CHURCH'S ON SUNDAY
March 13 2019
Parallels may be drawn between Match Officials and the various incarnations of our domestic cup. Neither are widely loved especially by losing sides who so often lay blame at their door (competence/format), both have a key role in our game, and many fans think they know of better alternatives despite an often patchy understanding of the true nature of their function!
* gives an opportunity for all clubs to win silverware
* provides developing players with a bridge between the A League and Premiership
* gives the wider squad players much needed game time
* provides income from at least two home games during the International Periods
* enables clubs to give much needed rest to fatigued players
* gives players recovering from injury a staged route back
* gives variety from what might otherwise be a remorseless grind of league and European fixtures.
As with most competitions there are arguments to be had over the format (I’d like to see restrictions on the total number of current season Premiership caps won by each selected squad, perhaps 35% of the season’s total to date) but four oft proposed alternatives have too many downsides in my view. A straight KO would deprive most clubs of much needed income and game time. An U23 competition could place excessive demands on key positions (e.g. TH prop – see below) especially with absent internationals/injured players. Combining with Championship clubs shows both a lack of appreciation of the gulf in class (even compared to Premiership 2nd XVs) and that Championship sides, like Premiership ones, prioritise their League games using cup fixtures as a wider squad competition. Removing the cup and expanding the league to 14 would move the Premiership towards the grind fest that is the Top 14, with an additional four important games played during the Six Nations. Each alternative deprives clubs of too many of the positives listed above.
The conflicting and changing purposes of the competition are evidenced in a couple of statistics relating to this years finalists. In just five rounds of the competition Sarries have used 40 players, Saints 48. Both teams have selected 5 Tight Heads (at 3 or 18) – who recalls Sasagi? Or Hakalo and van Zyl for that matter!
Round 2 and my November trip across the Pennines to the AJ Smell was memorable, not just for the delicious home-made half time cakes generously shared by the Sharks fans surrounding me. It gave me a welcome opportunity to cast a curious eye over our wider squad, gain some insight into why our coaches prefer Whiteley over the seemingly more gifted Taylor (Tom has something of Faz’s grit, desire and leadership, and kicks better) and to scrutinise the next product off our Lock production line – what a game he had, what a prospect Joel is. And another chance to see the likes of Gallagher continue their progression to our First XV. Not his best game under the high ball but he never shirked a challenge, and how much he has progressed since that Friday.
Equally enjoyable have been my trips to Franklin’s Gardens, a beautiful ground with the best grass surface in the league, a compact, accessible city centre location with ample parking and drinking space (though the beer is modest at best). A curiosity – is the stadium unique in having an apostrophe embedded in the lettering on the seats? As with every ground I’ve visited (perhaps bar Donny) it is populated by friendly, welcoming, interesting and enthusiastic fans, who will doubtless once again get behind their side with widely supported, if a tad repetitive, renditions of their favoured ditty. Particularly impressive on a previous visit was how, despite Saints losing heavily, several in the corporates behind me joined the refrains.
Northampton had three high scoring victories and a pair of close games en route to this home final. In Pool C they smashed Bristol 51-24 at The Gardens, squeaked past Pests 15-14 at The Ecoh, lost narrowly 14-12 at Castle Grim, then secured a resounding 47-20 home defeat of their nearest and dearest. Their 15 points earnt them top spot in their Pool and 2nd seeding overall, securing a home semi where they continued a run of high scores in defeating Falcons 59-33.
Unbeaten Sarries meanwhile qualified as best runners-up. We opened with a home 29-21 victory over Tigers, then tied 15 apiece with the Sharks, before a solid but costly 34-22 victory over a young Warriors side at Allianz Park, followed by a comfortable but niggly 32-12 away win over our own closest friends. Arguably conceding that TBP to Wuss resulted in 16 points being only good enough for 2nd position in our pool, 4th seeding overall, and a semi final trip to Sixways. A trademark performance founded upon line speed and solid defence produced a 38-22 win over another young Worcester side.
The finalists have different styles and differing priorities at the moment. With 8 Internationals away, Quins in the East End next week, Europe and the run-in looming, we are likely to stick with our young guns supplemented by a few more senior players. Saints, and I for one have no complaints whatsoever, are likely to field a mixed but more experienced side. Although they visit Leicester 5 days later with a daunting but for fans memorable return to Clermont the following week, a home final in front of a large crowd with the prospect of silverware and a long awaited victory over those upstarts from down the M1, has a very strong pull.
On average so far we have started 0.2 of our First XV, selected 0.8 of them and played only 3.4 of our First XXIII squad. I don’t see us deviating from this format for the final; the team (competition starts/bench) is likely to be along the following lines assuming Kpoku is released:
Gallagher (5); Crossdale (5), Bosch (3), Morris (5), Segun (2); Malins (5), Whiteley (4/1);
Thompson-Stringer (2), Woolstencroft (4/1), Lamositele (2); Day (5), Kpoku (3/1); Clark (4), Reffel (3/1)l, Earl (3);
Gray (0/3), Adams-Hale (0/4), Walker (0/2); Isiekwe (2/0), Vailanu (2/1); Taylor (1/4), Vunipola (0/2), Lozowski (2/0).
