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Crouching Tiger, hidden Lion?

Garry DoyleOwain Jones

The biggest story of recent months didn’t occur at the weekend for good reason. Yes, the return of rugby fans into stadiums – and the Government’s lockdown easing – will bring the feel,good factor back into the game after a shut-out that brought the sport, financially and emotionally, to its knees. Regardless of that welcome countdown clock coming to an end, it was another weekend of rugby where caution was thrown to the wind.

Several Lions hopefuls put in notable performances including James Ryan, who made 29 tackles in a comfortable Leinster win, and Ellis Genge (see below) and George Ford, as Leicester checked Harlequins’ play-off ambitions. While, elsewhere, Kyle Eastmond retired from rugby and Owen Franks announced his return to the Hurricanes to show that the game continues to trundle on despite the challenges thrown its way.

Baby rhino on the loose

Since the Lions squad announcement, there has been plenty of players ‘proving a point’. Those players mentioned in dispatches who didn’t quite make the plan. With a rumoured reserve list of 35 players, you’d wager that Genge would feature fairly prominently if Wyn Jones, Rory Sutherland or Mako Vunipola was injured prior to or on tour itself.

Genge, who has his fair share of detractors, was at his ebullient best against play-off-chasing Harlequins on Saturday. The England loosehead has openly admitted to being gutted he wasn’t contacted in the initial list but his recent form would suggest his name will be inked in. Two short-range carries saw him powering over the line as the Tigers powered away in the first half, before a Quins comeback, and they sneaked home 35-29.

His afternoon wasn’t without blemishes, as he saw a yellow card for a clearout on young openside Jack Kenningham, but the colourful Leicester loosehead would certainly add another dimension to a Lions squad lacking the explosive qualities of Manu Tuilagi when facing the likes of Steven Kitshoff and Ox Nche.

Bath continue to frustrate

Supporting Bath at home should come with a health warning. The side are blessed with so much talent yet they continue to frustrate, with Friday night’s loss to Sale Sharks their six home loss of the campaign. Don’t forget, their playing resources are looked on with envy throughout the northern hemisphere.

Taulupe Faletau is a three-time Lion, Sam Underhill can’t be far away and in Zach Mercer they have the current Premiership player of the month. They also boast two 50-cap England players in Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph to fizz around a 50-cap Welsh fly-half in Rhys Priestland. They have plenty of emerging international stars as well in Will Stuart and Charlie Ewels, along with Cam Redpath, who looks destined for a long international career with Scotland. What they can’t manage to accomplish on too many occasions, however, is closing out tight games.

Bath v Sale Sharks
Bath battled but lost out to a late score from Sale Sharks (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Three times in the past three weeks, they have failed to ram home territorial advantage and possession with an ability to finish in the red zone. Against Montpellier, try as they might, they could not conjure up a winning score against the struggling Top 14 side. Against their old West Country rivals, Bristol, who had given them a hiding in January, they were up at half-time before Pat Lam’s side turned on the magic in the second half.

A trio of dispiriting defeats was completed against Sale on Friday night, when they had contrived to get themselves in a winning position with only four minutes left on the clock – Sale had helped their cause by losing three players to yellow cards – before Curtis Langdon was carried over the line for a familiar, disappointing storyline.

It will be a big summer for Bath. Elliot Stooke, Priestland and Mercer will lead departures and Director of Rugby Stuart Hooper will know narrow losses have to turn into wins sooner than later.

Welsh wing berths up for grabs

Two Welsh wings will become Lions in the coming months. Josh Adams, who has plundered 17 tries in 32 Tests, will be pushing for a start alongside Louis Rees-Zammit, the blisteringly quick Gloucester wing who has five tries in his first nine Tests for Wales. Had George North not been injured, it would likely have been three Welsh flyers to head to South Africa. 

Their absence leaves opportunities for others, with Wales due to face Argentina and Canada this summer in Cardiff. Clambering his way to the top of that list must be Jonah Holmes. The former Leicester Tiger is still missed by fans at Welford Road after 24 tries in 45 appearances and his muscular frame and speed has led to 10 tries in his last nine appearances for the Dragons, with another eye-catching brace yesterday against the Ospreys. Holmes is 28, with five caps, and has never quite broken through with Wales but, with continued strong form, could press home his case in the summer.

Jonah Holmes
Jonah Holmes is in sparkling form for the Dragons with 10 tries in nine appearances (Photo by Athena Pictures/Getty Images)

Another player due another look is Hallam Amos, who showed his class for Cardiff against the Scarlets, with a show-and-go that left defenders trailing and a cute offload to Jason Harries down the right flank. With Ashton Hewitt unfortunately another one to succumb to injury, Mat Protheroe is another flyer who has cut a dash for the Ospreys throughout the season, while Owen Lane will hope his three-match ban will not discount him from the squad discussion.

