ECC v Gloucester: Preview – It's Been a Long Hard Season
On Sunday, London Irish meet Gloucester in the final of the ECC at the totally ridiculous, Sky-blackmailed time of 12:15. The first train into London from Gloucester – except I think it may be a bus, due to Engineering works! – gets in after kick off … Or to go from Gloucester to Twickenham involves going via Newport to Reading to … missing the match, messieurs-dames.
But since when has ERC bothered a tu’penny damn about the supporter – grass roots or not? As long as the ground is sold out for the cameras and the “Equipe Sandwiches-Crevettes” get their plum seats. So – get Sky to squeeze it in between Darlington Corinthians v Halifax Town Renegades in the Premierchampionship Division 24 (North) Play-off quarter-finals and All-in Crown Green Darts, pick a stadium so small you KNOW you’re going to fill it and put the champagne on ice, Monsieur Jean-Pierre Lux. Great player. Crap administrator. As Jim Naughtie said on the Today Programme yesterday (talking about a certain water company): “I wouldn’t ask them to organise a celebration in a brewery” – nor yet a rugby match at a rugby ground, Jim.
Still, the supporters of Gloucester and Irish have long traditions of festivities together and I have no doubt we will cope. Brunch, anyone?
We have said again and again that Irish have done amazingly well to get this far and that we’d have settled for this, that or the other at the start of the season. It’s funny, but on reflection I think that this is a tad patronising – I include myself in this criticism. It slightly undervalues the efforts of the whole playing and coaching staff – ‘never mind, boys, we never really expected you to achieve what you have’. In the words of young Mr Grace “You’ve all Done Very Well”.
Well, you could argue that, so far, we’ve done no more than achieve the targets Brian Smith set at the start of the season. Heineken Cup qualification and a place in the top four of the GP. It has been inspiring and uplifting to move from scoring the fewest tries in the Premiership last season to the most tries this season. We have played some stunning rugby too, with Hodgson, Flutey, Catt, Tiesi/Feau’nati, Tagicakibau, Ojo and Armitage rivalling some of the performances of the Putt, Bachop, Venter, Burrows, Woods, Bishop & O’Shea backline. It may have been beyond the supporters’ expectations, but I’d argue that it sure as hell hasn’t been beyond those of Brian, Toby et al! There’s a streak of the perfectionist in Brian, tempered with a good dose of pragmatism, as I said in the Leicester preview.
And there’s unfinished business. You may remember the third part of Brian’s rugby “Tripos” (sorry, Brian – I know you went to the “other” place!) this season. To win something. And we have the opportunity next Sunday.
Well, we got absolutely blattered by Leicester last week. Let’s face it, they were very, very impressive and did not allow us to play. Our famed offloads didn’t happen – too many Tigers in our faces. Leicester were arguably all over the ball at the breakdown. We were outmuscled and out-hassled. The impression I got watching the TV and reading Brian’s comments since, is that the LI side was slightly cobbled together using string and sticky tape. So we aren’t going to be winning the Premiership this year – was that ever more than a dream?
And here is my worry about Sunday. Was the Tigers game a “step too far” for our team and especially the forwards? I am no expert, but I observed the following on Sunday…
Front row under pressure. Not having Rautenbach, Coetzee and Collins available is hurting us, big time. Neal and our “demented Rhinoceros” need to be wrapped in cotton wool. I hope to God that Neal’s knee is OK. I’ve given up hope that we’ll see Faan again this season. No offence to Tom Warren, or to Paicey’s propping ability, but a Cup Final is NOT the time to go down that route…! Second row were not competing on opposition lineouts – strange. Our back row (sorry to say it) were played off the park by a superb Leicester unit. No offence to Declan, Olivier and Juan, but they were well and truly beasted by Jennings, Corry and Moody.
And then we look at the backs. Here I have one massive and overriding worry. Place-kicking. Riki showed in his first game for his new club exactly how good he can be. Recently, while allegedly carrying a foot injury, he has been pants. Maybe not his fault, but it’s a fact. Luckily, his play with the ball in hand has been so inspirational (combined with Catt’s sublime distribution) that we have not needed goal kicking to get us through tight games. We’ve scored tries, tries, tries. Five (or seven) points are better than three!
