More questions than answers continue to arise in the All Blacks’ quest to rebuild their midfield.
Garry DoyleOwain JonesJamie Lyall
08th Mar 2021
The ‘fallow week’ in between Six Nations rounds is usually the time to take stock, follow your local side and wish for no further injuries as the business end approaches, and the preceding weekend was no different. There were renewed calls for Sam Simmond’s England inclusion, the continued rebirth of Harlequins’ as a credible Top 4 challengers, the usual controversy over red cards in Belfast, Coventry, Perth and Canberra and of course, the biggest shock of the weekend, the inspirational 25-17 win by the Cornish Pirates over Saracens. The XV picks out a few pointers from an action packed few days…
The make-up of a Test backrow provides more discussion than almost any other combination on the field, save for the half-backs. In England, this dialogue is currently white-hot over the exclusion of certain players tearing up trees in the Premiership. Chief among them is Sam Simmonds. The Exeter Chiefs’ credentials are impeccable. He is the reigning European Player of the Year and the outstanding No 8 in his league by a country mile. He has plundered 13 tries, of all varieties, so far.
From the outrageous 40 metre arcing run around the Harlequins defence in November to the more rudimentary rumble over the whitewash, usually with one of the Chiefs’ mutants latched onto him to propel him irrestistibly forwards. He is squat, and if you looked for a similar player physically, it is Michael Hooper. He may not possess the same ability at the breakdown as his Wallaby, but he is a bigger running threat.
The problem for Eddie Jones is where he fits him. It is quite the slight to pick Leicester’s George Martin in front of him, but Sam Underhill has been hugely missed, Tom Curry one of England’s better players and Billy Vunipola, for all his critics and self-deprecation, ‘I’ve been playing crap’, he was England’s most willing and effective ball-carrier against Wales. With two high-pressure Six Nations games to come, there is every likelihood the Torquay-born flyer has more of chance of being picked for the Lions (and we’re told Warren Gatland is an admirer) than England. It is very curious indeed.
On paper, after eight losses on the bounce, it would appear that the Dragons are in the depths of despair, but on the contrary, after their 31-21 win over the Ospreys, there is a feeling that sunnier times lie ahead. They have long been the least successful Welsh region. Underfunded for what seems like eons, in truth, they hadn’t found any consistency since Paul Turner left the region in 2012, with a series of coaching appointments not quite hitting the mark, but with the progressive David Buttress at CEO and shrewd Dean Ryan now installed as DoR, the building blocks are finally in place to kick on.
They have added Lions Richard Hibbard, Ross Moriarty and latterly Jamie Roberts to offer leadership, while Welsh internationals Jonah Holmes and Nick Tompkins and from next season, Will Rowlands, have added a layer of proven ability to a threadbare squad. The academy boast a raft of exciting youngsters like Ben Fry, Ben Carter, Aneurin Owen and Taine Basham. More encouraging is that they’re holding onto players who would have, in the past, headed for more glamourous destinations. Elliot Dee, Ashton Hewitt, Leon Brown and Aaron Wainwright have all recently signed long-term deals with the region, and as important is the increasingly talismanic Sam Davies who is so fundamental to how they play.
Many of those players made a key intervention against the Ospreys. On his 100th appearance, Hewitt scored a brace of tries, Wainwright powered over for the game’s first try, and Davies picked up a man of the match award. It was a performance brimming with enterprise and tenacity, and the hope is that they will no longer be seen as a soft touch.
With Welsh and Scottish hopes long buried and the dreams of Ulster and Connacht trailing in the weekend dust, a neighbourly reunion of old adversaries is scheduled for the final Saturday of this month.
At stake is a PRO14 championship and for Munster, something much more personal: their self-respect. A decade without a trophy has undermined it, with the twin shadows of their next door neighbour and their illustrious team of the past, serving to further darken the mood
In the ten years since Munster last won something, Leinster have managed to add two further European Cups, a Challenge Cup and five Pro14 titles, to their CV.
That they have done so while losing the greatest coach (Joe Schmidt) and player (Brian O’Driscoll) in the history of Irish rugby is a reflection of their system. They are without doubt the most efficient recruiters of schoolboy talent in Europe, the vast majority of their squad coming from within their provincial boundaries, reinforced by some astute shopping in the worldwide market.
Saturday’s win in Ulster provided evidence of that. Missing 17 internationals – 15 of whom were on Ireland duty, two on the injury list, they defeated a near full-strength Ulster by 19 points. Notwithstanding the substantial impact referee Frank Murphy had on the game – five yellow cards, one red plus a disallowed Ulster try – there was still something chilling about Leinster’s ability to climb out of the grave.
Trailing 12-3 after 15 minutes, they spent a minute with just 13 men on the pitch when Luke McGrath gathered his players in a huddle. The little scrum-half is an impressive general, strangely ranked fifth – possibly even lower – on Ireland’s depth chart, yet vital to Leinster, especially in international windows.
