Jim Mallinder admits Saints’ pre-season preparations put them on the back foot ahead of a campaign in which they have failed to make the top four for the first time since 2009.
Mallinder’s men battled back to beat Bath 15-14 at Franklin’s Gardens on Saturday, but it was only enough to move them up to fifth in the Aviva Premiership standings.
Leicester Tigers beat Worcester Warriors to secure fourth spot, leaving Saints to reflect on what might have been.
And Mallinder knows where things started to go wrong for his team in a campaign in which they have won just 11 of their 21 league games so far.
“You always aim to get in that top four but it’s not easy and if you look back we would do things differently,” Mallinder said.
“It was a long pre-season, we went into those first games a little bit undercooked in terms of how much rugby we’d played.
“It’s fine details, but we arranged to play Worcester in pre-season at the Gardens, the fixtures came out and we opted not to play our first team in that friendly here.
“We should have played our first team.
“Our second team beat their first team but we went down there and lost in the league a week later.
“It meant from there that we were struggling.
“We lost three of our first four games, we lost away to teams towards the bottom and it’s taken a lot of effort during the Six Nations period to try to make that back up.”
On how the World Cup affected his team, Mallinder said: “We didn’t lose as many players as we thought we may have done, but what we certainly found was that the international players came back and weren’t quite switched on to the way we were doing things.
“It took them quite a lot of time to get into the Saints way, and from then we struggled.”
Saints were hampered by injuries in April, with a laundry list of key men missing for the Champions Cup quarter-final at Saracens and the key Premiership game against Leicester.
And Mallinder said: “You can get through periods without your internationals but in the big games, when you’re playing Saracens in the quarter-final of the European Cup, when you’re playing Leicester at home with everything to play for, you need your big players available.
“Unfortunately, we’ve not had those players available.”
But with international stars out, the door has opened for a group of talented young players, who have made their mark at the top level.
The likes of Harry Mallinder and Teimana Harrison have managed to break through this season.
“We’ve very, very positive about next season because the opportunities have been created for the youngsters and they’ve come through and shown they can play on this stage,” Mallinder said.
“We’ve played some decent rugby over the past couple of months, we’ve got some good bonus-point wins and if we hadn’t gifted Leicester 14 points we could have won that game and been talking about top four.
“It’s been really, really frustrating for us.”