Saints farewell interview: James Craig

As it turned out, James Craig's friends were wrong.

Friday, 2nd August 2019, 8:00 am
James Craig left Saints this summer

When the possibility of a switch to Saints - the 2011 Heineken Cup runners-up - came about, Craig was at Leeds Carnegie.

He watched the black, green and gold's cruel Cardiff defeat to Leinster - Jim Mallinder's men held a 22-6 half-time lead but eventually lost 33-22 (as if you needed reminding!) - on television with some housemates who joked that he didn't have a hope of making his way into the first team at Franklin's Gardens the following season.

But fast forward eight years and Craig has just departed, with only injuries having prevented him making more than the 73 appearances he amassed.

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He wasn't merely the second-team player his old mates felt he might be.

Because while the club had locks of the calibre of Courtney Lawes and Christian Day, Craig also had so much to offer.

A student of the game, he has decided to retire at the age of 30 to pursue coaching opportunities.

It is something he is hugely excited about, but a move that he may not have made quite yet had 'the curse of not the best genetics' allowed him to perform at the top level for longer.

Craig joined Saints in 2011

"My decision (to retire) was made a bit easier by the fact I couldn't really stay on the field during the past couple of years, which was frustrating," Craig explained.

"It means your employability as a rugby player isn't particularly high when you can't manage a large amount of games.

"From my point of view, I felt I added value off the field in terms of helping the younger guys and helping with the lineout and stuff like that.

"But when you're a rugby player you need to at least be available to go out and play on a Saturday, and I obviously wasn't.

Craig played a big part in Saints' European Challenge Cup success story in 2014

"To me it wouldn't feel right to keep trying to do a job that I just couldn't stay on the field long enough to do.

"It didn't feel right to keep trying to push it and even if a club did want to sign me I'd always have that thought in the back of my mind that I can't quite do what I need to do.

"As a sportsman you kind of know that you've got to start another career and I've been lucky enough to find something I love doing and I'm reasonably good at.

"It was a difficult decision to retire because I love training and being around the guys, and you can't replace that element of being in a team with 50 geezers you're genuinely close to.

Craig made 73 appearances for Saints

"You have a laugh every day and there's always something going on so you can't replace that but I feel genuinely lucky to have found something else I love doing and now it's about putting the time in, getting better and finding the opportunity to go and do it."

More on that later, but first it's worth looking back to where it all began with Craig and Saints.

He had spent four years in the Academy at Leeds Carnegie, but with Dusty Hare, who was at Northampton at the time, keeping a close eye on him, his career was about to truly begin.

"I was drafted in last minute to play in LV= Cup game at Saints for Leeds," Craig said. "I started in the back row and scored what was a very rare try for me.

"Calum Clark was at Saints - he had left Leeds a year earlier - and he asked what I was going to do.

"I was genuinely uncertain because I spent my academy years at Leeds and had a big group of friends there."

But having watched Saints storm across Europe to that Heineken Cup final in 2011, Craig's mind was made up.

And despite the fears of his friends, he was able to make an instant impact at the Gardens, enjoying a stellar first season that culminated in a heartbreaking Premiership play-off semi-final defeat at Harlequins, who snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

"I played in the Quins semi-final, which was a brilliant experience," Craig said.

"It was obviously devastating to get to that point and not win that game because we conceded a try in the last couple of minutes and we should never have conceded it.

"That year had gone really well for me and I thought we'd get there again and it would be fine.

"But then you see people like Roger (Wilson) and Jimmy (Downey) and Andy Long, who played almost every game and was on his last legs, and those guys were inconsolable because they realised it was their last chance (to win the title).

"At that point I was a bit naive, thinking I'd get loads more opportunities, because after that I don't think I played in another Premiership semi-final.

"You don't realise at the time how big an occasion that is.

"I was pleased with my own performance in the Quins game but it was definitely a case of what if because it would have been a huge experience to end up in a final. Anything can happen in those finals and we had a chance to do something."

There was more disappointment to come a year later as Saints lost in the Premiership final to Leicester, but they finally ended their long wait for glory in 2014, winning a sensational league and European Challenge Cup double.

"The year we won the double was pretty special because as a group we'd been through a lot," said Craig.

"We'd lost semi-finals and then the final the year before so it was a really tight group with a really good energy.

"It was quite an emotional side so when we were rolling and had a few wins under our belt we were a difficult team to stop.

"They were very pleasurable days.

"My favourites were the quarter-finals and the semi-finals of the Challenge Cup, away to Sale and home to Quins. I felt they were games I played well in and I enjoyed them.

"Those experiences stick out and also for me personally I've managed to live with a group of guys that I'm friends with to this day.

"It was definitely a bonus off the field as well as on it."

