“Nah, Mate – It’s Just Another Game!”
Leicester Tigers v London Irish, Guinness Premiership Semi-Final, Sunday 14th May at 16:00.
Blimey, how good does it feel to type that! I think we would all have gladly grabbed someone’s hand off, if we had been offered a Heineken Cup place for next season, let alone this. Many would have taken a leaf out of Mrs Chicken’s book and said you were a clucking mentalist if you had suggested we would get to this stage. Quite simply, London Irish have already had their best season ever, in finishing 3rd in the GP after the win against Saracens last Saturday. True, in 2002, we won the Powergen Cup and finished fourth, but this season, there are serious observers (and Brian Moore) saying that we could actually win the whole thing. Again, I am fingering the rabbit’s foot and crossing fingers as I type.
But we must not get ahead of ourselves here. There are two clubs we have not beaten this season. One is Sale, already many peoples’ Champions, having finished first in what the American Footballers would call the “regular season”. The other is Leicester. They say that to win any title of this kind, you have to beat all the “big boys” eventually and Sunday’s game would be a great time to start on Tigers!
First of all, there is the Welford Road factor. 16,500 screaming Tigers fans. The place is intimidating to away teams, there are not two ways about it. Balanced against that is the fact that Irish have by far the best Away record in the premiership, including that mad, manic nine try demolition of Wasps at the Causeway on Bank Holiday weekend. And Irish proved they could win ugly last time out, when Saracens were, quite simply, mugged in broad daylight. At least the players decided to referee the game! So how does the Welford Factor balance with the Irish Away Form factor? – close thing, I guess. We have beaten Tigers before at Welford Road, Adrian Flavin being amongst those who stood in the faces of the Leicester men and refused to be beaten, in the death throes of the 02-03 season. Probably saved our Premiership hides, that win.
It’s probably true to say that Leicester at Welford Road have not had quite the same awe-inspiring reputation in recent years. Dean Richards’ last year was not a happy one and the years when Tigers routinely won the Premiership (and won two Heineken Cups!) seemed to have passed. Johnno, Garforth, Cockerill, West and Back all retired from the pack, Kay lost form and for a while, Tigers languished – by their own very high standards. At the same time, Leicester back play was scintillating one week, moribund the next. Players of the creativity and wit of Healey (sorry!), Murphy and Lloyd struggled to set the Premiership gawping at their feats.
Significantly, however, Leicester have always been there or thereabouts, haven’t they? Worrying that! They have always been the past-masters at “getting the job done” and Brian Smith will have to unveil another tactical master plan to avoid them doing a job on Irish on Sunday.
Of course momentum is also important at this stage of the season. Leicester have always been in the top few, without ever looking as if they would challenge Sale. They had a highly embarrassing exit from this year’s Heineken Cup, when 10 minutes against 13 men of Bath were not sufficient to score any points and Andy Goode murdered one of the clearest three man overlaps you could wish for. Frankly, Tigers panicked, got white line fever. But I think that was an aberration and we would be very foolish indeed if we thought the same would happen again on Sunday. Irish, however, have got momentum behind them. They are like vultures, snapping up every unconsidered trifle and seemingly capable of scoring tries from anywhere in the same county as the one in which the match is taking place. We have won our last six games and have won several of them in some style. So – will momentum be a factor? Are Irish peaking at the right time? Let’s hope so.
But does Brian Smith think we can win it? No, not being defeatist, but a subject of some debate in the Hotel bar after the Sarries game.
Premise the First: Brian Smith does not think we can win the Play-offs. It is a tall order to beat Tigers away and then Sale or Wasps at Twickenham. He would rather not risk injuries to key players at this stage and will play a shadow side: competitive, but keeping his powder dry for the ECC Final – an arguably “easier” game to win. No-one remembers losing semi-finalists anyway. Summarised as “Brian Smith is a Pragmatist”.
Premise the Second: The first argument has its merits, but my personal view is that Smith thinks we COULD win the whole thing, but PROBABLY won’t. I do not see it in his nature to go for second best, or half-heartedly. He is a bit of a perfectionist, is Brian. Summarised as “Brian Smith is also a Perfectionist”.
My Conclusion: It’s a horrible balance to have to strike, but I think he will pick our strongest, or close to our strongest available side – he may rest the odd player, or not risk a niggle here or there. Summarised as “I think he’ll go for it, but with half an eye on the ECC Final”.
Or if you like syllogisms:-
Brian Smith wants Irish to win on Sunday.
In order to win, Irish will need to pick their strongest available side,
Therefore Brian Smith will pick our strongest available side.
As for the teams, the battle up front is going to be crucial. Control of the ball is going to be the key. If Leicester keep control, as they often do, then Irish may well have a difficult afternoon, as the infamous “5m-lineout-catch’n’drive-then-drive-ball-carrier-over” move is horribly difficult to stop legally and Mr Varndell has been scoring tries for fun out wide. If Leicester cough up their own ball, then it is a fair bet that Irish will run it back at them – very rapidly. So the contest for the ball in the set phases, at the breakdown and in the loose will be absolutely crucial.
