After the disappointment of last season, Alex Waller is confident his Northampton Saints team have developed a thick skin to deal with the challenges that lie ahead.
By their own lofty standards, Saints endured a difficult campaign last time out as they finished outside of Aviva Premiership Rugby’s top four places for the first time since the 2008/2009 season.
It prompted what Waller described as a few home truths being exchanged in-house – although this season has thrown up some mixed results so far, including victory over newcomers Bristol but crucially defeats to rivals Saracens, Bath and Wasps.
The campaign is still very much in its infancy though and Waller – who last season became the first player to pass 100 consecutive appearances in Aviva Premiership Rugby – insists a return to the top four is very much top of the agenda.
“It wasn’t where we wanted to finish last year at all. We had a good look at each other and few hard truths were spoken which I think was needed,” said Waller, speaking at the launch of this year’s Aviva Community Fund alongside team-mates Courtney Lawes and Mike Haywood.
“I think that’s part of the sport. You’ve got to take the honest criticism on the chin and build from it.
“This year we want to finish top four and be in that position to at least compete for the trophy.
“We saw last year, this season is a long season, we’ve just got to take one game at a time. I know that’s a bit of a cliché. But we’ve got to get a bit of momentum.
“I don’t think there’s any secret to playing week in week out. I think a lot of it comes down to luck. I just have been very lucky. I do work hard but I’m not the only one who does that.”
The Aviva Community Fund is a nationwide initiative that lends a helping hand to local communities by offering support and funding for inspirational local causes.
The ACF has already benefited over 320,000 people, through 431 winning projects across the UK, and this year, local grassroots sports clubs can apply or reapply for funding in a new, sport-specific category.
And Waller believes the shared sense of camaraderie and teamwork at all levels of the game cannot be underestimated.
“I didn’t come into rugby until I was 14 or 15, so I got into it through school, but then I got picked up by the Saints,” he added.
“I was at Wellingborough School and I think investment in grassroots is massive.
When I talk to mates, and people who have played, even five years ago clubs were pretty amateur.
“But now you look at some of the clubs and the money that has gone into them, they’re proper good set-ups and they have fantastic facilities.
“It’s a massive family and it really helps to build that community spirit. Everyone starts to get to know each other on the circuit.”
Having coming through the ranks to reach the top level, Waller is now focusing on who his and Northampton’s main rivals are for the season ahead.
“You’ve got the usual candidates – Sarries, Leicester, Bath have regrouped, and obviously Wasps have made some very big signings,” he said.
“You’ve got all those. I wouldn’t say there is one specific team we’ve got to look at. But there are not any easy teams.
“I think everyone has a chink in their armour somewhere and it’s just working out how to exploit it properly. It’s about reacting and playing what’s in front of you.
“No-one is perfect. Saracens will even admit that. It’s trying to work out how to get through those chinks.”
Premiership Rugby and the 12 Aviva Premiership Rugby Clubs are supporting the Aviva Community Fund, a nationwide initiative which offers funding of up to £25,000 to grassroots sports clubs and other community organisations close to your heart. Enter at aviva.co.uk/community-fund from September 13.