Leadership is an intangible. You can’t measure it on a pitch with a GPS tracker. You can’t replay it in an editing suite. Yet, like any key element of rugby, you know when there is an absence of it. From a young age, Fraser Dingwall, the 21-year-old Northampton Saints midfielder, has been earmarked as a leader in thought and deed.
Since choosing the physical attractions of rugby over football at 13, where he was talented enough to be on the books of Cambridge United as a box-to-box midfielder, Dingwall has been thrust with the responsibility to lead his team-mates. On account of his Scottish father, Gordon, his promise was such that he captained Scotland at U16 and U18 level – and last year he captained the England U20s.
At Bedford school, he was head boy and captain of the debating society while cramming A-Levels in chemistry, maths and biology. If rugby didn’t work out his back-up plan was to read biomedical science at university. Reading between the lines, you surmise he is not one of life’s slackers.
Dingwall’s ability to say the right thing at the right time was recognised by Chris Boyd, the Saints coach who said the then 20-year-old stepped up to deliver a measured critique of their performance against Exeter at half-time last November before going on to score a fine try in a tub-thumping victory.
What is perhaps unusual in the position he plays. Outside centre is not usually a position marked out as captaincy territory. At inside centre, Will Carling and Owen Farrell are prime examples but step outside and the current thinking is that it’s too far from the heat of battle. Outliers in the professional era include Brian O’Driscoll, Jean de Villiers, Stirling Mortlock and Tana Umaga, who all captained their country, but that’s about it.
Asking the young man in question why coaches can’t stop attaching the metaphorical arm-band to his sinewy bicep, Dingwall is self-effacing but measured. “I guess I’m pretty calculated,” he told RugbyPass. “I speak calmly and try not to lose my head. I don’t think you get much constructive information out of those hot-headed moments so I try to stay clear and focused on what we are trying to achieve.”
Speaking from Kimbolton in Cambridgeshire, where he is bunkered up at his girlfriend’s family home, Dingwall says that when trying to pinpoint his innate influence, he feels variety has given him a precious wider perspective. “When I was 13 I wanted to be a fly-half but I slowly moved out to twelve to fit all the best players on the pitch at the same time. I played a season at full-back in my first season in the first XV and in my upper sixth, reverted to ten. It was only when I moved to Saints academy that I settled on 13.”
As well as the leadership qualities, one other dimension of Dingwall’s game that has always stood out was his defence, even as a callow youth. “I wasn’t ridiculously small but I was never a monster. I used to get some freakishly-sized boys coming down my channel but weirdly I used to quite like it. It’s always been my mentality to enjoy the physical side of the game.”
When asked to dissect his own game, you can see why Dingwall is vaunted for his rugby intellect that saw him called into the England squad for this year’s Six Nations. “I guess a lot of my game is based on understanding. Although I may not be the most genetically gifted, I’ve got a good enough understanding to excel defensively and try to contribute as much as I can attack-wise. One of the main things I focus on is how can I make the people around me look better, how I can balance the midfield and what jobs can I do to help out the team.”
A player’s player in the mould of Conrad Smith, one of rugby’s modern myths, spouted out in stadiums and pubs alike, is the fact the 13 channel is the toughest to defend, so how does a player who marshals it week-in, week-out see it? “My job in the 13 channel is to narrate the game and tell my team-mates what I’m seeing. I can see why people say it’s hard, especially off set-piece.
“If it’s a scrum, depending on your defensive system, I can be running a front and a back door play. I can be looking at the 13 opposite me, a winger out the back and also cover the No 15. So in effect, you can be looking at three attackers. If a move goes well it is very, very difficult to defend. In open play, at 13 you’re more exposed. My defensive role is linking the midfield with your back rows and wings and trying to take away space on the edge so you don’t get caught too narrow.”
As for midfield mentors coming through the ranks, Dingwall gives a special mention to two Saints, Rob Horne and Luther Burrell, who have both departed the club in recent years. “Rob was a very good leader. He spoke only when he had to but he kept it clear and concise and backed up his actions on the pitch. He set the example of how to lead and had a big effect on a lot of people in the relatively short time he had at the club. Luther took me under his wing a little bit. He allowed me to settle into the game and took care of a lot of the grunt work, which eased the pressure. We complimented each other and were defensively pretty strong.”
Out of contract at the end of 2021 and said to be coveted beyond the Northampton’s broad church, along with fellow centres Rory Hutchinson, Matt Proctor and Piers Francis, Dingwall has a new crew to bounce ideas off and work at unpicking Premiership defences.
