For Rhys Oakley Saturday’s game at Leicester will be his first taste of an east midlands derby.
The No.8, signed from Bourgoin during the summer, has played at Welford Road before, but never as a Northampton player.
The excitement is building as the 32-year-old prepares for the big kick-off this weekend and we caught up with the 32-year-old in the latest of our Chron Q&As.
Rhys, a perfect opportunity for the lads to bounce back from last weekend’s defeat to Saracens and stamp their mark on a game at Leicester Tigers on Saturday.
“Yes absolutely, as if Saracens at home wasn’t a big enough game, straight after we’ve got Leicester at Welford Road. It’s a fantastic opportunity to bounce back in style.”
Speaking to you in Toulouse, you did say this is the sort of match you came to Northampton for and to play these sorts of giants every week. It just seems to be a case of one to the next at the moment?
“Absolutely, that’s what it’s all about and it’s fantastic to be involved in these sort of big games in front of a full house here (Franklin’s Gardens) against Saracens on Saturday and a full house at Welford Road.
“The atmosphere will be fantastic and it’s the kind of game that every professional rugby player wants to play in.”
How much are you looking forward to being involved in the game because you perhaps haven’t tasted this sort of derby atmosphere before?
“I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve played at Welford Road a few times before and the atmosphere is always really good but I imagine in the derby it will be an extra step up which I’m very much looking forward to.”
What do you think the team needs to do to improve on last weekend, because it seemed all the build-up play was there, it just required the finishing touches?
“I think we dominated the possession, the play and we did all the work. We just need some extra composure in the final third and make sure we play at the right times really.
“I think we let Saracens soak up all of our pressure and then hit us on the counter and that’s something we need to be wary of.”
How much are you relishing that battle for the No.8 shirt with GJ van Velze now returning?
“GJ had a great game at the weekend and is playing really well. We’re both in good form and I relish the idea of having to fight for the jersey because that’s the way it should be at a club like this.
“You should never expect an easy ride and that’s exactly what I expected when I came here.”
Obviously there’s a few players missing in the back row and Tom Wood is away with England, do you think you fit elsewhere for example 6 or 7?
“I’m a versatile player, I’ve played 8 since I’ve been here but in the past I’ve played both 6 and 7 and even had spells in the second row at certain clubs.
“I’m more than happy to play anywhere for this club. I’ll always do my best and whatever Nobby (Dorian West) and Jim (Mallinder) need me to do I will try and do the best I can.
Every time Saints and Leicester meet there is always a massive forwards battle and I suppose that’s something the boys on the paddock are looking forward to getting their teeth into?
“Yes, with it being the local derby and the fans getting behind the players then every tackle and carry is going to be that little bit harder and you’ll just have to put that little bit of extra effort in because it will be probably be the hardest physical encounter that both teams will face all season.”
Have you experienced a derby clash before?
“Not so much. Playing for Bristol against Bath is probably the closest I’ve come to it but it’s a match that I’ve watched over the years and been jealous of the players playing in it and it’s now fantastic that I’ve got the chance to actually play in it.”
And it’s also a good chance for some of the squad members who don’t regularly start games to show what they can do?
“Yes, absolutely. We’ve got a fantastic squad here and in training every day there are some players who are playing just as well as some of the top guys and they are ready to take that chance and show everyone and the coaches that they are worthy of a starting spot in the team.”
You must have analysed Leicester, Where do you think their strengths are? “Well, they’re obviously a very strong team. They’ve lost a few members of the team to International call ups but they’ve got a formidable pack even without their England players, with people like Castro (Martin Castrogiovanni) stepping up.
“I imagine Leicester will go back to basics, they’ll go back to their maul, they’ll go back to their scrum and they’ll really try and battle it out there.
“That’s what we expect and we’ll also have to keep an eye on our friend Ben Youngs coming back from England.”
You mentioned Bristol v Bath - what kind of derby was that?
“It was ferocious. They’re very old rivals who have never really got on. Much the same as this one here I guess. There’s a lot of history and that’s what makes these games so special.”
Do you feel your experience of that clash will help you this Saturday?
“I think it’s good to just have experience in general. It gives you an upper hand because it doesn’t allow you to get flustered or do things that you shouldn’t do.
“You understand that you have a job to do and anything extra is seen as a bonus.”
Although the game won’t be season-defining, I suppose there’s the added importance of not only getting the local bragging rights but also beating a side who are always a Premiership title contender?
“Obviously, as you said they are always up there competing as are we and it’s always a massive game when you come across the teams around you in the table.
“So yes we’ll be doing our best and certainly going away from home where we feel the shackles are off and we can really go for it.”
I suppose at the same time it’s also important not to get too wrapped up in the derby atmosphere?
“Absolutely. We need to keep our heads and our discipline and we need to try and grind out a victory.”