You might be forgiven for wondering whether this game is actually being played 48 hours too early, given that it is likely to be an “A” match, in terms of personnel! Both sides have an horrendous list of injuries and there are likely to be some unfamiliar faces (and positions) for the game itself. There are actually a lot of similarities between the situations in which the two sides find themselves.
Injuries / Absences
London Irish may think they have it tough, with an injury list that reads (as far as I can tell):-
Horak*, Fea'unati (D)*, Catt*, Mordt, Ojo, Flutey, Everitt, Willis, Rautenbach*, Fitter*, Collins, Warren, Casey*, Kennedy.
That is really, really dire. But then you take a look at those likely to be absent for Bath, for various reasons:- injured: Barkley*, Stevens*, Lipman, Crockett, Delve, Higgins, Borthwick*. International call-ups: Grewcock*, Mears*.
So both LI and Bath are missing their usual starting second row and significant playing strength at playmaker, in the front row and in the outside backs.
Form this Season
Again very similar. Bath have lost to Gloucester, Northampton, Bristol, Ospreys and Saracens and won against Leicester, Worcester, Montpellier and Connacht.
Irish’s form has been similarly mixed, with “Fortress Madejski” having a somewhat hollow ring. Wins against Quins, Newcastle and Sarries (the latter in the Anglo-Welsh Energy thingamajig) as against losses to Bristol, Wasps (twice), Sale, Llanelli and Toulouse. I would argue that those losses were against 4 of the best club sides in the Northern Hemisphere, plus Bristol, the form side this year – no huge discredit!
With the return to league rugby this weekend, both sides will be looking to kick-start their season with a win and to establish some momentum as the Autumn Internationals take crucial players from several sides. Three wins out of four this month – and things will look very different, for either side.
To be perfectly honest, I haven’t a Scooby doo…! With so many injuries, patched up players, new injuries, scrummies playing at 10, Armitages kicking (well done, Delon!) and so on, you’d be a fool to be too definite… My guess is that LI will line up something like this:-
15 Armitage 14 Bishop 13 Tiesi 12 Mapusua 11 Tagicakibau 10 Everitt or Geraghty 9 Hodgson 1 Hatley 2 Paice 3 Lea’aeota 4 Hudson 5 Roche 6 McCullen 7 Danaher 8 Murphy. Bench:- Skuse, Coetzee, Johnson, JML, Rees, Shabbo, AN Other! This might be totally wrong. But wait a minute… That is NOT a bad side. The outside backs have pace to burn. The tight five look more than adequate and the back row will scavenge and tackle like maniacs.
Who will Bath put out? Well, I doubt the Bath supporters will have much of a clue either! I would imagine their XV will look something like
Perry, Cheeseman, Berne, Fuimaono-Sapolu, Bory, Malone, Walshe as the backs and Bell / Barnes, Hawkins, Flatman, Short, Fidler, Beattie, Fea’unati and Scaysbrook up front. And that is not a bad side either, with excellent props, experience at second row and a massive presence in the loose forwards. We underestimate the backs at our peril, especially Perry and Bory, but I feel that the Bath backline is not quite of the same scoring potential as the Irish.
This may sound strange, given that Bath has won their last two games and Irish lost their last four, but I think the momentum is with Irish. I say that because there have been glimpses recently, particularly the last 20 against Llanelli and what I hear of the performance against Toulouse, of a return to form for Irish. This in terms of cohesion, offloading out of the tackle, supporting the ball-carrier and team spirit – what the Welsh call “hwyl” (pronounced “hoil”). Mapusua has made a tremendous impact as a leader, as a ball-carrier and as a tackler (and often as first to the breakdown against Llanelli!). Hodgson’s return has added scrapping, leadership and enthusiasm (“how many Paul Hodgsons are there on the pitch?”). Our three available props have somehow managed to keep going, bury their heads in the painful stuff and their arses in the air. Hudson is really coming on. There were signs, I understand, of optimism in Toulouse, amidst defeat and a casualty list that would do credit to Ypres!
Bath’s form has been (by the admission of their own fans), dire. These were some of the comments after a halting, stumbling and probably quite lucky win against “average, limited” Connacht:- “awful … has Ashton been forgotten so soon? … dire … turgid … clueless”. It appears that Bath have recently shown every sign that they are suffering from the Irish malaise of two years ago – dropping the ball or knocking it on, taking/receiving the ball standing still, appearing disjointed, all perspiration and no inspiration, hoofing the ball upfield aimlessly, lacking cohesion, slow service from half-back. It appears that Bath (like Irish two years ago) enjoy territorial domination, but fail to convert this into points. Sound familiar? Phase after phase, hammering at the opposition line, but no breakthrough and a turnover or knock on is often the result. And two unconvincing Bath wins in the ECC (though no win in France is ever easy) were preceded by an absolute dicking at the hands of Saracens only 2-3 weeks ago.
That is why, crossing everything, I am going to predict an Irish win. I know the Rec is the Rec and home advantage can never be discounted (except when it is the MadStad!), but I think Irish have the capacity to do it. Certainly there has been evidence of a return to the cohesion and counterattacking style that won so many games last season. If Bath turn the ball over (and they do!), Irish can and will punish them, wherever it is on the field. I think the forward battle will be very even, with the two back-rows crucial. Assuming no Flutey, Catt or Everitt, Irish need Geraghty to step up to the mark and show us that he is the future.
Irish will need to keep hold of the ball and not hand it to Bory, because he is the real danger man. No pennos – Malone will punish you every time. Get down & dirty at the breakdown, quick ball, quick pass to Shane’s midriff and release those backs…! Simple, really! The forecast is good, so I would expect a running game. It’ll be close, but Irish to shade it, with a losing bonus point to Bath.
My Preview for the corresponding fixture last year (on 5th November at the Madejski) made no prediction, but resulted in a 36-12 win to Irish, which kick-started our season, believe it or not. We went into that game with a 2-5 record in the GP & the Powergen Cup, but having won both ECC games. We then won seven out of eight, including the Bath fixture, losing only to Leicester in that sobering 3-35 defeat. So here’s hoping…!
(Crosses everything, dons kevlar body-armour and helmet. Heads for bomb shelter.)