Saturday Interview: Grayson keeps faith during Saints' tribulations

Northampton have an injury list to try anyone's patience, but their coach intends to keep the club's season alive until the spring - without, he tells Chris Hewett, any need to return to his playing days
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The Independent Online

Paul Grayson will not do it, under any circumstances. There is a greater chance of Tony Blair's government enjoying an embarrassment-free week, or even of the Rugby Football Union doing something right, than of the former England outside-half performing a volte-face and interrupting his well-earned retirement for a week or two. Northampton have the kind of injury list that makes the Sale club look positively healthy - 14 backs on the physio slab, no goal-kicker, no No 10 worthy of the name - yet Grayson (pictured right, playing last season) is not remotely tempted to select himself as an emergency measure. A plague of locusts could sweep through Franklin's Gardens, and he'd still stick to his guns.

"Backs? They're overrated," said the coach this week, clearly of the opinion that laughter in the darkness is better than no laughter at all. "These injuries we're getting are laser-guided, if you ask me. Wherever we can least afford to lose a player, we'll lose one. Most of the squad should be fit again by April, if we get that far, but I can see the next few weeks being a little on the challenging side. You won't catch me out there, though. I've retired, and I intend to stay retired."

Northampton could probably have 40 players on the casualty list and still beat the Italians of Overmach Parma in today's Heineken Cup pool game. Overmatched Parma would be a better name for the visitors.

The Midlanders' team sheet is something to behold, all the same: six forwards among the seven substitutes, with the scrum-half Johnny Howard the odd replacement out.

"He's the last man standing," Grayson explained. "We've been down this road before - last year, we went to Italy with 17 players in total - but it's not my idea of fun. We'll find a way through it, but we'd rather not have to try."

Having accumulated 10 tries in Parma a week ago, Northampton are as certain as certain can be to run up another cricket score today. "Had we been going home and away against Stade Français in our current state, the very best we could have hoped for would have been another couple of injuries," the coach said with a grimace. "As it is, we're moving towards a place in the Heineken Cup knock-out stage, which would be tremendous for us. We'll finish the pool matches with 20 points if we get things right over the next couple of rounds, and we'd be unlucky not to qualify with that. Then ... who knows? The quarter-finals are more than three months away. We'll be much fitter and much stronger by April."

All true. The 2000 champions should indeed make it into the last eight for the fourth time in seven attempts, thanks to the peculiarities of a draw that put the sixth of six English qualifiers into a group with the third of three depressingly weak Italian teams and the second of two Scottish outfits.

Yet Franklin's Gardens is not a place of sweetness and light. Northampton are one off the bottom in the Premiership, having won only a single league game since September, and they will do well to take more than a handful of points from their three Christmas fixtures. The dreaded R-word - relegation - has returned to the Northampton vocabulary, especially now that Worcester are beginning to string some performances together.

"To begin with, Leeds are generating some momentum in National League One and I'd expect them to kick on and finish the job," Grayson mused. "That means they'll come up, because they'll meet all the criteria. As for us, we haven't been good. Through November, we simply didn't play.

"Keith Barwell [the Northampton owner] was very critical of some people in a recent programme article, and I can quite see how they managed to get his back up.

"There have been some abject failures, to be honest with you. I don't mind going down in a blaze of glory, but I find it difficult to accept when we lose without even trying to play. I think there will be some strange results over Christmas. We have to make sure we take advantage of whatever situation arises."

Of course, Northampton represent many of the things the die-hard traditionalists of the RFU most fear and detest - a fiercely independent streak, a healthy bank balance, a sell-out audience, a large proportion of foreign players - and, at times like these, when the England team are on their uppers, such vibrant and ambitious clubs tend to be castigated from one end of Twickenham to the other.

Grayson, a dependable performer at international level whose contribution to the World Cup-winning project three years ago was significantly greater than many imagine, did not fall over with surprise to hear the age-old club-versus-country argument return to the agenda in the aftermath of the autumn Test series, or collapse with shock when the likes of Sir Clive Woodward reached for his "everything must change" drum and started banging it.

"Clive walked away from the game," Grayson said. "Does that put him in the best position to comment on all this? I don't know that it does. The last thing he did in rugby was take a pretty good Lions squad to New Zealand and fail to get much out of it.

"The truth of the matter is this: we got stuck after the World Cup victory and failed to plan for the defence of the title. To my mind, we didn't start the development process until eight weeks ago, which is a bit on the late side, really. Three and a half years late. While the trophy was being paraded around the country, we should have started building a new team behind the scenes. If that process resulted in two years of crap results, fine; we'd have been in a much stronger position now. None of it happened, sadly.

"When people talk about changing the structure of English rugby, what exactly do they mean? What do they want to achieve? Do they want to shut one business down so they can grow the other one, or are they serious about the clubs and the union working together to produce a workable solution?

"I distinctly remember the England hierarchy heralding the Premiership after the World Cup victory, saying it had produced the competitive environment that underpinned the whole effort. Now, they say something different - they say that the game has changed, that New Zealand are playing a brand of rugby different to anything offered by the English clubs.

"To my mind, the most successful teams - Wasps, Leicester, Sale - play rugby as it should be played. They play winning rugby, which means doing the necessary in a given situation. What is more, I think the New Zealand game can be replicated, and that some teams are doing it.

"We went to London Irish the other week and had 40 points put on us by a team that played it the All Black way, forcing errors with their physicality at the breakdown and counter- attacking from everywhere. They scored five tries from turnovers, which is precisely what the New Zealanders do. We were rubbish that day, but I have to say that Mike Catt was fabulous.

"Sure, the Premiership gets bogged down now and again, especially when teams start factoring in the threat of relegation. But there are far more good things happening than some people are prepared to acknowledge."

In Grayson's view, many of the criticisms levelled at the club game are wildly inaccurate and grossly unfair. "I'm still not sure how many injuries can be put down to the structure, to player burn-out," he said. "Jon Clarke picked up his injury 20 minutes into the first game of the season; Bruce Reihana suffered his after 10 minutes of the third game. These weren't attritional injuries. Steve Myler had played only eight games of union in his life when he smashed his knee, so he'd hardly been overdoing it."

And the academy system? "I think it's beginning to work. There will always be generational gaps in certain positions, but what England need, and what is starting to come through at Premiership level, is a group of players in key roles capable of commanding regular first-team places at 20 or 21.

"If people are to be successful at the very top of the game, they need to be doing a fair bit by then. People like Clarke and Myler, like Dylan Hartley in the front row, are going to be very comfortable in representative rugby by the time they're 24, and that's the mark of a successful academy operation."

To put it another way, England's problems have as much to do with short-term failures of management as they do with long-term failures of structure. Not that Grayson is losing too much sleep over national fortunes just at the moment. He has issues of his own to negotiate, not least the fact that he has no backs. Is he sure he doesn't fancy a run-out, just for old times' sake? "Yes," he said. "Quite sure, thank you very much."

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