It’s been a long hot summer, but it won’t go on for ever, and on 18th August those of us lucky enough to make it to Sunbury are going to be able to make some direct comparisons about the players vying for a starting spot in the LDH. A trial is a trial, at whatever level, and it will not be touch rugby.
I am not going to guess at who will have sufficiently recovered from the surgeon’s knife to play. Mordt and Feau’nati will be out for sure, but when will Rautenbach’s badly damaged neck be adjudged ready for his kind of scrummaging? Or Casey or Hatley’s knees, both operated on during the break? There are others but I won’t go on. Suddenly, some of those early season fixtures take on more of a ‘what if’ quality. What if X is not fit to play?
Nor yet do we know who will be in the Probables or the Possibles on the 18th. I note that neither team will carry such burdensome names, so we’ll have to guess which is which. The message boards will be buzzing for weeks afterwards!
So, what kind of season will we have, as the surviving squad welcomes a new centre, a new scrum half, two new back rowers, a new lock, a new prop and a new hooker?
I think the season is going to be interesting, not because we win more than we lose, or vice versa, but because there will be no breaks, as we have traditionally enjoyed against various minnows in Europe. No breaks when we can give a rest to some of our regulars and can afford to give a chance to our young bloods. Well, I suppose we could decide not to throw our all at the Anglo Welsh cup travesty, but to invite defeat in a contact sport is also to invite injury. The vanquished are seldom un-bloodied.
The first hurdle
Let’s be blunt, a 22 match league plus the Cup and the Heineken adventure in Europe, let alone possible involvement in eight internationals leading to World Cup selection, are going to take their toll if we keep putting the same bodies on the line week after week. Something will have to give.
Unless we decide to follow this high risk policy, in which we always pick our ‘best’ team, only changing it when forced to do so, Brian and Toby are going to have to marshal their resources and embrace rotation. Will that involve picking 15 from a select group within the squad or will everyone really get their chance? My guess is the latter, if only because if you want to compete at the top that is the quality of squad you need.
My guess is that a quite surprising number of new faces and young bloods are going to get a real chance to demonstrate what they are made of. Given the number of games we face against top opposition, there are unlikely to be too many people who don’t get game time. Were it otherwise, I’d argue that the ‘top’ 22 simply won’t last.
In recent seasons we have spoken at length about squad depth or its lack. Well, this season we are going to find out exactly who cuts it at the top level. That trial gets more and more interesting.
The first issue for me is the extent to which the established second strings make it and put selection pressure on their ‘superiors’, the second is how our new boys get on, and the third is how our younger men fare.
The future is youth!
Late last season many marvelled at the way youth was rearing its head at Gloucester, in the forwards and backs. Suddenly, it seemed, they were transformed. The hacks started to witter on about the benefits of (British) youth against older (implicitly foreign) journeymen, two over-simplistic assumptions which I’ll ignore.
But avast there! Do we not already have youth aplenty in our ranks, sufficient to put fear into the breasts of Johnny foreigner? Do we not have a track record of belief in youth – either bred in our Academy, like Adrian Flavin, or brought in full of promise and potential, like Paul Hodgson or the teenage Bish?
Some, like Barrett, Broadfoot, Burke, Flavin, Halsey, Hunt, Hoadley and Laidlaw, have moved on to other pastures. But look at those who remain. Some have already burst upon an unsuspecting green public. Others wait in the wings, ready to take their chances. Other recent Academy graduates, such as Nick Kennedy and Nils Mordt, are now just a bit too far past their 21st birthdays to figure in this review.
In the spotlight already
Delon Armitage (full-back cum wing) has enjoyed the spotlight for a couple of seasons. In his first we forgave him his trespasses as he burst through the middle, slicing past defensive formations like a whirlwind, always with a smile on his face. In his second he played almost without a break right through the season, the smile wasn’t always visible, and he carried a lot of bumps, bruises and niggles. To his credit he was always there, playing through the pain, but, perhaps, not shining as brightly as he had.
To my mind last season was a learning curve for Delon, the watershed between enthusiastic promise and adult delivery. He just about made it, but some of his defensive lapses linger in the memory, and somehow we seldom if ever saw those trademark bursts of his. Had he been spotted? Had he lost pace – or confidence? Was he under orders?
This year, Delon needs to deliver consistently rather than show promise. I think he will, and in spades, but I still wonder whether he is a wing or a full back by nature!
Topsy Ojo (wing) burst upon the Premiership last season, adding surprising defensive maturity to the speed that his Academy-watching fans already knew about. He would be the first to say that he isn’t yet the finished article, some of his decision making and positioning under pressure revealing the gap between talent and experience.
However, very few players have the ability to draw an audible collective aahh from a crowd of many thousands every time they get the ball. Perhaps it is the mark of the man that it hasn’t gone to his head!
