Yesterday, on the back of my Rust piece about Danny Cipriani on Saturday, I made a point of watching the Gallagher Premiership match between Saracens and Gloucester at Allianz Park – broadcast live on BT Sport – specifically to see DC’s match-up against Owen Farrell, who on the day was playing opposite him at fly half, not least because rugby’s one-eyed journalistic fraternity had billed it as his perfect chance to show Eddie Jones that he’d got it wrong in omitting him from the England autumn training squad.
Reigning champions Saracens won at a canter 38-15 and if it had been a boxing bout the referee might well have intervened to stop the fight in order to avoid their visitors taking further punishment.
Saracens did what they do – heavy duty forward play, hard-running backs, a pressing rush defence, all well-drilled and applied intensively – and did it ruthlessly.
Gloucester, who had reinforced their pack by buying significant grunt during the close season and hitherto had been unbeaten to growing excitement amongst their fans, saw in this game – just as any Premiership club playing Saracens would – an opportunity to see how far their improvement thus far this term might take them.
In terms of challenging for a top four position the answer was not very.
To be fair to both Cipriani and his club, let me put the following issues on the table for the benefit of Rust readers:-
On the day there was a near gale-force wind blowing one way down the ground and, having won the toss, they had opted to play into it during the first half – this presumably on the basis that, if they could minimise the points against conceded up to half-time, they’d at least have the benefit of it during the second stanza.
And regarding poor Mr Cipriani, any rugby man with knowledge of back play will tell you that, when your pack is losing its battle up front – and you are constantly on the back foot and under pressure – it’s damned difficult (I might have written ‘nigh impossible’) to take the initiative against the run of play and exert enough control of proceedings to change the course of the game.
[That’s about all the mitigating factors I can think of …]
On the basis of what I witnessed yesterday, though it did spring to mind, for me to use the phrase ‘men against boys’ would be ungentlemanly and inappropriate: to a man Gloucester gave of their best and for about 60% of the time when the ball was in play during the game the action was fierce and closely fought.
However, from the first whistle there was only ever going to be one winner.
Furthermore – as regards The Great Danny Cipriani Debate – DC’s supposed perfect chance to demonstrate to Eddie Jones what he was missing, or indeed that he had got his selection call wrong, did not even end with a whimper rather than a bang.
It never even began.
He looped around the ball as it came away from the forwards on some occasions they gained possession, he flicked out several slick passes and he acted as a serviceable link man in several moves.
Plus he made one individual break, advancing his team’s cause by fifteen yards before being hauled down and recycling the ball.
But in no sense did he wrest control of the situation, steady the ship, get the team playing in the right areas of the park by kicking downfield, cajole his players into greater effort, still less dominate proceedings by sheer force of his character and creativity.
Far too often Gloucester made no advance whatever when in attack. Despite all effort, flustered by Saracens’ ‘wolf pack’ defensive system, time and again they found themselves being forced further and further behind the gain-line to the point where – frankly – it seemed that Saracens were gaining as much territory by the simple expedient of letting their opponents have the ball than they were by possessing it themselves.
There’s a theory in sport that you can and do learn more about the qualities and mental strength of a player in a defeat than you do when he or she is getting an armchair ride as part of a team proceeding to a series of comprehensive victories.
Yesterday to all intents and purposes Cipriani was anonymous.