Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Premeriship Final Preview: Know Your Enemy

Much like ourselves Northampton were formed in 1880; whilst we were an amalgamation of several teams with the aim of providing a single club to challenge on the national scale Northampton were formed as Northampton St. James by local Reverend Samuel Wathen Wigg as a way to keep boisterous boys out of trouble.  With Dylan Hartley and Calum Clarke in the current ranks we can see his mission is still being undertaken.

Northampton still play in the St. James area of the town today which is where they derive their two nicknames from: the famous Saints and the more cult status Jimmies.  So be careful Tigers fans don't chant for Scraptoft's finest as you might be giving voice to the opposition!

Their hey-day, apart from the modern era more of which later, was surely in the 1950s when British Lions Dickie Jeeps and Jeff Butterfield were fixtures of one of the best backlines in Britain.  This era also saw the playing career of Don White, a goal kicking flanker, not that unusual in those days, who played 448 times for Northampton as well captaining Leicestershire & Midlands XVs against touring sides and playing for England 14 times.  In 1969 White was named as England's inaugural coach a position he filled for 2 years.

But Northampton's star waned as the 1970s and '80s wore on.  Coventry, Bedford and Leicester had stolen a march in the '70s all winning the Knock Out Cup and Nottingham were at an all time high when Merit Tables and eventually the National League structure was introduced in the '80s.  The nadir for Northampton came in 1988 when they finished the inaugural Courage League National Division 2 in last place with only 1 win to their name whilst historic rivals Tigers were walking away with their first English Championship.

Luckily there was no relegation from the second tier that year as true meritocracy was only creeping into English rugby and Saints used this stay of execution to devastatingly good effect.  It is no exaggeration to say that that summer saved rugby in Northampton and laid the foundations for every success they have enjoyed since.

A group of supporters and former players, the so called "Gang of Seven" were given unprecedented access to the local media to present their case in both the Chronicle and Echo for reform as were the committee men.  No doubt Keith Barwell's publishing industry links helped achieve this equal footing in the press.  Their reforms were presented to the club's AGM in the summer of 1988 and won by a landslide; 228 for to 76 against.  Don White was one of the committee men deposed. 

Northampton were now on an upward curve, being pipped to promotion the next season by Bedford and Saracens, before celebrating the first of their three 2nd Division titles in 1990.  That season they also made the Pilkington Cup Semi Final; defeating Tigers in the quarter final, one of only three times a second tier side beat one from the top division.  

A first visit to Twickenham came a year later in the 1991 Cup Final as Saints went one better than the year before but was to end in defeat as Quins won in extra time.  In 1992 they were within one game of winning their first English Championship after a mid week win against the Tigers but a heartbreaking defeat to already relegated Nottingham let Bath steal their 3rd title on the wire as Orrell also lost on the last day.  And apparently the play offs bring drama!

It has not all been an upward curve though.  As players such as Dawson and Grayson were coming through and taking on the mantel from the likes of Shelford and Olver Northampton were relegated in a thrilling 5 way battle as Gloucester, Bristol, Harlequins and West Hartlepool were all within one loss of the drop.  A poor start the season left Northampton at the mercy of others and England's decision to withdraw Bayfield, Rodber and Hunter from the last game of the season, in preparation for the 1995 Rugby World Cup, surely didn't help their cause.

Whilst on a rampaging season in the 2nd Division, claiming their second 2nd division crown along the way, the game went pro and Keith Barwell opened his cheque book buying the club from the members for £1m.  Barwell had been a long standing corporate sponsor and fan, though he admits it would have been a better story had he stood on the terraces as a lad.  

Barwell revolutionised rugby alongside our own men such as Peters Wheeler & Tom as he fought the "Ruperts and Nigels" at Twickenham for the right for the club game to run itself and as an important thing in its own right.  People these days often blithely state that rugby was inherently popular in places like Northampton and Leicester and that Sale or Leeds face a much tougher challenge.  Bollocks to that.  Barwell built Northampton and if it wasn't for him then Northampton could easily be playing in front of 800 under a tin roof in National League 1 like Coventry are now.  There was no magic formula that made Saints great and made Cov get left behind; it was hard work, belief and resiliance from Barwell and others.  These other clubs need to stop moaning and get on with building a sustainable club like he did in the '90s and Tony Rowe at Exeter is trying to do now.

Rant over, and onwards with our tour through Northampton's history.  Ian McGeechan is well remembered in Northampton though it was John Steele who actually guided them to the Heineken Cup, their first major trophy, in 2000.  Wayne Smith came and went bringing a swashbuckling style but also a large contingent of New Zealanders to the club.  As in 1988 Saints results were getting worse and their was rumours of an internal split within the club, this time between the New Zealand players, the English players and the new South African coaching team led by Alan Solomans.  Solomans was sacked with Saints bottom of the league and Paul Grayson and Budge Poutney were left to go down with his ship.

And now we come to the end of our history with the present.  The academy was re-prioritised and young England A coaches Jim Mallinder and ex-Tigers hooker Dorian West were appointed with a mandate to play the youngsters and re-build the club.  The side that they built to win their record third 2nd Division title is still the core of their current incarnation with Dylan Hartley, Tongahu'ia and Lawes to the fore.  

Saints are really the model modern professional club with corporate money underpinning community spirit.  A long cry from their church inspired beginnings but still a home for naughty boys with excess energy and aggression.

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