This game must rank as the highest set of mountains that Irish have had to climb for quite a while, especially if we buy into everything we read. Tigers may not be leading the Premiership, but the mere mention of their name traditionally starts to play mind games on the Sunbury faithful. Oh, but they play at Fortress Welford Road. We can’t beat them there, well only once in a blue moon, anyway. The same thoughts have grabbed other previewers, too.
The Sky website is all about what Leicester need to do in order to catch the GP leaders, not about what London Irish may do - or have to do in order to move closer to the rapidly disappearing top five teams. The Craic somewhat mournfully trots out the stats from the last N years which prove that we should not bother to travel. The OSB site simply marvels, and in detail, at the folk who may play for Tigers. Not a lot left for me to do really, is there, except to get in line?
So, the media focus is on the amazing international 4th XV that Leicester can still produce, despite having a gadzillion of people turning out for their international teams. An army of familiar, but reserve Tigger names, like Alex Moreno, James Hamilton, Leo Cullen, Louis Deacon, Brett Deacon, Shane Jennings, Jordan Crane, in the forwards, and Scott Bemand, Harry Ellis, Paul Burke, Leon Lloyd, Daryl Gibson, Tom Varndell, Sam Vesty and Henry Tuilagi are doubtless all pawing at the ground as I write, with smoke pouring from their nostrils, as they contemplate another virgin for breakfast. Then we should also consider a load of less familiar names, of possibly equal merit, but not of the awe-inducing variety.
Tiggers around the scrum and breakdown
One critical issue which I hope gets dealt with is that of the legality of Leicester at the break-down and scrums. I don’t doubt that we’d try it on ourselves if we could get away with it, but we can’t, so yet again we won’t. Sensible.
This isn’t so much a poke at gamesmanship, but a reference to the fact that Irish have been skinned alive this season by two techniques in particular. The one is the flanker who ‘binds’ with fingertips only, and thus is unbound, an illegal scavenger who makes it hard for the 9 and 10 to play, removing yards of advantage. The other is the first supporter to the tackler, going right over the ball carrier and thus blocking him from releasing the ball backwards. Let’s hope that young Ashley is on the ball!
Can't see in the dark
I’ve left it as long as I could, hoping that Hannibal and Pompey would announce their legions in sufficient time for any comment to be relevant to the teams selected – but no chance. The crystal ball is still fogged by my morning coffee, the heffalumps are still in their stalls, the Alps look large - and the Punic wars were too long ago for further analogy to be helpful.
However, I think it’d be quite nice if we also considered what London Irish can bring to the party. Let’s turn the microscope inwards, and recall what we were saying last April, before our now famous visit to Wasps at High Wycombe, unbeaten there in something like 23 games over 18 months? We all know what happened. The one thing you notice about rugby is that anything can happen. Anything at all. And so it’ll be tomorrow, too.
How do Tiggers see us?
But hold! Is it remotely possible that everyone is worrying about the wrong underdog here? Is it possible that some of the citizens of Leicester are looking at our potential team-sheet and thinking we might be a bit of a handful too?
What a silly thought, I hear you say. Look at where we are in the table, only a few notches above the gaping chasm at its foot. We are toothless this season. Can’t catch. Can’t pass. Can’t tackle. Can’t score.
The team which came third last season, won more away games than anyone else, scored more tries than anyone else, is now just a bunch of no hopers and pension chasers? I don’t buy into that, although, to be fair, we have not been putting our best foot forward this term, and on paper we look a poor bet. Happily we don’t play on paper.
We started out with all the excuses in the world. We could not put out a fit uninjured front row, and we had to recruit some last-minute stand-in propping talent. Then that talent got injured too, and has not been seen since!
Ever since September we have flattered to deceive, playing some really good heads-up rugby in most of our lost matches, and then losing it big time, perhaps taking our foot off the tactical accelerator occasionally, but regularly committing suicide with unforced errors that would make a sailor blush.
And that really is the point, isn’t it? Errors. Unnecessary errors. Things that come from the individual, not from the team. Listen to this week’s BBC interviews with Brian Smith, Mike Catt and Danie Coetzee especially, and they all say the same thing. It’s down to individual lapses in concentration.
One gathers that some fundamental thinking, talking and doing has been going on in Sunbury this week, addressing this issue at grass roots. It needs to have done, that’s for certain, but at least we all now know that we are facing in the same direction. And, with the blessing, we’ll manage to play to our best standard for 80 minutes not 60, while cutting out the dreaming.
If we can do so, this game is well within our grasp, despite the remaining sick notes and three international absentees.
Picking our team
Of recent times our (admittedly depleted) front row has been producing the goods and putting some decent names under pressure. I’d expect to see Hatley, Lea’aetoa and Skuse exchanging duties at prop, supported by Coetzee or Russell at 2, in Paice’s enforced absence. With increasing fitness I’d not expect these big men to be bossed around, and we can’t afford them to be. The joint return to fitness of Kennedy and Casey, the latter after a two month break, should see them in the second row, where they’ll give as good an account of themselves as we now expect. I expect secure line-out ball from these two, as we did last week against Gloucester - once the happy couple had been re-united.
Assuming approximate parity elsewhere, I think that the play of 6-12 on both sides will decide the game.
In the back row it’ll be Murphy at 8, but who appears at flanker is a guessing game devised by Macchiavelli. If we think Tigers are going to field a third line-out pod I’d expect Roche to play at 6 and take them on directly. However, what if they don’t? In that case, given our injury list, and recent selections and performance, it’ll be Magne and McCullen, assuming that Magne passes this morning’s fitness test on his back. But what if he doesn’t? In that case I think we may see either a rare appearance from Thorpe or a return by Armitage, fresh from his outstanding ‘A’ game performance against Esher. No matter who is selected, all three need to play blinders.
Like Leicester, Irish have comparative riches at 9, and depending on the injury situation I’d expect Hodgson to start, with Rees on the bench. However, if Dodge isn’t fit, then we may be in trouble, unless Willis has suddenly recovered from injury without telling anyone. The point is we’ll be competitive at 9.
And what at 10? Given Everitt’s off-colour evening against Gloucester, some might think that Flutey will automatically play 10, but that was before his BBC interview, in which he says he cannot kick at all, because he has a dodgy calf muscle. So, Barry AND Riki again, in that uncomfortable 10/12 partnership? You might think so, until you listen to Brian Smith’s interview, in which he refers to Flutey playing 12 because in the absence of Catt there was no one else to do so.
I just wonder at the spin here, for Mapusua is a first class 12, rather than a 13, and he is now available this weekend. The obvious line-up for those who like their rugby fast and furious yet controlled in the threes, is Flutey, Catt and Mapusua. Which would you drop, if you’d gone to the trouble of bringing back Mapusua and you’d been missing Catt? Flutey? I can’t read it, so you’ll have to guess.
Subject to Horak having recovered, I’d expect the back three to include Shabbo, Armitage and Ojo, with Ojo dropping out if Horak returns to his old stamping ground. They are quick that lot. If they get ball with which to run they’ll cause trouble in the striped ranks.
I have a suspicion that this game will go right to the whistle. I note that London Irish are finishing more strongly this season than ever before, so … if they are angry enough (with themselves for having landed in their current GP predicament) I reckon the visitors could squeeze it. Five points? Don’t push your luck!