May 11 2011
What a fantastic Premiership season we’ve had: 18 wins out of 22 games, victorious away days at Franklin’s Gardens, Welford Road, the Rec and Adams Park, and we haven’t lost a game since January. But it will all count for little if this season’s surprise package, a Gloucester side in exhilarating attacking form, can topple the fortress of supreme defence and collective self-belief that has been steadily constructed this season in Watford.
Everything rests on what should be a fantastic game this Sunday, overcoming the challenge posed by the Cherry and Whites, though, will be far from an easy task. Their expansive high-tempo game of recent seasons has continued to blossom, and their conveyor belt of young talent has continued to bring fruition, but this year they have added a real hard-edged backbone to their side, especially in the front five. The Kingsholm faithful may have been excited by their beloved side in previous seasons, but until this year they could not have been overjoyed with the seeming lack of pride in the club’s heritage, nor with the gradual weakening of Gloucester’s traditional strength: the set-piece and brutal physicality. It has been especially apparent at Kingsholm, in front of the passionate/hostile/(insert inflammatory word as appropriate) fans of the Shed, that these values have returned. This will need to be in evidence again on Sunday if the Cherry and Whites are going to become the most unlikely of finalists, given where they were at the start of the year.
For me, two players have epitomized this transition in the club: firstly, the arrival of Jim Hamilton; secondly, the growth in stature of Paul Doran-Jones. PDJ, as he shall be known for convenience, off to Northampton at the end of the season, has formed a formidable front-row unit full of power and pride in the jersey, alongside club stalwart and England international Nick Wood and the infamous Olivier Azam. Sadly, those nasty citing commissioners have victimized poor Olivier and given him a draconian punishment for what was surely just part-and-parcel of a physical sport. Anyway, Azam’s absence will see the under-rated Scott Lawson retain the starting berth at hooker; what Lawson loses to Azam in physical presence and pathetic acts of violence, he more than makes up for with a dynamic game in attack and defence, combining good distribution skills with tenacity over the ball at the breakdown. Wood and PDJ, for their part, will scrummage strongly, work tirelessly in defence and offer decent carrying options. As a unit, the Gloucester front-row this weekend will pose a significantly greater test than the second-string (Alasdair Dickinson and Rupert Harden) of a few weeks back, when Gloucester were impressively dispatched with, 35-12.
Behind them, I would expect Jim Hamilton to occupy one of the starting lock positions: his physicality and sheer size (124kg and 2.03 metres) have added much-needed steel to the Gloucester front-five, and it was he at the forefronts of defining away wins against Wasps, Bath and Northampton. Alongside him, experienced campaigner Alex Brown may well get the nod as the Cherry and Whites will be desperate for their lineout to gain some level of parity against the league-topping Saracens unit. I would then expect the new England prospect, Bath-bound Dave Attwood, a player in the Courtney Lawes mould of dynamism and power, to offer impact from the bench, although either he or the modestly-dimensioned Welshman Will James would be perfectly comfortable in the starting line-up.
The back row is another area of Gloucester strength, with their likely starting trio of Alasdair Strokosch, Akapusi Qera and Luke Narraway offering a fearsome amalgamation of pace, skill, breakdown work, tackling and leadership. The all-international combination would also be well-balanced, with Strokosch in the typical mould of a work-horse blindside flanker, much like our Kelly Brown, carrying strongly, tackling ruthlessly and generally doing the things few people notice and even fewer would be willing to do themselves; Qera is a player of serious talent and ability, with the skills and pace of a Fijian sevens player, the power and physicality of a Samoan winger, and the doggedness at the tackle and the breakdown of a local Gloucester lad; Narraway, as club captain, has led from the front all season long, especially in terms of ball carrying, where he still remains a threat to defences.
