Things have reached a pretty pass when two games in a week against Toulouse, perhaps the most potent club side in the world and certainly the richest, are the least of an English team's problems. Northampton are in no obvious condition to spend 160-odd minutes in the perilous company of Michalak, Heymans and Pelous having landed flat on their backsides at the butt-end of the Premiership, yet they are approaching the resumption of Heineken Cup activity with the kind of relish William George Bunter reserved for his many visits to the school tuck shop. Strange days indeed.
Paul Grayson is as good a man as any to offer an explanation for the peculiar circumstances in which the East Midlanders find themselves, not simply because he is good at explaining everything - there is no more discriminating analyst of rugby matters among the Premiership's playing community - but because he has volunteered his services as a coach in an effort to stem the tide of misery washing over Franklin's Gardens, a state-of-the-art stadium housing a team in one hell of a state. As per usual, Grayson tells it how it is.
"As Toulouse could probably field two full teams of international-class players on any given Saturday, it's fair to suggest that personnel is an area of strength for them," he said this week, his ironic smile tinged with what looked suspiciously like a wince. "If we give them anything at all at our place, it will be a long afternoon over there next weekend. We've both won two from two in Europe so far, so it's either all on or all over for us, depending on what happens here. It's definitely a challenge, given our current form, but I can sense a surge in spirit amongst the squad. Europe gives us two things: the break we need from the Premiership bang on the halfway stage, and the chance to make some sort of mark on a season that has been pretty bloody awful so far."
Awful? The word barely does justice to the Northampton situation. Grayson has taken on a coaching role alongside the former flanker Budge Pountney, who has been appointed head coach after the sacking of Alan Solomons late last month - the first act in a purge of the great and good that also saw Corne Krige, only recently recruited from South Africa, step down as captain and Adrian Kennedy, a long-time aide of Solomons, resign from the back-room staff. The Saints have not won a Premiership match since giving Harlequins what for at the Stoop Memorial Ground on 11 September, and as they still have to visit such delightful corners of Premiershipland as Sale, Wasps, Gloucester and Bath, their immediate future among the élite may conceivably come down to a last-day trip to Worcester, their fellow relegation candidates.
How in the name of all that is holy did it come to this? European champions in 2000, domestic cup finalists in both 2002 and '03 and top-three Premiership finishers in each of the last two seasons, they have more pedigree than mongrel about them - a blue-bloodedness reflected by the opulence of their surroundings, the loyalty of their supporters and the size of their chequebook. Grayson has plenty of ideas on the subject of this sudden demise, many of them to do with Solomons, who moved to Northampton from Ulster last summer following the decision of the eternally popular Wayne Smith to heed the call of All Black duty in his native New Zealand.
"If a coach decides to change everything, a team finds itself building from scratch - a process that takes months rather than weeks," pronounced the outside-half, who retired from international rugby after helping England secure the World Cup. "And it was Alan's approach to sweep away everything we did under Wayne. It was a noble effort and all that, but..." Grayson paused for a second, eyebrows raised to the heavens, before developing his theme. "As a result of these changes, there was a vagueness about our rugby; we simply didn't have a clear idea of what we were trying to do, and that prevented us maximising all the territory and possession we were securing for ourselves. There were games we should have won and won comfortably, but didn't win because we'd abandoned many of the habits we'd developed during our years with Wayne.
"I have to say that it was very unsettling here for a couple of weeks, knowing that the clouds were hanging over Alan. We were waiting for something to happen, without knowing what or when. Budge and I were told on the Sunday that we might be part of the management's thinking in terms of the coaching; 24 hours later, Alan was gone and we were in charge. If I'd had any doubts about my ability to combine playing and coaching I'd have said 'no' immediately. But I don't have any doubts. Mind you, it's a big old job. The spectre of relegation does sharpen the focus, I find."
A natural communicator, an accomplished technician and a deep thinker about the union game and its ever-changing moods and movements, Grayson has dabbled in coaching for a number of years and would have been a full-timer by now but for Smith's success in persuading him to prolong his active career. However, it is one thing to spend all week in a tracksuit, running an eye over players on the gallops before selecting a starting line-up, and quite another to embrace the necessary schizophrenia of a dual role of this magnitude. How will it work?
"First and foremost, Budge and I get along fine," Grayson said. "He played open-side flanker to my outside-half for years - he did all my tackling for me, for which I remain grateful - and we had a great working relationship on the field; it was fiery, but we bounced off each other in a very positive way. I know those dynamics are still there, and that we'll develop along the right lines. Basically, I'll be coaching wth him until I have to be a player, if you see what I mean. Once I'm in the changing-room or out on the field, Budge will do everything. When I'm free of those situations, it will be a partnership.
"We'll put a big onus on the players, definitely. We want them to play a part in the analysis, in the tactical preparation, the whole thing. In my experience, there is more chance of players taking ownership of their performances if they have had a role in the decision-making process and come up with some ideas themselves. There is a tradition of strong player involvement at Northampton, but under Alan, everything was coach-driven. We want to restore our best traditions, because they are integral to the club's character.
"Budge and I agree on some important elements, things that are key to us both on and off the field. Some of them were introduced and developed by Wayne, others have been here since way back when, long before either of us joined. And of course, there are some based on our own ideas. You have to understand the environment here, the rugby community that is unique to Northampton. These are the things that, properly harnessed, give you a few extra per cent when you need it. I am very conscious of the importance of these aspects, as is Budge. Continuity is absolutely crucial. This club is almost 120 years old, yet only 1,500 players have ever worn the shirt. That's quite something, isn't it?"
Some sides - Saracens spring to mind - seem to have had 1,500 players in the last three seasons, which supports Grayson's point. And along with Leeds, who also visit Franklin's Gardens in the weeks immediately after Christmas, it is Saracens who are in Grayson's sights. "Must-win matches, both of them," he said. By comparison, today's meeting with the grandest of all French clubs is not a must-win contest. Rather, it is a must-stand-up-and-be-counted affair, a game in which the performance will speak louder than the result. And if the performance is not up to scratch, the culprits are unlikely to be left in blissful ignorance.
"I can be a grumpy old bastard," Grayson admitted. Just at the moment, he has much to be grumpy about. If he is caught smiling before the season is out, his coaching credentials will have been established once and for all.Reuse content