Saints Q&A - part two: Darbon looks forward to a brighter future
Last week on these pages, we discussed off-field matters with Saints CEO Mark Darbon.
This week, in the second part of our big Q&A with Darbon, we focus more on life on the field as Saints gear up for the start of the 2020/21 season, which kicks off at Sale Sharks on November 20.
Q: We’ve seen a couple of clubs hit quite hard by Covid cases in recent times. How proud have you been of the effort that has gone in to largely keeping the virus out of Franklin’s Gardens to ensure matches could go ahead?
A: “I’ve been immensely proud of the way we’ve tried to navigate through multiple aspects of the pandemic.
“Our medical teams, led by Matt Lee, our operational teams, led by Andy Tresias, have done a brilliant job in explaining the protocols and managing the protocols to allow people to understand why they are important. They laid the groundwork here, but at the same time you have to have individuals who take personal responsibility and show accountability and I’m really proud of the playing group and our wider staff for doing that.
“To be honest, that’s one of the reasons why the end to our season and the forfeited game against Gloucester was so frustrating because we were so close to the end and it feels like our game was impacted by no fault of our own. It was hard to take.
“You know as well as I do that the past few months haven’t gone as well on the pitch as we wanted them to, but that didn’t mean there was any less appetite to try to finish the season on a high and to not be able to play that game at Gloucester was incredibly frustrating.”
Q: What did you make of the final few months of the season overall and what were the conversations behind the scenes like at that time? It must have been quite tough, especially given where the team was at the end of January?
A: “It’s been hugely frustrating for all of us involved and from a personal perspective I was surprised in a way. That surprise fed into the frustration.
“It was well publicised during the lockdown period that there was some pretty significant infighting at some of the clubs as we all tried to navigate things like salary reductions and other unpleasant conversations that were enforced by the pandemic.
“We felt we handled conversations well and we felt like our playing group and our staff understood the challenges we as a club were facing and they were empathetic to those conversations.
“We didn’t sail through those processes but we were able to navigate them pretty seamlessly and it meant that our staff and our players could concentrate on what we wanted them to concentrate on, which was the return to rugby.
“It was frustrating on the back of that, after handling that period of time relatively well, we thought, that we didn’t then come out of the blocks firing because we thought we were going to.
“It’s been frustrating but at the same time, we certainly haven’t become a bad team overnight.
“We’ve got a young group. We lost games early in the return and that sucked a bit of momentum out of us.
“We had some individual and collective errors and we just never really got going.
“Frustration is the overarching feeling, but there’s also optimism for what’s to come because I still feel we’ve got a very strong group of coaches and support staff, and a very strong squad who are young and emerging.
“The key is not to judge that group explicitly on what’s happened over the past few months, but to judge us as we move forward.”
Q: In terms of recruitment and retention, how difficult is it to keep key players? Saints have lost their player of the year quite often in recent summers, with Cobus Reinach one of those. How much of a challenge is it to stop other teams taking your most important men?
A: “You can’t keep everyone, and that’s the nature of elite sport.
“One of the areas Chris (Boyd) is really strong is in that strategic thinking around the evolution of the squad and what that looks like. He’s good at the pragmatism and the strategy that goes into it.
“Was it a blow losing Cobus? Yes. But we’re all really excited for the future Alex Mitchell has got.
“Change is inevitable in elite sport.
“We have signed a number of our younger players on long-term contracts and we think that’s incredibly exciting. You look at the sides that area successful and that success can be borne out of keeping talented groups of players together for a long period of time.
“We think we’ve got the nucleus of a squad that can deliver real success to Saints over the next two, three, four seasons so that’s reason for excitement.
“We’ve also got space in the squad to top that up where we need to and as with all squads there are some positions you would like to address when you have the opportunity to do so.
“So while we’ve got a lot of players contracted, there will also be a natural evolution of the squad and some new faces over time.
“I think there are lots of reasons to be optimistic about the future.
“If you look at the league and all of the squads who finished above us, the average age of our squad was lower than everyone else.
