SALE – a foregone conclusion? Nope!
If you can’t be bothered reading all this, let me take you to my conclusion quickly.
The key to Irish hopes lies with the London Irish pack, who need to play with both their heads and their guts. It’ll be a big game for them, but some of the individuals concerned owe us a big game. In short, good as Sale are, our guys are a lot better than some of their recent loose performances suggest. They may need to be, but they do have it in them!
I suggest they are quite capable of giving good service to our backs, and I also suggest that the London Irish backline is quite easily as good as or better than any other in the GP, including Sale. But they do need service, something they have not been getting too much of.
Dear forwards: It’s time to be counted, guys. Not for the supporters, so much as for yourselves and each other.
Worth a punt
On paper, and according to the media, Sale are going to hammer London Irish into the day after tomorrow, come Sunday. They are the champions, after all, and don’t lose often, and their squad reads like a Who’s Who of Rugby. Is it even worth turning up to watch? Well, of course it is if you want to take a peek at so many of the England players of the last few years and the England players of the next few years. (The funny thing is that not all of them will be playing for Sale!)
If the guys at Sunbury buy into all the hype about Sale they might as well take up flogging insurance instead. There is no point in their turning up to play. So may I gently point out that essentially the same Sale side did get beaten last year, by sides that finished … er … well below London Irish in the GP. And – this is quite interesting to an anorak like me - if you stop and analyse our last three games against them it wasn’t all one way traffic either, despite the fact that we had our injury crises then as well as now. (Go back and read some match reports – Paddy’s, ours, the OSB’s and the Craic’s.)
There were aspects of each game in which we had parity or even superiority. Anyone remember the massive Irish 9 Paul Hodgson turning the diminutive Sebastien Chabal on his head? Strictly illegal of course, these days, but it did look nice at the time! Sadly of course, there were also rather too many aspects where Sale had superiority! 29-3 and 21-29 last year weren’t exactly the closest of games, although our loss at home might, just, have gone our way with the blessing.
Before you assume I have been at the whacky baccy a bit early today, give a guy a chance to pin some hope on the notice board.
By eck, they’re strong!
It is traditional in these Previews to give homage to the opposition and to run through their potential line-up for the benefit of those who only read Previews of LI games and see nothing beyond the LI results.
OK, OK, yertis. A front row of Sheridan, Bruno and probably Turner isn’t going to wilt. A large and mobile second row isn’t either. Anyone apart from the Sheasbys remember Chris Jones? In the back row Lund, Chabal and Big Jason White would get anyone to pay attention. Behind them Wrigglesworth is only one of three decent scrummies supplying Charlie Hodgson with nice on-a-plate ball for big centres like Chris Bell and Mark Taylor to run onto. Jason Robinson, Mark Cueto, Oriel Ripol and Steve Hanley may just about appear on the fringes. Enough?
Puts the fear of God into you, doesn’t it?
If we treat Sale with less than respect then we are fools to ourselves. However, just as we have to worry about Sale, Sale have to worry about us. And this is where I think we may spring one or two surprises on our inevitable glass half empty critics.
Irish are not so toothless
Sale have to think that the team which finished third last year is only one point behind where we were this time last year. They have to think that we are where we are without once having managed to do ourselves justice for an entire game, and without once having been able to play from anything like a full deck of fit players. In short, we have delivered some performances about which we won’t be boasting to our grandchildren in years to come.
But …. ignoring the absences in Matron’s room, we have the same guys now who achieved huge things last season, and they have been augmented. Anyone really think we have been weakened by signing the likes of Tonga, Fitter, Hudson, McCullen, Rees and Mapusua, just to name the more senior ones?
Yes, if you really want to focus on what we have been doing poorly, we can both write at length. And play straight into the hands of our opponents, by not believing in what we know perfectly well we can do well, and do again and again.
So let’s start by reminding ourselves of the mindset we need in order to be winners, and then of the skills and strengths that we actually do have.
Time for the Agincourt speech
I suggest that apart from technical direction, our coaches may well have been saying to the lads this week something along the lines of “Play with fire in your bellies, with total commitment. Don’t let fear of failure inhibit you. There can be no fear of failure when you are the underdog. You aren’t expected to win, so go out and show them. Show them why you are a pro, show why people want you to play for them. Remind yourself of how good you can be and how good you’ll need to be if you are to compete as a professional.
Don’t worry about their reputation. As favourites Sale are there to be knocked down. Let them worry about your reputation. Most of you are either Internationals or on the fringes of International recognition. That makes you worth respecting – provided you play to your reputation.
Love the ball. Without it you can’t play. Do NOT give it away. Watch it with your life and make it do the work. Expect the ball to be passed to you. It’s what we do. Don’t get isolated. Back up the ball carrier. If you go for touch, get it. Don’t foul up by going for too much length and giving away possession infield or to a quick throw in.
Concentrate on your job. Get the basics right. Do what we practise and have practised for a long time. Defend the line-out and make it solid. Get down lower in the drive. If you are upright, you’ll get knocked over. Bind and get low in the rucks and mauls. Don’t let the pill lie on the deck unattended for a Sale man to dive on.”
It’s down to the forwards
The top teams in the GP (of which we are one, let me remind you) will all take some beating. We won’t beat any of these teams simply by showing up for another day at work. Victory at this level requires something extra.
I seriously doubt that many of the guys in the pack are pleased with what they did on Sunday. Few made any impact. Few dominated. Few did anything for their reputations. Did our pack play as a unit? I think not! So, what have we got?
Despite all our yowls, we can field props who can prop. Tonga and Skusey have shown that they can hold good front rows, and both are one hell of a lot fitter than they were. Are Hats or Fitter fit again? Hell, I don’t know. Between them you can take your pick of Coetzee, Paice and Russell. They can all give M. Bruno a game to remember.
Yes, our second row need to impose themselves, and not just in the line-out. They are the big men, and they need to be counted. You know it. They know it. We are due a big performance where it matters. Messrs Hudson, Kennedy and Roche. Your Club needs you. Right blinking now.
Assuming passports etc, we can field a ball-carrying back row to keep even Sale honest. Names like Leguizamon, Murphy, Magne, and even Roche and McCullen are not to be sneezed at. Nor Danaher when fit. But they also need to tackle in such a way that the opposition get stopped in their tracks rather than simply dragged down. Dragging people down to create a messy break down isn’t going to win games on Sunday.
The critical thing is that we need to rediscover what it’s like to go forwards, and that, bluntly, is what our forwards need to achieve. At worst, they need to make sure that we are not doling out going-backwards ball with man attached. How many times did we have possession on Sunday and end up well behind the gain line?
Whoops. Here we go again. The forwards will decide on who wins.
Backs are as good as it gets
I won’t go into the backline. Why not? Because, if the donkeys set up a decent supply line I allege that our backs are the equal or the superior of any combination that Sale can put out, both in defence and in attack.
I am not saying the Sale guys are rubbish. They are among the best in the land. But so are our guys. And our guys are looking awful hungry.
This applies no matter whether Brian picks X or Y in this position or that. When last can you recall such an embarrassment of London Irish three-quarter riches?
Go fiddle with your combinations of right/left kickers, line kickers and goal kickers.
Ball in hand our guys can all score a bit – if they have the ball. Remind me about who scored most tries in last year’s GP. Yep, it was us.