Northampton Saints will make the journey up to Glasgow this Friday, as the opening round of the 2023/24 Investec Champions Cup commences at Scotstoun Stadium. The Saints take on Glasgow Warriors to ignite their competition, as their talents look to heat up the frozen Scottish night.
Amongst the array of stars in Phil Dowson’s arsenal, George Furbank has been demonstrating his skillset across both full back and fly half in recent weeks. The versatile back is well suited in both the 15 and 10 jerseys, as he took the reins at fly half in the Saints win over Harlequins a fortnight ago. Furbank then switched back to his preferred fullback spot, as Northampton achieved a statement-making away victory against Saracens.
Speaking in the mid-week media ahead of Northampton’s Champions Cup opener against Glasgow Warriors, Furbank discussed the inter-changeable skillsets and competition for places across the two positions.
“I don’t really mind playing either position to be honest. Obviously, we’ve got some really good competition now at Saints. Fin’s (Smith) going pretty well, himself, and he’s pretty solid in that 10 shirt. If he needs a rest or if anything happens, I’m happy to step in there. But I’m liking it at 15 as well. And obviously, we’ve got some really good lads, who can play in that 15 shirt as well, with (George) Hendy who’s playing class at the moment, Tommy Freeman as well.”
“I quite enjoy being able to do both. I think the ability to play both helps me in each position. So it helps you develop different skills, and learn skills that you can take into both positions. So I quite enjoy it to be honest.”
Speaking of Fin Smith, the talented young fly half has been steadily making a name for himself throughout the last couple of Premiership seasons. After making his breakthrough at Worcester Warriors, Smith was promptly snapped up by Saints when the Sixways club entered financial administration. Smith has since progressed into the conversation regarding the England fly half spot, and was included in Steve Borthwick’s wider-training squad ahead of the Rugby World Cup.
However, Smith missed out on the cut, with his Harlequins namesake Marcus heading to France, alongside George Ford and Owen Farrell. The recent international withdrawal of Farrell has again turned the attention to Fin Smith, who could be set to stake his claim for England contention ahead of the 2024 Six Nations. Furbank was full of praise for the halfback, and believes that you would be hard pressed to find a player with his talents, at such a young age.
“He’s incredibly mature player for a 21 year old. I don’t think you’ll see that very often for young 10s. Particularly with his game management side of things. He’s a calm head, and he knows how to move the ball around the park. So he’s been very good for us this a season, particularly with that managing the side of the game, which, like I said, you don’t get from many 20 or 21-year-olds, so he’s a good player to play alongside.”
“I think he’s a very mature rugby player. If you spent time with them off the pitch you probably wouldn’t think that, but on the pitch he’s got a very cool head, and knows how to drive a team. Which like I said, you don’t get many 21-year-olds (like that), he’s a pretty exciting talent, and he’s someone you want to play alongside.”
Whilst Fin Smith continues to take the headlines from Franklin’s Gardens, a key cog in the Northampton midfield has steadily been progressing for a shot at an England senior debut. Fraser Dingwall has been in excelling form this season, with his talents showcased in a stand out performance against Saracens. Dingwall racked up 8s and 9s out of 10 from the papers, as his relentless tackling was coupled with educated feet for Ollie Sleightholme’s try assist.
Following Joe Marchant’s move to Stade Francais, their is a vacancy in the England midfield which Furbank believes Dingwall could quite rightly push for. The Saints fullback discussed the talents of his teammate, and backed Dingwall for Borthwick’s squad, should he keep up this top run of form.
“I think he’s been massive for us.” Furbank added. “Over the last few seasons, in particular. He doesn’t look like the biggest lad, but he always gets over the gain line. He’s a very skilful player. I think when you play alongside him, especially at 10, he just makes your life a lot easier. He’s very good with feeding in information, both in attack and in ‘D’. That’s exactly what you want from from your 12 or 13. So he’s a big part of our team now. Hopefully, if he keeps performing well, then he can push that spot in the England squad.”
Northampton will be looking for a rejuvenation to their Champions Cup rugby, after failing to record a win in last season’s competition. The Saints had four testing battles against top European opponents last season, with La Rochelle and Munster each recording back-to-back wins over the East Midlanders. Looking back on the campaign, Furbank believes that his side can learn from their past mistakes, and bring a new edge into this season’s Champions Cup campaign.
“I particularly look back over the last few years, we’ve had some really close encounters with top teams. I remember half-time last year, I think here, against La Rochelle we were up, and then had a red card. Munster at home, we pushed them, and it’s probably a game that we let slip away from us. So, we know that we can challenge these teams. If we get our performance right then, we genuinely believe that we can come away with some results.”
“I do believe that there’s a quality in English teams to be able to do that. Obviously you’re going to have to put in pretty consistent performances throughout the European pools, or our group stage, and then into the knockouts, and probably rely on not too many injuries, to be honest.
“You know, the depth of French rugby and Irish rugby, particularly those clubs, is really big. So they can afford a few injuries here and there, whereas Premiership side’s probably can’t as much, if we want to go toe-to-toe with the biggest teams. But we as a team feel like we’re in a pretty good spot at the moment. It’s going to be a real test for us on Friday to see where we are in Europe. But ultimately, we want to get out of this group, and into knock-out stuff.”
Furbank then turned his attention to the weekend’s opponents in question, and recognises that Glasgow Warriors are not a side to take lightly. Current sat at second in the United Rugby Championship, Glasgow have made Scotstoun Stadium a fortress in recent years, and boast an epic home record of just one defeat in the past two seasons. Whilst a trip North of the border doesn’t carry the same Champions Cup glamour of South Africa or Southern France, Furbank will savour the opportunity for a crack at a rather impenetrable defensive line.
“I would have been buzzing to get to the South of France or South Africa, but we still got two pretty exciting trips, to the places we go. A lot of us haven’t played against Glasgow away, we know there’s going to be a challenge there, I think they are second in the URC at the moment, and they’re going pretty well.
“We did Munster away last year, and that’s an unbelievable place to go and play at Thomond Park. So, they’re both pretty exciting. Then we’ve got two French clubs coming into our place, and Saints under the lights on a Friday night particularly against Toulon is going to be a really good atmosphere. So that’s one we’re really excited for, and we get to play against some old friends as well, (Dan Biggar) which will be fun.”
“They’re in really good form at the moment, and they’re just going to look to carry that form the URC over into the European competition. So we know what to expect, obviously, the game’s reffed a little bit differently in Europe as it is in the Premiership. So we’re going to have that challenge to deal with as well. Hopefully we can adapt to that pretty quickly. But yeah, they’re obviously a very, very good side. We really believe we can go toe-to-toe with them.”