All is not well aboard the good ship Northampton. In the past 10 years the team has come back from the murky depths of the 1st division and went on to become a dominant force in the Northern hemisphere, culminating in a Heineken Cup victory 6 years ago. Not bad work, you'd agree. Since then things have been patchy to say the least; Things were all going fine when John Steel moved upstairs to make way for now All Blacks coach Wayne Smith, who made good use of the Northampton old boys playing them with a (then unheard of in the home nations) flowing running game closer to the everyday bread and butter seen in the Super 12. The backs could chuck a ball around with ease while the forwards could push anyone around the park. Then Graham Hendry decided he needed an assistant and only had one name in mind... Wayne Smith. Only a fool turns down the offer of coaching the All Blacks, so off Wayne goes. No problem, Saints can hire another well known and previously successful coach in the form of Alan Solomons. "Look at the great things he's achieved in South Africa and Ireland" we all said, "the progression continues!" Signings such as Corne Krige, Robbie Kempson and Wylie Human only stood to make a further point of the clubs intentions and how things could only better and better. Especially with maximum points after the first two games of the season. Oh how wrong we were. This was the end of the good days and the beginning of the clubs down fall. Rumours of in fighting between the South Africans and the rest of the squad, or the news that 14 first team players would not be required the following season (including Saints 3 remaining world cup winners) were the background noise on the terrace while the clubs worst losing streak in living memory rumbled on. Eventually, after suffering defeat at home to newly promoted Worcester at home, Solomons was sacked and Corne Krige stepped down as captain. Trying to salvage anything from the season looked like impossibility, but a victory over HEC favourites Toulouse in Budge Poutneys first game in charge at home kept the fans interested and set up a good run in the tournament. The season had few highlights otherwise; Victory in the derby was as good as things went, but it was a Quins loss to Sale that saved Northampton’s bacon after they lost at Worcester thanks to a late Drew Hickie try which should have relegated the Saints. The next season, things looked bleak for up until Christmas until Saints picked up form and got them back into the HEC thanks to a brilliant end of season run. A young star in the form of Jon Clarke emerged along with the signing of the mercurial Carlos Spencer pre season, the team started playing well together and things began to look good. "Maybe things are coming back for us?" We thought. Oh how wrong we were. With the fans all optimistic of a cracking season ahead of them, things looked well for the first half of the season opener against Newcastle at home. However, with the loss of Jon Clarke at around the half hour mark into the game to a broken ankle which put him out until at least well into the new year, Saints good start to the season crumbled, the Northamptonians scraping the victory after a Johnny Wilkinson missed a late, LATE penalty. In the following weeks things went from bad to worse with the loss of numerous other players to suspension and injury; ~ Johnny Howard - 2 weeks Suspension for stamping ~ Paul Tupai - Suspended for an acumination of yellow cards ~ Carlos Spencer - Cited and suspended for a spear tackle ~ Jon Clarke - Injured with a broken ankle ~ Bruce Reihana - Injured with cruciate ligament damage ~ Stephen Myler - Injured with cruciate ligament damage ~ Rhodri Davies - Injured with groin strain ~ Luke Myring - Injured ~ Robbie Kydd - Injured ~ Seamus Mallon - Injured ~ David Quinlan - Injured The list goes on. A fast forward to today and the club is in big trouble. The club lost at home to league minnows Worcester, rumours are rife of in fighting between the players, the die-hard supporters are losing patience while the part-time 'fans' (many of which can be seen on the clubs website) are blaming everyone under the sun without engaging their brains, the coaches constantly pass the buck instead of rightfully taking responsibility for their actions, the players are losing interest and the clubs owner is living on cloud cuckoo land and claims the they will still win the Heineken Cup! So now we know what the problems are, how the hell do we fix them? The whole setup needs to be addressed if the team will ever match the facilities the clubs owns; The Management & Coaching Staff Everyone who loves Northampton loves and has great respect for Paul Grayson. As a player he's been there through thick & thin. Possessing a brilliant tactical rugby brain and with 15+ years experience of top level rugby, the HEC and World Cup winner will eventually go on to be a great coach. Bit is taking the top job at a Premiership side as your first job really the best of ideas? Paul misses a few key ingredients for now to make him into a truly great coach, the most important thing being he doesn't have the charm of Peter Slone or Wayne Smith. When you