Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Saints go Beyond the Bosh

All this talk about the possibility of there being no Heino Cup next season.  I’d rather talk about the one about to start, thank you very much!

Try is at 1:11

Despite having a new coach and being without Sexton and Nacewa, Leinster will still be considered one of the tournament favourites this time around.  But first, they must come out of their pool, which to all intents and purposes is a stinker.

First up, we have the Ospreys, and although the Welsh regions struggle to make the final four let alone win the Heineken Cup, our tussles with them is one of the things that have made the Celtic/Magners/Rabo entity evolve into a worthwhile competition despite what the McCaffertys of this world say.

Then, we host none other than the reigning French champions Castres.  You could call them “the Ospreys of the Top14” in that they rarely impress in Heineken combat but have shown they can lie in wait for the latest winners should they come face to face with them in their domestic final.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be looking closely at the above to pool-mates to see what Leinster may come to expect when they face them in October, but for now I’m going to turn my attention to last Friday’s Premiership battle between Harlequins and Northampton Saints, the latter of whom makes the third team in Leinster’s pool and we face them in the “back-to-back” series in December.

Despite BT Sport and Sky’s best efforts at hype, it’s hard to deny that the Premiership offers the least interesting product when it comes to the actual rugby that is produced on the pitch. 

Not that this isn’t understandable, for although the clubs’ representatives go to great lengths to point it out, the need to not only qualify for the HCup but also avoid relegation does indeed play a big factor in the way they approach the game.

The resulting brand of rugby is one where the players chosen to take the field tend not to be risk-takers like we see in France, rather ones who are good at doing the basics consistently well.  The trouble with that is, when you have two sides going at each other doing the basics consistency well, they tend more often than not to cancel each other out, hence the blah style of play.

Now here I must leap to the defence of both Harlequins and the Northampton Saints for their tussle last Friday night.  For while it was played in the ground known as “The Stoop”, with the torrential rain and surface water retention it was more like “The Steep”.

But having said that, the conditions were the same for both sides, and although the way things turned out if Quins had a place kicker they would have won (Evans incredibly missed 4 and his replacement Botica 1) when it came to crossing the whitewash it was the Saints who were rewarded for being willing to chuck the ball about despite the risks involved.

You can also tell about the two clubs’ ambitions by their  recent player acquisitions.  Just yesterday on this very blog HoR2 Catherine Kavanagh reminisced from a Quins v Leinster battle way back in 2009…and although Conor O’Shea is now at the helm, they still have several players in their lineup from that day - Evans, Care, Easter, Robshaw, even the bloodgate guinea-pig himself Tom Williams (fun fact - Mike Ross also played for Quins that day, I keep forgetting that!)

Northampton however, may still have the very average Stephen Myler at fly-half since their 2011 Cardiff showdown as well as England internationals like Hartley and Foden, but in signings like George North and Kahn Fotuali’i they have shown a willingness to go Beyond The Bosh and we saw glimpses of it on Friday.

He may not have been able to make an impact in the wet but the former Osprey Fotuali’i showed his willingness to make something out of nothing when he had the chance, like one time when he danced his way from a few yards behind the gain line to several yards beyond it.

North was a lot more of a spectator out on the wing but made his tackles and on the rare occasions he found himself in space made good use of it.  But the Saints offence can’t revolve around those two…it’s more a case of the mentality of the squad to kick things up a gear when required and for the try that proved to be the match-winner this is exactly what they did.

Although the centre pairing of Luther Burrell and James Wilson doesn’t exactly jump off the teamsheet the way a Darce/Drico combo would, they combined brilliantly for the vital score including a brave long pass from Burrell which took out the majority of the defenders and was well finished by Wilson.

My conclusion re - the Saints, they’re a side that is hungry for success on all fronts, and although they have been Euro champs in the past, that means little to Jim Mallinder who has taken his side to the brink more than once and wants that bit of silverware to finish it off.  You can be absolutely certain they will gunning for Leinster this December every bit as much as Clérmont were last.  We seem to bring it out in them!

My conclusion re - the Premiership, well I can’t really make one based on this match, but I still wish the clubs’ chairmen would stop using this HCup row as a smokescreen for what is generally an inferior product.

Next week I’ll turn the spotlight on Castres, who have an ideal preparation for their visit to the 3-time European champions in October when they visit the 4-time European champions this Saturday in the Stade Ernest Wallon. JLP

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