One outside shot must be Tom Rogers down at the Scarlets. His footwork on the flank, especially against Connacht, places the 22-year-old as just the sort of player who should be trialled.

A fairy tale with an Italian accent

You don’t get too many fairy tales in rugby. Exeter was one; then they transitioned from underdogs to the establishment and are one of only two sides to have won an English Premiership title in the past six years; one of only four to have won the Champions Cup in the past decade.

Leinster are another member of that elite quartet, three-time winners of European rugby’s biggest prize in the past 10 seasons, four-time winners of the Pro14 in the past four. To break their stranglehold in this latter competition, teasing South Africa’s Bulls, Sharks, Stormers and Lions away from Super Rugby, was seen as a good thing for business. As soon as that happened, sure enough the Leinster grip weakened. What no one predicted, and what no one can truly yet believe, is that the side causing them damage isn’t South African, isn’t even one of their Irish or Celtic rivals, but is actually the team who finished the regular Pro14 season in last position.

Treviso, or Benetton Rugby to give them their official name, didn’t win a match in the 16-game 2020/21 campaign. Fifteen defeats, one draw. In contrast, Leinster won 14 times and lost twice, ending the regular season with 71 points, 64 more than the Italian whipping boys managed.

A month later, the Rainbow Cup begins; the Pro14 in different clothing. All that has changed is the structure. Rather than 16 regular season games to determine who reaches the final, there are just five. Leinster lose their opener to old rivals Munster, while no one pays much attention to the fact Benetton Treviso nail a bonus-point win over Glasgow.

A fortnight later, Leinster bounce back, destroying Connacht, before following that victory up with another over Ulster. Still, no one notices what is happening in Italy, until back-to-back victories over neighbours Zebre puts Benetton, indeed Italian rugby, in an unfamiliar position.

No Italian side, either national or club, have ever won an international competition of note. Indeed, they’ve never come close. Thirteen different countries have reached a World Cup quarter-final since its inception but the Italians aren’t one of those, despite being granted Tier One Status and the annual windfall that comes from being in the Six Nations.

Club-wise, it’s worse. Since joining the Pro14, then the Magners League in 2010/11, Benetton have finished in the bottom three in seven out of 11 seasons; in the Champions Cup, they’ve finished bottom of their pool in each of the last 13 times they’ve entered.

Now this. While you can’t ignore the fact the fixture list has been kind to them, you also can’t overlook the story that’s unfolding in front of our eyes. The northern section of the Rainbow Cup has 12 teams from four countries yet it’s the makeweights who are on course to face the Bulls or the Sharks. They have a four-point lead over Munster, Ospreys and Glasgow, with Leinster a point further adrift. Connacht are next on their agenda, the same Connacht who stole victory away from them with a last-minute try when the sides met earlier this year.

One difference now is that Benetton have something other than pride to play for. The other difference is they have their Italian internationals back. When Ireland played Italy in Rome this year, 13 Benetton players featured in that game, none from Connacht. It was the previous evening that a fully loaded Connacht sneaked a 19-17 last-minute win over a weakened Benetton.

Now that they are at full strength and now they have a tangible goal in sight – two wins will mathematically guarantee them a place in the final – don’t bet against it happening.

Stand up and fight, no settle down and think

The Munster anthem is a well-known chorus in Irish life. ‘Stand up and fight’ their fans implore. Munster have. In their past two games, they refused to take a backward step in three separate 30-man quarrels against Ulster first, then Connacht in Friday’s game at Thomond Park.

That’s not what their problem is. Instead, it is psychological rather than physical. Having finally beaten Leinster after six straight losses to their biggest rivals, Munster followed up this opening Rainbow Cup win with an even more impressive victory at home to Ulster.

Munster are frustrating their fans as the season winds to an end (Photo By Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Suddenly a pathway to a final was open. And they erected obstacles across it.

Notwithstanding the fact they had two tries disallowed in Friday’s 24-20 defeat by Connacht, this was still a game they should have won. Instead, in a frantic final 10 minutes, they panicked, losing one lineout to sloppiness and spilling possession on three separate occasions. The final play of the game saw them five metres from the Connacht line; the best maul in the league facing one of the weakest. Connacht held out. A week earlier, Leinster scored four tries off their maul against Andy Friend’s team. Did they improve that much in a week? Or did Munster panic when opportunity knocked? “We will learn from this,” said their coach, Johann van Graan afterwards. 

They need to do so quickly, as three of their squad are due to retire at the end of this season, while another key player, JJ Hanrahan, is leaving. Of those left behind, Keith Earls and Stephen Archer are 33; Dave Kilcoyne, Conor Murray and John Ryan are 32; Peter O’Mahony is 30, while Andrew Conway, Damien de Allende, Tadhg Beirne and Niall Scannell are 29. If they don’t absorb these harsh lessons quickly, their Munster careers will end without medals.

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