Sam Vesty on Super Rugby coming to the Gardens, attacking philosophies and footballing youth
In the days leading up to the sizable test of a Challenge Cup quarterfinal away to French giants Clermont Auvergne this weekend, Northampton Saints attack coach Sam Vesty spoke to The Rugby Magazine about attacking philosophies under Chris Boyd, the club’s footballing youth and the Super Rugby style of play coming to Franklin’s Gardens
Quietly going about his business as one of English rugby’s hottest emerging coaching talent, former Leicester Tigers utility back Vesty is making waves. After cattle branding Worcester Warriors’ backline with his influence between 2015 and 2018, having first arrived in 2013 as a Player Transition Coach, and joining England’s backroom staff for the 2017 two-match tour of Argentina after catching the eye of Red Rose boss Eddie Jones, Vesty made his move to Franklin’s Gardens, ready to work under former Hurricanes coach Chris Boyd.
The job at hand facing the coaching duo seemed to be a salvage project, joining the Midlands side following a season that had crowds leaving the stadium in their droves on multiple occasions, seemingly unwilling to pay the price of post-match traffic in exchange of their side’s home display.
But, to the surprise of many, Boyd and Vesty have exceeded the expectation of any punter in just their first season in charge. Tipped by some to be at risk of falling afoul of relegation this season, the 2014 Premiership Champions are just eight points and one league spot away from qualifying for semifinal action with just four games to go in the regular Gallagher Premiership season.
In addition to this pleasantly surprising success at the head of the Black, Green and Gold, Boyd and Vesty have seen it in their wisdom to put faith in a host of youngsters; faith that has been undisputedly vindicated. Both forwards and backs in their teenage years and early twenties alike have risen to the challenge, proving themselves up to the task of stepping into the Saints’ new ‘heads up’ brand of rugby. The phrase ‘if you’re good enough, you’re old enough’ is ringing truer than ever in the East Midlands this year.
Speaking to The Rugby Magazine ahead of their trip to Clermont this weekend and a daunting playoff at the Parc des Sports Marcel Michelin, Vesty painted a picture of the vision head coach Boyd has implemented in his time with the Saints so far.
“How would I describe that?” Vesty said when asked to describe Boyd’s vision. “I think it’s a game of space, everyone’s got their eyes up looking for the best place to attack is. It sounds really simple and it’s what you talk to kids about, but actually, it’s very easy in this professional game to become driven by ‘we’re going to do A, then we’re going to do B…’ And actually, we want to stay away from that and just get our heads up and see where the space is.
“We have our structures as well, but all of our structures are based on having the ability to move the ball to where the space is.”
Vesty continued: “I think the boys have really bought into what we’re trying to do here. They’re looking up, seeing where the space is and moving the ball there, which is really what we, big picture, want to do. I’m just really happy that the guys have bought into that and we’ve managed to score some tries.”
Given the success of Vesty’s attacking initiatives for Northampton, it comes as no surprise that Worcester’s attack has become fragmented when compared to the razor-sharp edge Vesty imbued before departing Sixways over the summer. When asked whether he brings his own, unique attacking style to each club or designs bespoke plans for each team, the 37-year-old was effusive in his belief that the former of the two suggestions would be a foolish coaching trait.
“I think it’s really important to tailor it for the players you have at each club.” He said. “I think it would be silly to try and imprint one style on a certain team. So I think the way we play here suits the kind of cattle we have; for want of a better term.
“At Worcester, we had a very strong backline and they were very good at moving the ball, and that’s what suited them. But I think you’d be silly to try and imprint a DNA on a team that didn’t suit the players. That would be pushing water up a hill.”
One of the talented players Vesty is alluding to and a young man whose name is on the lips of most English and Scottish rugby fans’ - and potentially French after the weekend - lips is outside centre Rory Hutchinson. The 23-year-old has filled the considerable gap left by injured Wallaby midfielder Rob Horne, who tragically retired from the game last season after suffering an injury that has left his right arm permanently paralysed.
While Horne was a piercing runner with a fearless physical edge to his game, Hutchinson has made his name with a slightly silkier way of playing, drawing a closer contrast to the Henry Slades and Conrad Smiths of the Rugby world than the Manu Tuilagis and Mathieu Bastareauds.
While Vesty did pay homage to Hutchinson’s skillset and offered some insight on the Cambridge-born centre, describing him as a “very laidback individual”, he was keen to stress the skills of Hutchinson’s fellows.
Praising the Saints’ current crop of “footballer” backs, Vesty said: “Alex Mitchell and James Grayson in the backs there specifically, none of those guys are very big, but they’re all very good at getting the ball up fast, moving against bigger guys, but moving the ball to space.
“I don’t think any of those guys would want to run directly at big guys, and that’s probably a good lesson for any youngster. When you’re small, don’t run at big people, use the ball and use your feet.
“Those guys have really settled in, they’re really good footballers and when I talk about getting your eyes up and spotting where the space is and the ability to move a ball into space, those guys do really well. That’s opened our game up and it’s gotten the best out of the team.”
When asked to offer some insight into the kind of a player former Scotland Exiles and Scottish u20 Hutchinson is within the Saints setup, Vesty spoke of the 23-year-old’s ability as a link player in the wider channels, firm in the belief that his skillset should be the aspiration of all professional rugby players.
“Rory’s a really laidback individual whose strength lies in the ability to see the space, and he has the skills to move the ball there as well. I’d just describe him as a footballer more than anything. I don’t think I could heap more praise on him than saying that.
“I think all players should aspire to be able to do what he can do, and what Furbs can do and those guys who can move the ball and see where the space is. Because that’s what rugby is, we don’t want it to be a game of running into people, we want it to be a game of moving the ball into space; or certainly, we do anyway.”
When the suggestion that was put to him that is sounds as though Boyd was bringing Super Rugby with him to the Premiership, Vesty admitted that Northampton’s current game plan did make the joking suggestion somewhat apt.
“Well I think the Kiwis have always placed that type of rugby, a real heads up sort of rugby, so in that respect it probably is, yeah.”
With Saints’ exciting and youthful backline and a number of promising forwards, Lewis Ludlam and Alex Moon to name just two, in possession of both the ability to survive the physicality of the Premiership and play their own roles in Body’s Super Rugby-inspired vision, Northampton are entertaining both their loyal fans and neutrals alike; and crucially, future proofing their squad.