Shaun Edwards' defence case at London Irish is undermined by Freddie Burns
If Shaun Edwards has taken to wearing sunglasses and a fake beard, who can blame him? Probably the best-known defence coach in world rugby, he has just seen his London Irish side ship 40 points in each of their opening Premiership fixtures – the kind of statistic that keeps opposition attack coaches in gainful employment. Things will not carry on this way, of course, but just at the moment a fine reputation is being tarnished.
Brian Smith, the rugby director who brought Edwards on board, remains convinced that the man who constructed the all-but-unscaleable "black wall" at Wasps and helped drive Wales towards two Six Nations Grand Slams and a World Cup semi-final will add serious value to the Exiles' operation, but he did not foresee this level of early leakage.
"I guess if you were a neutral, you wouldn't have switched off the television," he said after watching his team lose 40-31 to Gloucester in a game full of zip and zest. "There again, we're not neutral."
In a match that might have been designed to showcase the very best of England's new generation of back-line talent – Tom Homer, Jonathan Joseph, Marland Yarde and Anthony Watson in the home ranks; Jonny May, Charlie Sharples, Henry Trinder, Billy Twelvetrees, Freddie Burns and Dan Robson on the visiting roster – the try tally could easily have reached double figures. Gloucester won because their tight unit was more effective and because their scrambling defence was as good as their first-up resistance was weak. If you want a third reason, look no further than Burns.
To an extent, the 22-year-old West Countryman will always drive a coach to drink: one of life's creative spirits, he takes the view that if he is not living on the edge, he is taking up too much space. Yet if Nigel Davies, his new boss at Gloucester, was not entirely convinced by some of the things he saw in the game-management department at the Madejski Stadium, he understands better than anyone that while Burns is wearing the No 10 shirt, there will be no want of ideas.
On Saturday, the outside-half ransacked his box of tricks. There were long, floated cut-out passes to go with the short, flat ones; there were clever angles and crafty changes of direction; there were even a couple of clean midfield breaks that on another day would have been fully rewarded. Just as importantly, if not more so, Burns registered 25 points with the boot. When the sun is shining and the surface is firm, a kick from halfway is a doddle for him.
Both sides contributed fully to the spectacle: if the solo stampede to the line from the Gloucester No 8 Ben Morgan was well worth watching, so was the bewildering London Irish attack in the opening moments of the second half – a long-distance piece of daredevilry involving Joseph, Watson and Yarde, aided and abetted by the Samoan wing-turned-centre Sailosi Tagicakibau. Yarde, a player Smith expects to "blow things open" on the England selection front sooner rather than later, fell no more than a few inches short of a stone-cold try of the season.
Quite whether these two sides can establish themselves in the top half of this season's table depends on the level of grunt they can summon up front: as both Wales and the Wallabies have shown at various points in time, brilliant back divisions are next to useless unless they are given some ball to be brilliant with. London Irish will be better in this department when the Test prop Alex Corbisiero regains fitness. Gloucester? They expect to be fine.
"There are perceptions out there about our tight five," Davies admitted, "but they're only perceptions." If he's right, Gloucester will be well worth watching from here on in.
Scorers: London Irish: Tries Ojo, Aulika, O'Leary. Conversions Shingler 2. Penalties Shingler 4. Gloucester: Tries Morgan, Simpson-Daniel, Qera. Conversions Burns 2. Penalties Burns 7.
London Irish T Homer (A Watson 33); T Ojo, J Joseph, S Tagicakibau, M Yarde; S Shingler, T O'Leary; M Lahiff (H Aulika h-t), S Lawson (B Blaney 60), L Halavatau (J Ryan 57), G Skivington (K Low 60), B Evans, O Treviranus, D Danaher (capt, A Grey 69), J Fisher.
Gloucester J May; C Sharples (S Monahan 59), H Trinder (M Tindall 57), W Twelvetrees, J Simpson-Daniel; F Burns, D Robson (D Lewis 60); N Wood (D Murphy 57), D Dawidiuk (H Edmonds 49), S Knight (R Harden 47), W James (S Kalamafoni 49), J Hamilton (capt), T Savage (James 75), A Hazell (A Qera 47), B Morgan.
Referee G Garner (London/Warwickshire).
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