Northampton’s Jamie Gibson: When you go back after leaving you will be a target
It is a small skip down the A5199 on the map but, rather than joining this summer, Jamie Gibson might as well have relocated to North Korea. In the east Midlands there is no bigger cultural leap than ceasing to be a Leicester Tiger and choosing to be a Saint. If Saturday’s derby is not quite Real Madrid versus Barcelona at Camp Nou, the 25-year-old Gibson can expect a less-than-ecstatic reception when he makes the short reverse trip to Welford Road.
Surprisingly few have contemplated turning out for both clubs, although things have loosened up slightly in this more mobile professional era. Ryan Lamb did move the other way but started only three league games for the Tigers before departing to Worcester. The injured Kieran Brookes also had a couple of unfulfilling seasons at Leicester but neither he nor Lamb have active experience of the Premiership’s most peppery fixture from both sides of the barbed wire. Before Gibson, the only player to do so was the former prop Darren Morris, who had a nine-minute cameo for Northampton six years ago. While the Saints have two distinguished former Tigers, Dorian West and Dusty Hare, among their back-room staff, Gibson is pretty much on his own.
Just imagine how the Oxford-educated forward felt, then, having started his new life at Franklin’s Gardens while still living virtually opposite his old director of rugby, Richard Cockerill. “He lived about 100 metres down the road but I didn’t see him during pre-season.”
He repeatedly stresses how much he learned at Leicester, where he made 54 appearances, but the flanker’s switch was not entirely about a change of scenery. As he said on BBC Radio Northampton in the autumn: “There were frustrations – the way we played rugby was a certain way. I didn’t feel it necessarily allowed me to grow to my full potential.”
No prizes for guessing the punchline. Northampton have been struggling to get out of first gear attack-wise while Leicester, prompted by their new coach, Aaron Mauger, are now pursuing a more outgoing style of rugby that would have suited Gibson down to the ground. Even more ominously, Northampton have not won on Tiger turf in any competition since February 2007. “Even some of the boys who have been here a long time have never beaten Leicester at Welford Road,” says Gibson. “Leicester will feel that over the last 10-15 games they’ve been on top more often than not. On the other side that’s something you want to go and put right.”
Does he expect a bruising welcome personally? “If you move away from any club when you go back there will be a target on your head in some way.”
Having seized his chance to secure a regular place in the absence of Tom Wood and Calum Clark, the 6ft 5in tall Gibson at least knows what is coming. He also suspects are more closely related than they care to admit. “The clubs are pretty similar in a way. They’re both rugby towns, they’re both fan-owned, they’ve both got long histories and good stadiums full of knowledgeable supporters. If you looked at them as an alien from the outside you wouldn’t see many differences, but on the playing side there is obviously a rivalry.
“You don’t really think about it until you play but it’s a different game. No matter how tough the Premiership and European Cup is, the east Midlands derby is massive. You can feel it before, during and afterwards. You hear fans screaming at each other and then giving each other a pint afterwards. It is ramped up and it’s great to play in.”
As it turns out the rival dressing rooms largely operate along similar lines – “The atmosphere isn’t massively different, you’re just playing with different people” – but this latest encounter has a significance beyond the merely tribal. Even the highly educated Gibson, who read Classics at Oxford, is struggling to work out why Northampton, fifth in the table one place below Leicester, have yet to reach their full potential. “I don’t think there’s any specific reason. It’s just about putting our attacking game together for 80 minutes. Defensively and set-piece-wise we’ve been very solid and those things probably win you games. But the best teams are consistently good, not just for moments at a time.”
The loss of Samu Manoa to Toulon has clearly been a factor, the weather another. With a series of season-shaping games looming, though, the Saints need to start marching to a more upbeat rhythm. “You do like being able to play some rugby, rather than it being just a battle of physicality and heart,” says Gibson, reflecting on . Firmer pitches would clearly suit his lineout strengths and mobility but, having established himself among the season’s most consistent forwards, he is trying to become a bigger carrying threat. “I feel I’m more physical than I have been and I am getting involved more. Both sides of the game appeal to me. Last week’s was a pretty miserable match but it was one of those days when you have to front up. Sometimes those are the games you love.”
Another good performance in front of the new head coach, Eddie Jones, could yet trigger the England squad recognition he craves. “It’s a big ambition; I just want to keep improving and see where I can get to.” Three non-cap appearances for England against the Barbarians and a tour of South Africa in 2012 have made him hungrier to prove that brain is as valuable as brawn in certain situations. “It’s nothing to do with having a degree or what you studied at school. The best players know where to be at the right time.”
Which invites one final question of rugby’s only classical scholar: are they cleverer in Leicester or Northampton? Gibson, understandably, dives headlong for the fence, insisting he has had conversations about ancient civilisations at both clubs. “A lot of people are more interested than you expect. Christian Day is pretty learned, I suppose. Victor Matfield’s been playing so long he was probably around in the classical era anyway.”
A neat answer to a thorny question is precisely what Northampton seek on Saturday.