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The end of this Northampton Saints era shows the problems facing English rugby

If you could take your eyes off a bare-chested Courtney Lawes and his giant-sized ski goggles there was a tell-tale look from Phil Dowson, the Northampton director of rugby sitting next to him.

Saints had just taken their first Premiership title in 10 years, and the second in their history, with a 25-21 win over Bath in a tortuous, torturous final at Twickenham, and Lawes was describing his feelings at the thrill of victory mingled with the ironic pain of knowing he is leaving for Brive after 17 years at his only senior club.

“I’d have liked another year,” Lawes said, with reference to the finances of his staying not having added up for Northampton. And this drew a teeth-clenched grimace from Dowson, who would have loved that outcome too, but the money in the French league is too good for Lawes, a 35-year-old father of four, to refuse.

The club captain Lewis Ludlam is departing too, to Toulon, following in the bootprints of Dave Ribbans and Dan Biggar last year, and when the new signings announced by Northampton so far are led by Josh Kemeny, a 25-year-old flanker who has made two brief appearances for Australia, they are not even close to like for like.

So, even amid the joy of fulfilment for Northampton’s praiseworthy programme of rebuilding, begun by the chief executive Mark Darbon and the New Zealander director of rugby Chris Boyd, and carried on by Dowson when Boyd returned home in 2022, you cannot escape the challenges the Premiership and the sport in England face in ensuring their survival.

Saturday’s crowd of 81,699 was back up from 61,875 for the less well supported Saracens and Sale last year, and the people of Northampton will flood the streets for Sunday’s bus parade, with endless chants of “Shoe Army” endorsing the town’s twin heritage of cobbling and rugby. Boyd had flown in on Thursday to witness it in person.

At the same time rumour is rife of at least one other Premiership club on the brink of joining London Irish, Wasps and Worcester – and several more in previous years – in bankruptcy.

The Premiership is planning a rebrand – “Prem10” is one of the possible names heard by i – and Lawes in February called for the powers that be to “lean into” rugby’s speed, passing skills, line breaks, turnovers, respect, camaraderie and “raw physicality”.

All were showcased in the three matches of the Premiership’s play-offs, but so were some of the sport’s more arcane aspects: the battle in the scrum and the drop goal pulled out in the first half of the final by Northampton’s hugely promising fly-half Fin Smith.

The red card to Bath’s prop Beno Obano for a first-half tackle that connected with the chin of Northampton’s Juarno Augustus showed the brutality of deciding an entire season in 80 minutes, and the punitive laws on head contact.

Maybe for a marginal misjudgement such as Obano’s the trial of a 20-minute sending-off is the way to go, as he had bent his waist and knees, and the only sure way to stay safe at that stage was to not make the tackle at all. Lawes would not like that.

The wider aim is to achieve a cut-through beyond the existing audience. And perversely it can be argued the English game has lost hard-earned ground under its own nose.

When the national team was winning regular Grand Slams in the 1990s, and added the World Cup in 2003, it felt as if rugby had nailed that position in the wider consciousness.

As we reminded ourselves in these pages last week, the BBC ran a documentary series on Bath – The Rugby Club – in 1996.

Folk were aware of Bath and Leicester, in particular, thanks to their inter-club rivalry as they contested all the major trophies, and hard-edged characters in Martin Johnson, Neil Back, Andy Robinson and the rest.

Somewhere along the line, though, free-to-air TV lost interest, or perhaps it is more accurate to say the market was cornered by paywall sports channels who had a different model of making the product available.

This Friday, a £264m eight-year agreement between the RFU and the Premiership is due for ratification by the RFU Council.

It has a strapline of “One England”, while more formally known as the Professional Game Partnership, and it may be challenged by the Championship and others within the English pyramid. The rugby politics of envy, or of necessity to secure a broader base, depending on your point of view.

Smith will be one of around 10 Northampton players who will join up with England on Monday for the tour to Japan and New Zealand – a carrot used by the Premiership and the Rugby Football Union to keep young men in the country.

But i has heard of at least one other young Saint already contemplating the Eurostar gravy train.

A season that has included a World Cup, Six Nations, Champions Cup, Premiership, Challenge Cup, URC and Top 14 – and that’s just in Britain and France – is not done yet.

The more you think about, the more complicated and vexatious it all gets.

Another example was seen in the early summer sun of Twickenham on Saturday evening, as a group of Saints fans drank beer out of a boot.

A quirky ritual, not for everybody – so in keeping with rugby as a whole. Enjoy it, or fret about it, as you prefer. For Dowson and Lawes and the new champions Northampton, it was a bit of both.

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