IT is still only the eighth week of the season but today’s enticing Championship fixture between leaders London Irish and unbeaten Yorkshire Carnegie already has the feel of a decider.
Granted, if Irish advance further and make it eight victories from eight since their relegation from the Premiership it will not have any sort of lasting negative effect on their opponents.
Likewise, if Carnegie do cause an upset and continue their own seven-game winning run in the league, it does not automatically mean they will go on and earn promotion next May.
However, as their fly-half Joe Ford conceded, the contest at Madejski Stadium will offer plenty of insight into both.
“It will be a good test for us,” he told The Yorkshire Post.
“It’s set up for a great game with both sides unbeaten in the league having won all their games, and it’ll be great to see where we are.
“I’m really looking forward to it. As much as it won’t matter when it comes to the end of the campaign – as it’s play-off rugby then – it does matter to us now as it’s our next game.
“It’s our only focus and we’re putting everything into this.
“If we do get that win, it will not only be good for us but good for everyone, I think, to show Irish can be beaten.”
Irish, who have former player-coach Brendan Venter back as technical director this term, were at their clinical best as they beat rivals London Scottish 62-12 last week and are widely tipped to make a swift return to the top flight.
But, presently, they are just a point ahead of Carnegie only by virtue of five bonus points compared to their rivals’ four, although they have generally won their games with more ease.
Indeed, meagre Irish have conceded, on average, just 11 points per game compared to the visitors’ 23 and, though they have been pushed close by Bedford, Ford is aware of the need to be ruthless this afternoon.
Carnegie’s 35-29 defeat of Jersey at Headingley last week is a case in point, as it was a game that should have been far more comfortable. The fly-half – in his third spell with Carnegie after joining from Sale Sharks in the summer – admitted: “I thought we had great control in the first half but then we gave a scrum penalty, got a yellow card and Jersey scored.
“They went into the break a lot more upbeat than they should have done and it became tight.
“We’d bombed about three chances already in that first half when we should have been running away with it.
“That’s the biggest message for Saturday; with the greatest of respect to Jersey, we have to be more clinical against Irish as they will punish every mistake we make.
“Their gameplan will be to keep kicking it to us and wait for us to make an error.
“We know what will be coming and, so, we have to be at our very best to get a win.”
Ford knows, too, who will be directing those kicks – Tommy Bell, his one-time colleague at Headingley and younger brother of Chris, the Wasps centre who won the Powergen Cup with Leeds Tykes in 2005.
“He’s done really well for them since joining from Leicester,” said Ford, of the 23-year-old former Sale Sharks, Jersey and Wasps man who was on loan at Carnegie in 2011.
“Tommy’s a great kicker and we’ll have to be very disciplined especially when looking at where he can kick them from; he’s got a big boot on him.
“He went well against Scottish last week when Irish really destroyed a side for the first time this season.
“I played against them with Sale in the Premiership last season and they were always dangerous.
“They liked to throw the ball around but, this season, Venter is back putting foundations in place like he did at Saracens.
“He is changing the way they play and now is looking more at getting their defence right and strengthening their set-piece and kicking game. It will be challenging but we’re excited by this.”
Carnegie have a new look second row with both Matt Smith and Dean Schofield ruled out through injury meaning Dan Sanderson and Jack Whetton starting in the league together for the first time. Charlie Beech and Mike Cusack start at prop while Andy Saull replaces Richard Beck in the back row.
Bryan Redpath has named an unchanged back line from the side that defeated Jersey.