Radford's defensive revolution is taking shape at Saints

​What have Sale Sharks and Saracens got in common?
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​Well, both were Gallagher Premiership finalists last season, and both have been nilled in a half at home by Saints during this league campaign.

The black, green and gold held the Sharks scoreless in the second 40 minutes of the season opener and, last weekend, they did the same to Saracens during the first 40 minutes at StoneX Stadium.

Saints may not have got their rewards for that big defensive spell at Sale, eventually losing 20-15 as they could only score five points after the break, but they did get joy at Saracens last Saturday.

Saints stopped Saracens in their tracks last Saturday (photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)Saints stopped Saracens in their tracks last Saturday (photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
Saints stopped Saracens in their tracks last Saturday (photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

A stoic showing resulted in a 18-12 success at the home of the reigning champions.

It was a statement success for a Saints side who have defended so much better on a more consistent basis so far this season.

And much of the credit will clearly fall at the feet of new defence coach Lee Radford, who arrived during the summer to take the place of Ian Vass.

But there is no doubt that the players must also be given plenty of praise for how they’ve bulked up and, as former Saints and England flanker Tom Wood used to say, ‘barred up’ against big opposition sides.

Saints did produce some strong showings in defence last season, with a home win against Exeter Chiefs and a derby-day success at Leicester Tigers the stand-out displays.

But they were erratic overall, with only bottom side Newcastle Falcons, who Saints put 66 points past at Kingston Park back in April, shipping more points. The Falcons conceded 616 while leaky Saints let in 611.

That was a whopping total, way more than table-toppers Saracens (513), second-placed Sale (423) and third-placed Leicester Tigers (490).

So something had to change.

And change it did with the arrival of rugby league man Radford.

Having hung up his boots permanently in 2011, Radford quickly ascended from an assistant coach role at Hull FC to head coach in 2013, winning back-to-back Challenge Cup titles in 2016 and 2017.

He scooped the Super League’s head coach of the year award in 2016.

After leaving Hull FC, Radford took over as Castleford Tigers’ head coach from the start of 2022 until March of this year.

He was also appointed defence coach by Samoa for the Rugby League World Cup which was held in England in 2022, helping the side all the way to the final where they were eventually beaten by Australia.

And ahead of this season, Radford made his way to Saints, tasked with helping bring the defence up to the level of an attack that has drawn so many plaudits over recent years.

The early signs, it has to be said, were good, starting with that season opener at Sale.

And when you look at the statistics, there are reasons to be cheerful.

In a total of 20 league games last season (22 if you include the play-off semi-final and the deleted win at Wasps), Saints only conceded fewer than 20 points on four occasions.

So far, in eight league games this season, Saints have conceded fewer than 20 points on four occasions.

And last Saturday, conceding just 12 points against an injury-hit but still extremely formidable Saracens side, Saints delivered the kind of defensive performance that gave supporters real hope that this black, green and gold bunch can become a complete team.

“The performance all round was really controlled and defensively we were physically really at it,” Radford said. “You have to be if you want to go there and get a result.

"I'm really pleased with the urgency we showed.

"Sarries can strike from anywhere on the field so we had to be on red alert throughout the game, particularly from any break in play.

"Our reactions and our awareness were through the roof.

"We spoke about last season’s semi-final when the lads came here and felt they didn’t fire a shot. They almost came here with their gloves by their sides and that was disappointing for them.

"So to come here and get off to a good start was really important, and we did that really well.”

Courtney Lawes claimed man of the match for another masterful forward display, but Fraser Dingwall's performance was worthy of similar praise.

One of Saints’ defensive leaders, the centre stood up to Saracens and was able to shine in attack also, laying on a try for Ollie Sleightholme with a lovely crossfield kick.

“He’s very good,” Radford said. “He’s very good at articulating his point, he gets his point across very well and his communication levels are through the roof on the field.

"In pre-game, the build-up, the little add-ons he brings to the team – it’s like having another coach on the field and the more of them we can have, the better."

Saints have now won their past two matches, beating Harlequins and Saracens since they suffered a disappointing derby-day defeat at Leicester Tigers.

And Radford said: “The manner of that defeat at Leicester, it was almost a slow death defeat, and those are the worst ones to take.

"The energy levels and urgency levels we had at Saracens weren’t there in that game at Leicester.

"There was some intent but our energy levels and urgency levels weren't where they needed to be.

"There’s been a conscious effort to get better at that as the weeks have gone on.”

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