Saints boss Jim Mallinder was given a grilling at the season ticket holders’ forum at Franklin’s Gardens on Thursday night.
Mallinder was placed firmly in the spotlight as 250 supporters watched on intently while he was quizzed by selected members of the crowd.
He was forced to take some criticism on the chin and explain things such as his recruitment policy and tactics on an evening when a section of the Gardens faithful had their say.
Below is the full transcript from the forum, as Mallinder gives a revealing insight into life as Northampton director of rugby.
Q: After the Heineken Cup final season, it was generally acknowledged that certain players had played too many games and the coaches were therefore looking to develop the squad and achieve greater depth and squad ‘rotation’. How well do the coaching team feel this has gone, particularly given that we have senior squad players that rarely (if ever) have senior game time - are there players in the squad the coaches do not trust? Why are some players seen as undroppables?
JM: “You are absolutely right. We talked about the Heineken Cup year and if you look at the statistics our forwards, our props in particular, Tonga’uiha, Mujati, started 32 games that season, plus a couple of appearances from the bench. That is too many.
“We have tried to rotate. This year, if you look at the stats now, Soane Tonga’uiha has played 21 games, Brian Mujati - he has been out injured - has only played 10. It’s the reason we brought in people like Paul Doran-Jones and why we’ve got Tom Mercey and young Alex Waller coming through the system. We have rotated better and we’re in a better position.
“Are there players who the coaches don’t trust, well, the simple, honest answer is yes. What we do is we have our squad, we train them hard, we see them every single day, bar their day off, and every single week we watch them play. That might be for the first team or it might be for the Wanderers, but if they are fit they will play. Up until Christmas we have games every single week. The players who play well for us, who shine at training, get selected. Those who, in our humble opinion as coaches, do not.”
“Third question, are there any undroppables in the squad? No. If somebody plays better in training or in the Wanderers, who we think can do a better job than those in the first team, anyone will be dropped. There are no undroppables.”
Q: In the past two seasons there have been some embarrassing performances with a distinct lack of effort, application and aggression. It’s not losing, it’s the manner of the loss. Is this fitness, ability or the top two inches? Northampton Saints are one of the top six sides in England, and seem to be frustratingly close to recognised success, but can’t make that final step. We should be capable of beating anybody, such as the Ulster away match earlier this year. Does the club use sports psychologists to help ‘get us over the line’, or if not are they thinking about using this approach in the future?
JM: “I can’t give you a single, one-word answer to that one. All I can do is really describe my coaching philosophy. I think coaching you can really narrow down to four different aspects. We look to improve the physical side, the technical side, the tactical side and the mental side. Probably the mental side is one of the most important.
“We as coaches work towards improving that. If we’ve got any problems or we think we’re struggling in any of those areas - technical might be we need a kicking coach, then we won’t hesitate in going out and bringing in a kicker, if we thought we needed that.
“On the mental side, we are the ones who deal mainly with the players, but we understand that there are issues and there are some things we can’t always affect and look after. Therefore, again, we actually use a psychologist called Doctor Steve Peters, who has been regularly involved in British Cycling, and he works with a number of our senior players.”
Q: When the coaching set up was changed mid season with the termination of Paul Grayson’s contract, the supporters were left wondering if the right person had left as losses have increased since. Could we have a clearer definition of responsibilities and lines of authority within the current coaching team for this season and next and if Paul Grayson was doing three jobs and that was seen as possibly too many, is Alex King going to be stretched?
JM: “I’ll start by talking about Paul Grayson. He was a loyal player and coach here for 19 years. I have actually known him for a lot longer than that, as a friend and as a player. I’ve known him probably 25 years and it was probably the hardest decision I’ve made over my time here. But for the sake of the club, to me it was the right thing to do. We needed to freshen things up, we needed a few new ideas. Paul wanted a long-term contract and we thought it was time we made a change and we looked to move on.
“I’m delighted we’ve got somebody in with the calibre of Alex King. He’s somebody, again, who I’ve known for a long time. I value his values, I know what he’s done as a player, I know what he’s now doing as a coach and I do think he’ll massively add to the mix.
“In terms of what’s happening now, with the structure. I’m in charge of the rugby, Dorian West is in charge of the forwards and he does all the contact. Alan Dickens is now temporarily in charge of the attack and the backs. We all as coaches do the defence. We work together to do that.
“When Alex King arrives next season, he will be primarily responsible for the attack and for the backs, and Alan Dickens will stay working with the first team to assist him, looking after the skills of the 23, particularly when the players are off, and he’ll also still have a very important role in looking after those senior academy boys.”
Q: Strong rumours abound that there is a rift between players and coaching staff with players wishing to leave just to get away from the Saints. Others who have left or are leaving have already commented on playing elsewhere with smiles on their faces or having more freedom to play what is in front of them without the fear of being dropped. What is happening in the changing room that is fueling these rumours and comments?
