Far­rell backs Hart­ley for Eng­land’s lead­ing role

Last sea­son’s fi­nal­ists re­main a class apart but both need to have learnt lessons from the Ir­ish

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page - SIR IAN McGEECHAN

Top two will be even bet­ter – thanks to Le­in­ster

Sara­cens and Ex­eter are still the teams to beat and both have im­proved af­ter be­ing taught a les­son by Le­in­ster in the Cham­pi­ons Cup.

In Ex­eter’s case that means find­ing a plan B. They are me­thod­i­cal and like to go through the phases, but Le­in­ster forced them out of that rhythm by pick­ing their mo­ments and at­tack­ing them at the break­down.

Ex­eter have been so hard to stop but they need a lit­tle more un­pre­dictabil­ity as they looked un­com­fort­able when forc­ing the play un­der real pres­sure. In Rob Bax­ter and Ali Hepher they have an ex­cel­lent coach­ing team and I would ex­pect them to have found a lit­tle more edge and a higher tempo in at­tack when nec­es­sary.

As for Sara­cens, what I saw from them in the fi­nal month of last sea­son sug­gested they will be more for­mi­da­ble than ever. Le­in­ster blew them away in the Cham­pi­ons Cup last eight, but af­ter that Sara­cens played rugby that was as good as any­one in Europe. They adapted their break­down struc­tures, show­ing real clar­ity of thought, and they have been half a step ahead of the rest for quite some time. I ex­pect that to be the case this sea­son, too.

Break­down will shape this sea­son and the World Cup

The key les­son Sara­cens learnt from Le­in­ster – and one which Ed­die Jones will hope Eng­land learnt from Ire­land – is a fun­da­men­tal shift in at­ti­tude and ap­proach to the break­down when in at­tack. Ul­ti­mately it is the ac­cu­racy of that break­down work which de­ter­mines the speed and tempo of at­tacks, and leads to the op­por­tu­ni­ties to off­load and up­set de­fences.

In Eng­land, we were taught your first job was to pro­tect the ball – get over it and pre­vent the op­po­si­tion from steal­ing it. That is no longer good enough.

What Le­in­ster, Ire­land and New Zealand do so well is they play in lit­tle groups of two or three play­ers. They do not pro­tect the ball – they smash the clos­est man out of the way, win­ning the phys­i­cal bat­tle with an ag­gres­sive ac­tion. Do­ing so in­creases the risk of be­ing turned over, which means you rely on your team-mates back­ing you up and the scrum-half be­ing in po­si­tion to whip the ball away. When done well it makes for fan­tas­ti­cally quick, at­tack­ing rugby and is so dif­fi­cult to live with.

It re­quires a change of mind­set, but that is how the best are play­ing the game, so you have to adapt or die, both at club and in­ter­na­tional level. Sara­cens look like they have mas­tered it, and it will be a long sea­son for those who have not.

Bath and Wasps will thrive if they re­mem­ber to de­fend

That fo­cus on at­tack­ing rugby could ben­e­fit Bath and Wasps more than any­one. Bath badly un­der­achieved in com­ing sixth last sea­son and their key sign­ing might not be a player, with Gir­van Dempsey join­ing as at­tack coach from Le­in­ster. Their back line is packed with po­ten­tial and if they click they will be a match for any­body.

It is a sim­i­lar story for

Wasps, par­tic­u­larly with All Black Lima Sopoaga at fly-half, but as my old mate Sean Ed­wards al­ways used to say: “Bril­liant at­tack is good but it is de­fence that wins you cham­pi­onships.” Which­ever of these two sides de­fend best will go a long way this sea­son, and I think there will be a space in the top four, with New­cas­tle un­likely to match their mag­nif­i­cent achieve­ments of last sea­son. Teams will be look­ing for them and con­sol­i­da­tion will merit a de­cent cam­paign.

Cipri­ani will shine if he helps those around him (and sticks to the lemon­ade)

An­other side I ex­pect big things from are Glouces­ter, par­tic­u­larly with Danny Cipri­ani dic­tat­ing the game at No10. His time at King­sholm has not got off to the best of starts af­ter that ill-judged night out in Jer­sey this month, and the furore of the last 10 days will have up­set him. I know Danny well, hav­ing brought him through at Wasps, and he is a re­ally good, in­tel­li­gent player who just needs to stick to the lemon­ade a lit­tle more of­ten.

As a player his tal­ent is un­de­ni­able. He sees things few can and he was ex­cel­lent at Wasps last sea­son, partly be­cause he was able to bring play­ers such as Wil­lie le Roux and Christian Wade into the game.

His real mer­its come to the fore when he gets his hands on the ball a sec­ond or third time dur­ing an at­tack, but now he is at a new club his temp­ta­tion will be to try to do too much him­self. That is when Danny is at his worst – he needs to re­lax and be con­fi­dent that he has the likes of Henry Trinder and Jason Wood­ward around him to give him op­tions.

If at the end of the sea­son we are talk­ing about Trinder and Wood­ward as be­ing Eng­land con­tenders then Cipri­ani will have done his job. I re­ally hope he thrives at King­sholm.

East Mid­lands will get a re­vival of sorts

The de­cline of the East Mid­lands was a key theme of last sea­son, but I do see both Le­ices­ter and Northamp­ton en­joy­ing bet­ter cam­paigns. For much of last sea­son Le­ices­ter looked one-paced, slow and pre­dictable. They would of­ten have huge amounts of pos­ses­sion and not see it re­flected on the score­board. If Matt Toomua fires they should make the top four, but I would not put my house on it.

As for Saints, Chris Boyd is a good ap­point­ment as di­rec­tor of rugby, but I think he will need some time be­fore they can chal­lenge for the top four. It can take a long time to re­cover from a sea­son as bad as that, and a top-six fin­ish would be a de­cent re­turn.

My old mate Lam will shake up rel­e­ga­tion bat­tle

In pre­vi­ous years it has been ob­vi­ous who will go down – but not this time, as Pat Lam is set­ting his Bris­tol side up to stay.

I have known Pat for 20 years, since I con­vinced him to leave New­cas­tle to come and play for me at Northamp­ton. I liked every­thing about the man so I ap­pointed him co-cap­tain and he was my gen­eral on the pitch, the player who en­sured we im­ple­mented plans to the let­ter as we won the Heineken Cup.

He had a real rap­port with his team-mates and has car­ried that into his coach­ing ca­reer, as shown by his time in Auck­land, and his suc­cess at Con­nacht and now Bris­tol.

He will go a long way in the game and you can see by the squad he is build­ing and the money that has been in­vested that Bris­tol do not ex­pect to go down this year.

Har­lequins and Sale should be fine, and I think Bris­tol will sur­vive at Worces­ter’s ex­pense. Worces­ter have some ex­cel­lent play­ers but they have not kicked on as many ex­pected they would and I think they will strug­gle as a re­sult.

‘Cipri­ani sees things few can. There is no doubt about his tal­ent’

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