Weekend Preview: Ben Morgan out of the pack as Gloucester reshuffle cards for Saracens game
Statistically speaking, there is as much chance of Gloucester prevailing on their first visit to Saracens’ all-weather Allianz Park tomorrow as there is of Private Eye being nice to Michael Gove, throwing its unqualified support behind Boris Johnson or deciding that the sweetheart deals between big business and the British tax authorities are perfectly fair and reasonable after all.
The West Countrymen have not won a Premiership match away from Kingsholm since February and have not beaten Saracens in London for five long years.
Of course, there is always a statistic to set against the statistics: in this case, the fact it is well over a decade since Gloucester went on to lose their second game of the season after messing up in their first. But even though their desperate performance against Sale on home soil last weekend was an aberration, they will not be heading for the northern reaches of the capital in confident mood.
Especially as Ben Morgan, the England No 8 and one of their kingpin forwards, has been demoted to the bench and will not, therefore, have an immediate chance to slap down his obvious challenger for a place in the red-rose pack, Billy Vunipola. Nigel Davies, the Gloucester head coach, has reshuffled his cards in the back-row department, pairing the Test hopeful Matt Kvesic with the Fijian ransacker Akapusi Qera and running another Pacific islander, Sione Kalamafoni, between them.
The fact that Kvesic will be playing on the blind-side flank rather than in his favoured breakaway position is not quite what the England coach, Stuart Lancaster, would have wanted to see, but then Lancaster has frustrations coming out of his ears. Thanks to a combination of injury and scratchy form, precisely one third of the elite squad named for the forthcoming autumn internationals against Australia, Argentina and the world champion All Blacks are missing from this weekend’s starting line-ups.
Leicester, for instance, visit Bath this afternoon shorn of Manu Tuilagi, Toby Flood, Ben Youngs, Geoff Parling and the deeply unfortunate Tom Croft, who will not play again this season after wrecking a knee ligament six days ago. At least the front-rowers Tom Youngs and Dan Cole will be present and correct, which means a hard day at the office for the Bath tight unit, which includes England candidates in David Wilson and Dave Attwood, the latter of whom is pushing very hard for a Test place in November.
Two clubs likely to spend the season on the lower rungs of the league ladder, Worcester and London Irish, meet at Sixways today and the team finishing second will feel far from good about themselves.
Both sides showed promise in defeat on the opening weekend: the Midlanders dug in admirably against Leicester at Welford Road and might have trousered a losing bonus had they stayed on the right side of the referee, while the counter-attacking panache of Topsy Ojo and Marland Yarde allowed the Exiles to take something from their heavy defeat by Saracens. However, both will see this as a must-win contest.
Dean Ryan, the Worcester rugby director, has the prop Euan Murray available to him – the Scot will not play Sunday rugby for religious reasons – and has replaced one former Sale lock, Dean Schofield, with another, Chris Jones. London Irish, meanwhile, have promoted the ultra-aggressive Tongan loose forward Chris Hala’ufia to the starting line up. This takes Hala’ufia’s appearance tally for the club into three figures.
Down at Sandy Park, a characteristically youthful Wasps side are likely to run into highly-motivated hosts in the shape of Exeter, who are still smarting from the pasting they took during the first-half debacle at Northampton a week ago. “If anything, it’s been easier preparing the guys for this one,” said Rob Baxter, the man running the Devonians. “The truth is, an under-performance often concentrates the mind that little bit more.”
While Baxter has made minimal changes, promoting the England Under-20s centre Sam Hill to midfield and shifting Ian Whitten out wide in place of Matt Jess, the Londoners have lost the wing Tom Varndell to long-term injury and had to select accordingly. Happily for them, the experienced midfielder Chris Bell is fit to take over as captain.
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