Gloucester making all the right noises
Burns, Sharples and Twelvetrees look to impress against lowly London Irish
Nigel Davies is saying all the right things in all the right places these days, which partly explains why Gloucester go into this afternoon's match with London Irish at Kingsholm as a top-four Premiership team.
The Cherry and Whites have spruced themselves up pretty much everywhere – a new chief executive here, a new scrum-half there – but the signing of the Welshman as rugby director has been the key appointment. When he talks in that lyrical Carmarthenshire lilt of his, people listen.
His players will certainly be paying attention today when he warns them of the danger posed by London Irish. Danger? London Irish? Yes, you heard. The Exiles may have spent the first four months of this campaign with their knickers in the kind of twist that would have made the unravelling of the Gordian Knot seem like child's play, but no side boasting international players as capable as Alex Corbisiero, David Paice, Sailosi Tagicakibau and Jonathan Joseph can be that bad, especially when they are underpinned by uncapped practitioners as resourceful as Matt Garvey and Tom Homer, or as eye-catching as the wing Marland Yarde.
"This is a very important game for us, as it is for them for different reasons," Davies said yesterday.
"Yes, they can be dangerous. They're unpredictable and have the ability to hurt teams: they have players who can change a game in an instant, they'll keep probing for opportunities and if we're loose and present them with half-chances, they'll take advantage.
"We have to be mindful of that, to respect it. We're pretty comfortable that we have a game plan to serve us well if we're accurate and execute properly, but we have to be careful."
It is indeed a significant game for both clubs. With Exeter and Northampton knocking lumps out of each other at Sandy Park, one of those sides – perhaps both, if it finishes all-square – will drop points and slip well behind Gloucester in the race for a play-off finish, assuming the West Countrymen bend to Davies' will and do a proper job on their visitors. The Exiles, on the other hand, have to start winning some time. That, or face the grim prospect of relegation.
They are now just a point ahead of Sale at the foot of the league and while it is fiendishly difficult to see the northerners taking much from their visit to Saracens tomorrow – taking anything at all, if truth be told – it may just be that the bottom-feeders will react positively to the latest outbreak of self-consuming chaos on the personnel front and actually win a match or two in the near future.
Exeter at home and London Welsh away? It is surely possible to imagine Danny Cipriani finding a way of lording it over those two. On those same weekends, Irish host Saracens and visit Bath, the sides with the best defensive records in the country. Ouch.
What Davies did not say was that today's game is important for three of his first-choice back division. Freddie Burns, the hot-shot playmaker who took to the international field as to the manner born when England duffed up the All Blacks last month, is pretty much assured of a place in the Six Nations squad to be announced next week, but he could use a confident, commanding performance as a last reminder to Stuart Lancaster, the head coach of the national side.
For two of Burns' close colleagues, the wing Charlie Sharples and the centre Billy Twelvetrees, things are more urgent. Sharples played extremely well in his natural position of right wing against Fiji at the opening of the autumn Test window but was just a little iffy in his unnatural position of left wing against Australia the following week. Since then, he has had to watch a converted full-back in Mike Brown parade around in the No11 shirt, and as Lancaster seems to prefer two full-backs to two wings, Sharples is in danger of missing the cut when the elite party revamp is made public on Wednesday.
Twelvetrees is moving in the right direction – that is to say, towards the England squad – and with good reason: he has the range of gifts, from size and weight to strong distribution and kicking games, to cover most bases in the exasperating No 12 role. Leicester, his previous club, felt he was a little too conciliatory for their taste, but then, Attila the Hun might have come over as a bit soft at Welford Road.
Since moving to Kingsholm, the 24-year-old midfielder has made his share of aggressive tackles and while he is no Brad Barritt, he has a range of weaponry unmatched by any other England contender. Will Lancaster do the right thing this week by promoting him? Again, a decent contribution from Twelvetrees today would not go amiss.
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