Even in the absence of spectators at the Kingspan Stadium, we weren’t able to eavesdrop on McGrath’s conversation. But it was clear the dozen Leinster men who were listening took on board what he had to say. They won a scrum penalty, kicked to the corner, welcomed Devin Toner back from the sin bin and controlled possession for the entire time that their centre, Jimmy O’Brien, sat on the naughty step.
By half-time, they were 24-12 in front, the brevity of their crisis a distant memory as they supped their cuppas in the dressing room. In the area of technical ability, they are better than any of their Irish rivals. Yet when asked what impressed him most in the aftermath of Saturday’s win, their head coach, Leo Cullen, chose an interesting word. “Attitude,” he said.
He could have added several more. They defend magnificently, guard possession jealously and have a clinical edge when they sniff out a chance. Five tries was a remarkable return against a good Ulster team and the fact that all bar one of their victories this season have come with a bonus point attached is a reflection of their desire. The obvious thing to point out is that the absence of so many key players – Sexton, Furlong, Healy, Ryan, Ringrose, Henshaw, Lowe, Larmour, Keenan, Doris, Leavy – and half a dozen others, is a source of weakness.
Yet somehow Leinster have turned it into a strength. “The players (available at the moment) know this is their window of opportunity,” said Cullen. They’re taking it, not least McGrath, who was one of three Leinster players featuring in Saturday’s win who also played a significant role in Ireland’s victory over the All Blacks in 2018. This is their B team, remember. It’s good enough to win international matches, never mind PRO14 games.
A key moment in Munster’s recent history came on a sunny day in Bordeaux when their mix of journeymen and X-Factor stars were painfully outclassed by Racing in the 2018 Champions Cup semi-final. Coming away from France that weekend, it swiftly dawned on the province’s influencers that they needed to have an eye on the market place rather than just the ball.
Their wheeling and dealing has been fascinating to watch in the years since. Tadhg Beirne was persuaded to leave Scarlets, Joey Carbery to swap Leinster blue for Munster red. Chris Farrell, an Ulsterman exiled in France, also joined. So too Sale’s Mike Haley, scorer of the game-changing try in Friday’s tense win over Connacht. Then last summer, they went shopping again, adding two Springbok World Cup winners, Damian de Allende and RG Snyman, to their payroll.
Any team would improve with that type of quality yet Munster’s upward curve has occurred in spite of injury interruptions to Carbery, Snyman, Farrell and Beirne. Snyman, in fact, has only managed seven minutes in a Munster shirt; Carbery hasn’t started a game in 13 months.
Yet this season they have lost just twice, once with a second-string side to Ulster, the other time to Leinster, who they’ll meet again in this month’s PRO14 final. No longer dependent on the health and availability of their quartet of Lions, Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander, Keith Earls and Conor Murray, Munster – for the first time in a decade – have depth. Youngsters Ben Healy, Gavin Coombes, Shane Daly and Craig Casey – especially Craig Casey – have provided quality at a cheap price.
And, for the first time in a long time, they are beginning to resemble the old Munster. That drought can’t last forever.
These feel like seminal times for Glasgow Warriors; only the last vestiges of the title-winning 2015 vintage remain, heavy hitters have moved south and a burgeoning new crop coming to the fore.
Danny Wilson was denied the opportunity to recruit as he wanted and needed before his maiden season, owing to the austerity inflicted by Covid-19, but if there is a silver lining to Glasgow’s underpowered squad, it is the opportunities afforded to young men on the cusp of the first team.
Piloting Warriors to victory in Parma were half-backs Jamie Dobie, 19, and Ross Thompson, 21, both of whom scored fine tries. Dobie is a searing talent and will be a Scotland international before long. Thompson looks to be a steady, controlling pivot with streetsmarts beyond his years, and has seized his chance in the latter half of the season.
Outside them, Rufus McLean and Ollie Smith are fabulous young back-three rapiers. Cole Forbes, a recent arrival from New Zealand, was playing U20s rugby not so long ago.
In fact, of the starting backline, only midfield pair Sam Johnson and Huw Jones were over 21. Up front, 20-year-old Gregor Brown’s day was ended prematurely by injury, but there is a heap of excitement around the barnstorming forward.
These are deeply encouraging signs for Wilson, who is finally able to tool up for next term with some high-pedigree southern hemisphere acquisitions. Hogg, Russell and Jonny Gray have gone; Jones and Adam Hastings are about to follow them out of the door. This is a new dawn for Glasgow.
Darryl Marfo has spent the better part of a year without a club, one of hundreds of players in the constricted middle tier of the recruitment market who have struggled to win a contract in these strained times. This is the legacy of Covid-19.
The Scotland loose-head has not played since a brief stint at the Ospreys towards the end of the 2019-20 season, so it is deeply heartening to see him win a short-term contract at Leicester Tigers. Marfo is one of rugby’s good guys, and a fine prop with experience of Premiership, Pro14, European and international rugby. With a fair wind and some match minutes at Welford Road, he can be a real asset to Steve Borthwick.
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