JM: “Quite clearly, it’s a difficult situation. Managing a squad of rugby players - including the academy we have more than 50 players - there is always going to be problems, there is always going to be challenges. That might be in their personal lives, it might be tactical, it might be the way they’re playing, it might be their contracts and that’s part of life, it’s part of rugby clubs and it happens every single year and that won’t go away.
“We have not been helped this year, and you’ve mentioned it so I’ll talk about it, the Paul Doran-Jones incident. There is no rift between Paul Doran-Jones and the coaching staff. He’s had a few personal problems. He has been supported by the club, he’s been given quite a lot of time off and the reason he is leaving is because his girlfriend lives in London, as does the rest of the family and he wants to go back to London.
“I was as shocked as I’m sure all you were when I read the announcement from Harlequins. I was very disappointed. I got the player in immediately and spoke to him. He apologised profusely, he said that he had a conversation with the Harlequins press officer. He did say some things, but the way it was reported was completely not appropriate to what he said and he was stupid because he hadn’t actually read the press release. If he had done, he would not have agreed with it. He apologised profusely. Damage already done, Paul. Not good at all, but unfortunately it happens.
“There is no rift between the coaches and the players and I guess you always think that I’m going to say that. You probably need to speak to some of the senior players to get their opinion.”
Q: In the gap between one game and the next (bearing in mind that this may not be seven days, and the team will either be coming off a win or a loss) how does the weekly schedule and process change to fit circumstances? For instance do the players’ contracts stipulate that they must be available after the match, or to be called in on a Sunday. Are the players ever called in on a rest day after a bad loss and how does the weeks routine change in the balance between fitness, skills training, video analytics and who leads the game planning after watching the next opponents?
JM: “Players get monthly schedules, so they’re prepared a month in advance. The reason we have to do that is preparation, being organised, it’s looking at the months ahead and the playing fixtures. It’s also notifying people like the drug testers who need to know where our players are every minute of the day. We do that.
“Of course, after a game we debrief and we appraise. We make the plan for the following week and if we think we need an extra rugby session then we’ll put an extra rugby session in. If we think that it’s been a particularly physical game, we may cut back on some of the rugby sessions and do more recovery, so it goes game to game. Of course, things are always fluid. Even midweek we might change our day off. Last week, England players we realised we were going to get a lot of them back for the Thursday so what we did do is give a lot of the other lads Wednesday off so the England lads could train with the squad on Thursday and then do a captain’s run on the Friday. Everything changes there.
“Our general plan of the week, if you’re interested, is after a game, players who are injured come in the day after and are treated. Everybody else is expected to go to a local pool and rehab and recover there.
“On a Monday it’s mainly debrief and skills and fitness. Everybody will have a one-to-one with coaches and go through forwards and backs meetings. I will run the debrief as to how the game went.
“Tuesday and Wednesday is match preparation and building up to the following week and making sure the players play an active part in preparing the analysis. We have two full-time analysis lads, very good, competent, who break everything down.
“Thursday is generally our day off and then Friday we come in and have a very light team run. We eat a big three-course meal, hopefully fill them up and make them all happy with smiles on their faces and then the plan is to come in for Saturday.
“We devote hours analysing the opposition. The two coaches do that two weeks before we play another team. Our London Irish analysis will have been done last week, it’s fully prepared and on the laptops. As soon as the other game is over we move straight on to that. It’s hours and hours from the coaches and the players.”
Q: Without specifically naming players, can the panel confirm that all players the club wants to retain for the future are now in contract, that those whose contracts will not be renewed are fully aware of the fact and how does this impact on team selection for the remainder of the season? Which member of management actually deals with contract negotiations and completions and in order to ensure that we retain the right people?
JM: “In terms of our squad the people who are here we want to keep, I would say 95 per cent. There are a couple with options which we’re looking at and one is a fitness concern, but 95 per cent. We are looking to sign a few more players as well and hopefully in the next few weeks we’ll be able to make some good announcements.
“Dusty Hare is our chief scout as well as working with the academy. He watches all the games, whether that’s Super 15 or in the Championship. He reports back to the coaches. Paul Shields is the one who deals with the agents so he has the face-to-face meetings with the agents and I ultimately decide which players we want to sign.”
Q: Fly half, generally accepted as a pivotal position within any team, has been a subject of much discussion between the supporters and the media with no one player tying the position down for many years now. What are the clubs plans to introduce some stability and depth of talent in this crucial position to help us towards some silverware?
JM: “Very good question. With Alex King joining us, we’ve had a lot of discussions with him in terms of his views and adding them to ours.
“There’s a couple of issues we’ve always got to remember. One, it would be fantastic to have one outstanding, superstar fly-half, who you can rely on every single game. We can’t do that. Injuries, international call-ups, we’ve got to make sure we cover ourselves.
