Northampton sweating on Champions Cup ruling to solve prop crisis
Northampton have been plunged into a prop injury crisis ahead of Sunday’s Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final against Exeter and are desperately seeking emergency assistance. Manny Iyogun, 19, is currently Saints’ only fit and available loosehead option for the Sandy Park showdown.
Francois van Wyk, Alex Waller, Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi and Nick Auterac have all been ruled out of the game through injuries of varying severity. Saints have been in dialogue with tournament organisers European Professional Club Rugby for permission to recruit another loosehead for their matchday 23.
But just four days before the game, Northampton rugby director Chris Boyd says he is still waiting for an answer. Competition rules mean that quarter-finalists had to register their squad on or before September 1, so an exemption would be required.
Boyd said: “Francois Van Wyk was our only fit loosehead (before last weekend’s Premiership loss at Leicester), and Manny Iyogun would be the only (other) person in our club who could play at loosehead. That concerned us because Manny is a 19-year-old boy who played all his football at No8 and had never really played in a men’s scrum before.
“We approached EPCR about our plight, then the problem got significantly worse because Francois was injured on Sunday (against Leicester and was replaced by Iyogun) and is probably out for eight-12 weeks. We now faced a situation where we have a youngster with zero experience, so we went back to EPCR and pleaded our case again.
— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) September 14, 2020
“The wheels have moved extremely slowly internally there, and currently we have still no ruling from EPCR. You eliminate people who can’t come into the country because of Covid restrictions around isolation, and visa applications which can’t be done in time, and the pool of players we could potentially get is pretty small anyway.”
Boyd said that he looked at converting one of the club’s specialist tighthead props into a loosehead, with a scrum session held early on Tuesday morning. But he added: “That was spectacularly unsuccessful. I spoke to Ben Franks (former Northampton and New Zealand prop) about that, and he likened it trying to play golf, changing from right hand to left hand.
“None of our four tightheads have ever played loosehead prop, so that was ruled out. We would be hopeful that common sense would prevail. If it was a wing or full-back or something else, you just have to make do, but there is a considerable safety issue here and an issue on the spectacle as it is and what the game might look like.
“If common sense doesn’t prevail, we only have two choices that I can get my head around. One is that we don’t have a loosehead prop on the bench and we only play the match with 22 blokes. Or, we put somebody on the bench who is absolutely not capable of playing that position safely and at the time they are required to go on the field, we alert the officials to that and we go down to uncontested scrums”.
Boyd outlined an exhaustive search by Saints to try and find a suitable front row recruit. “We have rung the Scottish clubs, the Irish clubs, the Welsh clubs and every English Championship club,” he said. “We’ve had all sorts of people flinging their CV in front of us.
“Everyone either has Covid restrictions or visa restrictions. We’ve even looked at who has retired from the game in the last three years who might be floating around doing nothing. All of that is in vain if we can’t get EPCR approval. What I am absolutely not prepared to do – and it became very obvious when we tried to convert our tightheads – is risk someone’s safety.
“While the integrity of the fixture and the competition is critical, the number one priority is the safety of the person that has to do that. There have been discussions between Exeter and Northampton to try to make this work. It’s an on-going discussion.”
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