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Exclusive: “Attack at different holes across the field”-A deep dive into Northampton Saints attack

Northampton Saints have had a fantastic season so far, and still find themselves in the hunt for the double. 

Phil Dowson’s side sit comfortably at the summit of the Premiership on 49 points, five points above second placed Bath, and they are flying in Europe. They waltzed through the pool stages with four wins and also downed Munster and the Bulls to reach the Champions Cup semi-finals.

But what is the secret behind their success so far this season?

Going back to the Chris Boyd era, and now carried on through Dowson and attack coach Sam Vesty, Northampton Saints have developed an incredibly fast-paced, skilful attack.

Phil Dowson on the fundamentals of Northampton Saints attack

Northampton Saints coaches Phil Dowson, Sam Vesty and Lee Radford-Credit: IMAGO

A lot of the improvements Northampton have made in attack can be accredited to attack coach Sam Vesty. Since moving to Franklin’s Gardens in 2018, he has helped oversee an attacking revolution in the East Midlands, which has helped skyrocket them back up to title contenders.

His influence is clear to see in the way they attack, and Dowson is full of praise for his former teammate: “Sam Vesty is an exceptional coach at making what is a really complex-looking attack, very simple. The things Sam will talk about are full-field threats.”

“We want to be able to attack at different holes across the field and we’ve got to have lots of different options at the line, we want to be able to attack across the pitch.”

Attacking holes is clearly a huge tactic for the Saints, but it has proved incredibly effective in their style of play. So far this season, they have recorded a staggering 137 clean breaks (the most in the league) and these really help to generate momentum.

This also benefits their yardage, and has allowed them to rack up 5779 meters in the Premiership this season (the second highest tally in the Premiership).

Running at ‘spaces not faces’, as the adage goes, has also allowed them to beat defenders for fun. Northampton’s players have so far beaten 331 defenders this Premiership campaign, again putting them second in this particular leader board.

Generating front-foot ball

Northampton Saints fly-half Fin Smith-Credit: IMAGO

Another big part of their game is threatening the defensive line and generating front foot ball, and Dowson says this can again be linked back to Vesty’s coaching.

“Because you have to pass backwards, the game has to go forwards; whether it’s a forward carry, whether it’s the nines running, whether it’s 10 going at the line, whether it’s the fullback hitting the line, everything has to be going forward. I think that balance of play is probably where Sam’s quality comes through is in terms of how he coaches that, in terms of ability to attack anywhere.”

“It might look like we’re going around people, but more often than not, we’re going through and we’re in the next hole.”

This is often a tricky thing to get consistently right, however, they have the perfect number 10 to lead the way in Fin Smith. The former Worcester Warrior is such a threat at the gain line, and he combines really well to either put his runners through holes or pull it out the back to George Furbank, who then sends the likes of Tommy Freeman or Ollie Sleightholme away.

Alongside him, Alex Mitchell is also a great threat at the line, and can either give a pass off to the backs around him or can run it himself.

This ability to take the ball right to the line and put someone through a hole has really helped Smith and Mitchell become consistent try creators, with the pair both notching 6 assists this Premiership campaign.

Breakdown is the key-Dowson details how Saints do the ugly stuff well

Copyright: xDennisxGoodwinx PSI-18809-0037 Credit: IMAGO

Whilst these stats all make for pleasant reading, it comes off the back of some hard graft. As we saw in their victories over Saracens and Exeter, the breakdown is vital in providing Northampton a platform to play from. With the tempo that Mitchell and Smith like to play at, they need to get consistently fast, clean ball from the base of the ruck; and this is something Dowson also recognises.

“Fundamentally what makes our game go, and we want to play fast, is our breakdown. Everybody has to be very, very adept at the breakdown. That’s the ball carrier, the first player arriving, the second player arriving and if that second arriving can play the ball away then he plays the ball away or the nine plays away.”

“Everybody on the pitch has to be adept at both passing and the breakdown skills.”

This effective work in the breakdown can again seen in the numbers. Northampton have only conceded 171 turnovers this season, the third least in the Premiership. They are incredibly consistent at retaining possession and therefore contributes massively to their overall success.

Nothing is won in April, however, the way Northampton are dispatching of teams like Saracens and Munster they seem in a very good place to end the season with some silverware.