Where to look - England XV vs the Barbarians
The long-fought 2018/19 Premiership season is done and dusted, with those English giants Saracens crowned as Champions for the fourth time. While yesterday’s match proved tighter than a work colleague’s wallet/purse, today’s clash is expected by many to be a rout.
England’s infamous/famous - take your pic - head coach Eddie Jones has distanced himself from this year's annual clash with the Baabaas, and has taken his players with him. As it stands none of the 23 named by acting England boss Jim Mallinder, he of 2014 Premiership glory with Northampton Saints, would be serious outside bets for a trip to Japan. This has presented us with one of the least experienced sides we’ve ever seen in this traditional end-of-season fixture. In truth, tomorrow’s side is somewhat of a halfway house between the u20s and the Saxons, with the main aim of auditing the next best cabs off the rank and those of the future; with one or two older heads thrown into the mix as a reward for their form and to provide some semblance of leadership.
Remembering the 45-63 Barbarians victory in last year’s fixture under the leading light of Bristol Bears boss Pat Lam, the smart money would be on another raucous victory for the former Connacht boss and his star-studded cast. But who knows, maybe Mallinder’s young’uns will stand up to be counted and teach those old Barbarian dogs a few new tricks. After all, sport can be a wondrously baffling place.
While I will caution those still harbouring hopes of a courageous victory from this side of budding Red Roses, there are plenty of narratives and matchups to keep an eye on, even if Lam’s men do claim consecutive Twickenham scalps today.
Something old, something new: Ehren Painter vs Joe Marler
This phrase could be applied to pretty much every matchup at HQ later today, but the grapple set to take place on the right-hand side of England’s scrum is perhaps the most fitting.
Officially retired from the national game, or so he says, 59-times-capped former England prop Joe Marler remains one of the staunchest looseheads on the planet and will provide a stern test for Northampton Saints giant (130kg) young tighthead Ehren Painter. Turning 21 last month, Painter has accomplished the astonishing feat of regularly holding down a Premiership scrum, flourishing under the lead of New Zealand coach Chris Boyd.
You should expect scant moments of magic from this matchup, but it is one hell of a trial for a prospective young tighthead with Test ambitions. Hold his own against Marler and Painter could significantly accelerate his senior England hopes.
The Uni lad and the All Black: Alex Dombrandt vs Steven Luatua
It’s been a whirlwind season for former Cardiff Met second row Alex Dombrandt, who has proven an instant hit at the highest level of English club rugby. Whether at six or eight, the 22-year-old has been a sensation for Harlequins, providing some welcome star power in the backrow; despite still possessing the ungainly figure of a student well versed with the 2-4-1 vodka Redbull deals at the students union.
Opposite this man is Bristol captain and 15-time-capped All Blacks blindside Steven Luatua. The differential in rugby pedigree couldn’t be much larger. And yet, this may yet be one of the most evenly balanced matchups across tomorrow’s 46 players. Luatua has been more of a workhorse for Bristol this season but is likely to break the chains and stretch his legs for the Barbarians.
If DOmbrandt's marauding exploits in his first senior clubs season are anything to go by, he could be one of the few players in white able to outshine his opposite number this weekend. Or at the least come compellingly close.
Mitchell and Webb
No, this is not a brief interlude to revisit the comic offerings of the British comedy duo that is David Mitchell and Roberts Webb, but one of the biggest mismatches on show later today.
If not for the overseas selection policy, British and Irish Lions scrum-half Webb would have been starting for Wales for the last year and would be at the end of a Grand Slam-winning season, focusing on the challenges of a World Cup in Japan later this year. Instead, he returns to the UK from French club side Toulon to combine with 21-cap All Blacks fly-half Colin Slade. As far as halfbacks go, this is some selection for the Baabaas.
Opposite Webb is Northampton’s second choice scrum-half, 22-year-old Alex Mitchell. Acting as understudy to England’s favourite Springbok Cobus Reinach, stealing the title from fellow Saffa Faf de Klerk, Mitchell is not a man many can claim to have clamoured to see in the white nine jersey today.
Picking Mitchell’s halfback partner, Quins starlet Marcus Smith, would have been the obvious choice considering his penchant for making highlight reels, but the popular fly-half has been exposed to plenty of camera time and Champions Cup battles, and will likely struggle to steal the show behind an inexperienced pack. Mitchell, however, will be the first man to deal with a poor platform from the base. We’ll likely learn more about Mitchell than any other back today, a sink or swim moment if there ever was one.
Dropped in the deep end – Piers O’Conor vs Taqele Naiyaravoro
Honestly, I had to resist the urge from delving into a 5000-word dissertation on the midfield battle between England’s Johnny Williams and Joe Marchant vs the Barbarians’ Mark Atkinson vs Malakai Fekitoa on this last one. As with Marcus Smith, we’ve seen plenty of all these men over the course of the season and know what they're about, and Williams and Marchant are perhaps two of today’s starters standing within an arm's reach of an England training squad.
So instead I’m highlighting the intriguing selection of Bristol Bears centre/covering fullback Piers O’Conor on the right wing, opposite the biggest winger to play the game, 132kg Wallaby Taqele Naiyaravoro.
While O’Conor covered Bristol’s backfield well enough whilst Pat Lam’s club side were bereft of their top four fullbacks, he didn’t exactly tear teams apart with the type of running game that shouts ‘international Test winger!’. There’s no doubting his wide skillset and athleticism at the age of 23, but O’Conor’s selection is a bit of a head-scratcher. The decision to station him out wide draws a slight comparison to the selection of Exeter man Jack Nowell on the wing for England. Neither Nowell or O’Conor are the fastest backs on show in England, but they are very busy and handle themselves well in the contact area - and pretty much every area of the game thinking about it.
It’s hard to say exactly what we should expect from O’Conor out wide tomorrow, which is what makes the matchup against the first man to beat 100 defenders in a single Premiership season all the more fascinating.