Saints squad back in business after welcome break

While Monday was billed as 'freedom day' for England, it was very much the opposite for Saints.

By Tom Vickers
Saturday, 24th July 2021, 7:00 am
Phil Dowson

Their non-international players returned to Franklin's Gardens for training after a five-week break, returning them to the stringent Covid-19 protocols at the club.

Not that they hadn't been adhering to them while they were away, with such a big threat that self-isolation could hit the squad at any time.

Forwards coach Phil Dowson explained: "We've got to try to be vigilant about making sure we don't lose vast numbers of squad members to getting pinged on the app so we're trying to be sensible around the protocols like distancing, not sharing cars, eating meals outside just so we don't have to isolate if someone tests positive or someone's family member tests positive.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

"We don't want to have to isolate eight or 10 players so we've just got to be careful and it's not dissimilar to how it was towards the end of last season.

"We're just encouraging the guys to do the right thing and wear masks inside and in the gym and things like that."

So while a new season is approaching - Saints kick-off their Gallagher Premiership campaign at home to Gloucester on September 18 - it is very much the same old Covid story for them.

Nevertheless, Dowson admits it was nice to have a break from life at the rugby coalface after such a long period that included the longest season in history last year.

"I had five weeks but last week I was sort of in and out of the club getting set for this week so it was four weeks off and it was lovely to get away because two seasons back to back felt like a long time without a substantial break," Dowson said.

"Everyone was looking forward to getting away in the end."

But now most of them are back, aside from those who have been, or are still, on international duty.

"Sam Matavesi has been with Fiji, Ace Tuala has been with Samoa, Hutch and Nick Auterac were with Scotland, Luds, Hilly, Dingwall, Sleightholme and Furbank were in England camp and are still away as well," Dowson said.

"The Lions thing will go and go so those boys (Courtney Lawes and Dan Biggar) won't be back for a long time because they need to have a good five weeks off and there are lots of protocols around that to make sure guys who have played international rugby are not rushed back.

"They'll be coming back in dribs and drabs because different players finish at different times."

While some familiar faces remain away, some fresh ones have arrived.

Forwards Karl Wilkins, Brandon Nansen and Juarno Augustus have all started training at Saints.

"Karl Wilkins, Brandon Nansen and Juarno Augustus are all here, getting introduced to the squad, finding their way round, trying to learn about 50 names and where everything goes," Dowson said.

"They're all in and getting used to the situation and we're really happy to have those boys on board.

"They're top men and all really keen to get involved.

"Juarno has got a big ball-carrying game, which we've seen with the Stormers, and he's a good athlete.

"Karl Wilkins has come from France and has got a good skillset, great work rate and he's an excellent lineout forward, calling the lineout in Frence. He was captain at Beziers so he's got good leadership qualities.

"Brandon Nansen, looking at some of his games, has real power and ability to get over the gain line and to be really powerful in small spaces. He's also got a good skillset so he'll be able to play the game we want to play.

"They all bring something slightly different but they've all got qualities we're looking forward to seeing in the shirt."

Saints finished last season fifth in the Premiership, which was eventually won in thrilling fashion by fourth-placed Harlequins.

"They played a great brand of rugby, they had a real good belief going, a real good system and the two games they produced against Chiefs and Bristol were cracking games of rugby," Dowson said.

"It was very enjoyable to watch them at the end of the season and you saw a close-knit group that stuck to a very different game plan to the other two sides.

"I enjoyed it and I was pleased they won it because they play an entertaining brand of rugby.

"They had really good consistency in their selection with Dombrandt at eight, Danny Care at nine and Marcus Smith at 10 for almost the whole season.

"They stuck to their guns and I thought they were very good.

"They were the only side who we really struggled against home and away.

"You look at the players they've got and I thought Joe Marler in both the semi-final and final was excellent.

"They've got lots of quality and you can see that they put it together in a brilliant way."

Saints had the chance to usurp the likes of Harlequins and Sale Sharks as last season moved towards its conclusion, but in the end they fell away badly and finished 14 points off fourth.

"We were frustrated with how we finished last season," Dowson said.

"Although we finished fifth, there were lots of games that got away from us in the last 20 minutes.

"There was frustration around the fact we could have achieved more last season and the feeling this year is to kick on and be better so we don't have that frustration and we have knockout rugby to enjoy.

"The mood is one of excitement and there's a desire to improve.

"We know what we're capable if we do get the consistency in what we do."