Irish Are Green When It Comes to European Semis But Don't Count Them Out
Shaun Edwards: For my money, there are several reasons why it''s far from game over for London Irish A couple of giants take center stage this weekend. Toulouse and Munster against London Irish and Saracens. The two most experienced Heineken Cup sides versus two that are sampling semi-finals for the first time. Actually, neither English side has got beyond the pool stage before, so why would you bet on either making it to the final?
Look at the records. First London Irish, who play Toulouse at Twickenham tomorrow. Before this season the Irish had sampled Heineken rugby twice and lost eight of their 12 games. Toulouse have made four finals, winning three of them, and been in seven semi-finals.
Now Saracens. This is their fourth dip at the Heineken Cup and although their record is much stronger than the Exiles - 11 wins from 18 before this season - this is still nose-bleed territory. Like Toulouse, Munster have been ever-present in the competition and with a little more luck they could have taken the trophy back to Limerick more than the once they managed in 2006. Still, nine quarter-finals and five semis to go with three finals isn''t to be sniffed at.
Even ERC, the organizers, seem to suggest both games are foregone conclusions. Next season when the new rankings come into force, Munster will be seeded top, Saracens 13th; Toulouse second, London Irish 18th. So game over? Well, at least in the case of London Irish, the Edwards money says otherwise and for quite a few reasons.
First, no French side seems happy against a blitz defence. It''s not something they see in their league, the Top 14, and only regular exposure teaches you how to cope. France didn''t against Wales in the Six Nations and their midfield looked pretty wobbly at times with red shirts in their faces and time on the ball cut to a minimum.
London Irish are also pretty good at getting to half-backs and here could be Toulouse''s weak link. Guy Noves has answered his problem of having two good scrum-halves and no recognized fly-half by moving Jean-Baptiste Elissalde from nine to 10, outside Byron Kelleher. Elissalde gets away with playing out of position - although he does have some experience at fly-half - simply because he is a brilliant footballer, as we all saw in the last third of the quarter- final against Cardiff.
Then he was inspirational, running the last bit of resistance from tired Cardiff legs, but in the first half the link to Kelleher was less than assured. They got away with it because Cardiff just couldn''t win any lineout ball. Toulouse had a near monopoly of possession, so practice eventually made near-perfect and Kelleher and Elissalde ran away with the game.
I doubt they will get such an easy ride tomorrow. Toulouse have jumpers throughout their pack, but the London Irish line out is probably the most efficient in the Guinness Premiership. Bob Casey and Nick Kennedy almost guarantee good ball on the Irish throw and are top notch at stealing defensive lineouts.
The Irish wide attack should also flourish against the Toulouse defence because the French put little pressure on the second receiver and tend, instead, to do their best work at the breakdown. Irish will also have to kick well against a back three with a habit of returning the ball the length of the field, but Toulouse have lost their wing Vincent Clerc for the rest of the season and with him went a lot of their cutting edge. Yesterday Noves reeled off another list of injured players which also included Thierry Dusautoir and Clément Poitrenaud and admitted his side were tired when they lost at home to Clermont Auvergne at the weekend.
That said, Toulouse can make any prediction look stupid. If their forwards get up a head of steam and have a day when their off-loading game constantly switches the point of attack, any defence is left guessing and a team on the back foot leaves itself prey to the likes of Cédric Heymans, Yannick Jauzion, and Maleli Kunavore and the new(ish) wing Maxime Médard.
As for Saracens, their best hope is coming fast out of the blocks. Munster are good at killing a game off once they get ahead and will be even better if the Ricoh is wet on Sunday. On the front foot Ronan O''Gara will do what he did to us in Limerick, so the Saracens pack has to be at its best. In Cobus Visagie they have probably the best scrummager in the competition, but it might not be enough.
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