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'I was very close to going out to the real world, then Chris came'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

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Lewis Ludlam will never forget the inspiration that soon-to-depart Northampton boss Chris Boyd wielded when the pair first talked in August 2018. On the surface, it’s hard to imagine how the then 60-year-old Kiwi could somehow have struck an upbeat chord with a disillusioned 22-year-old who eight months earlier had given his mum a ring to say that he was quitting, that rugby wasn’t the career for him.

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Newly arrived from Wellington on the other side of the world, the canny Boyd took a punt, told Ludlam he was worth giving a shot to and the rest, as they always say, is history.

Thirteen months later, following a transformative Gallagher Premiership campaign with the Saints, the back-rower was on the England plane out of Heathrow, part of the squad of 31 chosen by Eddie Jones to take on the world in Japan.

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“My first conversion with Chris was about a week after him coming,” explained Ludlam to RugbyPass on Thursday afternoon after Northampton training had finished ahead of Saturday’s Premiership semi-final hop, skip and jump up the M6 to take on title favourites Leicester.

“I’d been at the club for five years, earnt about eight caps and something wasn’t really clicking with me. I remember calling my mum around December (2017) and sort of saying I didn’t really want to do the rugby thing anymore. I was very close to going out to the real world but I thought I’d give it another year and then Chris came.

“The first thing he said to me was, ‘Listen, things ain’t working out for you. I have heard things but what I am going to give you is an opportunity and it’s up to you if you want to take it or not’. To be told that as a young player that a lot of people had written off, I just thought brilliant, I’m going to make this count and show that he should have given me the opportunity and show that I’m thankful that he did. For him putting that faith in me and showing he was going to give me a chance was a breath of fresh air really.”

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Not just for Ludlam but for an entire club that seemed to have lost its sense of ambition in the dying embers of the originally hugely successful Jim Mallinder era. Boyd restored their mojo. “The way he has given us freedom, that is how he will be remembered,” enthused the now 26-year-old Ludlam, who has revelled in seeing Northampton re-energised these past four seasons courtesy of two Premiership semi-final appearances, another fifth-place finish and a regular diet of Heineken Cup qualification.

“Not just on the pitch, he has given lads freedom to be themselves off the pitch. It’s a no-judgement zone, you are free to be who you want to be and that is a really good space for growth. It shows in the number of players he has brought through. He has given opportunity and it is just about now repaying him for that by going out and getting some silverware for him before he jets off back to New Zealand.”

The bookies and multiple Premiership fans think that sounds far-fetched as Saints were swatted aside twice this season by Leicester. Ludlam, though, didn’t play in either of those games and having been on the winning side in a dozen of his 17 league appearances over the campaign, he will walk into Mattioli Woods Welford Road with a confident strut that this really is a mission possible for Northampton.

“I just think that is where this squad is at,” he said when asked what is giving him reasons for optimism. “I don’t think there is any point stepping on the field if you don’t back yourself and I think when we are on our money we can run anyone for a good game.

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“You can look at those two fixtures and it’s clear to everyone outside this environment that we do look like clear underdogs but that is a really nice position to come from. It means the pressure is off for us, we can express ourselves and can go there with a little less expectation I suppose.”

It was Tuesday, during an interview when attending the PRL end-of-season awards, that Boyd claimed: “The average English rugby player is too scared to make mistakes.” It sounded damning but the generalisation was no slight on the body of work that has unfolded at cinch Stadium Franklin’s Gardens with the New Zealander at the helm.

Did Ludlam appreciate what his Northampton boss was suggesting? “Absolutely, absolutely. That’s the nature of high-pressure sport. Wins and losses can come down to single moments and with the presence of social media at the moment, you make one wrong decision and you can get slated for it while you are at home.

“There is definitely external pressure that comes with being a rugby player, it comes with making decisions, but we are very fortunate here under Chris Boyd, Sam Vesty and Phil Dowson that we are allowed to make those mistakes and we are allowed to learn from them.

“We are allowed to express ourselves and the product of that probably just shows in how many young players we have had come through in the likes of Tommy Freeman and many more. They have been allowed to make mistakes, to have a voice during the week so it can only be a good thing for development.”

It’s certainly been good for Ludlam. His recent Guinness Six Nations with England was cut short by a rib cartilage injury sustained in the opening game away to Scotland but the fact that he had been handed a first Test start in two years illustrated his determination to fight for recognition.

Northampton boss Boyd had bemoaned last September that other than the Test must-pick Courtney Lawes, he had too many promising talents on the England fringes who were getting squad call-ups but not kicking on into selections, a trend he insisted needed to be broken. It has with Ludlam, George Furbank and Alex Mitchell capped since then while the much-hyped Freeman and Fraser Dingwall were also in last month’s training squad, a London gathering that Ludlam was forced to miss through with a thumb injury sustained on Northampton duty.

