Returning heroes must display the virtues of saints

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Northampton's down-to-earth set-up should ensure England players don't let fame go to their heads. Chris Hewett reports

The American jockey Eddie Arcaro knew a thing or two about success: he rode almost 5,000 winners, bagged two Stateside Triple Crowns – one more than anyone else, ever – and rattled off classic victories in the routine way a bingo caller might mumble his numbers into a muffled microphone.

"Once a guy starts wearing silk pyjamas, it's hard to get up early," he said when asked to reflect on the difficulty of keeping things in perspective. Right now, the best rugby team in England have a number of players in silk pyjamas.

Ben Foden, the full-back; the wing Chris Ashton; Dylan Hartley, the hooker; the lock Courtney Lawes ... suddenly, these young men are the talk of every clubhouse in Christendom. And they all play for Northampton, who have some very important business on their agenda, not least this evening's Heineken Cup meeting with Cardiff Blues at Franklin's Gardens and the return leg in the Welsh capital in eight days' time. Will the red-rose quartet revisit the heights they scaled in helping England to that startling victory over the Wallabies last month, or will they, to pinch Arcaro's metaphor, stay in bed?

It is a pertinent question. Back in 1997, certain Leicester players returned triumphant from a wonderful British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa and had great difficulty negotiating Welford Road doorways that had been designed for people with normal-sized heads. Bob Dwyer, the Tigers' boss at the time, was far from amused, as he made clear on more than one occasion to anyone within earshot. Something similar happened at Bath a few years later, to the extent that club officials had to order, on pain of disciplinary action, a handful of swaggering youngsters to wear club training gear rather than the England clobber they had been given during a summer tour of North America.

Naturally, none of the Northampton brat pack believe for a moment that they have grown too big for their custom-made studded boots as a result of their exceptional performances at Test level. "I'm glad to be back here," Ashton said this week. "Northampton is a great club, and when I think about the rugby we're playing, it's great to be here at this moment." For his part, Lawes said he relished being "back amongst the banter", adding: "Even when I was away with England, I spent a lot of time thinking about what was going on here. This is where my rugby life is. It's been drilled into me from a young age, and it's a part of me now. Northampton means everything to me."

All the same, this is a new situation for the club, and it presents a fresh challenge to Jim Mallinder, Dorian West, Paul Grayson and the rest of the Premiership leaders' think-tank. This time last season, they were in the happy position of guiding the club towards the knock-out stage of the Heineken Cup in a distraction-free environment. Now, there are distractions right, left and centre. Barely a day goes by without one or all of the England contingent being offered a new endorsement deal here or another "media opportunity" there.

Mallinder, the director of rugby, understands the risks and goes the extra mile to minimise them: indeed, he has a reputation of being more protective of his "marquee" players than any of his Premiership peers. "From everything I've seen of them since they returned, I'm happy that they are 100 per cent focused on the club and the big games we have in front of us," said the former full-back, whose own star is in the ascendant to such a degree that the Northampton owner, Keith Barwell, felt the need last week to publicly declare that he would not stand in Mallinder's way if the Rugby Football Union identify him as Martin Johnson's successor as England manager.

"They have always performed with terrific energy and commitment," he continued, "and with their recent experience at Test level, I expect that to increase.

"I think one of the things that gives me confidence is that three of them – Dylan, Courtney and Chris – are essentially Northampton products. Courtney came through our academy, Dylan came to us as a teenager, and with Chris moving across from rugby league, he's learnt all his union here at the club. As a result, they have set down very strong roots. I really don't see them as the sorts to let things slips."

West, who won 21 caps as an England hooker between 1998 and 2003, put it more bluntly, as befits a front-row veteran of a thousand scrums. "They know the reasons why they're in the England side: they're where they are because of what they've done, and what they continue to do, here at Northampton," he remarked. "If they suddenly let their standards slip and start training and playing poorly, they'll be out of that England team pretty quickly.

"Actually, I don't think the rest of the squad would let them take any liberties anyway. Everyone understands how much being part of this group means, and the players coming back from Test duty are not of the mentality to let it go to waste. It was the same when I was playing at Leicester. I spent a good deal of time in camp with England, but I never stopped thinking what was happening back home. When I was away, there was always a bit of me that wanted to be back amongst my club-mates."

There is one very good reason why Ashton, Lawes and company should find the transition from Premiership rugby to international performance and back again relatively easy to handle: the increasing stylistic similarities between club and country. England are basing a good deal of what they do on the Northampton method, with a sizeable chunk of Leicester thrown in for good measure. Between them, the two East Midlands clubs contributed more than half the England starting line-up for the autumn Tests.

"With the number of personnel involved, it's bound to be the case that our approach, along with Leicester's, will feed into England's rugby," West said. "What we do here is fairly straightforward: we concentrate on getting over the gain-line, getting our forwards round the corner and out-working our opponents. I don't think it's a bad way of winning matches."

As recently as 12 months ago, the likes of Foden and Hartley could see precious little to recommend the tightly-controlled, asphyxiatingly proscriptive England environment, having flourished under a significantly more enlightened regime at Franklin's Gardens. If they are far happier with life at international level now, it is because things have shifted their way.

Two decades ago, when Bath were in the middle of a golden era unequalled before or since, their coach Jack Rowell took an almost lascivious pleasure in saying: "It might be good enough for England, but it's not good enough for us." The prospect of Mallinder being able to say something similar will keep the leading Northampton players honest.

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