Worryingly for Sarries, the Gloucester backline actually poses even more of a challenge than their forward pack. Rory Lawson, the incumbent #9 for Scotland, is fully adept at running a high-tempo game and has been a good sniper throughout the season, scoring three tries. Outside him, I have been thoroughly impressed by the performances this season of Wasps-bound Welshman Nicky Robinson: his strong tactical kicking game has guided his side to several wet-weather victories, and on the hard grounds his wide, fizzing passes are able to unleash the precocious talent the Cherry and Whites possess out wide. Robinson’s absence in the recent fixture was a key factor in the disparity between the two sides, and despite having the up-and-coming Freddie Burns as back-up, Bryan Redpath will be keen to see his first-choice playmaker last the full 80 minutes, not a given considering his recent injury problems.
Gloucester’s outside backs have been causing defences no end of trouble all season long, and particularly impressive performances have been the bonus-point victory over West Country rivals Bath at Kingsholm, the scoring of five tries in the 41-41 draw at Welford Road, the 60-point demolition of an admittedly hapless Sale side just last week, and the precision and classiness of James Simpson Daniel’s first-phase try against ourselves just a few weeks ago. Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu is a player I could watch all day long and still be amazed by his range of tricks: the Samoan #12 has ridiculous footwork, ridiculous explosiveness in contact, and a ridiculous offloading game; not everything he attempts will pay off, but Paul Gustard will know that if the Sarries defensive machine lets its eyes off the inside-centre, he will ignite something seemingly impossible. Outside him is a straight shoot-out between the hard-running Tim Molenaar, who combines bulk with intelligent running lines, and talented prospect Henry Trinder, who is by far the quicker of the two.
In the back three, the lightening pace of injury-plagued James Simpson-Daniel and Charlie Sharples can cut any defence to shreds, if they are afforded the requisite space, and the immaculate footwork of Sinbad and the superb footballing skills of Sharples do little to ease the problem. At full-back is likely to be the re-vitalised Tom Voyce, who despite not enjoying his best day at Vicarage Road a few weeks back, has been in commanding form of late.
Overall, it is a team jam-packed full of attacking danger with an ability to have any defence chasing shadows. This may sound a little bit like doom-mongering, but do keep the faith because there are weaknesses in this side: Sarries will fancy themselves to get dominance at both set-pieces, and the way in which the Men in Black have controlled the gain-line battle and the breakdown – and therefore the whole tempo of the game – has been very impressive, so if the feat can be replicated on Sunday, these talented runners will have nowhere to go. Added to that, the defensive structure implemented by Paul Gustard has been unfaltering for almost two seasons, and he had the players and the collective work ethic to formulate a strategy to shut down the Gloucester attacking game.
For Sarries part, they will feel confident after big wins against Exeter and Gloucester in recent weeks that their attacking game will be able to exploit Gloucester’s well-reputed defensive weaknesses. More broadly, after three-and-a-half months of non-stop winning rugby, the self-belief within the Men in Black squad is palpable. They know and believe they can go one better than last season, but rest assured their focus will not have drifted onto thoughts of Twickenham and revenge; rather it will be firmly on putting in a clinical, convincing display against Gloucester.
The starting front-row of Matt Stevens, Schalk Brits and Carlos Nieto has been the absolute cornerstone of this recent success. Stevens may have struggled last week against Quins after picking up an early injury, but as long as he has recovered full fitness, he will provide solidity in the tight and work rate in the loose with his strong carrying and offloading game. Italian-capped Nieto has had a fabulous season in the darkness of the front row after his horror-injury at the back-end of last season. Now at the ripe-old age of 34, he may struggle to last the 80 minutes, but his shrewd understanding of the dark arts of scrummaging will be crucial as Sarries look to secure advantage at the set-piece. Between them, the ever-effervescent Schalk Brits will combine his newly-honed set-piece ability – both throwing and hooking – with what is simply the most outrageous attacking ability ever seen from a hooker. His ability to pop up in the backline and create some magic will be well-known to Gloucester, and the way he returns kicks – either by counter-attack or 70 metre torpedo kicks – is a crucial cog in the Sarries attacking game.