It certainly wasn't all easy for Craig as injuries constantly disrupted his chances of playing regular first-team rugby.

But he was fortunate to live with a group of players who knew just what it felt like to be sidelined for long periods of time, and they formed a special bond that meant they refused to break under the strain of lengthy spells of rehab.

Craig said: "I lived with Scott Armstrong, Calum Clark, Alex Corbisiero, Jon Fisher, Sam Dickinson, Dom Waldouck and JJ Hanrahan at different times at the club. It was a good crew and people I got on really well with.

"We helped each other through some of the darker times. The injuries are hard to deal with on your own so you need the support of the physios and your friends who you're close to at the time.

"We pretty much moved every year before we settled in Little Brington for a bit so we certainly kept the rental market in Northampton going for a while."

When Craig did manage to string matches together, he was certainly a force to be reckoned with in the forward pack.

So good was his form in the two seasons after Saints won the title that Craig earned a call-up for England Saxons' tour of South Africa in 2016.

"South Africa was a great place to go," he said.

"It was a good group and we managed to win a couple of games over there.

"I definitely learned a lot on that tour from coaches like Ali Hepher and Alan Dickens.

"I learned a lot being in a different environment and it gave me a new perspective ahead of the next season."

Craig's injury problems meant he wasn't able to kick on as he would have wanted, but Saints kept hold of him, knowing a few games a season from the talented lock would be better than none at all.

Not only that, but the player's innate positivity during his spells out of the side worked in his favour.

"It's probably down to the grounding I had in the game, from my academy days at Leeds and the way my parents pushed me and you're obviously going to get bumps in the road but you keep moving forward," he explained.

"It's not a reason to stop playing or to get disheartened, those obstacles happen and you've got to get on with it.

"You've got to put your energy into doing what you can actually do: your rehab, your gym work.

"If I hadn't had as many injuries I might have done a bit more, but there's not much point in looking back on it.

"The curse of not the best genetics were probably at play there."

That resilient attitude appears to make Craig an ideal role model for the next generation of rugby players.

He has spent the past four years helping to mentor Saints Academy players and he is now desperate to earn a full-time role as a coach somewhere.

"I'm actively looking for opportunities and hopefully I'll have something concrete in the next month that I can go on and do," he said.

"There's definitely a strong element of networking, making a good impression, having a good reputation so it's important for me that I don't rush.

"I'd love to go in and one day be the head coach at a Premiership club or a national side but I know that's not right at the moment because I haven't got enough experience.

"The only way you get those opportunities is by getting a good reputation, being knowledgeable and being able to back up your beliefs with logic rather than being close-minded.

"I'm trying to take a long-term view on it and trying to build a base to be the best coach I can be.

"I want to be a good person and hopefully that will lead to good things in the future."

Craig has certainly had some good coaches to learn from at Saints.

Mallinder steered the club to several trophy successes and Chris Boyd, a Super Rugby title winner who arrived from the Hurricanes last summer, has already made a huge impression.

"Jim was excellent in terms of the loyalty he had for the lads and they repaid that with their effort on the field," Craig said.

"It was one of Jim's brilliant characteristics and if you speak to all the lads, they love Jim.

"It's a powerful thing when the players are that invested in the team and in those years when we were doing so well, he led that team spirit just through the power of his personality.

"For me, Boydy has been brilliant this year and I can see the club going from strength to strength.

"He's a bit more process driven in terms of the way he works and he's probably not as emotional as Jim but he's still got a very good presence about him.

"It's clear he's in charge and he's leading the ship.

"He probably works a bit more with the coaches in terms of developing them which, if you're a coach, is brilliant, to have someone with that knowledge, giving you advice on your delivery and interactions with the group.

"They're two quite different leaders and I'd definitely say I'd like to take elements of both of them.

"With Boydy's stuff being a bit newer, there's a bit more I'd like to learn from him at the moment, but they've both been very effective in their time at the club."

Now Craig just needs a door to open so he can show his own abilities as a coach.

"I've got my Level 3 and while I was playing that was probably the limit of what I could realistically have done," he said. "I hope to get my Level 4 done in the next few years.

"Coaching's a difficult one because there are international coaches who don't necessarily have all their coaching badges but they're great coaches.

"You need to carve out your own path and decide on what you believe as a coach.

"I've done quite a lot this summer and spoken to a lot of different coaches about ideas and visited different clubs.

"When you've been at one club for eight years you can almost be indoctrinated into doing things that way so the challenge for me is to break that up and focus on what I think about the game.

"By getting out to different clubs and speaking to people in different environments and watching games and aspects of them, it challenges the way I think and that's important.

"It's about getting out on the grass and improving and that's the only way I'm going to get better at coaching."