Hindsight, they say, is 20–20. Mind you, a little foresight might also have suggested that replacing two-thirds of a winning team in one go might just be sub-optimal.
Not that I want to cast any aspersions on those players who did come in – or even on our esteemed DoR for making the changes. It just didn’t work; an outcome that was foreseeable, but not inevitable.
And, to be honest, I looked at the team selection when it was announced and my reaction was not “oh, no, we’re going to get thumped”. No, it was more along the lines of “that’s a pretty handy team” and relishing the novel concept that we can make ten changes to a side already lacking half a dozen key players and still field a team that ought to be able to compete.
No, the problem as I saw it was that all those changes disrupted some of the defensive cohesion. A gap here, a hesitation there; all because the instinctive understanding between players was not quite as good as those who have been more settled this season.
Couple that with a still-misfiring attack and some (cold- or inexperience- induced?) basic errors and you’ve got a recipe for going down to a team that has a point to prove, however badly they may been playing up till now.
That said, half as many changes – so the defence was a bit less porous – or a more confident attack and we’d have won that game. If Cliffy hadn’t put the ball out on the full in the first minute, we’d have won. If Doherty’s kick had been a bit better, we’d have won. If Faf had released the ball a millisecond earlier – so it went backwards behind his back, not forwards – we’d have won.
Lots of ifs, but the fates conspired against us on the night, and that’s all there is to it.
I’ll admit that, on the evening, I was feeling more than a bit glum, and was tending towards the “what a load of rubbish” viewpoint, but I still felt that there was something different here. There wasn’t quite that old sense of inevitability, rather a definite feeling of “we can still do this” on top of the resigned grumbling. Squeaky bum time, but for a different reason: “can we pull it back?” rather than “are we going to blow it?” Add to that that we still rescued a bonus point with a well-worked try at the death, and I don’t think that (after a couple of days’ reflection) this was as bad as it may at first have seemed. Think of it more as an experiment that didn’t quite work, but from which Axe will have learned a lot, as should most of the squad.
We also have to note that there are two considerations at play here: the long-term development of the squad (the whole squad, not just the principal players) and the immediate campaign.
I think that, as far as long-term development goes, this will have been a blip (if that) and a learning moment. It’s effect on the Premiership campaign is a bit more serious, though. Although we retain third place, that’s only by virtue of number of wins against the team that we have to play next. There are four teams who could, theoretically, go above us after next week’s games, and that’s a bit concerning, especially as we’ve got Exeter coming up north the week after.
We can afford ‘learning opportunities’ as long as they are rare and widely separated. That is, we need to give ourselves the best chance of beating Quins next week, but without appearing to heap blame on any of the rotated-in players. So, don’t just revert to the Bristol-beating team, but retain some of the rotation. For example, keep one of Roebuck or Doherty whilst making it absolutely clear to the other that his chance will come and that he’s not being singled out. Man-management: it’s what Axe is apparently renowned for, so let’s trust in him to learn the lesson and make better choices next time.
Still third despite no Lood, Rohan, Manu, Denny, Tom or Ben. I’m not worried.