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Sam Vesty: the unfashionable former Tiger leading Saints’ resurgence
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Sam Vesty: the unfashionable former Tiger leading Saints’ resurgence

Look back through the archives and it becomes clear what kind of a player Sam Vesty was. “Probably not the most fashionable,” according to his former Leicester head coach Richard Cockerill, but as the Australian Matt O’Connor, who would later occupy the top job at Welford Road, adds: “He understands the game so well that he makes guys around him play ­better rugby.”

Vesty, for his part, saw himself as an attacking fly-half and someone “who likes to put some width on the game” but just as important was a resilience in defence, an unrelenting work ethic: “That is Leicester. If you’re not 100%, you’re nowhere. That is bred in every Leicester player.”

It must sting the Leicester faithful, then, to see Vesty rising to be one of the most vaunted coaches in the Premiership with their arch rivals Northampton, who host Saturday’s east Midlands derby. Vesty was a fourth-generation Tiger, a lineage begun by his great-grandfather Jack Dickens in 1909, and he made 157 appearances for the club. He had reluctantly asked to leave in 2009 before Cockerill took over and gave him a run in the first team that led to his two England caps on the summer tour to Argentina.

Fast forward 16 years and Vesty was back in Argentina on a short-term assignment as England’s skills coach – Eddie Jones remarked at the time how well he had interviewed for the role – then joining Saints in 2018 under Chris Boyd, before he was appointed head coach under Phil Dowson at the start of last season. With Northampton top of the Premiership, in the last four of the Champions Cup and earning rave reviews for their swashbuckling style, Vesty is inundated with plaudits for being the brains behind Saints’ resurgence.

“Sam’s as good a backs and attack coach as I’ve worked with in 20 years of professional rugby in any place,” was Boyd’s assessment when he handed the reins to Dowson and Vesty, and the manner in which Northampton are playing backs that up. Saints are reaping the rewards of players such as Alex Mitchell, George Furbank, Ollie Sleightholme, Tommy Freeman and Alex Coles approaching their peak years while shrewd signings such as that of Curtis Langdon and the experience of Courtney Lawes has them challenging on two fronts.

Then there is Fin Smith, the 21-year-old fly-half, who was taken seamlessly to the role of conducting the orchestra. Vesty had a key role in his recruitment, highlighting his “toughness” as well as his obvious talent with ball in hand and with Smith at the helm, Northampton are carving open defences at will.

It does not happen by coincidence and well-placed sources would point out that while England laboured during the opening rounds of the Six Nations on account of spending little time honing their attack in training, Vesty focuses on repeated drills that make catch-and-pass fundamentals second nature. It was no surprise, therefore, to hear Richard Wigglesworth, who was finally given enough latitude by Steve Borthwick to make a difference to England’s attack after the defeat by Scotland, explain how he and Vesty go way back.

“I’ve spoken to Vesty for a long time,” said Wigglesworth during the Six Nations. “We went on an England A tour together to the USA and Canada, which was quite enjoyable, shall we say. In terms of speaking to him, I had a good day with him and have kept in touch with him around his players and little stuff we’d do. He’s a good bloke, I get on well with him.”

Sam Vesty playing for Leicester in 2006.View image in fullscreen

Indeed, as England spread their wings during the Six Nations, the Northampton influence was obvious, with Furbank, Mitchell and Freeman all playing a significant part. Freeman, who excelled in a roving wing role, is a particular case in point and shared fascinating insight into the granular detail that Vesty provides.

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“I go through a checklist,” said Freeman. “When the ball comes to the edge and I am involved, I want to look up and see if I can take the short side. If I can’t take the short side I’ll have a look at 9 and see if there’s any spaces in and around the ruck. If I can’t do that then I’ll go to whoever is at 10 and pick up any cues off him.

“If I am no use there, I’ll try to work extra and create another number. I have got a checklist in my head that I go through when the ball gets to the edge. There is definitely a balance but most of it is instinctive too, just to back where the space is.”

It is always refreshing to hear modern players talk of the importance of looking for space and asked how his “checklist” came about, Freeman added: “Sam Vesty at Saints, that’s our checklist of how we think, trying to get a numerical advantage wherever we can or popping up in spaces they’re not expecting. It’s been a part of my game for a fair few years.”

Vesty has written coaching books in the past but his talents are not limited to rugby, having represented Leicestershire 2nd XI as a wicketkeeper-batsman and played guitar in Leicester’s in-house rock band, Slo Progress, back in his playing days. As Cockerill reflected back in 2009: “He gives his heart and soul on both the rugby and training field. He looks a bit unfashionable with his curly ginger hair but he’s the heart and soul of the club at the moment and he has been for a long time. Given the association of his family here and their history, that just adds to the spirit in the team.”

Though the call-up never came to pass, such was Vesty’s form in the latter part of the 2008-09 season that, even before his first cap, his name was mentioned in selection meetings for the British & Irish Lions tour of South Africa. “I find that pretty astonishing,” said Vesty at the time. If Andy Farrell comes calling to offer a place on his coaching ticket for next year’s Australia tour, however, no one would be surprised.

Source: theguardian.com