Richard Wigglesworth and Saracens up for the challenge
Scrumhalf plays down talk of injuries or fatigue as champions focus on Leinster clash
Richard Wigglesworth: “Obviously the Irish boys have a good thing going, as they proved in the last few weeks.” Photograph: Steve Bardens/Getty Images
“If I was in the Irish system I’d have to play for Ireland so I’ll have to pick the English system, mate,” Richard Wigglesworth (no more anglicized a name can there be) musters a valid, albeit paper-thin, defence of the flogging that occurs across the water.
“I’m a proud Englishman,” adds the scrumhalf promoted by Eddie Jones for the defeat to Ireland at Twickenham on St Patrick’s Day.
“No, there are pros and cons to every system. In an ideal world, yes, you would get your minutes controlled and all the rest of it but we weren’t mentioning this last year and the year before.”
Wigglesworth is a Saracen again, a key figure in the two-time European champions’ raiding party, guided by exiled Ulster man Mark McCall, that promises to lay siege on Dublin this Sunday for what promises to be an Anglo-Irish battle comparable to the Munster versus Wasps madness at Lansdowne Road in 2004.
“It is something we have to deal with in the Premiership,” he explains as matter-of-factly as the modern player has to be.
“We are generally lucky at this club, in usual seasons we would get rotated. But we struggled this year because of injuries and the amount of them that we have had which meant the boys who are fit have had to go to the well a bit more often than not. It’s not something we are too worried about. That’s for the guys who run the game.”
Gladiators would, no doubt, make a similar observation during Roman times.
“Obviously the Irish boys have a good thing going, as they proved in the last few weeks.”
Regardless of the IRFU’s oft-praised player welfare system, both squads have been forced to glue and stitch players together for this season-defining encounter. Owen Farrell may or may not appear – there are fading rumours about the returns of Seán O’Brien and Billy Vunipola – while the joy that has been Jordan Larmour will not be on public display.
Injuries are increasing in rugby. The RFU’s statistics, as reported by The Guardian, show 44 professional players quit the English leagues because of assorted injuries in the last three years. Further surveys show that while the number of injuries decreased between 2014 and 2016, the severity of those injuries got worse.
The tackle is the cause of around 40 percent of injuries and the early data from this Premiership season showed the average number of tackles per match was up by 11.4 percent. In October, when Harlequins had 25 players out injured, Jamie Roberts described the changing room as “a morgue.”
Saracens, despite a 40-man first-team squad that includes eight different nationalities, are dealing with similar problems.
Itoje, who at 23 is already considered the second-best lock in the game behind Brodie Retallick, had four metal plates inserted into his jaw earlier this season after it fractured in two places, and he appeared to suffer a dip in form following sensational displays for club, country and during the Lions tour of New Zealand in 2017.
“I have been unbelievably impressed with Maro,” says Wigglesworth. “I think it’s so often the case with these quality players that when they get questioned, they deliver. You are always going to go through ups-and-downs in your career but, I think the fact he’s getting questioned is probably not right.
“We are more than happy with what he’s delivering and, as you saw at the weekend, he was pretty eager to prove a point. We probably thank the press for questioning him because then we get that performance in shutting them up.
“He’s young, isn’t he? I don’t think you are allowed to be tired yet. When he gets to my age, then we can talk about fatigue, not while he’s that young.”
The question, more and more, is not ‘when’ but ‘if’ a player like Itoje, who is expected to target Johnny Sexton remorselessly and relentlessly on Sunday, will still be playing at age 34.
The conference call finishes with a leading question about McCall replacing Joe Schmidt as Ireland coach in 2019, which Wigglesworth embraces it with an affirmative quote.
“Absolutely, any coach who has had sustained success, has obviously got a lot more right than wrong. With that comes a lot of experience, he’s been through everything now, he’s been through putting a team together, he’s been through building it all from the beginning. He’s been through losing finals, winning, all of the challenges that come with it.
“ I’m sure when you’ve been through all of that sort of stuff, if a top job comes up then I’d imagine he’ll be near the top of the list.”