The 'Perennial No-Hopers' and the 'Terminal Underachievers' Meet in a Nothing Game on Saturday.
This is the total waste of time I’ve been asked to preview. Any other year than 2006, that is.
1) Saracens:- the “terminal underachievers”
Saracens used to be the friendly Southgate-based club that were nobody’s pushover, but never consistently challenged the likes of Bath or Leicester for the top spot – though they bloodied a few noses. Lovely ground. Lovely people. And they had a history of producing major (often forward) talent that then went elsewhere. The names Jason Leonard, Tony Diprose, Dave Flatman and Ben Clarke come to find. Quite a list. Great blokes. Great players. But left the club to find greater success elsewhere.
Then came professionalism and the ebullient Nigel Wray and his millions from Burford Holdings and the Trocadero. In 1995, the club was transformed. They moved to Vicarage Road to share with Watford FC and hoped to gain from crowds consistently in the high teens 1000s. They recruited two of the greatest backs ever to grace our game, Michael Lynagh and the peerless Philippe Sella, after the 1995 World Cup. And they recruited South Africa’s talisman, Francois Pienaar. It seemed that Wray’s millions would enable the club to kick on, to challenge the game’s traditional “big boys”.
And it so nearly worked. There was a stunning Cup Final win over Wasps by something like 48-18 – one of the best club performances I have seen. And then it all seemed to go wrong. Tony Diprose, a Saracen through and through, left the club after what was rumoured to be a punch-up with Pienaar in training. And the cup success was not repeated.
The reasons are probably many – and I am not an insider. But what business experience I have (and it is not much, especially compared to the Nigel Wrays of this world!) tells me that part of the key is the litany of failed, unsuccessful or untried coaches and Chief Executives that have been in and out of Saracens. I’m not sure I can remember them all. But Pienaar replaced Mark Evans as CEO. And Pienaar, whatever his undoubted qualities, is not the most flexible or “left field” thinker in the world. Hence Diprose’s exit. And then the coaches started to come and go. Greg Smith, Alan Zondagh, Pienaar himself, Buck Shelford, Rod Kafer, Steve Diamond, Mike Ford, Eddie Jones (briefly, as a consultant) and – for next season – now Alan Gaffney.
If there is a common thread, it is that nearly all of these are Southern Hemisphere people who were either autocratic, or inexperienced as coaches, or both. Mark Sinderberry, the current CEO, is an Aussie. And many stars have come and gone – the list is seemingly endless: Lacroix, Penaud, Grau, Grewcock, Luger, Scott Murray, Tim Horan (an immortal sadly past his best), Jannie de Beer, Benazzi, Julian White, McCrae, Paul Wallace, Christian Califano, Craig Quinnell, Ibanez, Andy Farrell (poor guy). A number of ex Sarries have been (or are) at Irish (Durant, Russell, Roche, Mapletoft, Roques). And there is a more than strong rumour that Saracens have signed a couople of Exiles for next season!
Perhaps Saracens lost their “roots” in the late 90s and early noughties. But for whatever reason, it has not worked.
But this is a proud club, with fervent support – the famous Fez Boys are amongst the game’s finest. The club were staring relegation in the face earlier in the season, especially after a disastrous, error-strewn performance (televised – aargh!) against Northampton, where they shipped a mere 58 points. But they did not need Leeds to help them out. Under the guidance of Jones and soon Gaffney, his suggestion for the permanent position, Sarries have turned it around – quite spectacularly. Four wins out of the last five is pretty impressive. Jones has also regained some reputation lost during his less than happy last year with the Wallabies. Saracens are motoring again.
2) London Irish – the Perennial No-Hopers
Ah Irish… Irish used to be the friendly Sunbury-based club that were nobody’s pushover, but never challenged the likes of Bath or Leicester for the top spot at all…! They were even relegated in the early ‘90s – though they also bloodied a few noses. Lovely ground. Lovely people. And they had a history of bringing on major talent that then went elsewhere. The names Jim Staples, Rob Henderson, Jeremy Davidson and Mal O’Kelly come to mind. Great blokes. Great players. But left the club hoping to find greater success elsewhere. And Simon Geogeghan left too: it was not his fault he got injured soon afterwards.