We may see on Sunday the anticipated return of club legend Hugh Vyvyan, and if so this would create an almighty selection dilemma in the second row. Steve Borthwick is likely to start after his steadying impact off the bench last week, and his ability at the lineout is well-reputed. With his expert guidance and the vast array of lineout jumpers across our back-five, we have the ability to dismantle Gloucester in this aspect – an advantage which, if gained, would have serious bearing on the outcome of the match. Alongside him I would expect to see in-form Mouritz Botha bring massive physicality to the breakdown and aggression to the tackle, and his match-up with big Jim Hamilton is one of the most eye-catching for me ahead of Sunday. That starting pair would leave a straight duel between the athleticism of Hayden Smith and the experience of Hugh Vyvyan, and deciding between them is not an enviable task.
The battle of what will be two very dynamic back-rows is sure to be both fascinating and exhilarating. Ernst Joubert is certain to start at No.8, where his composure and control has such a positive influence on the rest of the Sarries side; he also has a high work-rate in attack and defence and is our top lineout operator. I would expect Jacques Burger, the Sarries Player of the Year, to occupy one of the flanker positions, where his brilliant tackling will be crucial in stemming the Gloucester attacks and looking to fluster fly-half Nicky Robinson. Alongisde the Namibian captain will be either Scotsman Kelly Brown or young English openside Andy Saull; the selection here, and that at scrum-half, will go a long way to deciding the gameplan we adopt on Sunday. The size and physicality of Brown suits a slower, more structured game, revolving around the box-kicking of England half-back Richard Wigglesworth and dominance at the gain-line. On the other hand, the speed of Andy Saull is more suited to the expansive, high-tempo game we play when Springbok Neil De Kock is at scrum-half. Again, deciding between these two combinations is not an easy task.
At fly-half the ever-impressive Owen Farrell will start, looking to complete a first Premiership season that must have exceeded any reasonable expectation. His tactical kicking – not just the accuracy of it, but when he chooses to do it – is a crucial element of our gameplan and could be especially profitable if the Sarries lineout gains its expected dominance. Outside him, the combination of Brad Barritt and Chris Wyles will need to continue to provide strength and resilience in defence to negate the threat of the more attackingly-creative Gloucester pair. Barritt’s match-up with Fuimaono-Sapolu is mouth-watering, and the outcome will go a long way to dictating the result of the match: Barritt’s usual ability to control the gain-line is crucial for the way Sarries play, and equally any space afforded to the Gloucester man will end in tears for the Sarries defence.
The Sarries back three combines the power of James Short, the pace of David Strettle, and the guile of Alex Goode. Depending on our gameplan, the kick-chase game of England international Strettle could prove a major weapon, as could the tactical kicking of Goode. If we are to play a more expansive game, these three can pose as much threat as their opposite numbers from Gloucester, with all having a big role in our try of the season from Schalk Brits against Gloucester. Short really got the better of Charlie Sharples that day, and the young man will be looking to shut down Gloucester’s top try-scorer whilst also showing his own attacking qualities. Goode was man of the match against Gloucester, and his all-round class is a major weapon for the Men in Black.
Overall, there is an absolutely cracking game in prospect. Gloucester have already exceeded their ambitions from the start of the season, and will come to Vicarage Road with nothing to lose. This Gloucester side has the quality to be incredibly dangerous when in that sort of mood. Sarries, on the other hand, will need to be at their structured best in defence and at the set-piece, whilst also looking to launch a few of their own attacking flurries at the seemingly porous Gloucester defensive wall.
Finally, with the promised invasion of thousands of passionate and noisy Gloucester fans, and the prospect of a first sell-out at the Vicarage in a few seasons, the team will need the sixteenth man to be on the Sarries side rather than supporting the Cherry and Whites. Empty your lungs, bring flags, horns, wigs, whatever, but make sure you get behind the players as they go in search of a return to Twickenham.