Facing up to a tough season ahead (Part Three)

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Facing up to a tough season ahead (Part Three)

by OxonRob on Tue Aug 01, 2006 2:43 pm

Time for the 'girls' to turn it on

With probably only one position behind the scrum locked up by its incumbent, Brian is going to have a lot of fun finding our top combination and keeping them fresh and fit. Yes, I did say combination, in preference to selecting individuals.

I know we were the GP’s leading try scorers last season, but in my opinion that for the most part reflected hunger, and almost world-class poacher’s ability, in our back three. While our threes frequently played well individually, they didn’t often do so collectively. Somehow it seemed that we were on the edge of something big, without ever quite realising it as a unit – until we got to High Wycombe in April. That was sheer heaven.

It’s great to have classy individuals, but if we want to hack it in the big time I’d argue that we need to hone our ability to bring the best out of each other and play more as a unit. I am quite sure that is what our coaches are working on as you read this.

To be fair, it must have been difficult for the guys to settle last year, as we used so many combinations, involving new players, new plays, a new philosophy of play-what-you-see, a new Director of Rugby, and some most inopportune injuries.

First we had all change in the back three, as Mike Horak came and went, in and out of the doctor’s surgery. Having started on the wing, Delon Armitage deputised manfully at 15, often appearing when his battered body demanded rest – as did others of course. Then Scott Staniforth left, and we waited two months for Sailosi Tagicakibau to arrive. In between times we had had glimpses on the wing of Justin Bishop, Dom Feau’nati and Delon Armitage, and then the shooting star which turned out to be 20 year old Topsy Ojo.

We had all change in the centre too, where Penney, Franze, Feau’nati, Mordt and Geraghty all partnered Catt at times before Christmas. From memory, Storey never figured and has now disappeared. Then Tiesi replaced Franze in the New Year. When Catty understandably took to his zimmer frame occasionally, we had various combinations of the other five pairing off. Yep, we used seven centres last season!

Once he had finally arrived - a month after the LDH - only the ever-present Riki Flutey, and the only slightly less ever-present Mike Catt supplied real continuity until February, when Armitage, Ojo and Tagicakibau settled in and Tiesi seemed to claim the 13 shirt - until Feau’nati removed it right at the end.

How will Brian cope with the demands of our new exalted status in terms of selection, bearing in mind the need for our threes to have continuity, in order to learn how to play off each other? Beats me! They may have play books, but it’s not the same as instinctively knowing the idiosyncracies of the man alongside you.

For my money only Flutey at 10 is a shoe-in. In every other position there seem to be quality alternatives with a good claim to start. Brian’s selection dilemmas look to me as follows:

The double act of Paul Hodgson and Ben Willis has been joined at 9 by the highly regarded Richie Rees from Ospreys, ousted by an All Black cabal at his former club which saw him relegated to third in line. If Richie reckons to be first or second at LI he must be quite a player! On paper at least we seem to be rich indeed at 9, with all three players seemingly of a high GP standard. How they will all three manage to practice with Riki and Barry I really don’t know.

Flutey and Everitt have the 10 shirt locked up, subject to injury, when, presumably, someone will have to step in from another position. (Geraghty?) Riki Flutey led his line last year like the (unacclaimed) world class player that he is. He made some sharp breaks, and is, for me, our best 10 since Steve Bachop. His well-chronicled place-kicking woes were principally down to injury, and he is currently burning the midnight oil at Sunbury to get back on place-kicking song. Barry Everitt seemed to be enjoying his rebirth as a running passing pivot at the end of the season, but for my money the long wind-up before he passes is still likely to put his centres in trouble. Hopefully he is practising more direct release. And keeping up his kicking!

We will see further world-class skills in the centre, with Mapusua adding to the existing talents of Tiesi, Geraghty and Catty. (Nils Mordt may start to be available again around Christmas.) Brother, but that lot will be a handful for the opposition, once they get their act together! Exciting is an over-used word, but it applies here. I have a suspicion that, in Seilala Mapusua, fresh (or worn out?) from Otago and the Highlanders (Super whatever it is now) we may have the Premiership signing of the season. Coming on the back of Flutey and Staniforth in the last two seasons, that is some achievement for our club. Mark you, Tonga may run him close.

The deceptively slight Gonzalo Tiesi demonstrated his class in spades last season, recognised by his signing a three year deal with the club, and appearing regularly for Argentina during the summer. Shane Geraghty was a regular for his age group for England, and on the LI bench, covering lots of positions. He seems to have a lot of time in which to play, a sure sign of quality. Nils Mordt played England 7s (usually at hooker!) and looked unbreakable until he broke himself with no one near him. I sense he is approaching the position Rob Hoadley was in, in his last season with us. He needs to get beyond ‘outstanding potential’ status. Is his speed an issue?

Mike Catt goes on and on, apparently indestructible, like O’Sheasby. I’ll not add to the volumes already written about his genius, or his contribution to our play and preparation.

I have a nagging concern about our lack of muscle in the centre. Mapusua has it in bucketloads, but the season starts two months before he arrives. There aren’t any question marks about the skills and courage of our guys, but exactly how long can a smaller guy go on taking out bigger guys without a break?

