Rugby: Saracens may be difficult to break down but defence coach is braced for stern test
Edinburgh RUGBY winger Tim Visser has scored more tries – eight – in the Rabo Direct PRO 12 league this season than the total amount mustered by tomorrow’s Heineken European Cup opponents at Murrayfield, Saracens, in their own domestic league, the Aviva Premiership.
Only six times in as many matches (and that is one more match than Visser has appeared in) have Sarries troubled the touch judges to make the journey in behind the posts for a conversion.
Having said that, this is also a Saracens side renowned for being meaner than an Aberdonian on a flag day when it comes to keeping their try line intact. Only five scores have been conceded so far which reflects kindly on the man responsible for defence, coach Paul Gustard.
But not without good reason is Gustard approaching tomorrow’s clash with a sense of apprehension as well as anticipation. Fears include recollections of captaining a London Irish side who came to Edinburgh and blew a 12-point lead with 15 minutes remaining and their hosts reduced to 14 men by a sin-binning.
Also, the back-rower, whose playing CV also includes an outing for the Barbarians against a Scotland XV at Murrayfield, is long enough in the tooth to know how Edinburgh can get themselves up for the Heineken Cup, as they did last year in their superb run to the semi-final.
Gustard said: “Edinburgh are littered with internationalists and I have been very impressed with all four big back-row players – [Stuart] McInally, [Netani] Talei, [David] Denton and [Ross] Rennie.
“The half-backs are strong with Richie Rees a running threat around the breakdown and [Greig] Laidlaw very effective on the front foot.
“There are a lot of opportunities for them to attack in around these areas. Nick De Luca is a fantastic player at 13 (centre), very dangerous, quick, strong and with a good sidestep.
“Tim Visser, for whatever reason, can’t stop scoring tries. He’s a big man and it’s a pity for us he plays on the wing and not in the forwards because it might have been easier to handle him!
“Visser is obviously a handful but the back row is so hard working and Ross Ford carries a lot of ball, as does Andy Titterrell when he comes off the bench to replace him. Ford and the back row, together with the half backs, De Luca and Visser, are the most prominent players, with due respect to the others. Edinburgh last year over-reached themselves in some areas but they deserved to get to the semi-final. They were a brilliant side to watch.”
Having paid tribute, Gustard then makes clear the pride felt by Saracens in being the only English club to reach the quarter-finals last year, and, while their strike rate in try terms is low, there are good reasons for Edinburgh to fear them suddenly clicking.
“It is not so much I feel we are waiting to click as the conversion rate where chances are concerned,” said Gustard in pointing to last weekend’s 28-23 win at London Welsh. “We have created a lot of opportunities but for whatever reason they have not quite gone our way.
“Last weekend, two tries should have been scored from line-out mauls, but one collapsed and the other chance saw the ball dropped over the line.
“A foot in touch, stemming from somebody playing our scrum half off the floor in an illegal position, was another that got away, as was the pass that didn’t quite go to hand.
“There five clear-cut chances and I hope that Edinburgh experience that sort of capability from us.”
While some portray Sarries as dour, the feeling that they are a sleeping giant grows the more Gustard reels off the talent at his club’s disposal.
Gustard added: “I wouldn’t be doing my job if the team were leaking tries. We have a certain style that we try and identify with.
“If you are a side that chop and change the way you play from week to week you are not going to get very far. We have built on a very strong defence, have a strong kicking game and, in the right areas of the pitch, we attack with as much passion and flair as any other side.
“In Charlie Hodgson, Owen Farrell, Brad Barritt, David Strettle, Chris Ashton and Alex Goode, we have basically the entire England back line from the last Six Nations, served by quality scrum halves, Richard Wigglesworth and Neil de Kock.
“In front of them you have Kelly Brown, with his Scottish captaincy potential before being injured last season, and Steve Borthwick, who helps make our line-out and set piece very strong.
“Kelly is massive for us and has worked so hard to get himself fit for the start of this season.
“He’s grown from game to game so you see he was the inherent captain of Scotland and why he captains us when the regular skipper isn’t available.”
“In the front row there are ball-carrying props such as Tonga’s Mako Vunipolo and Jared Saunders, who represented England Saxons aged 20, and is going to be a very good player.
“We are fortunate to have a very strong squad which we like to use operating on key values, fundamentally based on work-rate and discipline.”
However, despite such traits, Gustard admitted to concern about Edinburgh, not that the prospect of playing in a cavernous stadium is a worry.
“The Heineken Cup is the big prize but along the way there is a journey to be enjoyed,” he said.
“We’ll be in the capital of Scotland and if there are 4000 fans there, great. If it is 10,000, even better. Whatever, the opportunity to send out a team at Murrayfield is one I can’t wait for.”
As for the political ramifications with the English and French outfits arguing for a tournament re-structuring in a way that would make Scottish entrants qualify on merit, Gustard, whose team are currently fourth in the English Premiership, said: “When it comes down to it whatever is built up prior to kick off, it will still be 15 against 15 or 23 against 23 counting the replacments.
“Edinburgh have obviously improved their set-piece over the last year or two and their line-out has improved significantly, too.
“Class is permanent but form is temporary. Edinburgh may not have had the Rabo results they wanted but they have some big stage players, a lot of guys with a lot of caps for their country and playing much better rugby under Andy Robinson.
“Scotland’s results might not have always gone their way but they are competing with the bigger nations which hasn’t always been the case in the past 10 years.
“We’ll be on the home ground of a lot of Scotland players who will be ready to laugh in the face of some of the performances in the Rabo over the last few weeks.
“If that is the Edinburgh side we are facing, we are going to have a very good game, certainly one we are relishing and one we want to test ourselves against.”
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Thursday 23 May 2013
Temperature: 5 C to 10 C
Wind Speed: 23 mph
Wind direction: North west
Temperature: 4 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 17 mph
Wind direction: North east