that you have to enjoy it – 80 minutes like this don't come along often."