Given our three surviving centres’ track records with injury, can we hold out until the big man arrives? Oh well, we can always recycle a player from the wing (Feau’nati?) or even from the back row. Hopefully, we’ll get away with it.

Equally hopefully, we’ll be able to field our two Argentines simultaneously.

And that brings us nicely round to the back three, where a plethora of young men (Armitage, Ojo, Shabbo, Tagicakibau) seem to be taking on three slightly older war horses (Bishop, Feau’nati and Horak - all of them full internationals.)

Who’ll win through? Perhaps all of them!

Like 9, the battle for the 15 spot is too close to call. You may argue, on the basis of age alone, that Armitage is the future and Horak the past, but with no less conviction I’d argue that they both represent the present. Neither is without his critics. But neither is as weak a link as some cruelly allege. Ask our opponents.

In seasons past, Mike Horak has been right up there in the ZP averages for ball carries and all those other stats which ‘prove’ something or other. Not bad at all, on the tail end of a team seemingly hungry for relegation. I still don’t rate his line kicking, but it is at least better than it used to be. Not difficult, that. He is also a pretty secure tackler. If I was going to be really really nasty (which I am) I’d say that Mike’s apparent reluctance to pass has been commented on too often for there to be no truth in the criticism.

Delon Armitage is just as quick as Mike - for all I know quicker. His forays with ball in hand win the same statistical acclaim as Mike’s, although to my mind we saw a little less of the dashing Delon last year. Goodbye the exuberance of youth? No, surely not! I hope not anyway. There is nothing much wrong with Delon’s kicking, but were I his coach I’d want to sort out his defence, both positionally and mentally, in terms of tackling consistently. On several occasions last season he just went missing, curious when we all know he can and does tackle well.

Our wing candidates embrace everything from streetwise guile (Bish) and huge physical presence (Feau’nati) to out and out white line fever (Sailosi and Topsy). I’ll leave Dom Shabbo out of this collective generalisation because he has not previously played outside many of the guys now at half back and centre. (Geoff Appleford and Tofty were still playing for us when Dom last appeared.) Such change in 15 months! I think ‘Little Dom’ is going to make his presence strongly felt, but that is only my belief.

Justin Bishop, a true clubman and worth his weight in gold for that alone, shows such determined commitment on the park, including a very useful defensive brain, that I hate to say that he’ll be the back marker in this company. But with an outside break seemingly no longer in his armoury, he has become all too easy to read. I’d say the same about big Dom Feau’nati, whose pace I also question. How I’d love to be proved wrong about both men.

Or is just that ‘Big Dom’ is so big that his pace is deceptive? Mmm. Not convinced. He didn’t nail a wing place last year, but it may be that this was down to a series of injuries, so maybe I’ll just say ‘case unproven.’ Brian obviously sees him as an occasional block-busting centre – possibly a holding operation until Mapusua turns up? The two of them would be a terrifying sight in midfield, if ever picked as a pair.

Sailosi Tagicakibau and Topsy Ojo will take some shifting from the wing, anyway, and they won’t be giving their shirts away, either. However, competition is good, and there now seems to be lashings of it at the back. Rags to riches, eh?

If my crystal ball were real, I’d be a rich Mystic Rob. It isn’t and I’m not. It’s only one bloke’s opinion, and I apologise if my ignorance has caused me to comment adversely and incorrectly about anyone. This review is not intended to be personally insulting, and I will buy beer!

PS If you missed them, you can find Part One here http://www.london-irish.co.uk/viewtopic.php?t=1174 and Part Two here http://www.london-irish.co.uk/viewtopic.php?t=1179
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by Big Papi on Tue Aug 01, 2006 3:57 pm

Excellent stuff Rob- just read all three at one sitting to get the full flavour and, if it has done nothing else, it has left me panting like a dog on heat for the new season to begin.

Be interesting to see how they line up for the trial match at Sunbury.
It might give us an inkling into BS thinking for what his likely starting line up at Twickenham will be.
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by bisach on Tue Aug 01, 2006 7:18 pm

Thanks Robin, I've thoroughly enjoyed reading the series.
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by LI Lynn on Tue Aug 01, 2006 8:27 pm

Excellent Rob as always, makes the mouth water thinking of the season ahead :)
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by Loobs on Tue Aug 01, 2006 9:03 pm

Rob, I would beg to differr about Bish and the absence of an outside break. The little we saw of him last season, there were a few outside breaks and I would argue a return to most if not all of his pace of yore. The ankle injury seemed to either physically slow him or mentally slow him for a season more than one would reasonably expect it to.

Perhaps the arrival of Dr. Evil changed that.
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by OxonRob on Tue Aug 01, 2006 9:59 pm

If that is the case, I suspect you may have seen more of Bish last season than I did, Paul. If you saw some outside breaks then you are a luckier man than me! 'A' games perhaps?

I sincerely hope you are right, for a nicer man than Bish never walked the earth, and I'd dearly love to see him back at the top level on merit.
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by GWaGG on Thu Aug 03, 2006 1:29 pm

Excellent Robin - thank you again
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