Initial fears have been followed by bliss for Biggar at Saints

In December 2017, Dan Biggar took his seat at Franklin's Gardens.

By Tom Vickers
Wednesday, 3rd June 2020, 10:42 am
Dan Biggar is loving life at Saints
Dan Biggar is loving life at Saints

He wasn't playing for his current or future employers that night, instead adopting a watching brief as Ospreys took to the Franklin's Gardens turf against Jim Mallinder's Saints.

Biggar was battling concussion and, consequently, the only part he could play was as a pundit for Sky Sports, who were covering the game live.

And what he saw over the course of the 80 minutes provided plenty of reason for concern.

Not for Ospreys, who made their way to a 43-32 success that was far more convincing than the scoreline suggested.

But for Saints, who were 43-8 down at one stage, bringing a chorus of boos from the beleaguered home support.

A mere 8,000 fans had made their way to the Gardens that night, rather more in hope than expectation, as Saints stumbled to yet another defeat.

It was to be the final straw for long-serving boss Mallinder, who departed before the second part of the Ospreys December double-header on the following weekend.

And for Biggar, alarm bells were ringing, as he was left wondering just what kind of shape he would find Saints in when he arrived in the summer of 2018.

"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little bit concerned," said Biggar, who is now two years into his time at Northampton.

"There was obviously a big job to be done results wise.

"I worked for Sky for Northampton-Ospreys in the Champions Cup and what it looked like to me in terms of Northampton Saints was that it was a team absolutely shot in terms of confidence.

"They were almost beaten before they got on the field at that stage and I know what it's like because I've been in teams where you feel like whatever you do in a game and whatever happens, you just don't know where your next victory is coming from.

"But from sitting at home and watching almost every Northampton game that was televised towards the end of the season, I saw the (April 2018) victory at Welford Road in the derby and it brought it right back for me.

"It showed a massive amount of fight, determination and character and that was the moment for me to show the team was back.

"It's the hardest thing to coach or produce and I remember thinking we had huge amounts of potential in the squad.

"The season was difficult but it looked like that was a turning point.

"It created a bit of a feelgood and they had a decent end to the season."

Biggar could even have been part of the struggling squad of 2017/18, who eventually finished ninth in the Premiership, had things worked out differently.

He explained: "I was talking about possibly coming the season before.

"I spoke to Jim when he was in charge and he basically said they were keen for me to come.

"I still had a year left on my contract in Wales so that was a no-go really and I couldn't come a year early.

"They looked at a few options and then came back to me and said 'we're quite happy to look at this for the year after, we'll get by for the next year'.

"It must have been a year or so in advance that I committed to joining and it was a real positive thing for me because it was a show of intent that this was the route Saints wanted to go down.

"It was a real confidence booster for me to sort my situation out so early.

"I didn't have to worry about playing the last few months of my contract with no contract or no offer and not knowing what I wanted to do.

"It was nice to have everything sorted and it took the pressure off me.

"It worked well for both parties.

"Northampton were in the market for a 10.

"I had some really good years at Ospreys but I was at the stage where I needed a new challenge, a new league, new faces.

"I just needed to put myself out of my comfort zone a touch and it was a good match for both."

Saints desperately needed to steady the ship after Mallinder's December departure and they turned to Alan Dickens as interim head coach while also drafting in Alan Gaffney on a six-month deal as technical coaching consultant.

It worked as the club stayed up and Chris Boyd was brought in, leaving Biggar with a new man to impress having not even been given the chance to make his mark with the man he signed for, Mallinder.

"Jim was a really good bloke and I met him a couple of times," Biggar said.

"I had conversations with Jim and he was very complimentary about the club and how well it's run.

"From speaking to Jim, you could see the club was a proper rugby club and it was a big sell.

"I signed for Jim because he was director or rugby when I signed and in my head that was what I was expecting to arrive and to play under Jim.

"Elite level sport is very cut-throat and if you don't get results if you're the boss, the buck stops with you so it was really disappointing to see Jim lose his job.

"I suppose it was a little bit strange, but Mark Darbon and the Saints were really good at communicating with me.

"They kept me in the loop and almost made me feel part of the club before I was part of the club.

"It gave me a real confidence that I was being kept in touch and being made aware of things.

"From the outside looking in, if you sign for a director of rugby and then they get sacked or moved on or whatever it could panic you a little bit, but for me it was really calm.

"I thought to myself that I was really disappointed Jim lost his job because he seemed like a really good bloke, but my reasoning was that I signed for Northampton Saints rather than anybody in particular.

"The club was the sell for me in terms of the support, the ground, the ambition of the club and it didn't really matter who was in charge, I wanted to play for Northampton Saints.

"As it's turned out, in my opinion, it couldn't really have worked out much better for me.

"Chris (Boyd) has been the best (coach) I've worked under by a country mile.

"It's been great that it's worked out really well.

"I've got a really good relationship with Chris and we're pretty black and white with each other and it's what Chris's main strength it: he calls it as he sees it.

"You are left in no uncertain terms what he expects of you and that's been brilliant for me in particular."

Another person who played a part in Biggar's move to Saints was George North.

North and Biggar are team-mates at international level and the former clearly told the latter some good things about life at the Gardens, having spent five years in Northampton, helping Saints to secure a memorable double in his first season at the club.

"George was really good actually," Biggar said.

"He offered his advice and opinion, especially in terms of where we wanted to live.

"We're actually living in Brackley and it makes life a little bit easier going back to Wales between campaigns and things like that.

"George was really good at pointing us in the right areas and he was really complimentary about the club.

