Venue: Sandy Park, Exeter
Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France)
There are just three survivors in the Saxons starting XV remaining from last year’s repeat clash at Ravenhill in Billy Twelvetrees, Ugo Monye and captain James Gaskell. What’s encouraging for those players involved in the squad is how many players from last year have progressed to the senior side; Alex Corbisiero, Manu Tuilagi, Joe Simpson and Chris Robshaw to name a few, proving that good performances at this level do not go unnoticed. Eyes will be on the form trio of Matt Hopper, Ben Spencer and George Robson amongst others.
O2 Irish Wolfhounds:
Half of last year’s side have returned to play for the Wolfhounds in 2012, including the centre pairing of Eoin O’Malley and Nevin Spence, plus scrum-half Issac Boss and Damian Varley, whose good form has not been rewarded with selection in the senior squad. Chris Henry also continues to captain the side for the second year in a row, starting in his preferred spot of number 8 rather than at openside. Dan Tuohy and the promising Simon Zebo and Rhys Ruddock are worth keeping an eye on.
What to expect:
Judging on the centres, both teams will be looking for pace and skill in midfield as opposed to crash-ball rugby, placing the responsibility on the back rows and tight five to get them over the gain line. There are big runners in Matt Garvey, Tuohy, Henry and Waldrom to punch the holes, giving the runners on the outside enough chances to put points on the board. The weather can’t be any worse than last year’s torrential conditions at Ravenhill, which could lead to a high scoring, and see-sawing game.
Head to Head: Matt Hopper v Eoin O’Malley
Two exciting young 13s with very different rises to the top. Hopper is in the middle of a whirlwind season, and maybe had thought his chance for international honours had gone at the age of 26. But an ascent that has seen him play in front of a sold out Twickenham crowd, and be part of a historic victory in Toulouse. He possesses great pace and vision for the gaps. O’Malley was an early contender to replace Brian O’Driscoll during the Six Nations, but has fallen down the pecking order despite good form for Leinster. Long-term he may be the solution, and Saturday is another chance for him to impress.
Ones to Watch: Andy Saull & Simon Zebo
The lack of a fetcher in the England squad was commented on both on this website and throughout the media, with Andy Saull expected to have made the cut. For now, he must impress from the Saxons, and some big performances could change his path to international honours. If Saull can get over the ball and make a number of turnovers, then he will be hard to ignore.
Zebo on the other hand made a name for himself last weekend scoring a hat-trick against Northampton for Munster. After having trained with the Ireland squad at the start of the week before switching to the Wolfhounds camp, his pace is outstanding but his all-round game still need some work.
Not the easiest of calls, given that both sides selections are unpredictable and both squads have had limited time to train together. It will come down to whichever side has gelled better, but home advantage at Sandy Park should sway it England’s way. England Saxons by 8.
by Ben Coles