Haywood has stepped out of the shadows at Saints

Mike Haywood (right) started the Premiership final in 2014, with Dylan Hartley coming off the bench
Mike Haywood (right) started the Premiership final in 2014, with Dylan Hartley coming off the bench

For many years, Mike Haywood was seen by many as the able deputy.

He was the man for the job when Dylan Hartley wasn't around the occupy the No.2 shirt at Saints.

But the truth is, he has always been much more than that.

And had former England captain Hartley not made so many headlines outside of Franklin's Gardens, Haywood may have got more attention.

It was he, after all, who started in some of the biggest wins for the club, notably the Challenge Cup and Premiership final successes in 2014.

Haywood has been a picture of consistency, racking up his 210th appearance for Saints last Sunday.

And he now has the chance to step out of the shadows following Hartley's retirement earlier this season.

It is not that Haywood is not appreciated at Saints, it is perhaps that he isn't appreciated by a wider audience.

But now he has the chance to truly make his mark as Saints' out-and-out first-choice hooker, even if there is still strong competition from the likes of James Fish and Reece Marshall.

"There's still a lot of competition for the starting spot," said Haywood, who this week signed a new three-year contract at Saints.

"I've got to keep putting my hand up every week, but this club has done a lot for me and it means a lot.

"This is a great place to play and I love staying at one club.

"I'm a one-club man and even growing up as a kid I played for my local club (Colchester RFC) and I didn't play for anyone else.

"I played with one local village cricket team and didn't move anywhere else.

"It would be a weird feeling for me to ever move away from Northampton."

It is clear what Northampton means to Haywood and what Haywood means to Northampton.

During the past decade the club and player have been so good for one another.

And with 2020 having now arrived, Haywood, who made his Saints debut during the 2011/12 season, looked back on the past 10 years in the black, green and gold.

"The standout thing for me was winning the Prem," Haywood said.

"When you're in the moment, you don't understand what you've done.

"Looking back at it, I was lucky to be part of such a great team around the start of the decade and we got through to finals and semi-finals.

"You sort of underestimate how much work needs to go into it.

"Now, I can see it and the Prem final was the biggest achievement over that decade."

At the age of 28, there is still plenty of rugby life in Haywood yet.

And he is delighted to be part of a Saints squad that is now on the up again after some tough times following the table-topping campaign of 2014/15.

"This is a club that should be winning silverware and we're going in the right direction with the team we've got, the coaching staff, the backroom staff," he said.

"Things are starting to come together and hopefully this year and in the next few years we can push on and start getting back to finals.

"Hopefully we can put our hand up for some silverware."

Southend-born Haywood suffered a serious injury at Gloucester in November 2018 and it ruled him out for the remainder of last season.

But he has been back at it during this campaign, racking up an abundance of minutes in recent weeks.

He was playing in his 10th game of the season when Saints took on Wasps last Sunday.

And Haywood said: "It's been different from sitting in the physio room watching the boys running round training out the window.

"It's been brilliant to be back involved and pushing the team, trying to cement that No.2 spot as my own."