Michael Bradley takes aim at flaws in evolving Saracens side
AFTER the hot air filling committee rooms around the controversy of qualification for the Heineken Cup, Saracens will pitch up at Murrayfield this afternoon aiming to bring an end to the dwindling influence of English teams in European rugby’s golden event.
The Londoners have been one of the biggest spenders in world rugby over the past decade and more, and now count a glut of South African internationalists alongside their English pride and the now fit again Scotland back row Kelly Brown.
Sarries were the only English club in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals last season, having dominated a pool that included Biarritz, Ospreys and Treviso, but in the last eight their journey ended, when they met Clermont Auvergne, the French team negating their power game.
Edinburgh coach Michael Bradley is acutely aware of the pressure on his side to similarly front up this afternoon, but the Irishman was also bullish yesterday in agreeing that he believes Saracens can be exposed if they continue with their traditional Premiership style, which owes much to the safety-first, forward-dominated, risk-free rugby that most nations have been moving away from in recent seasons.
“They would have learned lessons against Clermont last year as they were way off,” he said. “As a complete game-plan they just were not competitive really when it came to thinking their way around the park and finding a solution once ‘Plan A’ didn’t work for them.
“They have made some noises about that this year, about playing more counter-attacking rugby, but they haven’t really shown that so far and hopefully won’t show that against us.
“They don’t take a lot of chances and play percentage rugby. They are like a French side playing in the English Premiership, physical and combative at the breakdown and ball-carrying with a shrewd kicking game, so they will look to play a lot of the game in our half.
“But, in the bigger picture, they will struggle to win a Heineken Cup playing just a one-dimensional game. They know that and are committed to changing, a bit like Munster this season, but they haven’t shown a willingness to do that yet, so we don’t expect them to go to that game-plan they will need to go to win the Heineken Cup.
“Also, weather conditions are closing in so I expect they will play their standard game and take their chances on the basis of that.”
Now, one must not be quick to under-estimate Bradley. Just as his skipper Greig Laidlaw this week was comfortable talking about how his side could have played better last season had there been European qualification at stake, these are measured comments from leading figures geared more towards motivating Edinburgh players than antagonising the opposition.
Just as Laidlaw believes some players let Edinburgh down last season, so Bradley is confident that Saracens, for all their obvious power, are not an unbeatable outfit. Speaking with Bradley yesterday, there was almost a similarity to media conferences on the eve of big Calcutta Cup matches, and one can recall vividly how English sides in 2000 and 2006, in particular, came to Murrayfield and attempted to play route-one rugby and came unstuck in the cold and wet.
To be fair, while the Saracens power game is extremely difficult to contain, led by potent forwards Mako Vunipola, Schalk Brits and Mouritz Botha, one also expects them to open up more than they have done in the Premiership, with Chris Ashton and David Strettle key “go-to” men, which should whet the appetite of, and provide chinks for, Tim Visser, Lee Jones and a strong Edinburgh back-line.
The crucial point for the home side will be how long they keep the ball and how well they handle the pressure, from the intense clashes at scrum, lineout and breakdown time, across the field in defence and attack, and in the wider expectations of a side that made history in this tournament last season.
Bradley is starting with newcomers John Yapp and Willem Nel either side of hooker Ross Ford, but stressed how subs Allan Jacobsen and Geoff Cross were part of a four-man assault on the Saracens front row. Grant Gilchrist and Sean Cox pair up in the boiler-house and Stuart McInally is handed the No 8 jersey, while Tom Brown returns at full-back for the injured Greig Tonks and Wales cap Richie Rees is preferred at scrum-half.
Bradley added: “There is pressure on because the expectation last year was not great. We had just been to the quarter-finals once, while this is the year after we got to the semis, so we feel a bit of pressure because of that.
“But that is a good thing because in the last couple of minutes of the match that might get us over the line. The pressure comes from that expectation, from the memory of 38,000 people here last year against Toulouse and the feeling that everybody would like to get back to that scenario.
“The quarter-finals and [RaboDirect] play-offs are what we have to strive for and what drives us on, and we’re looking to succeed on both targets this year.”
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Weather for Edinburgh
Monday 20 May 2013
Temperature: 8 C to 21 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
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Temperature: 7 C to 17 C
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