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Matt Ferguson: 'A player said I was a disgrace, let the school down'

By Liam Heagney
Northampton assistant coach Matt Ferguson (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

It takes all sorts of people to help a rugby club win a Gallagher Premiership title. Just ask Matt Ferguson. The unsung assistant coach had just spent 40 minutes the other day with RugbyPass discussing the captivating resurgence of Northampton and his unorthodox route into professional coaching when he signed off by giving some obscure Franklin’s Gardens heroes his seal of approval to emphasise how precisely everyone really does play an invaluable role in generating success.


“That is a message I want to get out there,” he said. “You go to schools and ask the children, ‘Put your hand up if you want to be a professional rugby player’. Hundreds of kids do it, boys and girls. Well, the reality is that only a small portion can play but if you really like building a team…

“Two of the most key men in the Saints environment are our two handymen, Geezer (Guy Lacey) and Jamie (Earle). They are around the players every day doing the maintenance at Franklin’s Gardens. What a great job that is. Or we have a brilliant chef. I wouldn’t have changed my coaching path for one international cap. I love the game but the experiences I have had coaching, I wouldn’t change it.”

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We’ll have more later about Northampton and their compelling search for a first league title in a decade, but we have to start with the 44-year-old Ferguson’s rise through the ranks as it’s a riveting yarn that’s one in the eye for those who believe that today’s pro coaches should exclusively be ex-pro players.

His emergence is a legacy of the England 2003 Rugby World Cup win. After Martin Johnson triumphantly raised the Webb Ellis Cup aloft in Sydney, the RFU plowed investment into the sport to capture young hearts and minds. Ferguson was among their first recruits.

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“There was money put into the game and they started getting community coaches to go into schools. Back where I’m from, I was Shropshire’s first community rugby coach which was a part-funded post between RFU and the council, my first full-time coaching role.”

A lot of elbow grease went into being prepared for that apprenticeship. “I was a failed goalkeeper. Didn’t play any rugby in primary school, so I played goalkeeper, but it was often indoors with small-sized goals and I’m a big lad who filled a lot of the space. I went into year seven, big school, and was put into a fixture on a full-sized pitch in a full-sized goal.


“Early on, I picked the ball up twice in the box, gave away a free kick – I didn’t know that rule. Couldn’t touch the crossbar. Ended up conceding a fair few goals and I remember one of the other players saying I was a disgrace, I let the school down. I can remember that conversation in my head and I never went back to football.

“The following week I met one of my best mates, who was a hooker at a local rugby club, he suggested I join. And a PE teacher who I still have regular contact with now [Phil Poulton], who regularly comes to watch Saints play, how he instilled the values and the enthusiasm that I had there will live with me forever.”

Playing professionally was a bridge too far but Ferguson was sharp as a tack in laying the foundation that continues to serve him so very well six years into his role as the Northampton scrum and breakdown coach.

“I played a lot of National League rugby, some Prem A stuff for Worcester, played 300/400 games for Stourbridge and Dudley and those. Never really had the opportunity to kick on but to compensate, I used to do gym work, got a pretty good understanding of core strength, and transferred that into my scrummaging.


“People found that stuff pretty interesting in the clubs I was playing at. I was 19 when I made my Nat 2 debut for Stourbridge and people were saying, ‘Why are you doing this before the game? Why are you moving around on this?’

“I had a sense from my studies in sports and sports coaching. I decided at 16 that I wanted my weekends to be free for rugby and cricket. I was watching a lot of mates working in supermarkets giving up their weekends. I ended up getting qualified in 24 different sports before I left college and realised that an hourly rate coaching swimming was the same as what my mates were getting for an eight-hour shift in the supermarket.

“So I could do a swim lesson nine ’til 10, nine ’til 11 on a Saturday morning, pick up enough beer money for the weekend, and then spend the afternoons playing rugby in the winter and cricket in summer.”

What’s crystal in interviewing Ferguson is he has a lovely way with people and this ability to forge genuine connections has stood the test of 20 years of coaching rugby. “I have a coaching philosophy which is a pyramid and it is three Ps,” he revealed.

“At the bottom, it’s the person, then it’s the player, then it’s the performance. I developed that coaching philosophy when I was in education and I presented that to Chris Boyd when I had my interview for this job (in 2018), so it stuck with me all the way through.”

Why so? “People like Graham Smith, who coached me at North Mids and Stourbridge and had a big impact on Dylan Hartley’s career as well. From a performance point of view, these guys showed me how I wanted to treat other people and I go back to that philosophy. That’s always the first thing I say to myself.

“I’ll give an example: if player X hasn’t performed well in a training session, how many coaches jump at the top bit and go, ‘Fergie, you weren’t running around today, you’re being too lazy, you have got to work harder’. But if you go the other way up and go, ‘Fergie, how are you feeling?’

“I say, ‘I’ve been up all night, my kid’s been ill, I haven’t slept’. You go, ‘Oh, that makes sense why you haven’t run around. Anything we can do to help with that? Do you need to come in a little bit later?’ All of sudden you’re dealing with somebody that way up whereas my whole perception of rugby as I was trying to make my way was that everyone went the other way around.