"George spent quite a few years in Northampton and when he was at his absolute best he was playing in a Northampton shirt, whether that was with the Lions or Wales as well.

"What he said was that there was a great group of boys there who would work hard for each other and he said it was just a really good rugby club,

"Playing for Ospreys for a number of years was brilliant, but what it wasn't was a proper club atmosphere because it was rugby played in a football stadium.

"The atmosphere wasn't as good as you'd hope and expect week in, week out.

"What George said was that playing in the Premiership, you had to be on your money every week because every game is like a cup final.

"They are big teams, massive crowds and that sort of advice was great for me.

"If George had stayed in Northampton under Chris and Sam, George had an ability to take his game to an even higher level if he'd have stuck around.

"It would have been great for us to have a George North on top form.

"He told me to watch out for a couple of lads - Paul Hill had a couple of black marks against his name early on from him - and that's been proved right!"

There has clearly been pure enjoyment from day one at Saints for Biggar, who has taken his already impressive fly-half game to new levels in Northampton.

He continually expresses his love for everything black, green and gold and that also shows on the pitch as Biggar is the beating heart of a game plan that revolves around cut and thrust.

And the Wales star said: "Chris has brought Sam Vesty in and made our attacking game flourish.

"What some people forget is that at the start of the first year, we only won two of our first six or seven games in the league and it wasn't a great return.

"But there were definitely signs that the way we were trying to play with young players in key positions, there was definitely scope for improvement.

"Even though the results weren't what we wanted in the first block of the season, I felt like everyone who came off the training field and off the pitch at the weekend became a better player.

"And what the club and coaching staff deserve a huge amount of credit for is that they're making players better.

"We haven't got a team like Toulon who won the European Cup three years on the bounce with a one to 23 of 50-cap internationals, we've got a young, hungry group who are absolutely desperate to perform and play for Northampton Saints.

"That stands us in great stead.

"It's not going to turn a George Furbank or Alex Moon into a 50-cap international overnight, but you look at how much they've improved week on week and month on month and it shows where the club's at.

"It's the route to go down.

"You need experienced players in key positions but you need the blend with that youth and it stands you in good stead.

"Since I've arrived in Northampton, I feel like I've got to prove myself even more because we've got so many talented young guys who are absolutely desperate to perform and play.

"When you're 29, 30 you haven't got that real excitement of wanting to prove yourself over and over, but I do feel like I have that, like I'm a 21-year-old who has got to perform and be as hungry as those guys.

"It's great for my career."

Biggar helped Saints to finish fourth last season, with the team eventually losing at Exeter Chiefs in the Premiership play-off semi-finals.

They were beaten in an enthralling Challenge Cup quarter-final at Clermont Auvergne, but did pick up one trophy, defeating Saracens in the Gardens showpiece to claim the Premiership Rugby Cup crown.

This season, Saints have hit the summit in the league but now lie in fourth, while they also have a Champions Cup quarter-final at Exeter to look forward to if it can somehow be played amid the current Covid-19 pandemic.

It is clear that the club is on an upward trajectory, with Biggar steering the ship.

And there have been plenty of highlights that have displayed the progress Saints have made this season.

"The win at Lyon in January was right up there for me," Biggar said. "It's actually the first time I've won in the Champions Cup in France so that was quite special.

"We played a proper team that day - it wasn't a Mickey Mouse team, it was a full team in what was a dead rubber for them.

"They had some world class players and in a game where we needed to win, we really rolled our sleeves up in the second half and really produced a proper performance.

"That would probably be the highlight for me because we hung in there at 12 points down at half-time.

"Another highlight for me was one I didn't actually play in: the home game against Leicester in November.

"What I felt that day was that we had a squad to go and compete and to go and win a competition.

"Grays (James Grayson) came in and play absolutely brilliantly at the 11th hour (Biggar had to withdraw due to a foot injury on the morning of the game). He ran the game.

"The place was absolutely rocking and Leicester's team must have had 10 or 12 internationals.

"There was no cares for how many caps they had or their reputations, it was just a group of boys who had a desire to go and win.

"It was almost as pleasing as the win out in Lyon because it reinforced that we had a squad to go and compete in big games and big tournaments.

"Those two were big moments for the season and we're hoping there are going to be some even bigger moments to come."

In a recent poll run by this publication on Twitter, Biggar was voted Saints' player of the season so far.

And he is clearly humbled to have received such praise from the fans who watch him on a weekly basis.

"It's huge actually," Biggar said.

"I left Wales to get out of the goldfish bowl, a rugby mad place, but as soon as you step into Northampton you realise it's an absolutely rugby mad town and they live and breath their rugby.

"When I arrived, I wanted to buy into the club and I wanted to make sure it mattered to me.

"For me, if someone offered me a chance of winning something internationally or winning something domestically, especially with Northampton as a group and for the supporters, I would choose domestically pretty much every time because it's with guys you're with day in, day out.

"What I hope I've showed in the 18 months I've been here is the appetite and the want to play and do well for the club. It's been my biggest thing.

"I feel like I've improved massively as a player under Chris and the coaches and everyone at Saints.

"We're running out on a Saturday afternoon in front of 15,000 people in the middle of town and it's the best job in the world really, unless you're a Premier League footballer.

"I hope that's shown for me and it means a lot that the fans can see the desire and the want to play is there.

"It's very flattering that the people who pay their money week in, week out to come and watch you have got a strong opinion like that.

"I'm not sure they would have said the same thing after my debut at Gloucester in September 2018 and I'm glad you weren't running a poll for anything the day after that!

"The Shed was quite vocal that day!

"But I was glad to have got that one out of the way and hopefully I haven't played much worse than I did that day so it's worked out quite well."