Cipriani can give Quins a bloody nose
Weekend Preview: Wasps fly-half ready to punish tainted team on opening day at Twickenham
Saturday 05 September 2009
The Premiership organisers expect upwards of 60,000 at Twickenham for today's London derby double-header, the second helping of which sees Wasps, the talk of the capital before the summer, take on Harlequins, the talk of everywhere during the close season.
That means 120,000 eyes peering through binoculars the moment Quins attempt a substitution. What can we expect this time? A false leg, perhaps? How about a body double for David Strettle, or a stunt man paid to do Nick Easter's tackling for him?
Quins should count themselves lucky they are not beginning their campaign at Kingsholm. The Gloucester faithful would have had themselves a ball, ripping it out of the humiliated city slickers in their tainted pastel shirts. Cries of "You don't need a physio, mate, you need Martin Scorsese," would have been two a penny.
Somehow, last season's Premiership semi-finalists must find a way of concentrating on their rugby and, by extension, of stopping the likes of Danny Cipriani and Joe Simpson, the high-calibre young Wasps half-backs, from carving them up in open field. Wasps could be anything or nothing this season: it is hard to tell, given the departure of Ian McGeechan from the top table and the disappearances of so many internationals – Raphaël Ibañez, Tom Palmer and James Haskell from within the pack; Eoin Reddan, Riki Flutey, Josh Lewsey and Tom Voyce from outside it. But it is difficult to imagine them being in a worse place than their opponents.
Wasps give debuts to two wings, Tom Varndell and David Lemi, who happen to be among the best three or four finishers in the country. There are also two new Australians in midfield – Steve Kefu, who signed from the French club Castres, and Ben Jacobs, who signed from Saracens – plus a first serious run for Dan Ward-Smith, the former Bristol No 8. Back in early 2007, Ward-Smith was a live candidate for England's World Cup squad. Then, he dislocated his kneecap. We will discover in the next few weeks whether he has a viable future at this level.
Saracens v London Irish
Leaving aside the pantomime surrounding "Bloodgate", this fixture is every bit as intriguing. It is perfectly possible that these two "London" clubs will be stronger than their higher profile rivals. Saracens have recruited strongly in a number of areas while Irish have done likewise in one: outside-half. This afternoon, the gifted Ryan Lamb makes his debut at No 10, and if he dovetails successfully with the talent around him, the Exiles will be difficult to resist.
Gloucester v Bath
Spared the worst of the criticism from rugby's moral majority thanks to Harlequins, Bath nevertheless remain scarred by the drugs-related scandals that cost them five senior players. They look stronger than their West Country rivals, even so. The return of Danny Grewcock to the second row helps no end, especially as the pack boasts two debutants in the Australian flanker Julian Salvi and the ball-carrying No 8 from Saracens, Ben Skirving.
Leeds v Newcastle
Newly-promoted Leeds yesterday announced the signing of the experienced Fijian back Seru Rabeni, but he is not expected to be a going concern until the end of the month. In the meantime, the Yorkshiremen must find ways of squeezing the best from a starting line-up boasting only three full internationals. Newcastle are not awash with Test players either, but bolstered by the likes of Gcobani Bobo, Jimmy Gopperth and James Hudson, they seem more potent somehow.
Northampton v Worcester
The visitors travel without their most effective centre pairing of Dale Rasmussen and Sam Tuitupou, and must therefore be considered distant second favourites. Northampton play Shane Geraghty, one of their marquee signings, at inside centre.
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