So is there a dilemma for Brian here? Does he play Flutey or Barry Everitt? Barry will kick the goals, but arguably he will not ignite our outside backs in the way Riki can.
So I can see a very similar side taking the field this Sunday to the one last Sunday. Barring one of our injured doing a Lazarus, the forwards will be the same, with the possibility of Kennedy and Murphy starting. The backs will probably be the same too, with maybe Everitt and / or Tiesi starting for Flutey and / or Feau’nati. But there are four factors that might make that prediction a load of ill-informed hot air!
a) Any injuries we don’t yet know about
b) Any Lazaruses “they” have been keeping quiet about
c) The Brian Smith Master Plan
d) My ignorance.
I sincerely hope that a) is not a factor, that b) is and that c) is a corker. The Master Plan for Wasps wasn’t bad, after all! I also hope that Smith has been keeping something back for this game, but I fear that the superglue, string, sellotape elastoplast and pain killers will have to come out… It would be great to see otherwise, when the team is announced. I can’t do a lot about d) – sorry…!
Gloucester, on the other hand, have had a fortnight’s rest after their tumultuous final “regular season” game against Wasps. They’ll have had their bruises soothed, their minds rested and will be raring to go. Strangely for a Gloucester side, their backs look to be a larger threat than the forwards, with Lamb, Allen and Simpson-Daniel likely to be very dangerous. The forwards will be no pushovers – no Gloucester pack ever is. Names like Boer, Collazo, Forrester, Cornwell, Brown, Hazell, Azam – nah, they’re not exactly weak! The back row, especially, look very impressive and it could be a hard afternoon in the battle for ball on the floor. Irish haven’t a chance really.
Or do we?
The argument that Gloucester will be well rested cuts both ways. It has happened in the past that a team that has had a rest for a couple of weeks has gone off the boil. Indeed it happened to Gloucester a couple of years ago, where they “won” the Premiership by a country mile, yet crashed spectacularly to Wasps come Twickenham time. Dean Ryan will obviously be aware of this factor – and will have acted accordingly.
And I suppose that Ryan has a similar dilemma to Brian Smith. The conservative option of Ludovic Mercier, who is one of very few rivals in the GP to Andy Goode for length and accuracy of kick, or the mercurial talents of young Ryan Lamb to get the backs moving? Well, we saw what happened in the game against Wasps… A Lamb-led Gloucester backline showed no fear and built a healthy lead. Ryan arguably decided to shut up shop and put Mercier on to close out the game. Result? Misery, with Worsley’s try sealing the game late on.
Dean Ryan was always a hard-nosed, uncompromising barsteward as a player. I doubt he’s changed or mellowed much. I think he’ll give youth a chance, with the option of Mercier off the bench.
This one is far too close to call. Irish are in bits, but will stick to their principles of quick ball and fast, counterattacking backs. It has, after all, got them this far. And Irish also have the (unique?) distinction of having beaten all the West Country clubs, both Home and Away this season. Gloucester will mix forward power and backline speed. It could, genuinely, be a cracking game. As so often, the contest for the ball at the breakdown will be crucial.
I will be sitting in the East Stand as nervous as hell. I don’t “do” these big games very well and will be fidgeting madly. Sorry in advance to my neighbours! At the Powergen Cup final on 20th April 2002, many of the London Irish support admitted to “expecting to lose, but hoping to win”. I would argue that we can be far more optimistic about this one.
Last game of the season – all or nothing. Bodies on the line. Give it everything. Afterwards, I suspect that a number of supporters and players will congregate at Sunbury for a few jars, to reflect on the season and to compare “holiday” plans. Catt is going to Australia and Horak, Armitage, Hodgson, Roche, Kennedy and Paice to Canada. No doubt many supporters will want to thank the players for their efforts and to say one or two final good-byes. It’ll be a nice afternoon, win or lose. And no doubt AG will be consumed!
Just pray that Hinge & Bracket don’t tip us to win!