Craig enjoying latest step on his Saints coaching journey

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James Craig admits he had some trepidation when it came to coaching Courtney Lawes.

Not only because he used to be his team-mate but because Lawes is already at such a high level that it is going to take something special to get him to be even better.

But when Craig actually stepped up to mentoring the first team rather than the Academy, any of his initial anxiety was allayed.

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"Coaching Courtney's pretty easy!" said Craig, who retired from playing in 2019 having initially arrived at Saints from Leeds Carnegie back in 2011.

James CraigJames Craig
James Craig

"He's obviously a very good player and he's very receptive to feedback - he wants to be coached.

"It's something I wasn't sure about going into it because you've got a player who's at the top of his game, one of the best in the world in his position, and does he want my opinion?

"You actually tend to find the best players really crave feedback because they're always looking for that little edge in how they're going to develop.

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"Working with those players in the second row and the back row, we've got a really talented position group there and there's a lot of competition for places which makes it difficult to select a side.

"But from a coaching point of view, it's great to work with those lads every day."

And some of the men Craig is now able to work with in a first-team environment are players he saw during his time as part of the Academy setup.

"It's brilliant to see the guys not just play for Saints, but actually play very well for Saints and go on and look to international level as well," Craig said.

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"It was something I spoke to Hoppers (Mark Hopley) about in terms of the fact we're producing a lot of players but how many can we get to go on to be top Premiership players and internationals as well.

"It's brilliant the young guys are starting to do that."

Craig has seen it all during his time at Saints.

He's been part of ups, downs and everything in between.

"This is my 12th season here in Northampton and it's very different to when I first came, but I'm enjoying the new challenge," said Craig, transitioned from the club’s Academy programme into a new first-team coaching position from the start of this season.

"In the 12 years, I've seen the club go through probably its best period and then go through a downturn on the field.

"Hopefully we're now on the way back up with everything Boydy (Chris Boyd) has started and with what Dows (Phil Dowson) is going to take forward into the coming seasons."

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Craig used to play alongside Dowson, now he is part of his coaching staff.

"Everyone will say Dows has got everything he was good at as a player in terms of his leadership, his ability to speak in front of a group and his ability to judge the emotional place of that group," Craig said.

"His skillset lends itself to being a good DOR and he's also very astute, smart and has a long-term plan of where the club's going to go.

"He sets that vision out for the group."

Craig has done the hard yards in his own coaching journey, having always known he wanted to stay in sport when he retired.

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"I wanted to work in sport so I started doing a Masters in strength and conditioning but I quickly realised there were a lot more qualified and intelligent people who had a bit of a headstart on me," he said, smiling.

"I really enjoyed helping people get better and working in an elite environment.

"I knew I had a bit more of a headstart in rugby than in S&C so I started to put some time into coaching local clubs and in the Academy while I was still playing.

"I've probably been coaching for 10 years, obviously the first six when I was still playing and in the past four years doing various bits and pieces in the Academy.

"I've enjoyed it.

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"I initially coached the senior side at Bugbrooke and it was really nice to have my own thing to head up.

"I helped out the Under-16s, the Under-18s and the DPP, and I took more of a role towards the back end of my career.

"I went out and did a few individual bits with guys like Manny (Iyogun) and Kayde (Sylvester) so it's nice seeing those guys come through.

"The first job I got was as DPP manager, which is not actually a coaching role, but it's about putting a curriculum in place, managing a programme and trying to work through other people.

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"It was definitely a learning experience and one that was valuable to me.

"I worked through the Under-16s and Under-18s with Will Parkin and Hoppers who are doing a great job.

"Last season, I was looking after the Senior Academy and did some coaching at Bedford, which was good.

"Now, with the first team here, I primarily look after the lineout attack and defence, I look after the second rowers and back rowers to make sure they've got individual development plans.

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"I basically assist anything from a forwards point of view that is relevant from an attack and defence points of view.

"It's mainly the lineout and the maul stuff but everyone's role sort of blends into each other to a certain extent."

Craig has worked his way up the coaching ranks in impressive fashion at Saints.

So how far can he go?

"Let's try to get through this season and then see where we are," said the 33-year-old.

"Most professional coaches are ambitious and I'm as ambitious as a coach as I was as a player."