Accurately guessing the home line-up is difficult enough for the Saints faithful, so I’ll simply suggest that they might add Haywood (0/2) if finally fit again to their Semi Final side (note the 6/2 bench) of:
Furbank (5); Tuala (1/1), Hutchinson (2), Burrell (2/1), Naiyaravoro (2/1); Grayson (5), Reinach (3);
van Wyk (4), Fish (2/1), Painter (2); Ribbans (2), Ratuniyarawa (2/1); Gibson (3/1), Ludlam (3).
Harrison (3); Marshall (1/3), Waller (0/2), Hill (1/1); Moon (2/2), Wood (2/1), Brüssow (1/1); Mitchell (1/2), Collins (1/1).
Perhaps a chance to cast an eye over a familiar name at 10, though sadly we can only wish a second Saints son Harry a return fit and in good form next Autumn after his injury hit year. A third, young Sleightholme, may also play and it could be my final sighting of Luther Burrell, a decade after first watching him bulldozing through opponents at Otley.
Sunday should see a pair of strong sides eyeing silverware in a packed, partisan stadium, with SoT and the SSA providing a sweet stereophonic counter to the surround sound of intimidating Home support. The gay abandon of a revitalised Saints against the much admired(!) pragmatism of a young Sarries. Perhaps a more experienced Saints team, combined with Home advantage will make them favourites, though over the past few seasons Saracens have produced many victories in hostile environments. Both may be winners; Saints with the pot, Sarries with yet more experience and memories in the development of a group of talented, young, hungry players.
Whatever the result, safe journeys to all attending Church’s on St Patrick’s Day. Let’s hope for a cracker and perhaps pray for a similar outcome to the last final we played at The Gardens.
We still don't have a reporter for the game - any volunteers??
Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 2019:03:13:09:50:09 by Darraghgirl.
We really need to find a decent name for the cup, a Sponsor would help there of course.
As for the game? I just want Saints to keep pushing our youth. They need the experience of playing in finals even if they eventually loose. Mostly i want us to keep playing our open running rugby. We might not win anything but at least its fun to watch.
If it is intended as a "development" tournament I'd agree with restrictions with regard to the number of Premiership caps in a playing squad. Rather than a team total, I'd be minded to restrict selection to players with fewer than say 25-30 full first team appearances of 20 minutes or more - and no player with an international cap.
The one exception to that restriction could be the first "senior" appearance for any player returning from an injury after 3 weeks out or longer. P'raps a maximum of two players ... one forward, one in the backs. That would ensure that emerging talent was in with a genuine chance of winning silverware, among all clubs.
Who's going to win? Hard to say IMNSHO. Recently, the first team have given Saints some fearful whuppings. There isn't the vast gulf in class between the finals squads, so it could go either way.
Wars begin when you will, but they do not end when you please - Niccolo Machiavelli
BACKS: Matt Gallagher (30), Ali Crossdale (7), Marcelo Bosch (129), Dom Morris (10), Rotimi Segun (9), Max Malins (26), Tom Whiteley (24).
FORWARDS: Richard Barrington (160), Christopher Tolofua (32), Christian Judge (15), Joel Kpoku (7), Dom Day (29), Calum Clark (34), Sean Reffell (7), Ben Earl (34).
REPLACEMENTS: Joe Gray (6), Ralph Adams-Hale (6), Hayden Thompson-Stringer (30), Nick Isiekwe (54), Sione Vailanu (9), Henry Taylor (13), Tom Griffiths (3), Alex Lewington (21).
15 George Furbank
14 Ahsee Tuala
13 Luther Burrell
12 Piers Francis
11 Taqele Naiyaravoro
10 James Grayson
9 Alex Mitchell
1 Alex Waller (c)
2 Reece Marshall
3 Paul Hill
4 Alex Moon
5 Api Ratuniyarawa
6 Tom Wood
7 Lewis Ludlam
8 Teimana Harrison
16 James Fish
17 Francois Van Wyk
18 Ben Franks
19 James Craig
20 Jamie Gibson
21 Cobus Reinach
22 Rory Hutchinson
23 Tom Collins
Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 2019:03:15:12:07:41 by Sara'sman.
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I think Mr Grayson has a bright future!
Malins and Gallagher certainly caught the eye, Tolofua had by far his best game for us in terms of lineout throwing. I do wonder whether we’ll need to enter the market when Wiggy retires, the lads today have a long way today before they are at the level we’ll need for the big games.
Not sure what happened with the scrum, it seemed the only penalties went to the team playing up the hill.
So good to see Callum Clark back at the Gardens and still reckon he should have had more recognition than he’s got in the past.
14 points a decent winning margin for Saints and yet felt that was a very good performance from the Sarries (mostly) youngsters given they were denied any platform from the scrum. A try denied which was the correct call on the question asked and a couple of other moves that broke down just short of the line testimony to shots being fired but not quite landed.
Sarries struggled to cope with the big winger but there was no lack of heart or commitment in tackling him, or at least trying too! I think they'll maybe be a bit disappointed with how much great ball Saints were given to run back by overlong kicking throughout the game, definitely one to work on.
Given the relative strengths of the teams they did well with Malins, Gallagher, Reffell, Earl and Morris all showing up well.
Stick 2 or 3 first XVs in there and I wonder if the result would have been the same?
Great stuff going forward.