Decisions may be extremely hard to come by in the Heineken Cup boardroom, but coaches do not have the luxury of procrastination when it comes to choosing their teams for the kind of must-win matches facing teams like Leicester, Northampton and Saracens this weekend.
With Harlequins pretty much through to the knockout stage and Exeter and Sale more or less out of the competition, the remaining Premiership teams are in win-or-bust territory – hence the hard calls made by bosses as different as Richard Cockerill, Jim Mallinder and Mark McCall.
If Leicester muck things up against Treviso in the Veneto this afternoon – and lest we forget, they very nearly messed up against the Italians on home soil six days ago – they will have to beat both Ospreys and Toulouse in their last two matches to stand a decent chance of making it out of a very tough pool.
Worryingly for the Midlanders, the hosts will be far stronger this time round: the hardened front-rowers Leonardo Ghiraldini and Lorenzo Cittadini start this game on the field rather than on the bench, the crack Azzurri flanker Alessandro Zanni has been named in the back row and the international centre Alberto Sgarbi will be in midfield.
With this in mind, director of rugby Cockerill has strengthened things from his end by recalling the outstanding tight-head prop Dan Cole at the sharp end, reintroducing the second-row “tractor” Louis Deacon to the engine room – thereby relieving the influential England forward Geoff Parling of the captaincy into the bargain – and making changes on both wings, where Niall Morris and Adam Thompstone replace Scott Hamilton and Vereniki Goneva. Anthony Allen is back too, the defensively sound centre having successfully recovered from injury.
Northampton would rather be in Leicester’s situation than their own, which is even more testing. Nothing short of victory over Ulster, one of the form teams in the tournament, will suffice today, and as the game is being played at Ravenhill, that most forbidding of venues, precious few gamblers are risking their pennies on the Saints coming out the right side. With the England hooker Dylan Hartley banned and the Springbok prop Brian Mujati dropped, it looks a terribly tall order – especially as Mallinder, their director of rugby, has decided to stick Courtney Lawes, another of his kingpin forwards, alongside Mujati on the bench.
Leaving aside this afternoon’s heavyweight 15-rounder between Leinster and Clermont Auvergne in Dublin – the two title favourites could both make it out of their pool and meet again at the business end of the competition – the pick of the round is tomorrow’s Saracens-Munster rumble at Vicarage Road. The Premiership club looked to be set fair for last-eight qualification until last week’s trip to Thomond Park, and while they were hardly the first English side to come unstuck in Limerick, the nature of their defeat worried McCall.
“I think we probably need to improve in all areas because we were well below our best last weekend,” said the club’s director of rugby, who has selected the bright young lock George Kruis on the blind-side flank, dropped the South African No 8 Ernst Joubert to the bench and handed the No 10 shirt to England playmaker Owen Farrell rather than Charlie Hodgson.
“We set ourselves high standards as a team and we felt we fell short of them,” added McCall. “It wasn’t a case of fatigue – there was nothing wrong with our effort or physicality. It just takes time to get everyone back on track after the autumn international programme. When you’re not together for five weeks, you’re not always as spirited as before. We have to rectify that.”
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