Mid­week games al­low play­ers to break out

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport - Austin Healey

One thing about a strange sit­u­a­tion like this Premier­ship sea­son is that some guys are get­ting to play in games when, nor­mally, they would not have the op­por­tu­nity to do so.

That can be the mak­ing of some play­ers. They can turn a coach’s head with a good per­for­mance against a strong team. Look at Sale Sharks, Ex­eter Chiefs and Bath this week.

You would have thought that Sale, trav­el­ling down to Coven­try against a fully loaded Wasps side who had won five on the bounce and made it into the top four, might have strug­gled on Tues­day. Steve Di­a­mond had picked his sec­ond string with a cou­ple of first-choice reg­u­lars in there. That was im­por­tant. You do not want to roll out a com­plete sec­ond team, like Le­ices­ter Tigers did against Bath. That way, you tend to get rolled over. You need some lead­ers in there. Jono Ross was not meant to start, but he came in for Daniel du Preez and his pres­ence was clearly in­flu­en­tial.

Sale’s per­for­mance in win­ning 20-11 will have been one of the high­lights of their sea­son so far. They had been rub­bish since lock­down up un­til that point.

When I played at Le­ices­ter, we would rarely change a win­ning side. Un­less you were a big in­ter­na­tional, you did not walk straight back into the line-up af­ter an in­jury. You had to earn your spot all over again or had to hope that some­one got in­jured.

We had a big list of good play­ers who did not of­ten get a shot. This fix­ture list will give an open­ing to tal­ented play­ers, who some­times miss out on wider recog­ni­tion. And they will take it.

I think a lot of the Ex­eter play­ers end up in the shadow of some of the big­ger names there. Don Ar­mand is a great ex­am­ple. Some of his per­for­mances are just im­mense. Ross is Sale’s club cap­tain, but I would still count him as one of those un­der­rated play­ers.

El­liott Stooke is an­other. He al­ways plays well for Bath. Some­times the me­dia, coaches and even a player’s own team-mates can pi­geon­hole them. They think that be­cause they do one thing well, they do not want to do some­thing else or they are not even ca­pa­ble of that. A sim­i­lar thing hap­pened to me. I was pi­geon­holed as a ver­sa­tile player.

Props and sec­ond-row­ers at age-group level might get told they are great car­ri­ers and bril­liant at clear­ing out rucks, but that they should not pass. It is like some­one is slap­ping a sticker across your back which is dif­fi­cult to pull off. Rugby does tend to pi­geon­hole peo­ple, and mid­week games are a chance to break out of a stereo­type and shine.

There are pre­con­cep­tions around the way Alex Dom­brandt plays, for in­stance. We know he is a skil­ful at­tacker, but his work-rate and de­fence for Har­lequins are of­ten ques­tioned. That will be dif­fi­cult for him. As for the star play­ers, some are go­ing to a dif­fer­ent level. In my opin­ion, Tom Curry is stretch­ing away from Sam Un­der­hill with the qual­ity of his out­put. Oth­ers are go­ing back­wards.

Ben Youngs and Ge­orge Ford might be two of those be­cause of the team they are play­ing in at Le­ices­ter. What sort of pic­ture does it paint to Ed­die Jones that his

two half-backs can barely scrape past London Ir­ish at home?

Le­ices­ter are the only side in the com­pe­ti­tion who do not seem to care what hap­pens in the Premier­ship. They are ob­vi­ously con­cen­trat­ing on their Euro­pean Chal­lenge Cup quar­ter-fi­nal (against Cas­tres on Sept 20) – and fin­gers crossed that goes ahead.

But that means they are quite pre­pared to com­pletely rest their starters, pick a dirt-track­ing team and sac­ri­fice re­sults in the league.

Play­ers can be pulled up and dragged down. What has hap­pened to Northamp­ton Saints? They put out pretty much the strong­est side they could have done against Bath and got ham­mered 18-3.

As the league takes shape, it ap­pears ob­vi­ous that Ex­eter are go­ing to run away with it. They will get a home semi-fi­nal. And then is it three from five – maybe six if Saints put things right – for

They think that be­cause they do one thing well, they do not want to do some­thing else

the rest of the play-off con­tenders? Time is run­ning out for teams to make a charge. You look at Glouces­ter and think: “Why the hell are you not in the mix?”

Over the course of a sea­son, Ex­eter’s squad is miles stronger than any­one else’s. But I do think they could be beaten in a one-off game. Down the bot­tom, though, we are get­ting a taste of the po­ten­tial pit­falls of a ring-fenced league. It would be dif­fi­cult to hit a de­cent level of in­ten­sity when you can­not reach the top four.

Could the Le­ices­ter play­ers give a mon­key’s? They might say that the new coach­ing regime pro­vides the mo­ti­va­tion. If that is the case, why are they not play­ing some rugby? That brings us back to the start. Some mid­week teams – the ones still in the ti­tle race – are play­ing well. That is be­cause of the de­sire of the in­di­vid­u­als there to put on a show.

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