“The pleasing thing is they are getting a look-in. They are getting appearances. George featured a little bit in the Six Nations as well but every single one of them is hungry for more, they want to be on summer tours, they want to be involved in autumn internationals and Six Nations, so boys want to be there and they are striving to be there.

“Probably two or three years ago we had a little bit of a sniff and got roped into thinking that was the be-all and end-all and it probably took our focus away from process and the things that got us there into that position. These lads have stayed on task this season and what they have done at the club has been a product of them now having selections for England. That has been a pleasing thing.

“Every time you put on the England shirt is a special experience. It goes back to those childhood memories, watching those fixtures in the Six Nations. To be involved in another one was a really special experience. I would have liked to have been involved a little bit more but you go back to the drawing board, back to the process and you remember what has got you in that position. You go out working hard and hopefully put yourself in a position to earn some more caps.”

Is Ludlam’s form back to where it was when Jones came calling for Murrayfield in February? “It’s hard to say. I’m not happy with where I’m at, I feel like I have got more in me, I feel like there are things I want to improve on and there are the things you want to look at. In this sport, you don’t really get much chance to reflect back on where you have been. It’s very much what can be better.

“I’m working hard to improve areas of my game which I know need improvement. If that is a focus for me the progression will always be up. The moment you start looking back and trying to think what I could have done and where I was before, that is where you get caught up so the focus is very much improving week to week.”

That emphasis is reflected in his Saints play. Ludlam has scored four Premiership tries in 17 appearances this term, a strike rate that contrasts with his prior record of six tries in 53 league matches across his five previous seasons playing in the top flight. “The way Saints like to play is back rows on the edge and the ball is getting there a lot more often,” he explained.

“The difference this season is we have got a lot of good ball carriers to get us yards through the middle of the pitch and it means that the space out wide where the back-rowers are usually standing opens up a little bit more. That is probably a reflection on the squad and the way we are playing a little bit more. It just means the space is opening up there rather than through the middle or through first and second phase through the backs.”

Winning the title with Northampton would mean the world to Ludlam. “I started playing rugby when I was nine years old and my first final was down at Twickenham when I was 11 or 12, so seeing that the first time I went I was, ‘This is where I want to be, this is what I want’. You dream of these occasions so to have the opportunity to be competing for a final and be in a semi-final is an unbelievable experience.

“We are so fortunate at Northampton where a lot of us have played together since we were 15, 16. I was playing with Rory (Hutchinson) at U17s, James Fish U18s, even the likes of Alex Mitchell and George Furbank U19s and U20s so we have known each other for a very long time which I think really helps.

“It’s a really close group which means there are lots of characters and there are lots of really strong bonds in that group which is why it is easy to be honest with each other week to week. We have got a lot of strong characters. Paul Hill is a bit of a joker around the place as well. Yeah, it is a really good group of boys. That has probably been our strength this season,” he continued before sharing his views on the Northampton-Leicester rivalry.

“It’s a very long history of a deeply rich rivalry. I remember being in U16s and U17s at Saints and the significance of the fixture was driven home to us. There has not been much love lost between the sides over the years and it being two clubs that are so close together in proximity, close in terms of competition around that top of the table now it just makes it that more exciting.

“Oh God, there are a few memories. I remember being 17 years old and watching Tom Wood go over in the corner here, the bottom left corner (at Franklin’s). It’s quite fitting that this season he is leaving and now we have got the opportunity to play in this fixture, a semi-final, and create our own story, create our own history this weekend. It’s something I’m really excited about.”

History is a thing that Ludlam, the first mixed-race Northampton club captain whose mother’s family come from Guyana and father’s from Palestine and Lebanon, has become increasingly clued into regarding Northampton. He even took part in a Black History Month investigation last October into Frank Anderson, the first black or mixed-race player to play for the Saints. The World War 1 veteran debuted in 1900, but his pioneering story remained untold for more than 120 years.

“Graham (McKechnie, BBC Radio Northampton’s sports editor) did a fantastic job uncovering all the information. A core part of the club’s history had been completely forgotten until Graham said, ‘Let’s go and figure it out’. I’m sure there are hundreds of characters like Frank that need to be remembered at Northampton Saints but have been forgotten in history so to have the opportunity to uncover that history and tell his story was an honour.”

It won’t be until December that recent Northampton centurion Ludlam turns 27, an age that suggests his career still has plenty of rugby left. What he might do afterwards, though, is uncertain. “That’s a very good question, I’d like to figure out what I want to do when rugby is over. I love travelling, love art and would love to be involved in something creative but unfortunately, there are not that many creative jobs out there.

“I want to travel the world, want to see things, have those experiences. I’m quite fortunate I’m interested in a lot of different things. There are lads who aren’t interested in a lot of things and don’t know what they want to do. The problem for me is trying to pick a few things that I really love, a bit of the music stuff, some art stuff and then I love the game of rugby as well and want to be involved in that still. It’s a difficult challenge to sort of figure out.”

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