Saints farewell interview: Sam Dickinson
Persistence is key in the pursuit of success.
And that was certainly the case in the relationship between Sam Dickinson and Saints.
It could have been over before the two parties had been able to strike up a bond.
But in the end, Saints stuck with their man and he repaid them in fine style.
Dickinson penned a deal at Franklin’s Gardens in the summer of 2012.
But there was to be a major complication as just days after his deal had been agreed, the No.8 broke his arm while playing for Rotherham Titans in the Championship.
It was a serious injury and one which could have seen Saints opt to pull out of the agreement.
“It was kind of a grey area and they would have been within their rights to say ‘thanks, but you’re not going to be able to play so we’ll give it a miss’,” Dickinson explained.
“But they were quite good, they told me it happens and they said to come down and get ready for the recovery.”
Dickinson spent the majority of the 2012/13 season on the sidelines, with then Saints captain Dylan Hartley giving him the nickname ‘couch’ as he endured such a long time out of action.
“My time on the sidelines was elongated by a negligent NHS surgeon who caused complications in the operation and that’s what made it last the whole year,” Dickinson said.
“The guy drilled the bone too hard and for too long, which kills off the blood supply so it hadn’t repaired.
“If I hadn’t been at Saints, there could have been a lot more complications involved, but they sent me to the best guy in the country, he gave me a bone graft and it healed up alright after that.
“I was quite lucky to be honest.
“If it hadn’t have healed, I would have been left having to have a bone removed and it would have reduced my movement so I wouldn’t have been able to rotate my arm.
“I wouldn’t have been able to play rugby with that.
“It was a close call, but it all worked out.”
Dickinson stuck with it, battling through the lonely hours in the gym.
“Most of the boys in the squad only ever saw me on the couch because I was doing my rehab and in the gym and I was on my down time when they came back in from training,” he said.
“I’m quite a solitary person as it is so it didn’t bother me too much, but you do kind of get isolated from the squad.
“You’re doing your own thing in the gym with whoever else is injured at that time and they may come and go so you’re by yourself.
“Every player has to go through that when they get injured. It’s just something you have to deal with.”
Finally, towards the end of the campaign, Dickinson, who had received full salary during his time out of action at Saints, made his mark on a dual-registration deal with Moseley.
He may not have been able to represent the club he had signed for from Rotherham immediately, but the big No.8 was on the road to his first appearance in green, black and gold.
And, ironically, after captaining Saints against Moseley in pre-season, he went from strength to strength in Northampton colours.
“I had a nice start to proceedings,” Dickinson said, with a noticeable elevation in tone.
“Exeter at home was our first league game that year and it was nice to get the man of the match award.
“I was immediately benched for the game at Harlequins, but I came on and we scraped a win down there.
“We then played Sale at home and I managed to pull another man of the match award out the bag.
“It was a good start for me.
“I needed it having been in rugby purgatory. No one quite knew what I was capable of.”
And Dickinson admits even he didn’t know whether he would be good enough to scrap it out with England’s elite.
“I was unsure whether I would be able to step up to the level and do well, but Nobby (Dorian West) had the biggest say and he backed me to fill that spot, even though GJ (van Velze) was here at the time,” Dickinson said.
“It was a good time to peak, having done well in the pre-season.
“I worked as hard as I could for it.”
Dickinson’s first proper season at the Gardens was to start and finish in style, with Saints grabbing glory in both the Aviva Premiership and Amlin Challenge Cup.
“I was just excited to play full stop, but then when you look around the changing rooms and you’ve got big names like that, you know you’re only looking after your corner of the team,” he said, reflecting on the fact Saints had brought in the likes of Alex Corbisiero, Kahn Fotuali’i and George North to boost their 2013/14 bid.
“Everything else is looked after because there were a lot of experienced, great players in the team.
“It was great for me just to be playing and every time we played against each club was my first against them.
“We played against Sarries and teams like that and we were beating them.
“We finished second in the league but the whole season got eclipsed by playing Leicester in the play-off semi-finals, then going away into the Challenge Cup final, which we won.
“I picked up my worst injury I’ve had and then the week later we won the Premiership final.
“It was just ridiculous really.”
As Dickinson makes reference to, injury was never too far away.
But he wasn’t going to let it stop him starting at No.8 in the Premiership final against Saracens.
“In the Amlin final (against Bath), I had a crush injury to my neck, which jarred one of the nerves and meant I had to have an operation that summer,” Dickinson explained.
“It was causing spasms and loss of strength in my arms and shoulder.
“I wasn’t going to miss the Premiership final - no chance!
“It was fantastic.
“The whole week felt special, even following on from the European final.
“There was a buzz around the place, everyone was more switched on, then we travelled down to London and the whole thing had a sense of occasion about it.
“One memory I’ll never forget was turning up on the bus in the car park and all the stairways around the entrance were full of Saints fans waiting for us.
“It was a special occasion.”
Not only was it a special occasion, but it was the culmination of the hard work and immense character that Dickinson had shown since arriving at Saints with just one fully functioning arm.
His form had often allowed Saints to push American behemoth Samu Manoa into the second row, giving the team a good balance and plenty of power.
Mallinder’s men followed up their double-winning campaign by topping the Aviva Premiership regular-season table in 2015.
But competition was increasing all the time and Dickinson, whose fine club form had earned him England Saxons honours, was up against it.
In both the 2015/16 and 2016/17 seasons, the players’ and supporters’ player of the season awards went to men who had predominantly played at No.8.
Teimana Harrison took both prizes in 2016, with Louis Picamoles claiming them at the conclusion of last season.
And while Dickinson was trying hard to stave off injury and overcome the competition, Saints were not having the best time as a whole.
“We did really well the year after the double and it’s anyone’s opinion as to what’s happened during the past couple of years,” Dickinson said.
“We’ve struggled quite a bit.
“We’ve not been performing to how we want to be.
“But it was quite special for me last season when the lads were away with England and Jim asked me to captain the team at Worcester (in November).
“I thought it was a step forward after a lot of trying to get back to where I was at.
“But I did my MCL in that game and it was heading towards the end of the season for me.
“I struggled to get back into it.”
Dickinson was restricted to appearances for the Wanderers.
But he did at least get the good send-off he deserved at the Gardens, skippering the Saints second string to an Aviva A League title, with Gloucester beaten in the final in Northampton.
“The Wandies at the end of the year was a bit of a saviour for me because it allowed me to get fun back in my rugby and cut loose a bit,” Dickinson said.
“There was some really good team spirit shown because the lads were all in the same sort of position, on the fringe of the first team and it was just nice to be able to play and do well.
“In the final there was a great turnout from the fans and it was great to finish off like that. It meant a lot to me and the other lads involved.”