October 12 2012
"We have a long-term plan to be champions of Europe in 5 years’ time". That was the bold proclamation (or words to that effect) of Director of Rugby, Brendan Venter, when he took charge back in 2009. That season, we were in the Amlin Challenge Cup and narrowly missed out on the quarter-finals. The following campaign was a fairly disastrous experience in the Heineken Cup, winning just one game in the Parisian snow. Phase 3 of the plan saw Sarries win their group only to be humbled at the next stage by French giants Clermont Auvergne.
The question is - as time ticks on Venter's statement of defiance - what are the targets for the fourth year? The pool is not an easy one. Racing Metro have a star-studded squad, including the somewhat infamous, game-changing wing Sireli Bobo. Munster have huge European predigree, which they will be looking re-kindle after being out-dogged in last year's quarter final against Ulster. Meanwhile Saturday's opponents, Edinburgh, operating a system of rotation unique to teams in the Celtic league, shocked everyone by defeating heavyweights Toulouse to reach the semi-finals.
As mentioned above, there may be some doubts as to the strength in depth of the Scots' squad - but in a competition as short and sharp as the Heineken Cup, that is unlikely to be a factor. Although laden with players who are part of Andy Robinson's national team, Edinburgh's playing philosophy is a very attacking one. They are currently 2nd in the league in terms of tries scored, with Flying Dutchman, Tim Visser, responsible for an astonishing 8 in just 6 games. The addition of All Black, Ben Atiga, and the emerging Scottish talent, Lee Jones, will only add to the 'flair' of the back line. Captain Greig Laidlaw, with a new partner at half-back in the charmer Richie Rees, will hope for good ball from his pack to release the excitement out wide.
However, said pack will really need to front-up and work tirelessly to match and achieve dominance over their visiting counterparts. The likely back row of Dave Denton, Ross Rennie and Netani Talei are a bruising and balanced combination - but one which may lack the guile to hold their own at the breakdown. Likewise the second row (probably Sean Cox and Grant Gilchrist) will have their work cut out at the line out - with a noticeable paucity of specialist jumpers - let alone matching the donkey work of their Sarries counterparts around the field. The all-Scottish front row of Allan Jacobsen, Ross Ford and Geoff Cross, though, should look to hold its own at the set piece, with new signings Andy Titterell and WP Nel bolstering the ranks.
Sarries, for their part, will be looking to achieve dominance in the forward battle to provide a platform for an ever-expanding attacking game. Rhys Gill's powerful performance in Oxford will probably see him retain the #1 shirt, with young tyro Mako Vunipola ready to add his presence in the loose from the bench. Much as I'd love to see Jamie George in this type of game, I suspect that John Smit's strength in the carry and new-found work rate will see him in the squad alongside Schalk Brits. The latter is obviously favourite to start, but there is a case for unleashing him on a tiring defence after 50 minutes of Smit's close-quarter style. Matt Stevens' carrying, break down work and discipline last week were very encouraging after a what looked like a pie-filled pre-season. The former England prop is likely to start, with the experienced head of Carlos Nieto in reserve. The front row will need to ensure that the prolific Laidlaw is not given chances to keep the scoreboard ticking over – whilst also offering themselves as ball carriers as often as possible.
The back five is an area where I see potential gains for the Men in Black – both at the lineout and at the breakdown. Steve Borthwick’s lineout calling and mammoth work rate are the perfect foil to the more dynamic physicality of either Mouritz Botha or George Kruis – and my preference would be to start with the younger Kruis after an impressive performance against London Welsh. Kelly Brown, like Borthwick, is integral to the team with his unseen work at the breakdown and on the gain line, both as an organiser and a work horse; no doubt he will relish the match-up with Dave Denton as the Autumn Internationals come into view. Ernst Joubert will be an invaluable addition to the lineout from number 8, and his talents as a wide runner will be exploited more and more with Sarries looking increasingly comfortable moving the ball in the outer channels. The #7 shirt will be keenly contested, with Will Fraser in hot form but Andy Saull fresher and with more experience. Both are very potent over the ball and they will look to capitalise on the Sarries’ gain line defence, which tends not to concede an awful lot of metres.
On the subject of the gain line, Brad Barritt’s return at inside centre is pretty much nailed-on. He will be one of Paul Gustard’s key men – as ever – when it comes to neutralising the threat of the likes of Denton and Talei. As long as Borthwick and his colleagues in the tight-five remember to align their defence from the inside out – that is to say, not neglecting the space closest to the ruck – I can see this all-important battle of the collisions going in Sarries’ favour. Although this does rely on the mindset of the players, their focus and their intensity; as the sparsely populated Murrayfield is unlikely to provide much of an atmosphere to feed off, let us hope that the prestige and importance of the competition, and this game in particular, have been reinforced all week.
If we do secure a victory in the forwards and in the collisions, what the backs choose to do with the platform will be very interesting. The probable half-back combination of Richard Wigglesworth and Charlie Hodgson is perhaps the most flexible, able to swap between playing a territory-based game and then playing a more expansive game in the right territory. Owen Farrell’s work as a second distributor, operating right on the gain line, was most impressive last week, but with the likes of Barritt and Alex Goode already able to fill that role it is likely that Farrell will have to settle for a place on the bench. Hodgson’s flat-passing game, unleashing runners such as Kruis and Gill, should keep the Edinburgh defence honest – and his wide-passing game, with one glaring exception last week, has enabled the outside backs to exploit the resulting space. Joel Tomkins is still learning to anticipate his team mates but he himself runs probing lines, is strong in contact, and offers excellent offloading skills. Goode will often operate at second receiver from full back, where he will look to combine with Chris Wyles (my favourite for the left-wing slot) and the ubiquitous Chris Ashton.
As ever this season, the big question over the attack play is one of execution, not intent – how clinical and precise will we be in the opposition 22? Perhaps equally importantly: what will Edinburgh’s attitude be at the breakdown in those areas, and how will it be refereed? And before any of that can be considered: will Sarries be at their focused and intense best in the collisions and in the execution of their kick-chase territory game?
Hopefully the answers to those questions will be positive on Saturday – but Edinburgh will no doubt be a combative unit and their firepower cannot be underestimated. Personally I think a win is all but essential for our progress through the competition – even at round one. As has been said, the Heineken Cup is a sprint where every second matters a lot.
Prediction: Sarries by 6
Good luck to all travelling – I am very envious!