- Northampton Saints skipper eager to exorcise England disappointment
- “There are exciting times ahead, but it means nothing if we don’t win games”
Lee Dickson is one of the most effervescent characters in rugby. And while he is engaging and generous in conversation, sitting still seems extremely unnatural to him.
Reflecting the energy he brings to his day job, the dynamic scrum half compensates for a sedentary position by speaking at breakneck speed. The 30 year-old is always animated, but there appears to be an extra dimension to his enthusiasm today – which makes perfect sense.
Dickson was released from Stuart Lancaster’s Rugby World Cup squad before England’s first warm-up Test against France in August. Two months later, four days prior to the start of the tournament, he was named to succeed Dylan Hartley club captain of Northampton Saints for the upcoming domestic campaign.
Despite flogging himself over a brutal fitness schedule only to miss out on selection, Dickson now has blank canvas to decorate. As Northampton prepare to face Dean Ryan’s newly-promoted Worcester Warriors in the Aviva Premiership opener on Friday night at Sixways, he is physically and mentally primed for the role.
“I feel cracking,” says Dickson, grinning. “Jim [Mallinder, Saints Director of Rugby] was very good.
“After Denver, he gave me a couple of weeks off for some family time before coming back to the club, so I feel very fresh actually – probably the freshest I’ve been in terms of legs and body. I’m now very excited about a very big season with Saints and with England.
“As a captain, I’ll be myself. I’m quite a chirpy lad on and off the pitch. Even when Dylan was captain I was in and around it all the time.
“I want to enjoy everything – being captain, being out on the pitch – because you never know when it could be over.”
As the new skipper at Franklin’s Gardens acknowledges, a core of senior players forms a rock-solid “leadership group” that can act as a sounding board and support network. During the season, Dickson will continue to rotate with excellent Samoan Kahn Fotuali. Hartley, Tom Wood or Calum Clark could easily step into the top job.
Mallinder and Dorian West have recruited cannily too. In Kieran Brookes and Paul Hill – a stand-out of last season for England Under 20 that Dickson calls “an aggressive soul with an old-school mentality” – Saints now boast two monumental prospects at tighthead. Jamie Gibson, an intelligent and industrious back-rower, encompasses a fantastic heist from Leicester Tigers too.
With Wood, Brookes and Courtney Lawes back earlier than expected following England’s premature World Cup exit, Northampton are set for another early-season charge. And though representing such a proud, historic club provides incentive in itself, a few Saints will be especially spurred.
Alongside Dickson, Clark, Alex Corbisiero and Luther Burrell saw their dreams of a home tournament shattered due to marginal calls. Knee ligament damage sustained back in January meant Ben Foden could not mount a challenge. Another injury stunted Stephen Myler. Of course, suspension sidelined Hartley. It all adds up to a great deal of spiky drive.
“I was devastated,” admits Dickson candidly. “I felt that I should have been in but that’s rugby. That’s the way it is. You’ve got to get on with life.
“When I got back I was straight in the gym and into training. I wanted to prove people wrong, because that’s all you can do. When you suffer disappointment, you want to prove people wrong. There are five or six of us that want to do that, but we have to do it in the right way – for Northampton.
“Everyone has disappointments in rugby. It’s about reacting to them. The beauty of our club, how Jim is and how Westy is, is that you are welcomed back. There are smiles. It’s not doom and gloom. It’s a case of ‘you’re back with your friends and your family now. Let’s prove people wrong, let’s go ahead with it.’ You come back and there is no time to sulk. That’s what we’re looking to do now.
“Luther’s scored three tries in two games in pre-season, Dylan is very motivated, Ben Foden has had a year out and wants to come back stronger. I’m very motivated. Steve Myler’s very motivated.
“The team’s motivated too – we want to go one better than last year. There are a number of factors, but we have to do things the right way, with Northampton Saints first and foremost and worry about England later.”
Northampton’s 2014/5 was a rather odd one. A domineering beginning – they lost just five matches in the regular Premiership fixture schedule, reaching the knockout stages of both the LV= Cup and Europe – gave way to an empty end. Saints were humbled 37-5 by Clermont in the Champions Cup quarter-final before the most stinging end to their league title defence, a semi-final defeat to Saracens at home.
Dickson is an uncompromising stickler for standards at the best of times. On the eve of a season that will test resilience, he is fiercely refocussed. The pace of his dialogue, indicating a fixed purpose, is unrelenting.
“People say that we had a good season last year. Deep down, we know we didn’t. We want to be in the big games.
“Finishing top of the league means nothing in the Premiership. We fell short last year and we don’t want to do that again. Leading into that April-May period, we need to be playing some exciting rugby.
“The Premiership is a hard place, home and away. Saracens did a good job on us [in the semi-final] and the better team won on the day. I’ll remember that feeling we had in the dressing room at the end of that game and use it as motivation this year.
“There are exciting times ahead, but it means nothing if you don’t win games.”