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Last Updated: Monday, 30 April 2007, 06:05 GMT 07:05 UK
What now for Saints?
By Bryn Palmer

Northampton's England wing Ben Cohen shows the pain of relegation
The pain of relegation hit Saints' World Cup winner Ben Cohen hard
If it didn't provoke the sniggers that greeted Harlequins' demise two years ago, Northampton's relegation still sent a tremor through English rugby.

How did it come to this?

How can one of the best-supported clubs in the land, with a spanking new stadium and a sprinkling of international stars, be slumming it next season with the Moseleys, Newburys and Sedgley Parks?

If it can happen to Saints, one of the relative success stories of the professional age in England and Heineken Cup winners seven years ago, surely it can happen to anyone?

With Quins, the sneers concerned a club that attracted big-name players but rarely raised a gallop in the league, their success restricted to the one-off nature of Cup competitions.

Northampton, after returning to the top flight under Ian McGeechan in 1996, were contenders in all the main competitions for several years, culminating in their Heineken Cup victory the year after the Scot's departure in 2000.

Under Wayne Smith they were a top-four team, reaching the Premiership play-offs in 2003 and 2004 before the Kiwi returned home to take up a position with the All Blacks.

But the warning signs were already there two years ago, after Alan Solomons' disastrous spell in charge.

Two Saints old boys, Paul Grayson and Budge Pountney, took charge mid-season, but they were only spared the drop on the final day of the season by Jeremy Staunton's missed penalty for Quins against Sale.

It's bloody horrendous in League One, all graft and no fun

Worcester flanker Drew Hickey
As Saints' former England hooker Steve Thompson, sadly forced into premature retirement recently, noted on Sunday: "It's a disaster, but one that's been waiting to happen".

Last season brought a more respectable sixth-placed finish, with Carlos Spencer periodically lighting up the refurbished Franklin's Gardens.

But this season has brought tales of splits in the camp, and a brutal injury list that stretched playing resources to the limit.

Happily for those who sympathise with the predicament of one of the bastions of English rugby, the key figures seem to have grasped the reality of their situation for some time.

Chairman Keith Barwell, one of the more vociferous proponents of the Premiership clubs' cause in their on-going battle with the Rugby Football Union, blames himself for the coaching upheaval since Smith departed in 2004.

He may also be forced to reappraise his policy of recruiting high-profile international stars at the expense of nurturing Saints' own youngsters, having only recently reversed his decision to ditch the club's academy.

Carlos Spencer leaves the field after Northampton's relegation is confirmed
Will Carlos Spencer grace Franklin's Gardens in Division One?
Head coach Grayson admitted that relegation has been on his agenda for a "long, long time".

Barwell chairs a board meeting on Monday that will swiftly turn to issues of player recruitment, and more likely departures, as well as the possible arrival of a director of rugby to work with Grayson.

Captain Bruce Reihana and scrum-half Mark Robinson have both pledged their allegiance to the cause, but the likes of Spencer, Ben Cohen and Sean Lamont are bound to assess their options.

Saints had already lined up new recruits for next season.

But is hard to imagine that Springboks back-rower Joe van Niekerk will be tempted by a league that Worcester flanker Drew Hickey, who helped the Warriors stay up on Saturday, describes as "bloody horrendous, all graft and no fun."

Likewise, when Wigan's rugby league full-back Chris Ashton talked about joining "one of the biggest clubs in the country with a great history and a great future", he presumably didn't envisage that future starting in National League One.

It is tempting to believe Saints' exile will only be a temporary one, and that despite a predicted 2m drop in revenue, they will bounce straight back.

After all, the last two teams to be relegated - Quins in 2005, Leeds last year - came straight back up.

Quins managed to hang onto the bulk of their squad, in contrast to the Tykes, who lost 25 players but still prospered after some early setbacks as new director of rugby Stuart Lancaster worked wonders with a brand new squad.

606: DEBATE
GC
Bristol, too, found that a couple of years outside the elite allowed them to develop a style that has yielded huge dividends this season with a play-off place.

But National League One now boasts half a dozen other teams that have clear designs on a place in the Premiership.

Earth Titans, formerly Rotherham, ran Leeds close this season, only finishing five points adrift, having recovered from the financial meltdown of their own relegation in 2004.

Yorkshire rivals Doncaster have also recruited with the Premiership in mind, while the progress of Exeter, Cornish Pirates and Plymouth Albion is testament to the flourishing popularity and passion of rugby in the South-West.

Grayson said after Saturday's ultimately hollow victory over London Irish that his players "would play the first game of next season next week, if they could."

When the dust settles, reality kicks in and next season's fixture list is published, he must ensure those that remain feel similarly enthused.



SEE ALSO
I blame myself, says Saints chief
29 Apr 07 |  Northampton
Saints deserved drop, says coach
28 Apr 07 |  Northampton
Northampton 27-22 London Irish
28 Apr 07 |  English
Worcester 22-7 Saracens
28 Apr 07 |  English
Premiership photos
28 Apr 07 |  Rugby Union
Saints complete Van Niekerk deal
23 Apr 07 |  English
Reihana makes Northampton pledge
28 Mar 07 |  Northampton
Northampton sign Wigan's Ashton
19 Mar 07 |  Northampton


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