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Ready to step up

Garry DoyleOwain JonesJamie Lyall

Spring rugby in the sunshine has consigned to history the dour kick-fests of the Autumn and running rugby is the order of the day as every incident is scrutinised for its importance on the bearing of the Lions squad. Best wishes must go to George North and Joe Launchbury, who both have agonising waits to hear if injuries have ruled them out.

As they know, one man’s misfortune is another man’s gain and while the drums are banged for Sam Simmonds and to a lesser extent, Peter O’Mahony, there will be players catching the eye of Warren Gatland and his coaches that will have slipped under the radar. The XV is happy to play detective as they bring you the talking points from the weekend.

The next generation of English fly-halves

George Ford made his England debut, two days before his 21st birthday. Owen Farrell was even younger, just 20 years and five months. Both playmakers have now worn the Red Rose on 170 occasions, and while only 28 and 29, seem like veterans.

When it comes to the chasing pack, Marcus Smith, turned 22 in February, and is yet to be fully capped, although he has been called into various England camps as an apprentice. Jacob Umaga is the same age and has also been given the wink by Eddie Jones but is yet to grace the field in white.

At the weekend, Smith, who has been instrumental in Harlequins’ rise to the play-offs, used a piece of individual brilliance to wrestle the victory from a tenacious London Irish side with a step of his right boot and an explosive slalom to the line, while Umaga, was grace and composure personified, as he led the line in a late show for Wasps, who had seemingly capitulated to a marauding Bath side.

Fleet of foot, with a varied kicking game and consummate handling skills – note his two offloads in a free-flowing Michael Le Bourgeois score – point to distribution skills that could fire any backline. Whether there is a changing of the guard in the next 12 months remains to be seen, but with Ford rarely trusted in the key games for England and Farrell enduring his most difficult season to date, there should be a desire to see how the young matadors shape up on a Test stage this summer, wherever that may be.

Umaga’s coach at Wasps, Lee Blackett said there were parts of his game that reminded him of Danny Cipriani, while Smith, with over 100 appearances for Harlequins already, seems similarly equipped for the next level and his ferocious will-to-win has seen Joe Marler calling for Lions inclusion this summer. It will provide a fascinating sub-plot to England’s road to France in 2023.

Munster succeed but they’re still boxing Leinster shadows

If you were an outsider looking in at Thomond Park, and in particular at the job head coach, Johann van Graan has done there, you’d wonder why his credentials have been questioned. Parachuted into the post midway through the 2017/18 season, he has guided the club to two Champions Cup semi-finals; three Pro14 semi-finals and a Pro14 final.

At different stages of his tenure they have beaten Racing 92, Exeter Chiefs, Saracens, Toulon, Clermont and Leinster. To add context to those scalps, that’s every winner of the Champions Cup from the last decade and two clubs, Clermont and Racing, who have lost six European finals in that timeframe.

So how come van Graan has got it in the neck recently? Partly it is down to the shadows, one lurking from over the neighbour’s wall – bitter rivals Leinster have won four Champions Cups since Munster collected their second European trophy in 2008; bitter rivals Leinster have also won the last four Pro14 titles, beating Munster in three semi-finals and a final en route.

Munster Leinster
Munster finally gained a win over an understrength Leinster side (Photo By Stephen McCarthy/ Getty Images)

Then there is the shadow of his predecessors. The old Munster won things: two Heineken Cups, three Pro14 titles. And when they didn’t win, they died on their swords: one point defeats to Northampton (’00 Heineken Cup final), Stade Francais (‘01 semi-final) and Toulouse (’03 semi-final) were combined with one score defeats to Wasps (’04 semi-final) and Leicester (’02 final).

Under van Graan their big European wins (bar Toulon in 2018) have come in the pool stages; their solitary wins over Leinster – including Saturday’s 27-3 victory – have been confined to regular season fixtures in the Pro14. To cut to the chase, the man needs a trophy to silence his doubters. Either that or the ability to wipe out the glory years from the collective memory banks of his province’s supporters. Saturday’s win will help to an extent. After all, it wasn’t Leinster they defeated but Leinster’s B side.

Chiefs show their title-winning credentials

Exeter Chiefs haven’t been at their imperious best this season, after a double-winning campaign last time out. Whether they are missing their old sparring partners, Saracens, is a moot point but their five losses in the Premiership at this stage of the season (Rd 17), represents their most inconsistent run since 2014-15.