hear Smudger or Slugger talk, there is a reassuring tone to their voices that can make you feel like everything will be alright, even if things are far from right, so you always will believe there is a backup plan. Grayson does not have this calming reassurance, which can be a problem not only for the pre match build-up, but also for keeping the fans on his side. Although the Peter Sloane is with the club, he is an underling to a deeply inexperienced coach. As a coach who's won an awful lot during his tenure in New Zealand, this is wrong. These two should have their roles reversed, both as it will allow Grayson to concentrate on what he knows best (kicking and back movements) while Sloane runs the whole team. This will both ease Grayson into his role while at the same time, bringing some stability to the team. The Players "Over reliance on Stars" are the words on everyone's lips at the moment. Except mine. Any team in the premiership would kill to have players such as Carlos Spencer, Mark Robinson, Bruce Reihana, Ben Cohen, Steve Thompson, Tom Smith or Sean Lamont on their roster. Northampton’s problem isn't reliance on these big names, rather not having good enough backup for when they're unavailable. The depth in the academy is so far looking fantastic, but the first team replacements bench however is consistently cluttered with dead wood; ~ Luke Myring ~ Seamus Mallon ~ Chris Wyles ~ Rhodri Davies ~ Vaughn Going ~ Johnny Howard ~ Ian Vass All of which have regularly played this season yet they would probably struggle to break into any first team in the 1st division otherwise. When you compare this to other teams such as Gloucester who have many very good players that should be challenging for a first team place rather then competing for a bench position, it shows there is a problem. If Northampton is to ever become a regular top of the league side, setting their sights with one first choice XV and some extra name to make up the numbers simply isn't enough. This needs to be sorted out before the academy progress through the ranks as that will take more then a few years. The Boardroom The club is one of the most profitable in the country because of the excellent businessmen there are in charge. However, as a victim of their own success, they have forgotten that Northampton Saints PLC is still a rugby club and some decisions regarding the game they play should also be made. There is nothing wrong of course with keeping the bank balance healthy, that's what keeps the club going, but they need to look at investing an awful lot more into the rugby side of things and less into the "Greatest Ever" promotions and that ilk, as they will only prove a failure and alienate the people who generate the money in the first place - The fans. This brings me round nicely to; The Fans Northampton in the past was widely regarded as having some of the best fans in the country, but in the last few seasons “perennial whiners” would be a better description. Whey they’re not complaining and calling foul play by the RFU for something which is the clubs or players own fault, they’re putting all of the blame on one single person for entire teams dismal performances, (most notably recently, Carlos Spencer has been picking up the bulk of flack recently from these ‘fans’ who think they know the game, yet he’s non personally had a bad game for months!). You know the sort; They go to each game but whinge the Guinness costs Â£3 a pint, their car isn’t parked immediately under the grandstand, they didn’t get Ben Cohen’s autograph this week and then they’ll go onto the clubs official website complaining about all these things before claiming they personally are the best fan the club’s ever had. Far too many of the Franklins Gardens regulars today wouldn’t know a Gary Owen from Michael Owen, be them kids who only go because they’re banned from the football ground or (even worse) the prawn sandwiches who are the same people that ruin Twickenham on every international weekend. The atmosphere in fortress Franklins is not a patch on years gone by as a result, as more and more rugby fans are pushed away for Mr and Mrs Smith who want to sit quietly. After enjoying their complimentary corporate dinner. Loud and raucous fans are the 16th man for a rugby team; they will lift up and gee on their boys, helping them find that extra gear when required. More of the singers and more of the shouters need to be brought back while the business men and women should be kept to a minimum. So, in summary; How do you solve a problem like Northampton Saints? ~ Replace the coaching staff with the best men for the job. Make sure all of those below them learn from them. ~ Don’t assume your best XV will be fit all season and make sure you have capable backup for injured players on the books. ~ Remember exactly what Northampton Saints RFC is; A rugby club. Put the focus on the rugby for the showcase it is, not one of the clubs many different money making projects. ~ Bring the fans back. Let the prawn Sandwiches stay in the bar and put the noisy fans who care about the game come out to play instead. It doesn’t take much, only time will tell if anything is done though.