March 20 2012
Last Sunday Tigers claimed their 7th cup win, 18th major honour and 12th of the professional era. That 18th major honour ties us with Bath who have won 10 cups, 6 leagues and two European trophies, one Heineken and one Amlin, at the top of the English leader board, just one more and we will have finally knocked Bath off their f***ing perch, as Sir Alex would undoubtedly put it.
Such success is hard earned and rarely truly appreciated until it is gone. Some of the media declared a barren spell of years broken by our win, the fact we have in fact gone only one season without a pot seems to have passed them by but then most things do. Tigers won the 2nd of their major honours against our next opponents 21-9 on19th of April 1980, retaining the John Player Cup courtesy of 3 drop goals shred between Dusty Hare and a brace from Les Cusworth plus four penalties from Hare’s boot; 29 years and around a month later Tigers claimed their 16th honour again at the expense of the Irish Jordan Crane crashing over for the games only try and one season wonder Julian Dupuy supplying the extras to regain our league title for the 8th time. The Exiles meanwhile have to make do with a solitary cup win, against Northampton in 2002.
But enough with History which we know is bunk and on to Sunday’s match. Tigers Travel to Reading to play a team from London, over 30 miles away, as a guide this is like playing Northampton in South Wigston. Seriously. Since their move to the Thames Valley in 2000 Irish have never entertained Tigers on their special St.Patricks Day party so the travelling hardcore will get a new experience and perhaps a story or two to tell; there has been talk of this fixture taking place in New York in years to come, I for one would love to see Tigers play at the New Meadowlands, now that would certainly be a story to tell! Irish have won the last 3 “party” games, scoring over 30 points in each so Tigers will have to defend well and wreak havoc at the breakdown to spoil Irish’s special day, thankfully our back row are bang in form with Salvi and Newby being tough as teak. Just like a nerdy kid Leicester do love Reading, winning last year in a frozen Ice Bowl classic where temperatures touched -10 C, and 2 out of the last three at the football ground. Irish come in on a poor run of form that has seen them winless for over a month, last triumphing against Gloucester on February 4th in the LV cup. But as I say History is bunk and I doubt that recent form will count for anything on London Irish’s special day.
As for the teams I can see the short Sunday-Friday (when we play Worcester at Welford Road) playing heavily on Cockerill’s mind so expect to see some rotation despite both games being must win. Starting in the front rows Irish will have Ireland’s destroyer Alex Corbiseiro back available but with only 5 starts to his name all year I think that Dermody or Lahiff have more chance of starting. Traditionally Tigers struggle more against Eastern-European style counter scrummaging than New Zealand style hit and drive tactics so I would favour Lahiff who seemed to have perfected this art at Welford Road earlier in the season. For the same reason beefy Romanian Paulica Ion is my choice to start on the right of the scrum. Hooker is between Tiger’s old boy James Buckland and David Paice, with Buckland the favourite to start. After Boris Stankovitch limped off on the weekend the chances of seeing the bullocking Logovi’i Mulipola start at loosehead has increased but I feel Cockerill will want to get back to normality and the ever ready Argentinean Marcos Ayerza will again be propping up the scrum, his compatriot Martin Castrogiovanni may have been man of the match for Italia on the weekend but looked to still be carrying an injury to me and will surely be given the weekend off especially as his Samoan deputy has earned his spurs in his absence. Dan Cole probably won’t be afforded the same luxury and nor would he want it, the first crack at the shirt is very valuable to the tighthead who has been expressing his desire to start the big finals in recent weeks. After Callum Clark’s attentions Rob Hawkins will miss out with experienced George Chuter starting and Tom Youngs keeping his benching berth. Irish have in the past had our number up front, but never for the whole game, whether we can take advantage when we get our periods in the ascendancy will be crucial to determining the outcome.
The Exiles second row will be made up of Nick Kennedy, soon to depart to Toulon and the industrious Matt Garvey who has drawn comparison with our own Ed Slater. Both are hard working physical locks with the engines and skills required to play flanker in an emergency. Tigers have a wealthy of options in the second row with Parling returning from an impressive first stint with England, Kitchener really blossoming in the LV= Cup run in, Skivington still working hard before his departure to Irish and having to find spots for both Mafi and Croft in the side. This before we advance the claims of Callum Green who was excellent in his understated way during the semi-final against Bath and the injured duo of Ed Slater and Louis Deacon. Cockerill will surely rotate this position with no obvious top dogs and no dead wood to ease the thinking, my money would be on Skivington and Parling with Mafi covering from the bench, saving Kitchener for a re-union with his former side on the Friday night. Whatever combination Tigers pick they will have an advantage in the tight here, but a lineout advantage might be harder to eke out, Irish like a tall back rower which negates our usual advantage at the set piece and have had two weeks off to prepare and study.
