Youth At The Heart Of Northampton Saints Recruitment

Just three months remain before the start of the new season and Northampton Saints are continuing to pick up the pieces of a campaign which took a late nosedive. Even as early as January the seemingly unstoppable Saints train began to wobble on its tracks as they succumbed to a crushing defeat at home to Racing Metro. What should have been an ensuing home Champions Cup quarter final became a visit to Clermont Auvergne, which flanker Tom Wood vividly described on Twitter as an “open training session” and commented that after the match they “left [their] non contact bibs in the changing room”.

All was not lost – the Saints were still undisputed favourites for the Aviva Premiership as they perched at the peak of the table and had almost a full squad to select from. That was until eventual champions Saracens turned up on their doorstep and left the home side battered, bruised, and trophy-less.

The bad news then took a turn for the worse with the confirmation of the departures of Samu Manoa, Salesi Ma’afu (both Toulon), and stalwart Phil Dowson (Worcester Warriors). The loss of Manoa will be particularly damaging as he is a unique talent – there is no other forward in the world who is as versatile, physical and smart and who jumps in the lineout, carries, and offloads as well as he does. He is simply irreplaceable.

A few others have left the club also, including London Irish-bound Dominic Waldouck, Will Hooley, who will join Exeter Chiefs, and fringe players Alex Day, Joel Hodgson, Tom Mercey, Tom Ryder, Cam Dolan, and Josh Skelcey.

The man charged with being the replacement for Manoa is ex-Sale lock Michael Paterson. Saints’ oldest recruit at 30 years of age, Paterson has been at the heart of the Sale pack for the last two seasons. The 6ft 5in Englishman offers aerial talent and last November was tipped by Sale teammate Nathan Hines for an England Test debut, which he is yet to attain.

The blow of losing Ma’afu has been softened by the arrival of England tighthead prop, Kieran Brookes. The 124kg ex-Newcastle man will strengthen the Saints’ scrum which began to falter at the back end of the season, evident in the losses to Exeter and Saracens when they were outmuscled up front. Question marks remain over the state the 24 year old may be in after the World Cup and how he may be away during the Six Nations. For this reason the Saints have also picked up England U20 tighthead prop and 2015 Junior World Championship finalist, Paul Hill, who will provide quality cover for Brookes and Gareth Denman. Saints’ front row certainly looks strong enough on paper for another assault on the Premiership.

Dowson has been replaced by Jamie Gibson, the young Leicester flanker, in a rare and surprising M1 move. Gibson will add dynamism in the lineout and his trademark athletic charge-downs may trance Saints fans into a round of warm applause at times during the season. With Clark and Wood away with England throughout the forthcoming season, the acquisition of the 24 year old is a smart one.

Although Hooley is undoubtedly a promising young Englishman, in 22 year old Munster fly-half JJ Hanrahan, Northampton have found themselves an upgrade. In the most general sense, there are two types of fly halves – the runners and the kickers. Where Hooley was a tactical kicker with a reasonable right boot, Hanrahan is an exciting, running fly-half, who will ignite the Saints backline when he gets an opportunity. That’s not to say he can’t kick however – the Irishman started ten Guinness Pro12 matches and came on in eleven others in 2014/15, scoring 84 points, as he helped Munster reach the final.

The last, notable signing thus far for Northampton is the signing of 23 year old South African, Pat Howard. Howard operates mainly at outside centre, but due to his pace and footballing skills, he can also slot in on either wing, as he has done in the past for his former club sides. He helped South Africa U20 win the Junior World Championship in 2012 and has scored seven tries in his young professional career, including one for Munster where he played on loan for three months during the 2014-15 season.

In all likelihood, Saints’ business is not yet complete. Due to the allowance of a second marquee signing this forthcoming season (one where wages are not included in the salary cap), Saints are bound to be shopping for big names. None of the above signings will command a marquee wage, so expect a more familiar announcement over the coming summer to bolster Northampton’s ranks.

For now, the Saints squad has taken a more youthful shape, with the average age of the signings under 24. Although many supporters are understandably unnerved by the loss of Manoa and co. they needn’t fear too much, as the signings that have been made so far are shrewd and thoroughly underrated, with an abundance of raw talent and potential added to their table-topping squad.

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