Tuesday, 2 March 2010
Welcome back to my second blog. What a weekend! As an Englishman and a Leicester Tiger, it’s fair to say there have been better. Added to that, I was persuaded to lace the boots once more for a charity match on Friday at the Stoop to play for the England Legends against the Irish. Not only did that match make it a hat-trick of defeats for me, but also I haven’t been able to stand upright since!
The Guinness Premiership is hotting up beautifully now. With Leeds winning twice on the bounce all sides in the league are fighting for something. What will be worrying for sides looking down is that Leeds are not just winning now they are starting to score some points. As they have been in a dogfight all year they have developed a visible team ethic and they show every time they score a try how much it means to them and how up for a fight they are. Quins, Newcastle, Worcester and Sale will all be feeling the heat now. Of those, Newcastle and their inability to score and turn the pressure their forwards generate into points must feel particularly uneasy. They need to find a way to create more opportunities and not be totally reliant on Jimmy Gopperth’s boot. At the top of the table, Saracens have hit a stumbling block losing 4 of their last 5. They now have to move away from their ‘territory at all costs’ approach. It was working well for them but sides have become more aware of the way they play and now make sure they don’t get caught behind the forwards and look to keep hold of the ball against them. London Irish were hit hard by the suspension of their No. 8, Hala’ufia, who provides Irish with their ‘go forward, close in’. Now he’s back their game has gone back to winning ways. The two sides who may have left their charge late are Bath and Gloucester. Bath have won 5 on the bounce which has coincided with their playmakers James and Barkley returning (although they look destined not to play together). Their real success however has stemmed from their forwards dominating the set piece and close quarter battles. Gloucester have found their power game with Vainikolo leading the charge.
Leicester lost the battle of the top two and the local gloating rights, but their aim will be to consolidate their position until the internationals and injured players return. Leicester have been in this position many times before and have learnt to rest players throughout the season so they have a fully fit and fresh squad come the play-offs. Northampton, who have been very consistent throughout the season, have developed a steely forward edge to go with their attacking flair but have used a small pool of players - as they are still in contention in 3 trophies the strain will take it’s toll unless it is carefully managed.
The 6 Nations threw up some great entertainment yet again. France have shown for another game that without doubt they are the best side in the tournament and with what should be a relatively routine game against Italy they will be hosting England for what will be their Grand Slam game. France will be very grateful of the gifts Wales gave them in the match at the Millennium Stadium. When you play against world class opposition the first thing you must do is to be difficult to score against. Wales shot themselves in the foot with those 2 interception tries. It looks great when a fast open attacking game plan comes off but when it doesn’t it leaves you with a mountain to climb. Whilst Scotland were generous with their last kick-off of the game which allowed Wales possession to score, France weren’t going to do the same. As the pressure mounts, so the questions will start. France have the players but have they got the mental toughness - especially within their young decision makers at 9 and 10 - to become a Grand Slam winning side? Scotland failed to take their chances and lost their composure and, in doing so, allowed Italy to show that doing just enough to stay in contention and waiting for the opposition to make mistakes can pay dividends. I felt England’s game against Ireland was won and lost at the breakdown. England started the game attacking from deep and managed to get into a good attacking position only to get turned over at the breakdown. Again they started to attack from deep but Ireland powered through a weak ruck, turned the ball over and went on to score with their first real bit of possession. Jonny Wilkinson is taking a lot of pressure at the moment for being deep but if he gets slow ball, with all his forwards in the breakdown, then he has to stand deeper, especially as the Irish defence is set and organised. For England to progress I believe it’s best to resist the call for wholesale changes. England need to improve and grow as a group - constant changing of personnel results in having to start over again.
Now a trip down memory lane to the second of my Premiership Finals in 2006: Leicester Tigers against Sale Sharks. Sale had, without doubt, been the best team in the Premiership that year but as no side who had finished top had gone on to win the play-off, we fancied our chances. Sale dominated from the start with Jason White and co punching holes and Richard Wigglesworth sniping round the fringes, while a great marshalling and kicking game from Charlie Hodgson meant we struggled to get into the game. With Sale taking their chances we were always behind and chasing the game. When you are on the field, no matter how far behind you are, you always feel there is a chance. A couple of line breaks is all it takes and you’re back in the game. Sadly Sale’s defence had answers to our attack and we fell well short.
To continue my Guinness Premiership Final All Star team selection: as Tigers have been in the last 5 finals, in each of my blogs I will pick my best Tigers team against my Guinness Premiership Final All Star team from the last 5 years. This week, I have selected my centres and half-back pairings to complement the back 3 that I selected last time out:
15 Geordan Murphy
14 Alesana Tuilagi
11 Tom Varndell
13 Leon Lloyd
12 Daryl Gibson
10 Austin Healey
9 Harry Ellis
15 Jason Robinson (Sale Sharks)
14 Sailosi Tagicakibau (London Irish)
11 Paul Sackey (London Wasps)
13 Josh Lewsey (London Wasps)
12 Mike Catt (London Irish)
10 Charlie Hodgson (Sale Sharks)
9 Matt Dawson (London Wasps)