“Take scrummaging. ‘Right, let’s get to a scrum machine, let’s hit the scrum machine as hard as we can, let’s swear a few times when we are doing it’. But did anyone actually coach you how to scrum? Your scrum is as strong as the weakest part so most of my scrum stuff would be done in ones and twos and threes because unless that bit works, the eight doesn’t.”

This good ’un still needed a bizarre break to ignite his career. The caper begins with a makeshift scrum machine, leads to a service station meeting with Graham Rowntree, and ends with a bird’s eye view invite to observe England training in the Johnson era from 2008.

“I’d my time with the RFU and was really lucky, my break came from a relationship with Graham Rowntree,” he explained. “I was in community rugby and ended up being asked to present at a Midlands coaching conference. I was given the graveyard shift, nine o’clock Sunday morning of a two-day conference with about 150 rugby coaches who had a dinner on Saturday night.

“I was pretty adamant it was going to be a practical session; I wasn’t going to present to a group of blokes sleeping off the beer in a meeting room. So I came up with an idea of a £20 scrum machine where I got a Swiss ball, a broomstick, and a tyre and said, ‘Right, here you go, here are three bits of equipment. In small groups, come up with as many scrum activities as you can’.

“Within five minutes you had people falling off balls, sticks being put up various parts of their bodies. The noise was phenomenal, the impact great and I said, ‘Well, all you community clubs that spend a huge amount of money on big blue, rusty bits of metal in the corner which you never actually really use, this will make you a better scrummager’. And then I showed them my bit.

“Graham Rowntree got to see the video and phoned. I thought it was a wind-up. I was driving somewhere, picked the phone up and it was, ‘Hi Matt, it’s Graham Rowntree here. I’d like to catch up and chat’. We met in a service station on the M6, the toll road at Norton Canes, and within 15 minutes we were on our knees wrestling each other and talking about angles.

“He said he had come from a hugely successful playing career but limited coaching and I was vice-versa. We just hit it off. He’s a phenomenal human and he said, ‘I want you as my scrum guru’. I spent three or four years going into England camps with Graham learning, watching him coach and my input would be at the end of the meeting.

“I’d say to him, ‘You were doing this drill. Why did you want to do that?’ He’d say, ‘I wanted us to get our body height down’. I’d say, ‘Well, you forget to mention body height. You just said this is what we are doing’.

“I was sat watching the best performers in the country, a great learning experience, and it was that link that got me to Cardiff Blues for my first professional job. Justin Burnell took the chance on a little fat English/Welsh kid to go there. I turned up to the Vale for my interview in a branded RFU truck which in hindsight wasn’t a great idea.

“But Justin believed in me, took me on. My time at Cardiff was phenomenal. Martyn Williams, Xavier Rush, Paul Tito, Casey Laulala, Leigh Halfpenny, a studded team. But I always wanted to go back to England, got to Bristol, and then had the Bristol/London Welsh play-off final (2014). Justin approached me after the game and said, ‘Look if want a shot at the Prem, you can come and join me at Welsh. So it’s been an unorthodox journey… and I also had a four-year stint with the England women which played a huge part in my coaching.”

What was the main difference between men’s and women’s rugby? “Me and you could turn up to an invitation team on a Saturday. We could be rivals in the league but we turn up for an invitation team and because we have got the same shirt on, at the first scrum someone throws a little jab at you and I’m grabbing them because we are on the same team therefore that means we are bonded and I’m going to defend you.

“The female player is very different. That unless they are bonded they won’t battle. A male view is very much that we battle to bond. So my approach is still there, going bottom of the pyramid – right, let’s find out about us as people, what’s important to us, what are our values. That helped to really hit it off well with that particular bunch of forwards.

“I did the same with Sarah Bern as I did with Manny (Iyogun). She was a No8 and is arguably the world’s best female tighthead at the moment. She was playing sevens when I told her she was a tighthead prop, so it was an even bigger shock for her than it was for Manny (who was an academy No8).

“Simon Middleton ran a really good programme and I just coached. I actually didn’t care if I was coaching Sarah Bern or Paul Hill. To me, they are just tighthead props and I just coach them. But the big difference is that emotional stuff around the bond to battle, battle to bond.

“I recently watched Chasing the Sun, the South African documentary. You look at that and see how invested and the bond that those people have. That will always be me and I will be authentic to that. I do genuinely care about my players and it’s the role of me as a coach to make them the best they can be and then the performance will take care of itself.”

Having earned his stripes from that fabulously circuitous education, Northampton has since become the job of Ferguson’s life. “I’ll always remember that initial meeting with Chris Boyd when he said he was very much interested in developing coaches and that he was getting to a stage of his life where he found it harder to chase the players but he said, ‘I have seen your waistline, I’m pretty sure I can catch you’.

“That was so refreshing. Just like players, coaches need to get better, to continuously evolve. To hear your director of rugby say that that’s at the forefront of his mind, that if he improved us as coaches and we all went and improved 10 players, all of a sudden he has had an impact on 30, 40, 50 players which is what he was doing.

