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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 March 2007, 12:51 GMT 13:51 UK
Saints on the brink
By Simon Austin

Northampton head coach Paul Grayson
Grayson says there has been a lack of continuity at Saints
Everything seemed rosy at Franklin's Gardens on Tuesday.

Northampton's impressive 13,600-seat stadium was bathed in sunshine and their players were excitedly talking about the upcoming Heineken Cup quarter-final against Biarritz.

But appearances can be deceptive. The 2000 Heineken Cup champions have won only one of their last nine matches and are bottom of the Guinness Premiership with just three games to go.

Already stars like Carlos Spencer and Ben Cohen are doubting whether they will stay at the club next season.

How has it come to this? Northampton are one of the few English clubs to turn over a profit, have a committed and passionate support and an expensive and cosmopolitan squad.

One obvious reason for their plight has been a crippling injury list.

Captain Bruce Reihana was out for five months after injuring his knee in the second week of the season, World-Cup winner Steve Thompson might not play again because of a neck injury and midfield fulcrum Jon Clarke has been out since breaking an ankle in September.

Reihana's absence left Northampton without a recognised goalkicker - he is unlikely to resume goalkicking against Biarritz because of a problem with his hamstring tendon - and his replacement, Carlos Spencer, has been frustratingly erratic.

REMAINING LEAGUE FIXTURES
Ben Cohen
Newcastle (A) 8 April
London Wasps (A) 15 April
London Irish (H) 28 April
Spencer, who was Saints' player of the season last year, admits "my goalkicking hasn't been that great", but he thinks a bigger problem is the team's tendency to become tentative and nervous.

"The guys put pressure on themselves by mentioning relegation all week," the 31-year-old former All Black told BBC Sport.

"You go into your shell and don't want to do anything wrong because you don't want to be blamed.

"Guys are playing within themselves. They don't go out of the square to fix things, they'd rather be happy just doing their job, because at least they won't be blamed.

"That's where we are at the moment and it's frightening. The way we're playing isn't going to get us out of trouble."

Reihana, the likeable skipper who has been at Franklin's Gardens for five seasons, highlights individual errors.

"In so many games we've created more than enough opportunities to win but lost the ball at the final phase," he told BBC Sport.

NORTHAMPTON COACHES
Ian McGeechan: 1994-1999
John Steele: 1999-2001
Wayne Smith: 2001-2004
Alan Solomons: 2004
Paul Grayson/ Budge Pountney: 2004-2006
Paul Grayson: 2006-
"Then, when we do score and they kick off, we make a mistake in our half. We've talked about it so many times but it's hard when it happens again and again."

In truth, the problems run far deeper. Saints have struggled since Kiwi Wayne Smith left to become New Zealand's assistant coach in 2004.

They have had six head coach appointments in eight years and the latest incumbent, Paul Grayson, says, with some understatement, "continuity in coaching and playing staff over the last few years hasn't been ideal".

The former England fly-half is in a good position to analyse Northampton's problems, having played for them for 11 seasons. He has experienced the pain of relegation in 1995 and the elation of winning the Heineken Cup in 2000.

He told BBC Sport: "When you get a lot of turnover you lose your identity a little bit. When I was playing, we had myself, Tim Rodber, Nick Beal, Martin Bayfield and Matt Dawson around at that time. We grew up together.

606: DEBATE
mike4england

"The club combined these homegrown players with some accurate recruitment. Pat Lam, Freddie Mendez, Gary Pagel came in and that pushed us over the edge in terms of the quality of our squad.

"When all these players left, we let a lot of nous and knowledge go. We needed to ask 'Why was Tim Rodber a good leader? What succession plan have we got when he leaves? Who is being mentored to be the next Tim Rodber?'

"But we didn't and have paid the price for it."

Grayson says he and his players "will be doing everything we can to stay up", but he has obviously had to contemplate relegation.

The 35-year-old does not think it would necessarily equal disaster.

"It would cost the club a lot of money, but look at Harlequins (who were relegated in 2004/5). They enjoyed their year down, found themselves and came back stronger for it.

"I think we can keep the squad together and do something positive if we stick with it."



SEE ALSO
Reihana makes Northampton pledge
28 Mar 07 |  Northampton
Van Niekerk unsure about Saints
26 Mar 07 |  Northampton


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