“It was the same story last season and that speaks to the opportunity we have to really grow a successful and powerful squad into the future.
“It also potentially explains why we don’t click every week at the moment, but we’re all working very hard to rectify that.”
Q: Can you continue to spend up to the salary cap during these difficult times?
A: “We can.
“There is room in the squad and when we do our recruitment and retention, we’re looking two, three, four, five years ahead and we certainly don’t have all the positions in our squad contracted over that time horizon.
“There are spaces in the squad and we need to make sure we continue to identify and then secure the right players to add value to the squad.
“We’re determined to remain competitive on the pitch and to maintain our investment levels in the squad.
“It’s clearly challenging given the financial predicament we find ourselves in, but we’re not alone on that front and you will continue to see Saints have competitive squads in the future.”
Q: Obviously there won’t be any signings between now and the start of the new season, but can you continue to look ahead to next season’s recruitment despite the fact there is so much going on financially at the moment?
A: “You have to keep working on that.
“One of the risks when you’re navigating the challenge we’re working on right now is that you just get completely stuck in the here and now.
“Of course you need to deal with the here and now, but you need to keep thinking about the future so we’re spending quite a lot of our time with the rugby side and commercial side of our business mapping out what that period beyond the pandemic looks like and how we can rebound quickly and make sure we’re future-proofed.
“The pandemic forces you to think quite differently so you’ve got to seize those opportunities so we’re well set.
“We’re absolutely thinking about the future, specifically in terms of players and the squad, but across the business more broadly.”
Q: Since you arrived at the club, you have become a popular figure because of how you have changed things on all fronts at Franklin’s Gardens. Have you felt that support from the fans and have you felt that appreciation?
A: “In general, we’ve been overwhelmed by the support the club has had through the pandemic and in many ways it’s unsurprising because we feel blessed with the breadth and depth of our supporter base here at Northampton.
“It’s really come to the fore through the pandemic.
“Some supporters have actively chosen to donate money to the club rather than take refunds.
“For the people unable to do that, they’ve shown their support in other ways.
“We’ve had a huge outpouring of support and resilience shown for the club and it makes us feel incredibly proud.
“One of the brilliant things that attracts people to work in sport is that people are not shy in sharing their opinions
and we completely understand when people express frustration that results and performances are not going our way.
“You get both ends of the barrel, but taking a step back, the level of support we have at this club is unbelievable really and we need it now more that ever, given what we’re working through.”
Q: How have you found the job overall? Has it been the most challenging job you’ve ever had?
A: “I love it at Saints. We’ve made good progress over the past three years, we’ve got a fantastic team here.
“There’s been quite a lot of change in that team but we’ve got a highly capable organisation
now with lots of people who are towards the start of their careers with huge potential and opportunity ahead of them.
“It’s easy to enjoy a job like this because you can feel proud of the impact the club has in the community.
“One of the reasons we’re so keen to navigate effectively through this crisis is because it’s unbearable for us to think about not being able to deliver some of the programmes we do in the community, whether that’s through rugby or educational or social programmes through our Foundation.
“We’re determined to come out stronger on the other side and it’s that sort of stuff
that really makes you motivated to ensure you do get through it.
“I’m really enjoying it.
“It’s not the past six months we’d imagined but I’m really excited for the future.”
Q: It must be a lot of pressure for you, so how do you unwind?
A: “I’ve played a fair bit of fairly average golf through lockdown and that’s been quite nice because golf courses have been relatively unaffected by what’s going on.
“I’m a member of a local golf course, which has been great, but the more I’ve played, the worse I’ve got, which is frustrating.
“Other than that, it’s all about family and kids.
“With a three-year-old and a five-year-old, life is never dull.
“It’s been lots of fun spending time with them during lockdown.
“The job certainly keeps me occupied and sometimes it can be frustrating traipsing around the country every weekend when you’ve got a young family, but actually when you don’t have that travelling, you realise how much you enjoy it and how important it is as part of the role and as part of the club.
“Now I’m just looking forward to next season and what we can achieve.”
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