When the Saints go marching on

Northampton fell from grace in spectacular fashion last season but Jim Mallinder is leading them, and the faithful thousands, back to the promised land
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The Independent Online

One year ago, Northampton recorded a convincing victory over their great Midlands rivals Leicester in front of a full house at Franklin's Gardens.

Many things happened to them in the months separating the then from the now their World Cup-winning hooker Steve Thompson fell out publicly with the New Zealand contingent before retiring with a bad neck; they beat Biarritz in a Heineken Cup quarter-final in San Sebastian, surprising themselves every bit as much as they surprised the Basques, and then got themselves relegated from the Premiership; Paul Grayson was relieved of the head coach's duties as a consequence but there has been one fixed point in their ever-changing world. Or rather, 10,000-plus fixed points.

This afternoon, the Saints take on the might of er, um Newbury, again at Franklin's Gardens. Not on the second-team pitch, or in the members' bar, or in a corner of the car park, but on the very rectangle of grasslovingly tended by the insanely perfectionist groundsman David Powell, that they used last season, when the likes of Wasps and Gloucester were in town.

And if the best club rugby stadium in England will not quite be full to overflowing, there will still be one hell of a turnout from the paying public.

It takes some believing, but the folk in the ticket office confidently expect a five-figure crowd for a bog-standard Second Division game against players who would struggle to recognise themselves in their own mirror.

"Amazing," said the director of rugby, Jim Mallinder, this week. "The supporters been amazing all season. When we travelled up to Sedgley Park in October, the game was watched by 1,300 spectators.

"Eight hundred of them were from Northampton, on the very afternoon England played Australia in the World Cup quarter-final, live on terrestrial television. Some of the locals were more interested in what was happening in Marseilles, but the Northampton people were completely involved in our game.

"We haven't dipped below 10,000 at any of our home games; more often than not, we've had over 11,000 in for a league fixture. I'm not being disrespectful to the clubs in this division please believe me when I say that but to draw crowds like that for some of the matches on offer tells you all you need to know about Northampton as a rugby town. It's a fantastic place, this. Those who follow the team deserve the best."

With Dorian West, the former England and Leicester front-rower, Mallinder left the Rugby Football Union's national academy last summer to fill the power vacuum at the biggest unsuccessful club in the land.

Keith Barwell wonderfully contradictory self-proclaimed capitalist-Trotskyist who runs the club was the man who did the persuading, and he struck gold. Mallinder is not the most experienced of coaches whereas Ian McGeechan and Wayne Smith, two revered back-room figures from the club's past, were drawn from the very top echelon he has admirers in high places, not least at Twickenham. Barwell is not alone in expecting great things of him.

Northampton have won all 13 games of their National League One campaign so far, and having already played their difficult games in the South-west Cornish Pirates were beaten in September ("when the ground was nice and firm, thank God," Mallinder said); Exeter were seen off last month they show every sign of going through the card on their way back to the Premiership.

Taking into account their games with the second-string England Saxons team and the national Under-21 side, Mallinder and West have won 28 of their last 29 matches. "The 21s were beaten by New Zealand, and then came in and said: 'You know, we could have won that game'," West recalled in his dense Midlands brogue. "I went ballistic with them."

"Dorian's right, on both counts," his partner confirmed. "They could have beaten the New Zealanders, and he did go ballistic."

Has it been any sort of a challenge, this NL1 lark, or would the phrase "falling off a log" be more appropriate?

"It has been a challenge, definitely," said Mallinder, who was a fine counter-attacking full-back for Sale, winning England caps in Argentina in 1997, before moving into coaching at Heywood Road something he had viewed as a long-term opportunity until Brian Kennedy, the Sale owner, appointed Philippe Saint-Andr from France to the prime decision-making position.

