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Two tightheads out, two in at Northampton... including 'rough diamond'

By Liam Heagney
Elliot Millar-Mills (Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images)

Phil Dowson has continued to rejig his Northampton squad, the Saints confirming on Thursday the signing of tighthead pair Elliot Millar-Mills and Beltus Nonleh to replace departing duo Oisin Heffernan and Alfie Petch. It was Wednesday when the Gallagher Premiership club revealed the early contract release of the homesick Australian lock, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto.

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A day later came news about their tighthead situation, director of rugby Dowson announcing a shake-up in that area ahead of what will be his second season in full charge. A statement read: “Northampton have announced the signings of props Elliot Millar-Mills and Beltus Nonleh ahead of the 2023/24 season.

“Millar-Mills, 30, arrives at cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens after spells with URC side Edinburgh and Premiership rivals Bath last season, having started the campaign with Wasps before the club went into administration.

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“The 121kg tighthead joined Wasps in the summer of 2021 and made 21 appearances in all competitions, having previously turned out 44 times for Ealing Trailfinders in three seasons in the Championship – winning the Championship Cup with them in 2019.

“Millar-Mills began his playing career with Stockport and Macclesfield before a successful trial period with Leeds Carnegie yielded a full-time contract and an initial move north of the border to Edinburgh.

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“He also appeared for England Counties in Canada in 2016 becoming the third member of his family to earn international recognition (after older sisters Bridget and Harriet, who represented Scotland and England Women respectively), and featured for the Barbarians in the autumn of 2022 against Bath and Northampton.

“Nonleh joins Saints from Sedgley Park having been one of the standout performers this term as the Tigers romped to the National League Two North title.

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“The 22-year-old tighthead – who moved to the UK from Cameroon in 2008 – begun his rugby career at Rochdale and represented both Lancashire and North of England at age-group level before stepping up the ladder to Sedgley Park, and Nonleh was named National League Two North tighthead of the season for the 2022/23 campaign.

“The club can also confirm the departures of props Oisin Heffernan and Alfie Petch. Heffernan initially joined Saints in February 2021 from Championship outfit Nottingham and made seven first-team appearances.

“The English-qualified prop came through the Leinster schools set-up, making three appearances in the PRO14 for the senior side and 20 appearances for Ireland’s U20s across the Six Nations and Junior World Championship competitions.

“A long-term hamstring injury limited his appearances for Saints during the 2021/22 season, but he did come off the bench in the Premiership semi-final defeat to Leicester and he played three matches last term in the Premiership Rugby Cup competition before a loan move to Newcastle Falcons towards the end of the campaign.

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“Petch leaves Northampton after one season in which he made 21 appearances, following a move from Exeter Chiefs. The 22-year-old previously represented England U20s during the 2018/19 season while in Exeter’s academy and he played 23 times on loan for Cornish Pirates in 2021/22.

Regarding his two new signings, Dowson said: “Elliot came in on trial with us at the end of the season and we were really impressed with how he seamlessly slotted into the playing group, and by his attitude towards improving his own game.

“He had a tough season last year after Wasps went into administration, moving around a few clubs which is not easy, but his attitude is fantastic and his experience of playing in the Premiership will be important for us next season.

“We believe Beltus could be something of a rough diamond; he is obviously stepping up a few levels from the National League but based on his size, power, and excellent attitude, he has all the tools he needs to succeed at the top table of English rugby.

“At Saints, we have a great record of bringing players in from lower down the ladder and developing them into Premiership players. Beltus is just 22 and has a lot of learning to do, but with Matt Ferguson and our other coaches looking after him, we are confident he can make a big impact over the years to come.”

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