Austin Healey Column
Tigers need a spring in their step
March 23, 2011
Ben Youngs will be desperate to get back to action with Leicester © Getty Images
The final weekend of Six Nations action saw England come back down to earth with a thump, but there is no room for wallowing in self pity as the sharp end of the Aviva Premiership season is just around the corner.
This weekend there is an eye-catching game at Bath's Recreation Ground, where leaders Leicester are the visitors. It'll be the first time that we see Bath play without Olly Barkley, whose season was ended by a horrific leg break sustained against Gloucester. He was central to their game, particularly in terms of securing territory. It's a big ask for them to come straight back without him against a team like Leicester.
Leicester and Bath have been thrown together with plenty at stake on a number of occasions in recent years and while the Tigers have generally come out on top, I don't believe that Bath have any kind of mental block when it comes to the fixture. Leicester have simply had a better team over the last couple of years. Bath have been in a transitional period, with new investment and plans to extend their squad.
Former Tiger Sam Vesty could prove crucial for them this time around in place of Barkley, although his kicking game is not one of his best skills. He's very good at standing up in the line and distributing and we may see Bath having to play a much more attacking game.
It's around the time of year that the grounds firm up and you start to see a lot more points being scored. There are a couple of reasons for this: one, it's easier to run and two, the guys aren't keen to tackle when the ground becomes hard.
Leicester will hope to call on a number of their big names after the Championship and they will need to slot back in without too much fuss. That can be difficult but for many it depends on what happened in their last game. If it was a win, and let's say a Grand Slam, then it can be incredibly difficult. But if you look at Ben Youngs, for example, who was taken off by England after his sin-binning against Ireland last weekend, he'll be desperate to get on the field and show that he's still got quality.
It's the same for the other guys who played for England, or Italy in the case of Martin Castrogiovanni. Things didn't go well for them and they'll relish the chance to be back among their mates at their club. It could be a very big game for Leicester and I'm hoping for a cracker.
The return of their international contingent will also be a huge boost to Northampton, who slipped way off the pace during the Six Nations without the likes of Chris Ashton and Ben Foden. It is a risk however to pin your hopes on a few big names and say 'we'll be fine once the internationals get back'. These players will be relatively fatigued and it will be down to the other players at the club to rally around them. If Northampton don't get back to winning ways soon they will miss out on the top four, it's as simple as that.
It's usually around this time of year that concerns are raised for player welfare - they need to toughen up a bit. Some of the players don't even play 30 games a year. I don't want to hark back to 'in my day', but we were playing 50 times a season. There's a lot of chat about player welfare and injuries. Players need to be looked after as best as possible but I'm of the opinion that you should be able to play every Saturday of the season. Get out there and play rugby.
Another big game this weekend comes at the Stoop, where a rampant Gloucester side go up against a Harlequins outfit that has run out of steam in recent weeks. If Quins can't get Nick Evans back quickly, they're really going to struggle. He is the catalyst and the guy who makes everything happen for them. Without him, they are not the side that they were just after Christmas. I get the impression that their back-row is starting to tire. Chris Robshaw, who has been immense all year, is starting to slow down a bit.
They are up against a side on a real roll and while it will be close, I expect Gloucester to take it. The Cherry and Whites look like a side playing for each other and they have real positive energy right across the field. Luke Narraway is leading by example, whereas in the past he would make mistakes at stupid times. It's that composure in the pack that has lifted them. Kudos must also go to the likes of lock Will James, who has added authority to their forward effort. He hits people and he hits them hard. It's that physicality that sets them apart.
One final thought, this time on the newly England-eligible Thomas Waldrom, the Leicester No.8. Get him in the squad. He is a brilliant rugby player. Nick Easter hasn't really got any major competition at No.8 and Waldrom could be a big plus for England. We could see two surprise inclusions from Leicester for the World Cup. The exciting centre, Manu Tuilagi, also has to be in the England squad. He has to be.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Austin Healey is Lead Analyst for ESPN Rugby