September 7 2012
This Saturday evening holds an exciting match-up in store, with regular high-performers Saracens making the journey north-west to face a reinvigorated Sale side. After an embarrassing first day down in Exeter, Steve Diamond’s men will be looking to start their season afresh as the Salford City stadium is graced with rugby union for the first time. And it’s not just the surroundings that are new, with high-profile acquisitions Richie Gray, Danny Cipriani and Bryan Redpath (as coach) all eager to make their mark.
Spearheaded by the exciting attacking mindset of Cipriani, beefed up by the powerful centre partnership of Jonny Leota and Sam Tuitupou, and sprinkled with star dust in the form of full back Rob Miller, the Sharks back line could pose a serious danger with the right ball. I even forgot to mention the sharp service of Dwayne Peel and the pace and finishing abilities of club servant Mark Cueto and academy boy Will Addison. As an attacking force they should provide a more cohesive threat than the disparate and unbalanced three-quarter line London Irish fielded last weekend. The South Sea island duo in the midfield will look to punch holes through the narrow channels, allowing Cipriani to put the wonderfully talented Rob Miller into space. The young full back has similar qualities to our own Alex Goode – a gliding running style, time on the ball, and the quick feet to pick off slower defenders.
Thankfully for London Irish, Sarries starved them of ball so effectively that they didn’t have to spend too much time embarrassing themselves. This week it will be just as crucial to be stingy with possession. The likely starting props for the Sharks will be Eifion ‘The Fridge’ Roberts and Vadim Cobilas – both sizeable specimens but perhaps not the most technical – nor indeed the most tireless – players. Petrus du Plessis was an absolute rock at tighthead for Sarries last week, with young dynamo Mako Vunipola going on the offensive; it was a fruitful partnership before and I expect to be so again on Saturday. Ignoring the well-documented brilliance of Schalk Brits in the loose, his lineout throwing was exemplary against the Exiles and I can’t recall a single lost ball. Sale, by contrast, had a nightmare in this area, with the Chiefs going after wonderboy Richie Gray and doing a comprehensive job on him. The likes of Kearnan Myall and Andy Powell will need to vary the strategy or Sarries could end up with an array of steals – with Steve Borthwick and Ernst Joubert more likely to be at the fore.
Luckily for Sale their back five look far more impressive at the breakdown than their front five do at the set piece. With the likes of Powell, ex-Sarrie Dave Seymour, and Scottish duo Gray and Richie Vernon, it is a mobile and aggressive unit. Allied with the hard running of Tuitupou and Leota, the gain line could be one area where the Sharks get some return. It will be up to our three models of consistency – Borthwick, Kelly Brown and Brad Barritt – combined with the youth of Will Fraser and the power of Mouritz Botha, to halt the attacking momentum. Joel Tomkins, still new to union, must expect his channel to be targeted – but after 10 or so months working with Paul Gustard and Kevin Sorrell, and with the best defensive 12 in the country inside him, he should have the wherewithal to deal with the threats.
And if Sarries do take command of the set-piece and the gain line – how ruthless can we expect them to be? Well, after a first half against Irish which lacked inspiration but was remarkably comfortable for the first game of a new season, the second 40 gave us a glimpse of our new attacking game. We still don’t feel secure enough to throw the ball around within opposition kicking range, but in attacking positions we do seem to have developed a more clinical edge. Much fanfare was made about Chris Ashton’s debut – and rightly so, given his two tries and one superb assist. But what was also impressive was the quality of the hands in the midfield when we looked to attack the wide channels – with Barritt, Tomkins and Chris Wyles looking to revive those old arts of an accurate draw-and-pass and running from depth. Added to the mercurial Alex Goode, the explosive Brits, and a revitalized Joubert – such a master at picking running lines from depth – Sarries’ try-scoring prospects are looking on the up for this season. The ability to call on the likes of Neil De Kock, Jackson Wray, James Short and hopefully Owen Farrell makes this weekend an even more daunting prospect for the Sharks.
No doubt Steve Diamond and the new stadium will have them pumped up, and no doubt they possess a very talented group of players – but Sarries are looking as settled as ever, and with some attacking flair to match.
Prediction? Sarries by 10.
Enjoy the game.