In the back row Tigers abundance of riches continues, the aforementioned Croft v Mafi decision is joined by options of Newby, Waldrom, Salvi, Woods and Pienaar. After sterling work in the last two weeks whilst returning from Injury I expect Newby to slip to the bench, where his versatility is a prized asset allowing Salvi to regain the mantel at 7. I do like Salvi’s impact as a sub and hope we might see it again later in the year. Steve Mafi has been superb since joining last season already racking up 49 appearances for the first team and not 23 till December, when people berate Cockerill for not blooding youth they often forget that Mafi’s strong build belies his tender years. I do however expect Mafi to move to the bench to allow Tom Croft to return, either would be a great sub covering both lock and blindside so here Cockerill really can do no wrong. The Exiles have a strong band of breakaways themselves although less heralded; Jamie Gibson was a summer Saxon and his tall frame and excellent work ethic earn him comparison with a young Tom Croft, how he finds the time to study classics at University College, Oxford is beyond me. The unfairly tarnished Chris Hala’ufia is again taking a holiday for being a Pacific Islander and a nasty rough boy to those lovely Celts in the Heineken Cup so Canadian Jebb Sinclair is likely to man the fort at number 8. Declan Danaher, the definition of club stalwart and only the 5th London Irishman to play 200 games for the club, will occupy the 6 shirt. Richard Thorpe has been filling in at 7 whilst Gibson has been injured so expect to see the Kent man again attempting to snaffle our ball. Irish are strong in this area but I only have eyes for the Tigers trio, whoever they may be, and expect a ding dong breakdown battle.
Ben Youngs was back to his instinctive best at Twickenham on Saturday and despite a strong showing from Grindal I would expect Youngs to regain the shirt he defended so well against Gloucester last time out. Mickey Young is available again but has been out of sorts and has so far not shown enough to dislodge Grindal from the bench. Fly half is something of a conundrum for Matt O’Conner and Cockerill to solve this week, stick with precocious and in form Ford or allow Flood the time to regain his form from the start? Ford’s excellent kicking display against Saints would give him the edge in my eyes as Flood’s unequalled defence is a valuable asset to have on the bench should the game be tight near the end. Welshman Darren Allinson has become the Exiles number 1 number 9 this season after overcoming old warhorse, and face stamper, Paul Hodgson as well as young Scot Ross Samson. Leicester bound Daniel Bowden has been sharing his favours between 10 & 12 so far this year but has played the last two games outside much travelled Adrian Jarvis and wannabe Scotsman Steve Shingler respectively. All these men are powerful carries with decent hands and good boots, Jarvis does have the hoodoo of being relegated with every club he has been with so watch out next season! The creative fulcrum of the Irish attack is 10 and 12 where as Leicester prefer to orchestrate proceedings from 9 & 10, so direct comparison is difficult especially when Irish also favour a totally different attacking shape having forwards left and right compared to Tigers “round the corner” usual tactics. From my perspective both sides are irresistible when they get it right and we are far more likely to do that.
With Tony Allen out injured the departing Billy Twelvetrees will get the start at 12, unless Cockerill has a complete change of heart of decides to play both Flood and Ford, with Manu Tuilagi return to us from Six Nations heroism. Matt Smith will hopefully start on the wing but may have to make do with a bench spot; he is a class player who operates in his own way whether at 12, 13 or wing and much the better for it. As mentioned above it looks like Bowden will operate in the 12 berth he is expected to fill next year at Leicester and outside him I hope to see Jonathan Joseph. A classy operator with pace for the outside break, bulk for the mid field charge and the noggin to know when to use go and when to give he is surely Manu’s main rival for the long term England place. A combination of the two together would be a worthwhile experiment on the summer tour to South Africa. I have great admiration for the Exiles two centres but even whilst attempting to remove my Leicester centric glasses Manu Tuilagi is THE class centre in Europe and Twelvetrees has been on fire.
In the back three London Irish have their most settled combination and one of their best, Ojo, Armitage and Tagicakibau have been together it seems forever and are a wonderfully balanced trio. Ojo seems always just on the outside of any England talk whilst Delon Armitage has been an excellent full back for England and lest we forget was many people pick for Lions full back in 2009, before bizarrely not even making the tour. Some criticise Armitage as a Mr. Angry but I don’t see it, he is to me a victim of rugby’s personality driven citing system with Andy Robinson openly admitting he only cited him because he didn’t like him and all his bans being lengthened because the previous one was also lengthened. A fresh start with brothers Guy and Steffon in Toulon will hopefully reinvigorate him the same way the healing waters of the Mediterranean have soothed Jonny Wilkinson and brother Steffon. Tagicakibau is perhaps the best winger in the premiership, or was one or two years ago like Alesana Tuilagi at Leicester he is getting longer in tooth these days but can still frighten the horses and dominate a weak willed winger. Thankfully we don’t have any of those with his opposite number most likely to be Horacio Agulla the pin ball wizard from the Hindu club in Buenos Aires. I predict Matt Smith moving out to wing but the return to fitness of Tuilagi snr. has been mooted and the clash of the Samoans is always a sight to behold. Intercept king Scott Hamilton will I think make way after his exertions on Sunday and club captain Geordan Murphy will round out the back three. These two units are both lethal in attack and solid in defence. I wouldn’t swap ours but then neither would they.
Overall Tigers are the better team on paper but rugby is played on grass not paper and the special festivities are sure to inspire London Irish out of their recent slump in form. The crucial battlegrounds or scrum and lineout will determine whether either, neither or both teams will be able to unleash their backlines and how efficient these backs are with their chances will go a long way to determining who comes out victorious.
Cheers, much appreciated.
I probably owe all our previewers, and match reporters a pint sometime ?