Tigers’ front row is no pushover, with Messrs Rowntree, Chuter and White likely to start. Both White and Darren Morris have reputations as massive scrummagers at tight-head and the seemingly evergreen Rowntree will not let anyone down. Chuter is a feisty and energetic presence.
I admit that Irish’s front row concerns me, in terms of available resources. At loose-head, the equally evergreen Hatley will likely relish the contest with Morris – just as he relished his set-to with Visagie last weekend (!!!) As back up for Hats, I sincerely hope that Michael Collins is fit, as otherwise, the cupboard is looking a bit bare. At hooker, Russell and Paice are having superb seasons: the terrier-like Russell, or the larger, more powerful Paice? Perhaps Paice’s extra bulk might get him the nod. He can (and did – briefly against Wasps) play loosehead, but I pray that he will not have to…! At tighthead, I was very happy to read in the Saracens programme (hardly the fount of all knowledge in these matters!) that Rautenbach’s injury was not the serious shoulder complaint I had heard about. If he is fit (please! God!), then he should play, with Richard “demented rhinoceros” Skuse to come on if/when Faan tires. Again, if Rautenbach and Collins are not available, you just have to pray that Hats and Rhino can last the pace…
The second row & lineout battle will massive. For Leicester, possibly Cullen & Kay – whoever is chosen, they will be a formidable challenge. But I honestly do not think there is a lineout or a second row in England to compete with Casey, Kennedy and Roche. Roche in particular has had a stand-out season and is one of the players who has really shone under the new regime. I would expect Irish at least to have parity in this area, whoever two of the three are picked.
The back row is also another area that may be a serious struggle. Lewis “red mist” Moody, Martin Corry (who with Moody is also a considerable lineout threat) and Shane Jennings offer speed, bulk and cussedness. So do Magne (rested against Sarries), Leguizamon and Danaher / Roche, with Leicester perhaps having the edge in bulk, Irish the edge in speed and honours even in cussedness!
In other words, who the hell knows how the forward battle will go? Very few have mullered either pack this season and it will be very, very close, with both sides on the edge of the referee’s patience. And the number of kickable penalties conceded (and the number converted!) may ultimately decide the game.
Pat Howard and Brian Smith: are there finer backs coaches in the Northern Hemisphere at the moment? Maybe Ashton… Maybe (whisper it!) Mike Catt? Just a thought… Catty seems to have had more coverage in the Sundays than “Two Shags”, Metatarsals and Highbury combined!
I would imagine Healey will play. Ellis has never really floated my boat (not that I’m any expert!) and is inconsistent. Much as we Irish love to hate him, Healey is a game-breaker, a feisty so-and-so and a damned fine scrummie. No arguments there. That said, Pat Howard may well put Healey on the bench, as he can cover 9, 10 and either wing! Andy Goode was our nemesis earlier in the season and can (and does) kick goals from anywhere closer than his own 10 metre line. He is not perhaps the most creative out-half in the business, but by ’eck, can he kick! Similarly, his line-kicking can be prodigious, so we must not give away pennos and not kick it down Goode’s throat.
Who will Irish pick at half back? I think Hodgson must start, with Willis on the bench. Though Willis has looked good in the last two games, I think Brian Smith will back Hodgson’s speed of pass, ability to drive (bully!) the forwards and feisty nature. He must surely be close to an England call, given the paucity of talent available. Flutey has been carrying an ankle injury, but his combination with Catt has been creative dynamite and he must play. And then we come to Flutey’s kicking… He started the season brilliantly and has recently, erm, not been as effective – perhaps the injury has been a factor in this. But we really need him to be close to 100% in this area. I would guess that Brian Smith will not take the ultra-conservative option (not in his nature) and pick the fit-again Everitt, but Barry MUST be on the bench.
Catt and … who? Fea’unati, who has done such a sterling job in the last two games? Tiesi, who seems to tackle above his weight and has the knack of being in the right place at the right time? Leave that one to Brian Smith! One thing I do know, Darryl Gibson and Olli Smith will be a real test of our centre three-quarters?
I think the Irish back three pick themselves – Tagicakibau, Ojo and Armitage. Pure pace. Tigers will probably counter with Varndell (pace), Tuilagi (power) and Murphy (pace fading, but plenty of guile). I hope the Irish back three have their tackling games on full power!
This will be a very, very close game. There are exciting match-ups all over the field. Catt’s sublime passing, versus Gibson’s power and ability to offload. The back rows. Hodgson, the aspirant England scrummie versus either the current or the former England scrummie. Raw pace versus hard nosed power on one wing, raw pace versus raw pace on the other. Two Aussie coaches who are plotting and planning.
This game is FAR too close to call. I cannot make it to the ground, but will be glued to the box. Churchill Arms and a bl00dy good pint or several. If we lose, we still have a final to look forward to the weekend after. If we win, then….. Le Cheile had better think about composing a new ditty…!
Last edited by AlecW
on Wed May 10, 2006 7:08 am, edited 1 time in total.