The big interview: Tom Vickers talks to new Saints defence coach Lee Radford

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Lee Radford fields this phone call just a few minutes before he’s due to view a house that he hopes will become his new home.​

The schedule is currently a busy one for the 44-year-old as he gets his feet under the table at Saints after becoming the club’s new defence coach.

Radford has much to do, and not much time to do it.

And that applies to matters on the field as well as off it.

Lee Radford is enjoying life at Saints (picture: Tom Kwah/Northampton Saints)Lee Radford is enjoying life at Saints (picture: Tom Kwah/Northampton Saints)
Lee Radford is enjoying life at Saints (picture: Tom Kwah/Northampton Saints)

Because while it may seem an eternity until the new season begins, the hours needed to sort out Saints’ defensive struggles could be plentiful.

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And with the Gallagher Premiership fixtures out next Tuesday, the new campaign really does start to come into sight.

The good thing for Radford is that the league battles don’t begin until October as the Premiership Rugby Cup will provide a platform on which to build the 2023/24 season.

Saints will start with five cup matches, having most likely played two pre-season fixtures, against Bedford Blues and the Barbarians, prior to that.

So there is enough game time for the group to get used to what Radford wants to implement.

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And there is a real need for it to work, with Saints having conceded the second most points and tries in the Premiership last season, with only bottom side Newcastle Falcons below them in both categories.

Radford is aware of the size of the task that awaits him as he makes the transition from rugby league.

But he is more than ready for it.

"I was really excited about this opportunity when it came," Radford said.

"I've been shown around the club and it's a fantastic setup and organisation.

"I love the brand of rugby they love to play."

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Radford knows that the risk and reward attacking style Saints employ means that defending can become more difficult at times.

But he is confident he can come up with solutions as he outlined things he feels will hold the key to improvement.

"Because of how we play, we're naturally going to do a bit more defending than most teams," Radford said.

"There are a couple of ways to get upfield, and Northampton's way of getting upstream is obviously playing their way out.

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"The flipside of that is that you're going to do a bit more defending than you'd like to, but getting in a place where you're comfortable in those scenarios is the big place we want to get to.

"Decision making is a really big thing and making sure you've got a really solid foundation in terms of your principles.

"It goes without saying that the more people you've got on the same page, the more success you're going to have defensively.

"We've got to make sure everyone's up with how we want to defend in certain scenarios and then make sure they come up with the right decisions under duress, which is really important."

The life of a defence coach is far from an easy one.

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Because when the team concedes tries, you can quickly find yourself in the firing line, no matter the reason.

"You can't really win, can you?," said Radford, laughing as he answered the question as to whether he actually enjoys defence coaching and the criticism that so often comes hand in hand with it.

"But I do enjoy that side of it.

"One of the things I used to really love in rugby league was the contact and what happened after contact.

"I'm obviously really inexperienced in that in rugby union in terms of the jackal and the breakdown but that's an area I really want to develop in.

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"I don't know why but what's really intrigued me in rugby league is not only the contact but also the efforts after it.

"I don't think I'll be any different in rugby union.

"It's an area I really want to improve as quickly as I can."

Saints have not only developed players in recent years but they have developed coaches, too.

Current director of rugby Phil Dowson and head coach Sam Vesty worked under Chris Boyd before earning promotions to take charge when the Kiwi boss left last summer.

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And that chance to grow as a coach is something that Radford really wants.

"That was one of the appeals of coming here, meeting Sam and Dows, seeing their relationship and even further across the coaching staff, you can see there's a real connectivity there," he said.

"Coming to work in any sport, doing what you do and being around good people is the key to success in any organisation."

Radford may still only be 44, but he has achieved plenty in rugby league.

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During a playing career which spanned 17 years, he made 158 appearances for Bradford Bulls in-between two spells at hometown club Hull FC, where he played 193 matches in total, and earned five international caps for England.

He became the youngest-ever player to represent Hull FC in 1998, and twice won the Super League grand final with Bradford Bulls in 2003 and 2005.He also reached two further grand finals (2004 and 2006), won the World Club Challenge in 2004, and claimed the Challenge Cup title in 2003.

Towards the end of his playing career, Radford was appointed defence coach at rugby union side Hull RUFC in National 2 North, winning the Yorkshire Cup title in 2011.

And once he hung up his boots permanently in 2011, Radford quickly ascended from an assistant coach role at Hull FC to head coach in 2013.

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He won back-to-back Challenge Cup titles in 2016 and 2017, scooping the Super League’s head coach of the year award in 2016.

After leaving Hull FC, Radford took over as Castleford Tigers’ head coach from the start of 2022 until March of this year.

He was also appointed defence coach by Samoa for the Rugby League World Cup which was held in England in 2022, helping the side all the way to the final where they were eventually beaten by Australia.

And Radford has reflected on his time coaching in rugby league, revealing what he feels what his greatest achievement.

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"Hull FC had never won at Wembley in its 150-year history," he said.

"Our arch rivals, Hull KR, sang a song every time we played them and hammered us for it so to actually put an end to that 80, 90-year old song, to close that down in the stands was my greatest achievement, I think."

Radford clearly relished those Challenge Cup crowns, and he also hugely enjoyed his stint with Samoa.

"Fantastic people and incredible players," he said.

"I loved the success we had. We had an incredible run during the World Cup and unfortunately just fell short at the last hurdle."

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Life could have taken Radford in a very different direction had Covid-19 not hit a few years ago.

"I was heading out to Dallas for their inaugural season in the MLR but Covid sort of struck that down," Radford explained.

"I had signed a contract to go out and be defence coach for the Dallas Jackals.

"With it being their first season, they didn't want to join the league with no fans in the stands so unfortunately that fell through.

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"From then, watching the game and picking the brains of some former rugby league players, I kept my toe in really."

Radford, who has replaced Ian Vass, who has joined Clermont Auvergne as kicking coach, was waiting for the right opportunity, and the Saints job was exactly what he wanted.

"It's been really good so far, I've really enjoyed it," he said.

"The staff have been fantastic, the players have been really welcoming as well so I've really enjoyed myself.

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"Three or four weeks ago I was actually heading out to Australia because I had some business and a holiday booked there but a couple of days before jumping on the flight, Dows got in touch and things progressed from there.

"I almost had my second interview while I was in Australia.

"Obviously when I came back, I met them face to face and came to a decision from there.

"It all went pretty quickly from start to finish.

"With pre-season just being around the corner, it was important to get it sorted."

Like Dowson, Vesty and Saints' other young, English coaches, Radford is hugely driven and desperate for self-improvement.

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And he has some perfect templates to work from as he has seen the likes of Shaun Edwards and Kevin Sinfield become hugely successful defence coaches since switching to rugby union from league.

Now he would love to be the next big success story as he taps into the knowledge of the likes of Edwards and Sinfield.

Radford said: "They're probably sick of me ringing them if I'm being honest!"

"I don't know what the reason (for that success of rugby league coaches in rugby union) is.

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"It's probably just a different way of looking at the game and some trends come about in this sport and we take note of that.

"Likewise some trends happen in rugby league and we certainly take note of that as well.

"There's certainly been one or two who have had some really success coming across so hopefully I can be another one."