International players provide summer cheer for Saints supporters

Saints star Dylan Hartley has been captaining England in Argentina (picture: Kirsty Edmonds)
Saints star Dylan Hartley has been captaining England in Argentina (picture: Kirsty Edmonds)
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It may still only be mid-June, but the sights of Saints supporters will already be sharpening on next season.

Last week, the Champions Cup draw was made in Switzerland, placing Jim Mallinder’s men alongside Clermont Auvergne, Saracens and Ospreys in Pool 2.

And earlier this week, there were more fixtures for fans to cast their eyes over, with the home pre-season schedule released.

Saints will square up to Newport-Gwent Dragons, Nottingham and Ulster at Franklin’s Gardens in August, before the new Premiership campaign begins.

Thoughts about how the season will shape up will already be flying around the Northampton faithful.

And there have been a few reasons for optimism that have emerged during the past week or so.

Firstly, the performances of Courtney Lawes on the Lions tour continue to draw attention.

Yes, he was forced off early on in the defeat to the Highlanders on Tuesday, but prior to that, he was showing his star quality once again.

Lawes was one of the stand-out players against the Blues last week and his season for club, country and Lions has displayed that he can now be considered world class.

Over in Argentina, another man who will be wearing the green, black and gold next season showed what he is all about.

Piers Francis whetted the appetite of his future club’s fans with a sparkling cameo in England’s first-Test success against Los Pumas in San Juan.

Francis came off the bench during the second half and quickly proceeded to claim two assists, teeing up George Ford before seeing Denny Solomona use his pass to score the winning try.

It was a thrilling encounter, which England won 38-34, but the result wasn’t the stand-out feature of the game for Saints fans.

No, it was the creative ability of Francis, who has been brought to Northampton to challenge Stephen Myler for the No.10 shirt next season.

The Blues player, who was born in Gravesend, has honed his talents in Super Rugby and looks the real deal.

Of course, playing week in, week out in the Premiership will be the acid test, but the signs are certainly good.

Dylan Hartley also displayed his leadership qualities in that England win as the hooker once again played the full 80 minutes.

And Harry Mallinder, despite not getting any game time last weekend, has also been impressing on tour, with his desire to learn catching the eye of England attack coach Glen Ella, who described Saints’ young player of the year as ‘a sponge’, soaking up all the advice he is given.

Mallinder turned 21 earlier this week and it is clear his future is very bright indeed.

And talking of bright futures, how about Saints scrum-half Alex Mitchell?

He scored a try in England’s dramatic World Rugby Under 20s Championship semi-final success against South Africa.

Mitchell is the only Saints player in that squad, but he is certainly representing extremely well.

The 20-year-old will now hope to put the icing on the cake in Sunday’s final against New Zealand.

England’s senior team will be back in action on Saturday, with Francis and Hartley both starting as the Red Rose look to round off their Test series by making it 2-0 in Santa Fe.

And you wouldn’t bet against the Saints players in the squad making a positive impression once again as they look to finish the season on a high and provide yet more hope for the next campaign.