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Why fast-thinking, bulked-up Saints are Premiership final favourites
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Why fast-thinking, bulked-up Saints are Premiership final favourites

There is always more to the best teams than meets the eye. On the surface Northampton are what they have always been: a proud club with excellent support and several hugely impressive individuals. Talk to those who have propelled the Saints to Twickenham, however, and it soon becomes clear their first appearance in a Premiership final for 10 years is not remotely a fluke.

If anything it has reached the stage where they will be seriously disappointed if celebratory chants of “shoe army” are not echoing around the sold-out stadium after the game. Bath are classy opposition on Saturday, equally keen to put some lean times behind them. But listen to some of the secrets behind Northampton’s improvement this season, allied to a fierce communal desire to give their departing legends a fitting send-off, and it is a distracted punter who bets against them.

Take George Furbank for example. Some England supporters may still recall his tough initiation to the national team after being parachuted in prematurely to face a marauding France in Paris in 2022. When Saints last made the grand final in 2014 he and his sister were there as teenage fans. He returns as England’s starting XV and Northampton’s back-field general, with a suitably Kitchener-esque moustache to match.

That little dagger of a short pass that set up Burger Odendaal for a crucial try in their win over Saracens last Friday night was merely the latest snapshot of a player close to the top of his game. More big match experience always helps but, in truth, the origins of Northampton’s metamorphosis can be found in last year’s semi-final defeat by Saracens, after which their senior players decided something needed to change.

The first step was taking on more responsibility. “We just wanted to take a bit more onus as players,” says Furbank, now 27 and likely to be a key figure against Bath. “Whether that’s leading meetings or reviews from games, we wanted to take more ownership off the field. It’s very easy to sit in meetings and have the coaches lecture you week-in week-out. But ultimately, when you come to big games, you have to think for yourself on the field. You can’t have a coach telling you what to do. We felt that if we took more on ourselves as a playing group that would develop us as leaders on the pitch. That’s where I feel like we’ve taken a step forward this year.”

The next objective was to give themselves the best possible chance to compete physically. It was agreed the squad would commit to a brutal pre-season gym regime and look to add significant extra muscle. “I guess in one-on-one battles it gives you a better opportunity to be more dominant in defence and attack,” explains Furbank. “It also gives you more confidence in your ball-carrying ability. Ultimately our game is about creating one on ones and beating your guy. We did eight or nine gym sessions a week in pre-season to try and stick some bulk on us.”

Northampton’s George Furbank breaks with the ball during their victory over Saracens in the semi-finalsView image in fullscreen

Which meant Furbank and others putting their bodies on the line. “There was a big emphasis on us eating a decent amount. At my heaviest I ended up putting on four kilos. I’m not one to count calories but I reckon we were probably taking in 4-5,000 calories per day: three big meals with shakes and snacks in between. Obviously some of that weight was going to fall off once we got up and running again but I definitely felt in a better place for it.”

Northampton already had a skilful, attack-minded backline, a legacy of the New Zealander Chris Boyd’s time in charge. They were rather less noted for their defensive steel, which is why Furbank also believes the arrival of Lee Radford from rugby league – “He’s created a real buzz and energy around our ‘D’, which we probably didn’t have last year” – has been pivotal. The contrasting coaching partnership of Phil Dowson and Sam Vesty, though, also continues to bear fruit. “Dows does a lot of his leading in meetings and in the way he talks,” says Furbank. “Vesty does a lot more of the on-field coaching. He’s still like a little kid, though. He wants to be training with us the whole time.

“He tells us to be calm and then he’ll be screaming at us from the back field. He gets a bit carried away at times but I think he’s the best coach I’ve ever had. He’s incredible at developing players and he’s so desperate for you as an individual and us as a backs group to get better. You can tell that in the way he drives the energy through the week.”

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That momentum has been building steadily. Even before the remarkable away win over Munster in Limerick in January there was an extraordinary 42-36 victory over Exeter at Sandy Park having been 26-0 down. Furbank, Alex Mitchell, Fin Smith, Tommy Freeman, Ollie Sleightholme, Fraser Dingwall, Curtis Langdon and Trevor Davison are all set to tour New Zealand with England this summer and 10 straight wins in the Premiership and Champions Cup also fuelled Furbank’s belief that something special was brewing. “You start to realise that if you put your game on the field you can beat anyone. You start doing that against big teams and you really feel you’re not going to lose.

“Every time I stepped on the field I felt like we were always going to be in control. I think that belief comes from winning but also from training. That’s when we’re at our best; when it’s all based on instinct and what we do on the training field leads into the game. It’s almost like you’re in a flow state.”

And, for good measure, there is also a fierce desire to ensure a suitably happy ending for Courtney Lawes, Alex Waller and Lewis Ludlam, loyal servants at Franklin’s Gardens in good times and bad. “We bring it up at meetings probably once a week,” Furbank says. “It is an extra driving factor. We want to send them away with some silverware and I’m sure they’re desperate to do that as well.

“It’s the last dance isn’t it? Playing Leinster away in the Champions Cup semi-finals was massive but we’ve put ourselves in a position to win a trophy. This is definitely the biggest game of the lot. Imagine 40,000 Saints fans doing the ‘shoe army’ with their shoes off at Twickenham. It’d be good fun, wouldn’t it?”

Source: theguardian.com