Northampton head coach Jim Mallinder much prefers to sign just a handful of players each season, but in each of those handfuls is usually one or two world-class signings that have the potential to light up the Premiership.
In the past the club sensationally signed Wales winger George North. This year sees the introduction of French number eight powerhouse Louis Picamoles, who is sure to bring even more bite to Northampton’s impressive pack.
When you consider that the club already has England tightheads Kieran Brookes and Paul Hill on its books, as well as England captain Dylan Hartley, second row Courtney Lawes and England caps in Calum Clark, Teimana Harrison and Tom Wood in the forwards alone, you start to see the ferocious capability that the pack could have next season.
Of course, having such an impressive list of names on paper means little if you can’t get them to gel. Last season despite having experienced and talented individuals in Lee Dickson, Stephen Myler, Luther Burrell, Ben Foden, the Pisi brothers and indeed the aforementioned North, Northampton could not get their back division firing.
Despite this, backs coach Alex King was endlessly linked with a move to the England coaching set-up, but this certainly did not materialise. Given the way the Saints struggled last season it is probably no great surprise that the call never came.
To bolster the Saints’ options, South African scrum-half Nic Groom joins from the Stormers after an impressive season in Super Rugby. With Samoan number 9 Kahn Fotuaili’I moving on to Bath, Groom will act as an exciting second option to former captain Lee Dickson.
Fiji’s Campese Ma’afu provides power and agility in the front row and will push England hopeful Alex Waller this coming season in the absence of Alex Corbisiero, who has taken a sabbatical from rugby altogether.
Northampton also have considerable options coming through their fantastic academy set-up as well and Harry Mallinder – the coach’s son – is a wonderfully gifted fly-half and centre who not only took like a duck to water in Premiership and European rugby, but was also one of the standout players in the recent World Rugby U20s Championship.
Acting as captain in the absence of hooker Jack Walker, Mallinder was central to everything good about England’s performances as they thrashed Ireland to win a third title in four years.
Given the talent at the disposal of the coaches, Northampton Saints fans will rightly be demanding a top four finish at the very least this season, particularly following the sting of a mediocre spot in the table last year. However, it’s likely Saracens, Exeter, Leicester and Wasps will all be challenging for those play-off spots and one cannot forget what Harlequins can do when they find a purple patch amongst the many colours of their shirts.
Jim Mallinder and his charges will certainly be under pressure to live up to expectations this year.
Louis Picamoles from Toulouse
Campese Ma’afu from Provence
Charlie Clare from Bedford Blues
Nic Groom from Stormers
Alex Corbisiero sabbatical (released)
Matt Williams to Worcester Warriors
Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi to London Irish
Patrick Howard to Newport Gwent Dragons
Kahn Fotuali’i to Bath Rugby
Jon Fisher to Bristol Rugby
Prediction: Top 6 at least, with a chance of making the play-offs
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena
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