It has not been the best of weeks for the England captain Chris Robshaw – or the best of months, or the best of springs. If the futility of his own heroic lone stand against the rampant Welsh on Grand Slam day in Cardiff did not alert him to the possibility of a sharp downturn in fortunes, a couple of wounding defeats with Harlequins must have set the alarm bells ringing. Then came the savage body blow of British and Irish Lions rejection, followed by omission from the red rose tour of Argentina and, yesterday, confirmation that he would miss his club’s biggest domestic game of the season.
Unlucky? You could say. But for this torrent of bad luck, Robshaw would have had no luck at all. The flanker would have given pretty much anything to play for Quins in this afternoon’s Premiership semi-final at Leicester: primarily because his club’s status as reigning national champions is on the line, but also because he is in sore need of a positive vibe from somewhere. Failure to recover from a three-week-old ankle injury denies him his shot at solace.
Not that Welford Road is the most sympathetic venue for visiting players craving spiritual uplift. Leicester may have suffered some recent upheaval of their own – on Monday, their highly regarded attack coach Matt O’Connor accepted the top job at Leinster; on Tuesday, their revered full-back Geordan Murphy declared that he had played his last game of competitive rugby – but this is the time of year they love best, internal hassle or no internal hassle. They have a formidable look about them this weekend, if not an unbeatable one.
All six of their Lions contingent – Manu Tuilagi and Ben Youngs behind the scrum; Tom Youngs, Dan Cole, Geoff Parling and Tom Croft in the thick of it – start today’s game, so the Londoners will need every last ounce of physical resilience. If James Johnston, their departing tight-head prop, can give them parity at the set-piece and allow Danny Care and Nick Evans to dictate the tempo from half-back, a turn-up is not out of the question. But when they beat the Tigers in last year’s Twickenham final, Robshaw was easily the most influential figure. Some international coaches may feel they can do without him over the coming weeks, but the back-roomers at Quins see it very differently. To them, his absence is a very serious issue indeed.
Tomorrow’s semi-final between Saracens and Northampton will be played out on the artificial surface at Allianz Park, but there is nothing remotely fabricated about the rivalry between the two clubs. The fractiousness of their relationship, out in the open for all to see three seasons ago, is not quite as public these days, but few supporters of either team are holding their breath in anticipation of a declaration of mutual respect.
Saracens, the 2011 champions, have yet to lose a game at their new home in Hendon, while Northampton’s record against top-end opposition is about as far from reassuring as it is possible to get. But there will be a lot of emotional energy surging through the Midlanders: their celebrated props, Soane Tonga’uiha and Brian Mujati, are desperate to end their Premiership careers with the taste of a Twickenham showpiece on their tongues and are guaranteed to set about Mako Vunipola and Matt Stevens with a rare relish at scrum time.
Despite the assertion of the Saracens rugby director Mark McCall that “both sides have players who can turn a match in an instant from any part of the pitch”, this contest is likely to turn on close-quarter supremacy. Leaving aside the props, there will be two fizz-bomb hookers in Schalk Brits and Dylan Hartley and a couple of madly competitive flankers in Will Fraser and Tom Wood. Just the ingredients for a winner-take-all scrap between rivals with an axe to grind.
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