The nadir for their season came a fortnight ago against Leinster, where they were clearly off the pace, succumbing to a 34-22 loss, but only scored six points after the 10th minute. It was an un-Exeter type performance; hurried in midfield, outmuscled up front and lacking their usual collective spirit and composure. Since then they have shown their class and steely resolve on consecutive weekends.

Against last year’s finalists, Wasps, they ran in seven tries as they rallied from disappointment to muscle their way to a convincing win, and against a free-flowing Bristol, the league leaders, they ground out a deserved 20-12 victory at Ashton Gate. It was a classic Chiefs performance in which they flexed muscles Popeye would have been proud of.

Jack Nowell
Jack Nowell returned to add power to a muscular Chiefs performance (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Sam Simmonds showed his Lions-credentials with his broken-field running and grunt up front, Jonny Hill showcased his all-court game, topped off with a 60m touch finder and Jacques Vermeulen exhibited his underrated carrying game as he powered over. In the backline, Tom O’Flaherty was another to further his credentials as one of the league’s most effective players. Perhaps most pleasing to DoR Rob Baxter was the return of Jack Nowell who was his usual busy self causing mayhem.

To their credit, Bristol Bears players Steven Luatua and Joe Joyce doffed their scrum caps towards the nuggety Devonians, acknowledging that they may yet meet against at Twickenham in a few months.

Captain’s Challenge

So far this season Connacht have secured seven losing bonus points from their 11 defeats. You might be seeing a bit of a pattern there. While it is all well and good having the ability to compete with just about anyone – they are one of just three teams to have defeated Leinster this season – there comes a time when you wonder when they will learn. 

Friday brought an end to those thoughts. With the clock in the red, and the scoreboard favouring Ulster, Connacht launched a counter-attack from their own half. It looked to have come to nothing; Kieran Marmion spilling Conor Fitzgerald’s pass just as space was opening up for the Connacht scrum-half.

That appeared to be that.

“Wait a minute,” said Connacht captain, Eoghan Masterson. He remembered the new, experimental law introduced for this Rainbow Cup and sought to invoke it, asking for a captain’s challenge to referee, Andrew Brace’s, decision. After much deliberation, Brace ruled that Lowry had committed an infringement.

So penalty, Connacht. Trailing 24-21, they could have kicked for the posts. Instead, they remembered those seven one-score defeats. The dice was to be rolled one last time and when Fitzgerald’s grubber kick was successfully collected by Peter Sullivan, a famous victory was theirs and there was something positive, for once, to be said about this much-maligned tournament.

Glasgow lament a season to forget

This has been a grim season for Scotland’s pro-teams, mending and making do with what they have rather than what they want, unable to field anything like their strongest XVs for swathes of the season, and prevented from recruiting properly as the game is gripped by coronavirus. 

Danny Wilson, in particular, has unwittingly walked into a hurricane. Glasgow needed significant strengthening when he took over last year, and Wilson thought he would make it happen. But when Covid-19 struck, and Scottish Rugby enforced a quite prudent recruitment freeze, he could not tool up anywhere near as robustly as he wanted and needed. 

Wilson has had precious little access to his international stars, through bubbles, Test matches, and injuries, and encountered just about every conceivable obstacle lobbed in his path, many of which go unseen to the external observer. He has had to plug gaps with short-term signings and loanees. He has been disrupted by the toing and froing of players required by the national coaches. He has been suffocated by the constraints, coaching with one hand behind his back. 

None of that will wash with Warriors fans this week, though. Not after the heinous shellacking dished out by Benetton in Treviso. Losing to the Italian side is disappointing enough, but this Benetton lot – who endured a similar stint without their Test contingent – were winless in the Pro14 season, and soundly beaten at Scotstoun barely a month ago.  

Wilson has yet to win over many Glasgow fans, a people used to success and swagger and the raucousness of knock-out rugby. Warriors will be better in 2021-22, when their overdue heavyweight signings arrive from the southern hemisphere and they have more than a fleeting glimpse of their Scotland boys. Wilson cannot be judged fairly on this season, but in the brutal court of public opinion, he will need a razor-sharp start to the next one.  

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