"I really didn't know what to expect from the teams in this division; I don't think any of us knew. I spoke to Dean Richards at Harlequins and Stuart Lancaster at Leeds, both of whom had spent a recent season down here, and they told me to watch out for big, strong, physical, well-drilled sets of forwards. We've certainly seen our fair share of those. Things can be a little hostile down there in the depths of the West Country, that's for sure.

"Still, it's been good for the players to see a few proper rugby clubs, where the third-teamers are walking off the pitch just as the first-teamers are going out to play. I think the youngsters from the academy have really benefited from our travels. It's one thing for them to come on when we're 40 points up at home, with 10,000 supporters cheering our every move. That's the easy bit. When you're playing in Devon or Cornwall and you're up against it at half-time ... that's different. That's when you find out a few things about people. Who are the players best equipped to respond positively to pressure, who genuinely relish some responsibility?"

And the New Zealanders? How have the Carlos Spencers and Bruce Reihanas fronted up at, say, Camborne, or Rotherham? "Their professionalism has been top-drawer," Mallinder replied. "It would have been easy for them to coast, but I really can't fault their effort. There was all that stuff flying around last season about a split between the New Zealanders and the rest, but I've seen no evidence of it. We have a very strong dressing room here. The players enjoy each other's company, to the degree that we've had some very old-fashioned trips home from far-flung parts of the country. Plenty of beer, plenty of singing, you know the sort of thing. I've never believed you have to force drink down someone's throat for him to have a good time, but if people want to enjoy themselves after a good win, why would I want to stop them?"

Thanks in no small part to Barwell's unusually persuasive brand of leadership, Northampton lost precious few players as a result of relegation. Daniel Browne went to Bath, Pat Barnard went to Wasps and Ben Cohen went off the deep end, but that was about it. They are playing second-string rugby with a Premiership-standard roster. This means two things: they are virtually certain to go straight back up, and they can begin their preparations for the 2008-09 season from a strong base.

"Of course, the overwhelming priority is to secure promotion," Mallinder said. "Virtually everything is geared towards that. But there is a bigger vision here. The board knows where it wants to take this club, and the supporters know where they want to go. Everyone is hungry for success because they already know how sweet it tastes Northampton were European champions in 2000, which is as good as it gets and if we want to deliver it, we have to plan for it. This process is already under way.

"We know that, as things stand, we wouldn't be strong enough to be an instant big hit in the Premiership, so recruitment will be vital. Some of our strengthening will come via our academy, which is performing really well under Rob Hunter; in fact, we've used five academy players in the first team this season. The rest will come from outside, and we're working on that side of things as we speak.

"We have to get this side of it right, because we know from first-hand experience that the top end of National League One is becoming more professional by the month. There are some highly ambitious clubs in this league when you go to Exeter and see the facilities they already offer and the potential they have to expand, you realise there's only one way they're going.

"People look at teams like Bristol and Harlequins now and conclude dropping out of the Premiership was cathartic. Perhaps it was. But as National League One grows stronger, getting straight back up will be more difficult. Relegation will not be cathartic for very much longer."

Mallinder's assessment is spot on. Leaving aside Harlequins, who also shamed the vast majority of their big-name players into staying on and helping the club out of the mire into which they had deposited it, Northampton are by far the strongest side to play NL1 rugby in recent times. Yet while the statistics confirm their superiority at home, they are scoring almost 55 points a match and winning their games by margins of well over 40 there are sure signs of an increasing competitiveness down there in the division no one notices. On the road, the Saints' winning margins average out at just over 20 points: comfortable, but not the stuff of slaughter.

"I'm completely happy with our results, and partially happy with our performances," Mallinder said. "We've played well in some matches, but left plenty to be desired in others. On the whole, I'd say we're a better side now than we were in September. That's what I'm here to achieve. It's a big job, but I'm enjoying it. Even though I was missing the regular buzz of match-day involvement, I'm not sure I'd have left the national academy for a Premiership club where everything was in place and hunky-dory. The challenge is everything, and this is certainly a challenge."