Darren Fox on the hunt for prey after Cambridge return
Fans' favourite bids to make second impact at Volac Park
When it was announced that Darren Fox would be heading back to Cambridge Rugby Club after an absence of five years, it was greeted with great enthusiasm and anticipation.
His abrasive and no-holds-barred style had distinguished his four-year spell at the club, from 2008 to 2012, to make him a folkhero.
And his first spell only came to an end because of the financial perils gripping Cambridge at the time.
Fox stepped up a division into the Championship with Bedford Blues, before heading home to Peterborough Lions, where he has most recently been head coach.
But he never stopped being talked about at Cambridge, having captained them to the brink of the Championship in the 2008/09 campaign, and it could be argued that his attributes would have been just what the doctor ordered in their return to National League One last season after three years away.
So while it may have been a surprise to some that Fox headed back to the south of the county, there was no doubt from the man himself that he would one day wear the blood and sand colours again.
“I always thought I might end up back at some point,” said Fox, who is now 36. “It seemed like a good time and I’m excited by it so it’s nice to be back. I’ve got a lot of good memories here.
“My time here before was cut short for whatever reason so it’s good to have a challenge to play National League One rugby again – as I’m getting older, one last go for myself from a playing point of view.
“I stopped playing for a year or so to concentrate on coaching. I’m 36 now, 37 in January, so I knew that I wouldn’t be playing for too much longer so I had a bit of an urge to come back and refocus to play at the best level I could for another year or two.
“The opportunity to come back and do it again where I was captain and had some good memories for a few years was a big thing.
“Then the coaching, and the chance to work with Barney (Adam Barnard), and the other coaches like Ross (Stewart), Darrell (Ball) and Simon (Leader) was a big draw as well.
“I’ve had a few years coaching and being head coach at Peterborough Lions in National Three so it was a progression and a development for me to come and coach at a higher level, and try to put across some of my qualities and attributes that can hopefully push the squad forward.”
And that is one of the key points.
People look at what Fox may bring to the pitch, but everyone is already fully aware of that, his track record at Northampton Saints, Bedford Blues and previously at Cambridge speaks for itself.
Yet, the most intriguing thing is his role as player-coach and not just his playing style but also his experiences as a youngster trying to make it into a Premiership side will rub off on Cambridge’s youthful squad.
It was clearly these qualities that Stewart was aiming to utilise when appointing Fox as player-coach.
“The big thing for me is about everybody getting their attitude right and getting their commitment levels right,” said Fox.
“We can play some rugby and just try to build some more layers, and with the game management I can use my experience and help bring the young lads on, and try to nurture them. That’s part of my coaching role.
“It’s an opportunity and I’m in the early stages of my coaching career. It’s good to be working with Ross and the other coaches to keep learning, and working with new players to develop myself and the lads around me.
“I’m very outspoken and if I see something then I will have an input.
“A bit of a misconception is that a lot of people will think I will just be involved in the contact work, but I’ve been playing this game for a lot of years and played it at the top level in England – and worked with some of the best coaches.
“So from all levels I will have an input, but obviously breakdown and defence will be more my bread and butter stuff, and working with Darrell with the forwards.
“At least it’s a good thing we’ve got as a coaching set-up; we all bring our own strengths to the table and there is a good balance of discussion.
“It’s not one person does one thing and that’s it.
“We do discuss things which I think you need.”
There have been plenty of changes at Cambridge in the intervening years since Fox was last here – including a relegation and a promotion – but there are still a few familiar faces on the playing front, and many other similarities.
“Obviously there are different personnel, but you’ve still got a few boys that are involved and were here when I was here, the likes of Mike Ayrton and Albert Portsmouth,” he said.
“There are still a lot of supporters and old faces that were here when I was here, so I wouldn’t say it has changed too much.
“It is a lot more stable now and hopefully we have got a good place to try to push on from.
“We’ve got a tough old year ahead of us.
“I believe that we can push on and keep improving and move up the league – I would say that the league has definitely moved on since I was last at Cambridge.
“It’s a good challenge and something that we should all relish.”
And it is true that this year’s National League One would appear to be a sterner challenge.
There does not look like being a runaway team like Hartpury College last season, but nor do there appear to be teams that you could instantly put in the bracket of strugglers.
So the focus has to be on raising the standards and getting everything to gel as quickly as possible.
“It is going to be a tough year, let’s not beat around the bush,” said Fox.
“The boys did well in their first year back in the league, but we need to kick on.
“We need to make sure we’re moving in the right direction, and we need to make sure we’re winning more games than we did last year.
“I don’t expect anybody to come and bully us or boss us around too much.
“We’re not the biggest squad, but I expect us to have the commitment that we need to have at this level.
“We need to make sure we are where we need to be and make sure the intensity we bring each week is going to give us the chance to play the sort of rugby we want to play.
“Rugby is a pretty simple game to be honest. People can overcomplicate it but it is all won or lost on your contact and your gain line.
“If you want to be playing good rugby you need to be sure that you’re controlling that gain line and you are looking after your own contact work.
“If we can get that right, with a little bit more edge about us in the way the boys play rugby, it will set us in good stead.”