A look at the Saracens game by OxonRob
The day is long gone when one looked at the League Table before forecasting the outcome of a game, let alone at the results of the last half century. Everyone strengthened their squads in the close season, and this term you need to look at the team sheet before worrying about relative GP points in the bag. Even without little Thomas Castaignede, Sarries look pretty solid this year, both up front and in the backs, and I defy anyone to proclaim that it would be a disgrace and the end of the world as we know it if Irish cannot knock them over.
On the merits of the personnel likely to be involved, I’d say that this will be a hard encounter which will go the distance.
Since we are at the tail-end of a tight schedule of hard games, I hope that we haven’t been indulging in kamikaze contact training this week. I also can’t help feeling that some of our decision-making at Kingsholm needs looking at. If our training has therefore focused on reading the play rather than just tilting at windmills, then I feel optimistic about the outcome of what promises to be a thriller. My reasons for this optimism are twofold.
London Irish are on the verge of delivering a decent scrummaging unit again, our line-out experts are now back in harness, and, at long last, our unending experiments in the back row have produced what seems to be one which works well together.
However, Kevin Yates is no lightweight virgin at prop, and nor is Cobus Visagie, possibly the world’s best. The huge Centrus Johnstone is on the Sarries bench. We are going to need all our big guns firing up front! This is not the time for squad rotation! Recent performance suggests that we should be looking for Hatley, Lea'aetoa or Rautenbach at prop. (Rivals Richard Skuse and Dave Fitter are thought to be still back in the sick room, and, on the evidence, Mike Collins isn’t quite back to his mobile best yet, although he might well bench.)
Recent performance suggests either Danie Coetzee or David Paice at hooker for Irish, up against Matt Cairns or Shane Byrne. There really is no room for passengers, is there?
Casey and Kennedy face Fullarton and Raiwalui in the second row, where I’d expect us to lead at the line-out and to have parity in most other respects. Only parity? I think Sarries have more push in the tight, and carry a bit more ball than we do. I hope I am wrong.
Our back row has suddenly become quite effective, and I don't think this is solely down to the arrival of the younger Armitage, although he is probably a part of the answer! (Recent selection has had Murphy playing good rugby at 8, flanked by the tall Roche and the rotund Armitage.) Factor in either Magne or McCullen (but not both) and we are still probably OK. Leguizamon will probably bench, playing 6 or 8 in the second half. I sincerely hope that his ball retention now matches his yards gained! He is a bit costly otherwise, based on his recent performances.
A titanic tussle looks likely at the breakdown where I’d expect that despite the best efforts of Skirving, Gussie and HRHRH for Sarries, we may manage to get our hands on the ball and hang on to it - at least some of the time, anyway. Normally I’d put two bob on the winners of this skirmish trotting off as victors in the overall battle, but, depending on the selection of the Irish backs, we might actually manage to get by on a reduced possession percentage, even against the run of play.
And that brings us to my second reason for optimism: our backline.
Good Girls all round!
If we can win without the ball, as we managed against the Tigers, then in theory at least we should be able to do something if we have it. To my mind that depends on our selections at 10, 12 and 13. The wrong combination will see us crabbing sideways and stifling our quickies. If two from three blend well, then we should be able to run back at the men in black and get a result. My fab three of Flutey, Mapusua and Tiesi would win the game on their own, but I really don’t think they’ll all get on.
Whoever we select at 9, Hodgson or Rees, I am not worried by the quality of service, but your guess is as good as mine at 10. The new England squaddie, Shane Geraghty, or the Maori star Riki Flutey or our little kicking maestro, Barry Everitt? They don't play the same game, it’s true, but they all have merit, the first two especially having a great knack of being able to get their line going straight. Flutey has been absent sick for a month or two, and since there isn't any word from the sick bay I'll guess that Geraghty will start, as man in possession, with either the mercurial Flutey or the metronomic Everitt on the bench. Rich, aren’t we?
In the middle of the park we really do need at least one ball-player, able to straighten the line, perhaps two if Barry is on at 10! Sorry, Barry! A return for Catty alongside his pupil at 10? However, if Mike is still taking the tablets then what about the fast-improving Mapusua at 12? I still cannot quite fathom why it has taken him so long to find his feet, but find them he has. Many of us have almost given up on seeing Gonzalo Tiesi again in an Irish shirt, but if he plays outside either Catt or Mapusua then the midfield takes on a completely different look. Jackson the Saracens pivot is in his best form for a long time, and Sorrell their 13 is putting in sound performances week after week.
With that man Farrell turning out at 12, Irish will certainly need both wisdom and muscle in the middle of the park, but if Mapusua or Tiesi are anywhere near him I’d call a draw! The equally hard tackling Feau’nati and Mordt are class alternatives, but I tend to the view that neither is quite in the Flutey/ Catt / Mapusua / Tiesi masterclass.
Both sets of back threes have pace and quality, and it’s just about a stand-off from the point of view of a result for this war within a war. Horak’s presence on recent benches suggests that he is pressing Armitage hard for the 15 shirt, but Delon has hardly put a foot wrong in recent weeks. Given that his defence has been queried by many in recent times, it seems that Topsy Ojo’s tackling at Kingsholm may have benefited from the same coach as Delon’s. This may keep Tagicakibau in the wings if he is back from the doctor’s. Or not. How on earth does one omit a man of that quality? Or Bishop, the man with the shirt, who is playing his best for donkey’s years.
Forecast? No chance! It rather depends on who turns up for London Irish, and that is as much about minds as about men. Which takes us back to my first question.