“That has been carried on by Sam (Vesty) and Phil (Dowson). Every couple of months we sit down, talk about my coaching, where I can improve, what we can do differently. When I speak to my colleagues in the game, they go, ‘We don’t do anything like that’. But it’s what we expect of our players. We wouldn’t sign a player if they come in and don’t get any better.

“So for me it’s huge and Phil has been big on bringing visitors into the environment. In the last month or so we have had a Formula 1 team principal come in, had a GB hockey coach come in to spend time talking about their high-performance environments, what can we learn. I had a fascinating conversation over lunch with the training director for a supermarket. We were just talking about how he would get graduates to be supermarket managers. I got huge stuff from that.

“My take on coaching and coach development is that 10 per cent of rugby is rugby and the game doesn’t change too much – and I’m pretty sure across the world that 10 per cent is being delivered the same. What makes you a successful coach is the 90 per cent which is how you say it and more importantly how you’re players understand it.

“Over the last six years, we have had a couple of scrum philosophies, but it’s been built on the same foundations I have had in meeting one and it’s just that same information trying to be delivered with a little bit of enthusiasm, with a little bit of a different slant because it’s not what you know, it’s what the players know.

“Under a huge amount of pressure on Saturday with Beno Obano jumping on you, I want my players to be able to execute what we have practiced, not only this year but for the last five, six years. That bit around the fact that Chris would sit down and say, ‘I thought your meetings were too long’ or ‘I thought you had too much information in this session here’, ‘You asked a question but didn’t wait for the response’, those kinds of things have been priceless, and he is still giving me little nudges from the other side of the world. Sam and Phil have taken that on really well in terms of, ‘Let’s get better as coaches’. The better that we are, the better the players will be.”

Ferguson’s involvement began with some across-the-board speed dating, first impressions that were then built on with his weekly scrum club. “When I joined Saints, we did some speed dating. I’d five minutes with every single player; I remember them sitting outside the coach’s office. I just wanted to get to know people. Dylan was the first one to come in, an abrasive character. Within seconds he started to talk about, ‘Well, we should scrum like this, we should scrum like that’. I said, ‘Fine Dylan, I’m not actually interested in that. Talk to me about you. What’s your England ambitions, where are you at the moment?’

“It was like, ‘Well, why do you want to know that?’ I was, ‘Well, if we are going to work together, I want to get to know you’. It was a real surprise for someone like him. For me that brought about this mindset that we talked about.

Gallagher Premiership final Ferguson Northampton
Matt Ferguson (right) at work with director of rugby Phil Dowson and head coach Sam Vesty (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

“Sometimes you don’t always get it right, but I guarantee you now that if I ask Trevor Davison to put his head in a pretty dark place on a Saturday, he will do that far better if he feels he is being respected as a person and then improved as a player. If I get a good relationship with him as a person, I can improve him as a player and then putting him into a scrum for a performance is easy… so that pyramid has stayed with me.

“You ask how excited I am about the Prem final? As much as I’d love a big picture on the mantlepiece with me and a silver trophy, what I get up for, what drives me and has in my whole coaching career is seeing people like Manny achieve, being a small part of someone’s development.

“I get much more enjoyment Monday to Friday than I do Saturday. That’s a weird thing to say but my scrum club meetings and being around the front row, that’s my game day. That’s why I do this job and the Saturday almost takes care of itself if I have got the rest of the week right.”

What’s a scrum club meeting like? “Weird. Really weird. We enjoy each other’s company. It would be true to say if you were to ask the other players that we are the closest sub-unit in the squad. I don’t think that is new to any other club really. If you went to Leicester or Bath, you’d find the front rows are the closest because we spend a lot of time touching each other, a lot of time relying on each other. They are a special group of guys.”

Most special at Northampton outside the scrum club is the departing Courtney Lawes, who is off to France after the Premiership decider. “Some of the lessons we have learned from that European Cup semi-final (at Leinster), how Courtney has got hold of the group about what it means to play in big games has been hugely impressive and stuff that I will keep.

“As soon as the meeting finishes, I’m putting it into my little coaching book and it will stay with me forever. Courtney talks about when you’re actually in the biggest games what you actually need to do is just do your basics really well whereas if it’s a dark, wet, miserable night away in Newcastle, you might need someone to step up to lead the way. In these big games, you don’t need anyone to do anything extra special. You just need everyone to do their job. That is our go-to.

“I have never come across a player that can retain information while staying as relaxed between Monday and Friday and then cross the whitewash on a Saturday and be phenomenal. I remember a conversation I had with Justin Burnell at Cardiff when I started about Xavier Rush, saying that I didn’t think Xavier was keen on the game at the weekend.

“Justin goes, ‘Why do you say that?’ I said, ‘I’m not sure he is training particularly hard.’ Justin goes, ‘Just wait ’til he crosses the whitewash’. When you are talking about people like Courtney Lawes and Xavier Rush, you’re talking about world-class players. Out of the six years I have been at Saints, Courtney’s impact this year on and off the field has been phenomenal.”


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