“We’ve seen a lot of Stephen Myler, we’ve seen him grow, develop as a player. He’s played some very big games for us and quite clearly he will be out there as our starting No.1, but we need people pushing behind him.
“I’m very pleased that Kahn Fotuali’i is an international fly-half, but I do see him mainly as a No.9. James Wilson can play there. We’ve got a very promising England Under-20 player called Will Hooley, who is improving all the time and I do expect that one of our new signings will be able to push at 10 as well.”
Q: The backline have not fired this season with players out of form and no apparent game plan, line breaks or set moves. We have been unable to capitalise when the forwards have dominated. Will this be improved before Alex King’s arrival and why do we kick away so much possession?
JM: “Let’s answer the last part first. If you look at the stats, we do kick quite a lot of ball away and there’s four other teams who kick more away than us. I guess you’d all guess Saracens are one of those above us. It’s quite interesting the two teams who kick the least are Exeter and Worcester, and we know where we find them in the league.
“What we have to do it get the balance right in our kicking. I agree, at times, our kicking has appeared aimless. I can assure you it’s not meant to be, it’s not the plan. Of course we need to kick and that’s part of winning international games. If you look at the stats, we kick 25 times per game on average. If you look at England this season, they’ve been kicking 32 times per game on average. Teams do need to kick, but it’s got to be at the right time.
“To answer the first part, it’s probably a little bit harsh and a generalisation. At the beginning of the year, we played pretty well. I fully agree that during this middle part of the season the backs have lost their confidence and not been playing well.
“I’m the first to admit that. It’s not been helped by the ground, it’s not been helped by not being able to get out on the field and train, but it’s something we’ve got to improve. We’ve seen an improvement most recently as the pitches have hardened up. It’s easier to play and hopefully if you were watching last weekend, we saw that. Just to make the comment that we’re always happy that our forwards are doing well.
“At the weekend, our lineout didn’t function for once and it was very encouraging to see the backs take it by the scruff of the neck.”
Q: What is said to the players and coaches by the referee pre-match and how do we react or prepare for that? Some teams appear to know or play the ref better than us. i.e. JP Doyle in the LV= Cup last year. Why do we concede so many penalties?
JM: “Why do we conceded so many penalties? That’s an opinion and you’ve got to really just look at the Opta stats and the Opta stats say that in the Premiership there are three teams who concede fewer penalties per game than us. In Europe, there is only one team that has conceded more penalties than us, and that’s Harlequins, out of the 24. So, why do we concede that many penalties? We don’t.
“We do concede too many yellow cards, that is an issue and something we’ve got to get over. In terms of what we do, we work very had behind the scenes, we don’t make much comment in the press, but Dorian West is the main man who speaks to Ed Morrison.
“They have continual, daily dialogue in terms of the referee’s performance last weekend and talking about who the referee is going to be and the aspects we are going to be looking for for the following week.”
Q: Since you have been director of rugby at Saints, our team has played a forward-orientated game based on an effective set piece, physicality at the breakdown, relentless carrying ‘round the corner’ and not very much else. Although this only requires a few minutes of analysis for opponents to fully understand it, the team has undoubtedly enjoyed success for a period because they were very good at it. When did the coaches first realise that this limited game plan was no longer adequate to compete at the top end of the Premiership or in the Heineken Cup? Does the appointment of Alex King signal a change in approach?
JM: “I don’t think the coaches have realised that’s the wrong way to go. Let me just go through some of the things you asked me: you said a dominant set piece, strong, powerful, effective at the breakdown, getting the forwards working round the corner - those are good basics to have. I don’t think what we want here is a set of forwards who are not going to win ball.
“We don’t want once we take the ball in to be turned over. That’s a start, that’s a basis of where we work from. Of course we’ve got to build on it and I appreciate we need a bit more subtlety at times. We had James Downey, who was very effective, and that encouraged forwards to get around the field. He unfortunately left.
“What we do need, and what we’re looking for in that position (at 12) is someone who can carry, but who can play effectively, who can distribute and what we want is our forwards and backs to combine. We can play some good rugby and we won’t go away from doing the basic things right. Any team in the world that’s successful, whether that’s international teams, teams at the top of the Premiership, teams that top the Heineken, have a very effective set piece and are tough at the breakdown, but we do need to develop our game and move on from that.
“The Plan B, if you you have eight lightweight forwards, you don’t win the ball. If you don’t have a good maul that means five forwards defend the ball, three of those already guarding the backs and you can’t go wide because you get closed down and you get turned over.If you have a powerful scrum, it means their forwards have to scrummage against you and it means their three back rowers are not ready to get off and they’re not going to go and tackle the backs.
“You’ve got to have the ability to do the right things at the right times and that’s something we’re working towards.”