Boyd revives Saints by building belief
Coach is earning respect from players by blending youth and experience, writes Ben Coles
Halfway through the Gallagher Premiership season and Chris Boyd’s message appears to be sinking in at Northampton, who face struggling Wasps in Coventry today. Recruiting coaches from New Zealand has been no guarantee of success; take ill-fated stints for Mike Brewer at Sale Sharks and Tom Coventry at London Irish.
Boyd arrived last year with a far stronger pedigree, having coached the Hurricanes to the 2016 Super Rugby title alongside the respected John Plumtree. Coming from Wellington, having coached a bevy of All Blacks including Beauden and Jordie Barrett, Boyd has been tasked with lifting Northampton back into the top six at the very least.
The early signs have been encouraging rather than astounding. The Saints are marginally making more metres and clean breaks, and beating more defenders on average, than last season. Their defence has also improved, missing fewer tackles and winning more turnovers.
However, following wins over Worcester Warriors and Exeter Chiefs, the penny appears to have dropped, with Northampton moving up to sixth in the table ahead of the weekend.
“The biggest improvement has probably been the ability and confidence he has given us to play in terms of our attack,” says full-back Ahsee Tuala. “With new players and new coaches coming in, the boys have adapted pretty well. It will take a bit of time, but we are heading in the right direction. Chris has shown confidence in bringing through the younger players into the first team.”
One of that youthful contingent is flanker Lewis Ludlam, let go by Northampton at the age of 15 due to his lack of size before rejoining the club two years later.
Loan spells with Coventry and Rotherham followed – “there is no point sitting around at the club training and preparing the first XV all year round,” notes Ludlam – before the 23-year-old broke through into the first team. Out of the squad selected by Northampton to face Wasps, nine are aged 24 or younger, including impressive England Under-20 centre Fraser Dingwall.
Northampton have fared well recently in the transfer market by recruiting Cobus Reinach and Dan Biggar at half-back, but Boyd’s inclination to show faith in the club’s academy is admirable, with the players responding in kind. “Fair play to Boydy,” Ludlam adds. “He has given young lads opportunities, which has been really encouraging.
“A massive thank you to the coaches for giving me the chance and the confidence to play. If you had told me at the start of the season that I would have been in this position, I am not sure I would have believed you.”
Regarding Dingwall’s cameo against Exeter, assistant coach Alan Dickens said: “Fraser has slotted in brilliantly this year. Chris [Boyd] has dripped him into the squad. Exeter try to pull you out of your shape by drifting wide, and Fraser made 18 tackles. He is an old head on young shoulders.”
Dingwall will be in line for a longer run in the first team following a dislocated shoulder for Piers Francis, starting when Northampton face Wasps, with Dai Young’s outfit reeling from one win in their last 13 matches. Saints will also pitch up after the high of defeating the league leaders Exeter, having scored four tries despite their limited chances. Franklin’s Gardens has rarely been louder.
“It was the most exciting atmosphere I have played in,” Ludlam says. “It topped playing at Twickenham over the last couple of years. I cannot stress how much that energy boost from the crowd is appreciated. Those small percentages push you on to win those close games.”
Small percentages and having a scrum-half such as Reinach in blistering form. The Springbok has produced long-range interception tries in Northampton’s past two wins, sending a reminder of his talent to South Africa head coach Rassie Erasmus ahead of the World Cup.
“That guy, he is something special,” enthuses Tuala. “He gets better every game.” More of Reinach’s magic will serve Northampton well in Coventry, as they aim to buck the trend of inconsistency that has led to so many teams being separated by so few points in the Premiership this season.
Breakthrough: Piers Francis sprints clear to put Northampton ahead in the win over Exeter (above), as coach Chris Boyd (below) makes his mark