Former England wing hails Northampton’s ‘want to entertain’ and the Six Nations game that was ‘a long time coming’

Alex Spink
Northampton wing Ollie Sleightholme and Saints legend Jon Sleightholme.

Northampton wing Ollie Sleightholme and Saints legend Jon Sleightholme.

Before Ollie Sleightholme was even born, let alone rose to become top try scorer in the Premiership, his England rugby star dad had a dream.

“We have a duty to entertain,” said Jon, who won 12 caps as a dashing winger in the 1990s. “The desire to win is closely followed by the desire to win with style.

“We must look to win with style because if we enjoy what we are doing the fans will enjoy it as well.”

The words were noted down for posterity in the seventh and final edition of the Save and Prosper Rugby Union Who’s Who, an annual produced by your correspondent.

Northampton flying

Rugby was still trying to work out what it should look like as a professional sport, a couple of years on from its switch from amateurism. The Northampton flyer was in no doubt what path it should take.

This weekend the Investec Champions Cup quarter-finals take place with Premiership-leading Saints the best English bet to progress, given the way in which they dispatched Munster to reach the last-eight.

Not only are they topping the league by five points and unbeaten in Europe, they are leading the way in enticing fans back to the sport through exactly the fearless, have-a-go brand of rugby Sleightholme snr dreamt of all those years ago.

“Saints have brought in this want to entertain, this want to play,” he says. “[Head coach] Sam Vesty has got them playing what they see and making decisions out there on the field.

“Married together with the defensive steel they’ve got from Lee Radford this year it is a potent combination.”

On Saturday night he will take his seat at Franklin’s Gardens and cheer on winger Ollie, who celebrates his 24th birthday with a starting role in the biggest club game of his life.

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He will do so believing that the rise of Northampton has contributed probably more than anything else to the renaissance of the national team, a side transformed in the last two rounds of the Six Nations Championship, with victory over Ireland and the narrowest of defeats in France.

“There is an awful lot of pride around Northampton at the influence Saints players are having on England,” he says, name-checking George Furbank, Tommy Freeman, Alex Mitchell and Fin Smith.

“There’s no secret to the way Ireland have been so consistent on the international stage. It’s because there’s not a huge difference in the way Leinster and Ireland play and the majority of the Ireland team come from Leinster.

“If you can get that, if you can get players playing in the style and manner they are for their clubs week in week out and you can transfer that over to the international set-up, it’s going to reap rewards for the England side.”

As such, Sleightholme snr hopes all of English rugby will root for Phil Dowson’s team when they take on the Bulls, a side whose line-up is controversially depleted through selectorial choice.

Off his seat

“I have to tell you that as an ex-England player, but more importantly now as an England fan, England were not great to watch for a while,” he says. “It wasn’t great on the eye, it was difficult to get up off your seat and really cheer for them.

“Yet in the Ireland game I was literally off my seat, shouting, cheering. I’m not ashamed to tell you that. We had friends around and they were laughing at me.

“I told them, ‘this is great isn’t it’. I was loving the fact I was losing my inhibitions, getting up and cheering on England. I was genuinely inspired by what we saw against Ireland. Let’s be honest, it’s been a long time coming.”

Victory for Saints would give them a semi-final either against Leinster at Croke Park or holders La Rochelle, at Stadium MK Dons where they won two knockout games to reach the 2011 final.

“It will be tough against the Bulls, they are a hugely physical outfit and they will test them,” says Sleightholme. “But this Saints side has no fears at all, the way they play.”

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