His achievements with England U21 will have done him no harm, but he may have to fight for his place with the return of Dom Shabbo.
Shane Geraghty (centre cum fly half) has long been hyped as a wonderful talent with soft hands, good boots and a hard rugby brain, but as I write this piece at the end of July, he is still only 19 years old. He seems to have been around for a long time – and that probably tells you all you need to know.
He is learning his trade under the guiding influence of Mike Catt, and his on-field presence is growing in line with his experience. He does not yet command a game like his mentor, but then few do. However, anyone who has seen him slide past an opponent without seeming to accelerate will not doubt the guy’s potential. Guscott was the last man I saw with that ability. Anyone who has seen him tackle will not doubt his defensive courage against men twice his size, either.
It’d be silly to expect too much too soon, and he does seem prone to injury, but if he makes it through the next couple of years, we’ll have a diamond.
David Paice (hooker) is one of those characters you always seem to find in front rows. He has bulked up a great deal in the last year, but any fears that he was developing into an immobile lardie were dispelled by his astonishing try of the season last season, when he burst up the middle in support, running more than half the length of the field to latch onto a scoring pass. In fact his mobility is always notable.
Paicey appears on the team list on the official site as a ‘front row’ player, a fitting tribute to his ability and preparedness to play prop when needed. He has obviously watched Coetzee, put on quite a bit of muscle and started to scrummage hard like his mentor. In my opinion, Paicey was one of two players last season who improved beyond all decent expectation, and richly deserved his first England Saxons cap. If he gets enough game time and exposure he might even make it to the edges of the England world cup set-up next summer.
In the wings
Gary Johnson (lock) has been promoted from the Academy, for whom he seems to have played for at least 20 years! (But so did his predecessor Nick Kennedy) An ever-present for the last couple of years anyway, Gary captained the team with aplomb, and occasionally showed surprising pace to go with his bulk and height. He is a good rugby player, with hands that donkeys don't always have. When he hits rucks they tend to give a bit.
Up against more distinguished opponents in some Academy games, Gary gave me the clear impression that he is afraid of nothing and no one, nohow. In fact I'd not like to pick an argument with him - although that is an unlikely scenario, as, socially, he appears to be a normal nice LI bloke.
If he gets game time, he'll not let anyone down, and I shall be amused to watch the first guy try to box the youngster's ears.
Dominic Shabbo (wing) won’t be known to newer supporters or possibly to those who have never watched an ‘A’ game. He is blond, quite tall, and has an impressive six pack, as the Club’s publicists were happy to show on a poster last season!
Dom is very very quick, possibly quicker than Topsy, and a good rugby player rather than simply a flier. He got his first team break at the end of the 2004/5 season away against Leicester, and did his prospects no harm at all. Sadly, he has had a year off games, as he has fought back from horrific injury. Rumour has it that he is better than before, like the bionic man. I hope so, for he will keep his competitors honest and dedicated.
Richard Thorpe (flanker) is a players’ player, a man for the work in hard dark places where others fear to go. He tackles hard, runs quickly and is good at the breakdown. The Club have played him in all three back row positions but his size, speed and tackling suggest to me at least that he should be wearing a 7 shirt.
Richard’s problem is that he is not a flashy player who gets noticed by the crowds. However, he didn’t come second at home against Wasps last season, when he was directly against Dallaglio. If I were he, I’d dye my hair yellow.
Steffon Armitage (flanker) is one of Delon’s brothers, but there the similarity ends! Where Delon is tall and slim, Steffon is comparatively short (5’10”?) and bulky. But, it seems, like all Armitages he can run like the very devil. Only 20, he has joined us from Saracens where he played for the firsts in all three back row positions last season, making his debut in February. When Laurence Dallaglio saw who would be marking him, he laughed. After the game he wasn’t laughing quite so much.
Ball in hand Steffon is a handful. He just ricochets off people like the ball in one of those arcade machines. I haven’t seen enough of him to judge his workrate and tackling, but if they are close to Thorpe’s we’ve got ourselves another diamond.
Tom Warren (prop) has been around in the Academy for some years, and has always acquitted himself well, even when up against more exalted first teamers having a bit of a day out in the ‘A’ side.
Like Paicey, he is a bit of a character, and like Paicey again, Tom may be a hell of a lot bigger and stronger than I recall. His promotion from the Academy into the full squad probably tells you all you need to know. Toby Booth knows what is needed, and the squad doesn’t carry passengers.
He could not have better mentors than his full squad propping colleagues.
Parts Two (forwards) and Three (backs) will look at the selection hot spots in the squad, and will appear later in the week.
Last edited by OxonRob
on Mon Jul 31, 2006 10:14 am, edited 3 times in total.