Saints Q&A: Boyd pleads with EPCR to show common sense as loosehead crisis deepens

Chris Boyd has today called on EPCR to show common sense with Sunday's Champions Cup quarter-final at Exeter Chiefs in danger of becoming something of a farce.

Wednesday, 16th September 2020, 5:56 pm
Updated Wednesday, 16th September 2020, 5:58 pm
Chris Boyd

Saints have lost all four of their senior loosehead props to injury and only have England Under-20s player Manny Iyogun to call upon.

They have been trying to add a more experienced loosehead to their squad since the defeat at Bristol Bears on September 8 but EPCR are yet to give them clearance to do so.

Tournament rules state that teams must have registered their squads by September 1, but Saints have since lost three looseheads - Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi, Nick Auterac and Francois van Wyk - to injury.

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And with a quite extraordinary situation unfolding, Boyd sat down to discuss the problems Saints face with the media on Wednesday afternoon.

Q: Chris, can you run us through the current situation?

A: "Let's wind the clock back. We have four senior contracted loosehead props and one in the Academy, which would be as many as any organisation has.

"Alex Waller snapped his Achilles earlier this year.

"We contracted Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi but we lost him in the game at Bristol with a snapped Achilles and then Nick Auterac with a grade two groin strain.

"Danny's injury is nine to 12 months and Nick's is three to five weeks.

"We were concerned at that stage that looking ahead to Europe, Francois van Wyk was our only fit loosehead and Manny Iyogun would be the only other person at our club who could play loosehead.

"That concerned us because Manny's a 19-year-old boy who played all his football at No.8 and had never really played in a men's scrum before.

"He played a couple of games with Loughborough University in division four or whatever but has never really been in the contest.

"He's going to be a good kid but he's very inexperienced so with an eye on the European fixture we were a bit nervous about that.

"So at that stage we approached EPCR about our plight, which was on September 9.

"Then the problem got significantly worse because Francois van Wyk ruptured his MCL against Leicester on Sunday and he's probably out for eight to 12 weeks.

"We now face a situation where we have a youngster with zero experience at prop and nobody.

"We went back to EPCR and pleaded our case again.

"The wheels have moved extremely slowly internally there so we still currently have no ruling from EPCR, which is problematic in the respect you eliminate people who can't come into the country because of Covid restrictions, Visa applications that can't be done in time.

"And the pool of players we could potentially get is pretty small anyway so yesterday we tried to see if we could try to convert one of our tightheads to loosehead and that was spectacularly unsuccessful.

"None of them have ever played there before and we had a scrum session at 7am yesterday morning to see if any of them felt remotely comfortable doing it.

"I spoke to Franks about it and he likened it to trying to play golf changing from a right hand to a left hand and said it's a significant issue.

"None of our four tighthead props have ever played loosehead before so that was ruled out.

"Right now we have no agreement from EPCR that they will allow us to approach someone on an emergency basis and we have no one inside our club who is capable of playing that position."

Q: What happens now?

A: "It's a really interesting question.

"Given this dialogue started on September 9, the wheels are moving really slowly.

"They haven't quite stopped but they're chugging away.

"We would be hopeful that common sense would prevail.

"No one's taking the p*** here. If it was a winger or a full-back or something else, you can make do, but there's a considerable safety issue here and an issue with the spectacle and what the game might look like.

"If common sense doesn't prevail, we only have two choices that I can get my head around: one is we don't have a loosehead prop on the bench and play the game with 22 players or we put someone on the bench that is absolutely not capable of playing that position safely and at the time they're about to go onto the field we alert the officials and we have to go down to uncontested scrums."

Q: Do you have anyone in mind you could recruit for this week?

A: "Honestly, we've rung the Scottish clubs, the Welsh clubs, every English club, every English Championship club and we've had all sort of guys flop their CV in front of us - a Brazilian guy, a Portuguese guy, all of those people have either Covid restrictions or Visa restrictions.

"We've even looked at who has retired from the game in the past three years who might be floating around doing nothing.

"If EPCR give us the approval, the chances of us getting a frontliner have drawn a bit of a blank.

"We've got a couple of clubs who have offered us their fourth loosehead prop who is their youngster who hasn't played any football and we might have to take someone like that just to get the game going most importantly from a safety aspect.

"What I'm not prepared to do - and it became very obvious when we tried to convert our tightheads - is endanger the safety of a person.

"The integrity of the fixture is important but safety is the most important thing.

"We're in a very unfortunate, completely unorchestrated situation where we've got four injuries in the same position and if we can't cover that safely, I'm not interested in trying to make it work."

Q: Have you had any conversations with Exeter?

A: "There are competitive advantages to be had both ways and going to uncontested scrums may be seen as an advantage one way or the other, but I'm not really interested in that.

"I would rather see the game go ahead with 23 versus 23 in a fair spectacle.