Irish was the place that – as Rob explained in his Wasps preview – everyone came to for a great time, for fair play, silence during kicks and to meet fierce opposition for about 50-60 minutes, before winning relatively comfortably. Bit like the Ireland team of the mid-late ‘90s, really. Clive Woodward had some brilliant and some “eccentric” ideas. Then there was the partying, the gaelic coffees, the top bar, the Symbollix, the twiddly-diddly music, the “politics” (Geogeghan’s last-game-that-wasn’t and the departure of Hika Reid come to mind), the deathburgers from the van and the whole paraphernalia that made up a day at Sunbury. We were well-loved, but never really beat anybody or won anything.
Of course a number of top players stayed, such as Bishop, O’Shea and Dawson. But the Irish heart of the club (in the playing sense) was ripped out by the IRFU. They offered big incentives to Irish players based outwith the country to come back – as well as the implied threat that a player might damage his selection prospects if he stayed put. Players of the calibre of Humphreys, Burke, Fulcher, O’Kelly, Davidson, Fitzpatrick etc left the club for their various reasons. And Dick Best did probably the only thing open to him. He went South. He hired some fantastic players (the Putt/Bachop half-back axis, anyone?), some of whom are still with us. And there were some truly stunning displays of running rugby, particularly “that” game against Quins. But no consistent success.
The move to the Stoop and Irish’s subsequent eviction, followed by the move to the Madejski Stadium are all well-known. The unfortunate demise of Richmond and London Scottish in the late 90s and the “stitch up” of their acquisition (in the professional sense) by Irish also. Thanks to the almost manic dedication and motivational powers of Brendan Venter, Irish played stunningly effective rugby in 2001-02 and finished 4th, winning the Powergen Cup in a 38-7 demolition of Northampton. So far so good.
But then Irish’s playing style was “rumbled” and the team under first Venter and then Gary Gold got stuck in a time-warp of formulaic, pre-planned rugby. It was as if the players had been forbidden to think on their feet. We couldn’t buy a try for a million dollars. There was no money to strengthen the squad. And Irish missed relegation by the narrowest of squeaks in 2003-04 and 2004-05. Every season, it appeared, Irish were tipped for relegation and just survived.
This season it is different. Under Brian Smith, the “old” (sorry Hats!) squad members, such as Hatley, Casey, Murphy and Catt are playing with joie de vivre again. The youngsters, such as Hodgson, Armitage, Ojo, Laidlaw and Kennedy are coming through and likely to challenge for international honours soon. We have a mean pack of forwards that no-one has messed with, the best line-out in the Premiership, speed and tackling in the back row, sublime distribution from Catt and pace to burn out wide. The new players are gelling well and Irish are in the Heineken Cup and in the play-offs. They might even win the whole thing!
And then there was that try-fest at Wasps last Sunday. Well, it was nearly as good to watch on TV as it must have been live…! I was intrigued by the quote from Brian Smith that Irish may be shipping more tries this year, but that this is OK, provided we score more ourselves. Alarmingly remeniscent of Kevin Keegan’s words while a manager at Newcastle and Man City, but I’ll trust Brian on this one! In truth, the Wasps encounter was not a great game. Exciting, harum-scarum and of course with the right result (!!!), but as Stuart Barnes said on Sky, both defensive coaches will have torn their hair out (OK, so Shaun Edwards doesn’t have any, but you take my point!). With seven or eight of our tries coming from turnovers, and several Wasps tries being marked by non-existent or half-hearted tackling, it was not a great game in terms of basic skills. But I’ll take it… Oh boy, will I take it…! And there is such a thing as pressurising the opposition into errors, which is exactly what we did to Wasps. And we had more gas in the tank than they did at the end. Fantastic.
My personal highlight was Simon Shaw trying to run out of his 22 and being absolutely obliterated by Kieron Roche in the tackle – spilling the ball, which was snapped up by Declan – which led to our (?)3rd try by Flutey in the corner…!
I just hope we do not have any more injuries. Hodgson looked crocked, but Willis had a blinder off the bench. Kennedy is looking match fit again. We need Rautenbach fit again, and that right soon, as we are short in the propping department…! And – perhaps most importantly, we need Riki to find his kicking boots big time. I made it at least 13 (maybe 16) points kicked away by him, Catt and (briefly) Geraghty on Sunday: and that is FAR too many. How short of match fitness is Barry, I wonder?