— Northampton Saints ? (@SaintsRugby) April 28, 2020
“Piers is a real team man. He does a lot of unseen work and is the glue in terms of defence and attack. Rory is very skilful and a massive attacking threat. He can move the ball to the edge and beat players himself. He’s not as keen defensively so I top up that for him. Matt Proctor is the newest addition and a cool guy. Like most New Zealanders, he has had the rugby cheat codes since birth. He runs good support lines and defends superbly.”
After a decade under director of rugby Jim Mallinder, where Saints had trailed off from the highs of a 2014 Premiership Rugby win to flirt with relegation in 2017, the introduction of Chris Boyd in 2018 brought a fresh set of ideas. So far, Dingwall has been keen to act as a sponge to one of the game’s most respected coaches. “The baseline from Chris is work ethic. From there, he wants confidence to make good decisions and for that you need skill levels to be sky-high. You can see in our game that we can chuck it wide, punch it hard up the middle, and have the kicking game to dictate from our nine and ten.”
Day-to-day on the training paddock, their backs coach Sam Vesty plays Robin to Boyd’s Batman and likes to join in on training at times. His enthusiasm is infectious. “Sam’s still a big kid. I’ve been really impressed with him. He pua ts massive emphasis on skills. He puts an onus on practicing under more pressure in different ways to get the right outcome.
"He’s considered in his approach. He doesn’t talk a load of s***. He’ll sit quietly and take it all in, but people listen when he speaks."
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 19, 2020
“Take handling, you could just stand and chuck spin passes back and forth and say, ‘Wow, aren’t they great?’ But if you’re not running with someone closing you down, it’s not preparing you for the real thing. Sam wants to get us to the point where we will hit a sweet spot and have more time on the pitch.”
Vesty, for his part, rates Dingwall’s rugby brain, appreciation of space, footwork and aggression in the tackle. As for improvements to his game, Vesty believes there is room to grow. “When Fraser came through the England ranks, he was reputed as a really good defender, but his ball handling game has really come on in the last 18 months. He’s one of the best hole runners not only at the Saints but in the Premiership. He’s got growth in his game over when to kick or move the ball on but he is such a good guy to have in the squad because he works so hard.”
While there is a spine of experience at Saints with Tom Wood, Courtney Lawes and Alex Waller all long-time servants, what excites Dingwall is the youthful sheen to the side. “Pretty much all of us have come through the second team together. If you look at the A-League final two years ago, there is James Fish, Ehren Painter, Alex Moon, Lewis Ludlum, myself, Alex Mitchell at nine, James Grayson, Rory and Tom Collins. It’s a very enjoyable place to be. You would hope we can do well over the next five or six years.”
Elsewhere Dingwall is preparing to doff his cap to the departing Cobus Reinach who has made such an impression at Saints. “Cobus seems to get quicker every time you see him. After being involved with the Springbok squad at the World Cup, he has spoken to us about their philosophy in defence and the different view they had on it, which has been really helpful. Dan (Biggar) is also a very good guy. We thought he’d come in with this big reputation but he is such a good trainer and is as happy to have a coffee with the young boys as anyone else, which is to his credit.”
As for his England aspirations, with a tour to Japan cancelled denying him any chance to further his claims, Dingwall can afford to look back at a season in which he had his first senior call-up. For eagle-eyed Scots, though, he is not captured until he plays for Eddie Jones’ side. Of his involvement at this year’s Six Nations, he says he was just happy to be in the mix, looking to learn from the likes of Jonathan Joseph and Manu Tuilagi, who incidentally both turned 29 in the last few days.
There will be a feeling that the next generation can put pressure on the status quo heading for France 2023, not that Dingwall is ready for talking himself up. “I was there to be looked at more than anything. It showed me the level I needed to be at. The first week we went out to Browns in Portugal for the France prep and then we were back at Pennyhill Park for two weeks.
“It’s funny in England camp, you’re always waiting for WhatsApp messages or a tap on your shoulder to see if you’re sticking around. The work that goes into the week before a Test is a different level and the intensity of the training is unlike any environment I’ve been in. In some club sessions, you can maybe drift through, but with England, you’re super switched on all the time. It’s like your first day at work on repeat.”
Whatever transpires in the coming months, you suspect that this erudite young man will be the one doling out words of wisdom to future England aspirants in what is shaping up to be a promising career for club and country.
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