"It is far to say that through the Premiership there has been dialogue between Northampton and Exeter to try to make this work.

"It's part of the ongoing discussion."

Q: Are you happy for him (Iyogun) to start the game?

A: "It's really interesting.

"We thought he did really well to come on in the Leicester game much earlier than we would have anticipated.

"The league has been particularly helpful around this and if we needed to make a change to get someone registered to play in the Premiership we could have done that in the Leicester game.

"The problem there was that if EPCR were not going to play ball on that, our idea was to play Francois van Wyk for 70 minutes in the Leicester game and if Manny had to come on and play 10 or 15 minutes at the end hopefully there would only be one or two scrums and he could probably cope.

"The fact he's going to have to start against Exeter having been in a serious scrum for 60 minutes is a massively big ask on the kid.

"If I thought there was a significant safety issue, we'd be jumping up and down more.

"It's a really interesting question."

Q: Are you surprised there is not more flexibility around this subject?

A: "I am a little bit surprised about it.

"We wouldn't have even approached them if it was a midfielder or something and we'd had to play a back rower on the wing or something because that was inside the regulations then so be it, Jamie Gibson plays on the wing. He often tells me he's capable of doing that, so it would have been cometh the hour, cometh the man.

"I was hopeful we might be able to patch up one of our tightheads and get him in at loosehead but it just became so apparent so quickly that what they do on one side of the scrum is markedly different to the other.

"I don't know of any players who are comfortable converting from one to the other in the Premiership right now."

Q: Is there a possibility the game doesn't get played if you can't find someone else?

"I don't think so.

"There are provisions for the game to go ahead but the likelihood of the game going ahead starting with 23 and finishing with contested scrums is highly unlikely.

Q: When was your last contact with EPCR?

"It's being handled at board level and they've been in contact with various factions inside EPCR and they've been in touch multiple times in the past 48 hours.

"But the dialogue has been going on since Bristol when we considered the exposure for Manny and that there could be a safety concern.

"It hasn't been resolved and so when do I think it will be? We were hopeful it would have been last night and we didn't quite get it across the line.

"The goalposts have changed again and dialogue is ongoing.

"It's been unhelpful because if we had 10 or 14 days to do this, we had a better chance to patch the hole.

"I need to be very clear here, we're not trying to get a significant advantage. I'm not trying to find the best loosehead prop in the world and get 'the beast' here or someone world class.

"We're just looking for someone to safely pitch up.

"We've got the problem around the scrum but on top of that we've got to integrate that person into our environment, learn lineout calls, scrum procedure, field calls and they've got to understand what's going on.

"The longer is takes us to get someone here, the more patchy it's going to be.

"Right now, the time-frame is getting incredibly short."

Q: Would you blame Manny if he said 'I don't fancy this!'?

"No, I wouldn't.

"I had the conversation with him and he's a special kid.

"Bearing in mind he was an Under-16 and Under-18 No.8.

"(Saints assistant coach) Matt Ferguson said he had all the potential to be a prop and about 12 months ago he went to Manny and asked him if he fancied playing for England and he said 'yes, it's a dream' and Ferg told him he had a better chance of doing it at loosehead than at No.8.

"They had a discussion, he bit the bullet and said he was happy to make the change.

"I don't think anyone suspected he would be in this situation as quickly as he had.

"When we knew Alex Waller had snapped his Achilles tendon, we debated whether we could get through with three props and Manny because we had a couple of options.

"In the end, we signed Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi, for two reasons: one because he was a Northampton boy who wanted to come home and he'd lost his way a bit and we felt we could get him back into the family and make a difference to his life, and, two, we didn't want to rush Manny into that big step he'd made a decision on.

"I sat down with him after the Bristol game and told him the situation we found ourselves in and told him what would be required, i.e. are you comfortable to go on the bench in the Leicester game?

"I told him to go home and speak to his mum and dad and anyone else and sleep on it and tell me in the morning, but he said he didn't need to sleep on it and he said he was ready.

"It's a typical response you'd expect form a young man who you encourage to back himself.

"I thought he did admirably well against Dan Cole on Sunday.

"In all honesty, I suspect Dan was probably being a bit kind to him a couple of times.

"At the end of the day, if Manny plays and we get someone of a lesser quality, the attitude Exeter take to the game will probably decide if it goes to uncontested scrums or not."

Q: Is this diverting a lot of energy from other things as the club is having a tough time at the moment?

"No, it's galvanised us as much as anything else.

"The result against Leicester was our worst performance in two years, really poor and I can't explain why that is.

"We had some fairly serious dialogue on Sunday and a serious meeting yesterday.

"We trained with as much energy and enthusiasm today since I've been here.

"This is seen as another block in the road and it does galvanise us.

"It might be a performance issue on the field but it's not going to be the excuse."