Dan Biggar interview: Wales star hails impact of Chris Boyd at Northampton – We are a team willing to have a crack – Telegraph.co.uk

Dan Biggar interview: Wales star hails impact of Chris Boyd at Northampton - \We are a team willing to have a crack\ - Telegraph.co.uk

Rejuvenated Northampton face mission improbable in Premiership play-offs

Wales fly-half Dan Biggar says playing in big club knockout games was among the major reasons he joined Northampton from Ospreys.

Biggar, 29, views Saints reaching the play-offs as vindication of his decision to leave the Ospreys last summer.

His debut campaign in the Premiership has been a gruelling experience, but the 2019 Grand Slam winner and 2017 British and Irish Lions tourist has relished the experience.

The fly-half has been given licence to play a wide, attacking game which stems from Boyds Kiwi philosophies. They have ditched their risk-averse approach and Biggar has formed a cutting half-back combination with scrum-half Cobus Reinach.

“Every weekend you have to perform, and if you dont perform you get found out pretty quickly,” said Biggar.

“The system in Wales has allowed a lot of boys to do that this year, but I am not naive enough to think I could come up here and sit on the bench or sit in the stands and enjoy my Saturdays with a pint and watch the game.

Boydeys come in and flushed out all the negativity, said centre Luther Burrell. Last season the changing room had become a little bit negative and there were quite a lot of “Sappuccinos”, but its a happy camp now.

“And you know what, Ive loved playing week in, week out. You play in front of big crowds every week. You think when youre not playing that youre missing out.

There was a different challenge every day in December — like an advent calendar. Before training on Christmas Eve, there was a race to do a shot of sherry, a carrot and a mince pie. Ben Franks won that one.

Northampton edged rivals Harlequins to secure the final available play-off spot last weekend, despite losing to Exeter 40-21.

Saints return to Sandy Park on Saturday knowing it will take a special performance to upset the Chiefs, but Biggar is convinced a spot in the Twickenham final on 1 June is within reach.

We had a French food challenge where you had to eat a block of cheese, a clove of garlic, some rock-hard bread and a glass of red wine. It was grim but it puts a smile on everyones face.

“The bookies, the media and most people in the country will back Exeter at home, but going there with nothing to lose is a defeatist attitude.

Sometimes I used to dread coming in on a Monday after a loss because you know the meeting is going to be long and hard, but coming in here I have found there is always that bit of light.

“This league gives you nothing in terms of margin for error if youre off your game, but thats why its even more rewarding to be in that top four.

In the modern sporting world dominated by GPS tracking, marginal gains and high protein diets, Northampton Saints have proved there is life yet in old school training methods.

“Now that we are in the play-offs, its a huge opportunity to play with freedom and to play some attractive rugby and see if we can pick up a result.”

As well as tearing up the teams structure and playing philosophy, he split his squad into four mini-teams during pre-season for a morale-boosting series of trials.

The Premierships top two sides are the clubs with the lowest player turnover and show how continuity breeds consistency

It will always end on a positive and on what we can do the following week. Mondays are a bit different – this week we were shooting at targets with an air pistol.

The squad I have put together for five seasons has pretty much run its course, he said. Its time to press the reset button and go again. And so it will be another close season of new faces at the Ricoh Arena, 15 players in, including seven from the clubs academy, and 15 out. No other club has a greater turnover, although Harlequins match it with 12 in and 18 out.

At the heart of Northamptons top-four push has been Welsh recruit Dan Biggar, who is expected to wear the No 10 jersey against Exeter at Sandy Park on Saturday.

Only six of the team that started the 2017 Premiership final against Exeter will be at Wasps next season. Willie le Roux, Christian Wade, Elliot Daly, Danny Cipriani, James Haskell and Nathan Hughes are among the players who have departed, not forgetting Kurtley Beale who missed the match through injury.

Read more The lack of continuity partly explains why Wasps were this season 33 points worse off than they were two years ago. It is no coincidence that the two clubs with the lowest player turnover this season are once again Exeter and Saracens, the Premierships top two for the second consecutive campaign.

Continuity breeds consistency. Exeter finished on the top of the table with 86 points, one more than last year when they also improved by a point from the previous season. Saracens totals in the last three campaigns have been 78, 77 and 77 and the pair, who have home advantage in Saturdays play-offs, are on course to meet in the Premiership final at Twickenham for the third time in four seasons.

Standing in their way are two clubs who did not finish in the top four last season, Northampton and Gloucester. The Saints will be visiting Sandy Park for the second time in a week after losing there 40-21 in the Premierships final round.

Northampton have not prevailed at Exeter in the league since 2014 when they went on to win the title, while Gloucester, who travel to Allianz Park this weekend, have not beaten Saracens away since 2008 and have conceded 100 points in total on their last two visits. Mission improbable for both, perhaps, but at the point where a league turns into a cup, different rules sometimes apply.

Northampton were not holding back at Exeter last weekend, needing to win to ensure they finished fourth and made the play-offs. Had James Langs late, long penalty for Harlequins at Wasps not fallen just short, the Saints would have been thinking about next season but they are arguably the most improved team in the Premiership this season, up five places and 13 points from last season.

The Saints have been rejuvenated under their New Zealand-born director of rugby, Chris Boyd. A team that became stuck in its ways after winning the Premiership in 2015 has become menacing in broken play and far more unpredictable. The transformation was not instant, six defeats in the first nine Premiership rounds, but their record in the last 13 sees them with one victory more than Saracens and one fewer than Exeter.

The play-off is a bonus for Northampton whose minimum goal at the start of the season was to qualify for the European Champions Cup. Boyds influence will become more pronounced in the coming seasons and in one sense they go into the weekend having a free turn of the wheel.

A year ago, Newcastle went to Sandy Park after creeping into the top four, lost heavily and never looked forward again, only upward as they finished at the bottom of the Premiership. That fate should not await Northampton who are starting out under Boyd and have a back division which, with Matt Proctor arriving from the Hurricanes, should be one of the most potent in the league next season.

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Matt Proctor, pictured in action for New Zealand against Japan last November, will join Northampton next season. Photograph: Eugene Hoshiko/AP He replaces Luther Burrell, who is switching to playing rugby league at Warrington, and it sums up how Northampton has changed. Burrell was a fixture in the old Saints, a reliable trucker-up of the ball who was an ancillary forward on the charge, making metres and getting over the gainline for his team to go again, but there is now an emphasis on skill and an ability to think quickly.

Read more Boyd knows all about Proctor having coached the Hurricanes for three years from 2015. The signing is not an attempt by Boyd to turn the Saints into a team which, inspired by the Barrett brothers, has become a byword for the outrageous, but given the impact of their half-backs this season along with the growing influence of Rory Hutchinson and Tom Collins in the outside backs, it will confirm they are now operating in more than one dimension.

Their fate at Sandy Park will hinge on whether they are able to disrupt the supply-line of a team adept at holding on to the ball, slowing ball down after a tackle, defending driving mauls and minimising their penalty count, a task that would have suited the old Saints.

A week is not too short for a turnaround. In 1985, Cardiff went to Pontypool for an uncordial friendly and were thumped by 30 points, third in a two-horse race. Seven days later the two clubs met again in the Welsh Cup semi-final, admittedly at a neutral venue, Rodney Parade. Cardiff won 24-3, formidable in the areas they had been weak. But that was then …

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