“Forwards win matches. The backs only decide on the margin.”
Did you miss Part One? It’s here http://www.london-irish.co.uk/viewtopic.php?t=1174
Starting with a truism isn’t the best way to engage the reader, but it has to be said! For me at least, our forwards will supply the key to the new season, when we will be up there among the big boys week-in, week-out. Rugby may be a team game, in which all components have to click, but what happens when you keep changing some or all of the components to prevent undue wear and tear?
For me, the selectorial hotspots are going to be at prop and at flanker. We seem to be blessed with quality in depth at hooker, lock and No 8.
If our front row competes we’ll have a chance. If it dominates we’ll have a good chance. If it gets flattened in the tight we are going to get mullered elsewhere as well. Oh, and let’s not ignore their contributions in the line-out and in clearing out at the breakdown. It’s an all-round game these days, and it isn’t enough to splinter the opposition in the tight and amble around until the next set piece.
Among the props my money is on any two of Hatley, Lea’aetoa and Rautenbach to start, when available, with the other guys needing to raise their game.
Last season we enjoyed largely dominant tight performances from our top picks of Hatley, Coetzee and Rautenbach – but how often did all three start together? No, not often. It was only late on that their alternates started to look competitive in the tight. For a worrying period our front row looked vulnerable.
Last season, Neal Hatley
at loose head played in almost every game, sometimes starting, sometimes from the bench, until injury caught up with him at the end. He played some of his best rugby too, to dispel the myth that youth is everything. Deputy Michael Collins
never came near Beefy in terms of scrummaging quality, but he gets about a bit in the loose. Not to be under-estimated at the breakdown, but if he doesn’t get his act together at scrum time, he’ll surely be third in line on the left, behind Tonga Lea'aetoa and Hatley.
I know comparatively little about the new boy on the block, Tonga Lea'aetoa
. However, I am told that when he arrived at Sunbury people had to check that there wasn’t an eclipse due that day. In terms of size he ranks with Faan Rautenbach. He is said to be fast and strong, and a punishing scrummager on both sides of the pack. Some of the hype suggests that he is actually a mix of Colin Meads, Cobus Visagie and Barry John. If he is even half of that we have just found someone special. I rather suspect that Tonga is going to become a crowd favourite.
On the tight head we will, one day, have Faan Rautenbach
back in harness, ready and able to last a full game. Nice when it happens. Until then we have our positionally flexible friend Tonga ready to challenge Richard Skuse
for the right to start. Unless there is a problem with Beefy I’d expect Tonga to do so. Why? Because, as the brave and strong Skusey would be the first to admit, he is still learning his trade, and Tonga is a proven top drawer scrummager. I am not by any means demeaning Skuse with that comment, but I dare say that he’d admit that this time last year he did not know enough about all the arcane tricks that a quality prop needs to know, and had built his reputation on pure strength, of which he has plenty. Certainly, his scrummaging showed a huge improvement in the second half of the season, and I’d put money on his succeeding in the top flight. But right now? Let’s see what difference a year makes.
This leaves young Tom Warren
as the junior prop. Good rugby player as he certainly is, and well as he did in the Academy, I simply cannot believe he is yet ready to challenge any of these guys, unless he is going to come on suddenly, like Paice. Since Toby isn’t one to pick passengers, I may have to eat those words. Prove me wrong, Tom!
Having dealt with the obvious, let’s not forget the filling in the front row sandwich, the hookers. We now have four again, following Adrian Flavin’s replacement by Stuart Mackie from Newcastle. Throwing in is only one part of the hooker’s armoury, as we were quickly taught by last season’s new boy, Danie Coetzee. The missing link? Scrummaging.
has to be one of the hardest scrummagers around at 2, and he is no shrinking violet in the loose either. Definitely our number one, if the Springboks ever return him to us! Behind him we have seasoned Scottish international Robbie Russell
, a right little terrier of a player, with skills and guile born of long experience in the top echelons. Pressing Robbie hard is David Paice
, also of Scottish ancestry, but more recently of Brisbane and the LI Academy. Paice has always rocketed around in the loose, but last season he started to scrummage hard too. In fact the front row’s performance often lifted when he came on. For me his scrummaging takes him ahead of Russell.
We have three outstanding players at 2, arguably one at the peak of his game, one just past it and one coming up fast on the way up. Plus Stuart Mackie
, under-used at Newcastle, but for me an unknown quantity, about whom I cannot comment.
In the second row we have become used to combinations of Casey, Kennedy and Roche, all players on the edge of international status. Nick Kennedy
missed the last part of the season through injury, and the rejuvenated Kieron Roche
stepped up to the second row plate – my second player to improve last season beyond recognition, Paicey being the first. (See Part One)
Now we have added the teak-hard 24 year old James Hudson
from Bath. To my mind the man under direct pressure from Hudson is the previously untouchable Big Bob Casey
. I’d be happy to see any pair from those four wearing our shirt, and my guess is that all four will do so on a regular basis, thus allowing more time for conditioning, and building the resilience which is necessary if you are to take the knocks. Such riches. We are lucky indeed. Behind them in my pecking order we have Gary Johnson
, former LI Academy captain and a large handful at that level. Maybe we’ll now have a chance to see how he fares at a higher one?
We have flankers among whom ageing world class (Magne) mixes with youthful potential (Armitage and Thorpe) with a leavening of top club pro in between (Danaher and McCullen). We lost the combative Gustard and Dawson last season, and this is a huge opportunity for the two younger men to step up. In fact if they don’t do so, we could be in the doo doo, given injuries and the possibility of the other three getting recognition in full or ‘A’ international selection.
is a bit like Catty, in that he seems to last for ever. Or was that a Murraymint? Let's hope he continues where he left off.
I have had one or two chances to see both young men play, and in my view we have two stars for the future. How quickly will they realise that future? Who knows? Steffon Armitage
, who looks a bit like a football on legs, takes the eye rather more, as he ricochets off larger men. A hard man to bring down. Richard Thorpe
is equally hard and very very quick, but gets on more invisibly with what has to be done, down on the deck. (But wasn’t invisibility the great Richard Hill’s trademark?) Both marked Dallaglio last season, and both came away with plaudits.
, perhaps surprisingly ignored by the England selectors for the 2006 summer tours, is in that limbo where he is no longer an exciting emerging player and has not yet achieved the international status he craves. If he carries on where he left off in May he’ll surely remain as a first pick, and I cannot believe he’ll continue to be totally ignored by Andy Robinson. If he retreats back into his 2003/4 shell he’ll be hard pressed to retain his shirt, however.
is, according to informed rumour, a tough lump of a man who does not take many prisoners and who works hard. A Trevor Brennan type. I like that idea!
A bit like the prop situation, I’d normally expect any two from Magne, Danaher or McCullen to start, but brother we need Thorpey and Steffon to step up to the plate as well, and take their chances.
The double act of Leguizamon and Murphy looks good at 8, although it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if Juan turned out at 6 occasionally, if we get a blindside crisis. How many clubs can boast two No 8s of this quality?
needs to curb his temper, or he’ll start a card collection, and he also needs to ensure that he enables moves to continue. Too often they seem to die with him in the tackle. Phil Murphy
, now in prime form, also needs to look to his passing.
Rumbles may be good, but they need to lead somewhere, with the ball retained. What do you mean, they are both internationals and above criticism? They are, and they are not! Anyway, who’s perfect?
Part Three of this review will peer myopically at the selection hot spots in our threequarters.