As Dylan Hartley, Tom Wood, Ben Foden and Chris Ashton were quietly relaxing ahead of England’s penultimate Six Nations match against Scotland this weekend, their Northampton teammates were fighting a lost cause against the Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park. The demoralising 30-9 loss against the Premiership new boys marked the Saints’ sixth consecutive Premiership defeat, and means that they are still seeking their first league victory this year as they cling on to Heineken Cup qualification in sixth place.
Whilst this out of character slump began with Northampton having the luxury of an almost full strength side at their disposal, the dismal performances that have followed have coincided with the absence of Northampton’s England stars, as well as their often underrated pair of Lee Dickson and Roger Wilson. As teams around them begin to build momentum heading into the final months, Northampton must be worried that they may miss out altogether.
Premiership teams are quickly learning that Sandy Park is not the easiest trip in the league, but it was the manner in which Northampton succumbed to this side made up of largely inexperienced Premiership players that will have the Saints fans most worried. Soane Tonga’uiha looked like a world beater only a few months ago, but against Chris Budgen, it was the 38 year old Chiefs prop who played with the sort of verve and abandon that the Tongan loose head has been renowned for since moving to the Midlands. Where Tonag’uiha and fellow Saints prop Brian Mujati may have previously set about dismantling the Exeter front row, they instead looked jaded and lacked the force and dynamism that characterised their early season displays.
There was hardly cause for optimism elsewhere on the pitch either. Stephen Myler looks increasingly frail and devoid of ideas at fly half and must surely be under scrutiny after an encouraging display from replacement Shane Geraghty, Phil Dowson looks a shadow of the forward who made such a pressing case for England inclusion recently, whilst the Saints centre pairing of James Downey and John Clarke lacked invention and needed more direction from Myler. Back rowers Calum Clarke and Mark Easter offered honest endeavour, and Courtney Lawes made an encouraging full return from injury, but with Simon Shaw struggling with injury it looks increasingly likely that he will make a swift return to international duty this weekend.
Jim Mallinder has recently expressed his resentment at the outflow of players to the England team, indicating that he would change his recruitment policy as a result, and the abject performances of his team will have fans hoping that the return of these key figures will galvanise the Northampton team as they enter the final stages of the regular season. Foden and Ashton will bring a rather more clinical edge to Northampton’s attack, and will be helped by the sniping scrum half Lee Dickson. Hartley, Wood and Wilson will bring leadership and a combative approach to a pack that has regressed rapidly since shutting out Edinburgh so convincingly less than two months previous. But they are not miracle workers.
Next up for Northampton is a Leeds team buoyed from their victory over London Irish at the weekend. Fans may hope that their soon-to-be returning stars may rejuvenate their team, but it is up to the current incumbents to fight their way out of this rut and rescue the Saints’ ailing season before it is too late.
By Tom James