Reihana ready to lead Saints' revival from the rear

Northampton return their flyer to his natural habitat in search of lost form.
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The Independent Online

Northampton are turning a handy profit off the field, but the team cannot buy a win at the moment, a fact made more remarkable by the presence of a man regarded by his peers as the most dangerous of broken-field runners.

Northampton are turning a handy profit off the field, but the team cannot buy a win at the moment, a fact made more remarkable by the presence of a man regarded by his peers as the most dangerous of broken-field runners.

Bruce Reihana, once an All Black, but a Saint since the latter days of 2002, minces no words over a depressing run of five straight defeats, containing a sadly solitary try. "Giving away penalties, dropping the ball, missing tackles: they're the things that can cost you games. They're certainly costing us."

Last season was a triumph for Reihana, a phlegmatic son of Hamilton on New Zealand's North Island. He was the PRA Players' Player, the Premiership's Overseas Player of the Year, and the league's joint top try scorer with 13 in a team who outstripped all others in that department.

This season? Don't ask. After the brightest of starts, Northampton's stock has slumped in a sequence of Black Saturdays and Sundays, including a morale-shredding three home defeats to Gloucester, Wasps and Sale, with nearly seven hours spent shy of the goal-line.

Almost needless to say, there have been injuries to international players - it is the curse of every Premiership club - including fly-half Paul Grayson, who broke a hand early in the first of the defeats.

The response of coach Alan Solomons prompted the more extreme among Northampton's following to start up a "sack Solomons" petition on the club's website (it was swiftly deleted). The South African, who succeeded Wayne Smith in the summer, switched Grayson's natural deputy, Shane Drahm, from fly-half to full-back, dropped the prolific wing Ben Cohen (29 tries in 43 Tests; 37 in 109 Premiership matches) and moved Reihana, without a first-team appearance at fly-half in five years, to No 10.

Solomons explained: "Drahmy's form dipped to such an extent in the Wasps game [three weeks ago] that we had to do something about it." Reihana, by his own admission a specialist full-back or wing, said: "I'm not too sure what went on with Ben, but he's back in the team now, he's an exceptional player and a good person. As for me, it was a good challenge and I enjoyed it." The past tense refers to Drahm's recall to the pivotal position for this afternoon's Heineken Cup opener in Glasgow: no Shane was no gain.

Those who advocate a coaching clear-out after seven matches - the first two against Bath and Harlequins were won with maximum points - have been quick to write off the season. The counter argument is that while the Heineken Cup grouping with Toulouse and Llanelli Scarlets looks daunting, Saints' next three Premiership fixtures are against fellow stragglers Leeds, London Irish and Worcester. The Powergen Cup is another possible route to Europe if the team can find some form. But England front rowers Steve Thompson and Robbie Morris are crocked, and today there are fresh absentees in the South African lock Selborne Boome and the England Under-21 centre Mark Tucker.

Northampton have a fine stadium, with ambitions to match. Thus far, their usually voluble owner, Keith Barwell, has kept his counsel. Reihana, for his part, pays scant attention to the carpers. "People have opinions but no one really knows our game plan except for us. Last week against Sale, we threw away silly penalties and they scored a couple of soft tries to finish it off. It's nothing to do with coaching ability, it's about individuals making errors. We know that and we're working really hard to pick up on those. I've never had so many losses in a row, but it's not solved by changing your whole game plan."

In a division of 12 teams, there is a paper-thin margin between success and failure. Northampton have been on the wrong end of the "too good to go down" argument once before, when Grayson, Matt Dawson, Tim Rodber and company clattered embarrassingly through the trapdoor in 1995. They responded by winning promotion without losing a match, and landed the Heineken Cup in 2000.

The current crop is led by an ex-Springbok captain Corne Krige, one of a raft of overseas signings. Reihana, who will return to New Zealand next May, believes the new arrivals should be cut some slack. The Premiership, he says, is more confrontational up front than in Super 12 and the provincial competitions down south.

Then there is the personal aspect. "When you come here, it's you and your wife and you wake up each day and realise 'it's just us', with no family around for support. Fair enough, no one makes you take it on, but for the first two months it's tough. Sometimes you think are up for it, but inside you somewhere it just does something to you and you may not perform to the best of your ability. It's a lot harder out there than you think."