And so Irish stand on the brink of what could be their greatest season ever. We are scoring so many tries that we must be close to top on this criterion. A win against Sarries, together with other results going in our favour, would see us second, with a home semi against (probably) Leicester. At the very worst, we will finish 4th, with an away semi at Sale next weekend. But there’s all to play for – we’ve won nothing yet and no-one remembers the losing semi-finalists anyway. We need the win, to maintain momentum.
3) The Match
So this is the heap of rubbish I’m previewing. Traditionally, at best a nothing game between two “mid-table mediocrity” sides. More likely, the prediction would be a relegation dogfight between two sides bereft of ideas and struggling for points, let alone inspiration.
Rather different this season. Both sides have a lot to play for.
There is the possibility that London Irish will have a chance to win the Premiership at Twickenham at the end of the month. We are in a final on the 21st. I am aware that many of our readers are superstitious (not that I am - much!) and am crossing fingers, checking lucky rabbit’s foot and touching wood (well, veneer on my desk anyway) as I type. This could be the best season we have had (silverware or no silverware) in the professional era. We could even “do the double”, as Le Cheile sang in 2002. But there are several hard games to go before we can even contemplate that.
The idea that “quality rises to the top”, that the best sides in England will be those occupying the top four places at the end of the season, is interesting to me for two reasons. I guess most of us will agree that Sale, Leicester, Wasps and Gloucester are in that top echelon. That’s the first reason. The second is that either Wasps or Gloucester will still miss out on a play-off place, whereas Irish cannot – we have guaranteed it by our form this season – especially away from home. That is a measure of just how far we have come since the Double Header.
But we underestimate Saracens at our peril. No team that can boast backs of the quality of Bartholomeusz, Bracken (even if slightly “broken” and on the verge of retirement), Broster, Castaignede (just signed on for one more season), Haughton, Rauluni, Jackson, Scarborough etc can be underestimated: these guys can score tries and may yet do so against Irish on Saturday. And the forwards look tasty too:- perm them from Yates, Vyvyan, Visagie, Russell, Randell, Fullarton (injured, I hear), Chesney, Byrne and Raiwalui… Not a bad lot. Visagie is a monster.
Saracens have less (in theory) to play for. But I would argue that they will be well and truly “up for it” (sorry – another Keegan-ism: worrying habit!). They will be looking to end 05-06 on a high, to put a pretty unpleasant season behind them – in which Diamond “lost” the dressing room, Ford stepped into the breach, helped by Jones, and now Gaffney is probably trying to assess what he has got and what he needs for next season – with or without Ford, who may be off to an England job. Whew!
Unfortunately for Sarries, they went down 12-13 at home to Leicester last weekend and now cannot finish in the top six – they must be content with the ECC for next term. Though the score sounds close, I gather that Tigers had a BIG second half and could have scored several more tries. Sarries, however, will be pushing for as high a seeding as possible, so as to avoid the stronger French & English clubs.
At the same time, there may be some careers on the line, or at least the possibility in some cases of not being retained / of leaving Saracens at the end of the season. If I were a Saracen, I would be going all out to impress the new coach. I know next to nothing about how a new coach would set about taking up his duties for next season. Gaffney will no doubt have spoken to Jones and viewed all the stats. But in his place, I would (amongst a plethora of other things), look in detail at the last games of the season and assess which players are truly hungry, wading into Irish with everything they have, and which may not be giving it the kitchen sink for the whole 80-90 minutes. That must surely be a factor in his planning for next season – where he needs to strengthen, where he has adequate resources etc. And there is nothing like watching the game live, rather than on video. So I would assume the new boss will be in the stands, waiting to be impressed – or not. That’s a big spur, if you are a Saracen.
So – not a lot on the game for Saracens as a collective entity, but a helluva lot riding on it in terms of the individual players.
We hope for a hard ground, a sunny day and some running rugby. Castaignede is rejuvenated. I have to say he is about my favourite player of the last decade – all power to him in the Autumn of his career. The Irish back three is lightning quick and scoring tries in abundance. It could be a superb game, though the weather forecast for Saturday is not great: heavy showers and sunny spells.
Here’s hoping for (but not daring to predict!) a high-scoring Irish win, a great party and – well, then we have to fix our attention on the Gloucester-Wasps and Leicester results and … the playoffs…! Sale are the “real” champions as far as I am concerned, but I might have to change my tune, come 27th May.
I quite like this success thing – don’t you?