Waiting for rugby to restart in the Pro14 must have, at times, felt like being the Shawshank Redemption’s Andy Dufresne, chipping away with his claw-hammer but with Covid-19 playing the Warden Norton role to perfection. Little by little, freedom has beckoned, and while not having to crawl through 500 yards of excrement to reach it – gagging after swabs on your tonsils to ensure you are coronavirus-free is very much the 2020 version of the 1994 classic. Pain has been dished out in abundance. For rugby fans, outstretched arms and a look to the heavens, has meant prayers were answered this week with a smattering of games to relight rugby’s fire.
So which players showed they hadn’t been overindulging in lockdown and stole an early March on impressing their national coaches, with Test rugby on the horizon? RugbyPass assesses the early form horses…
Ryan Baird, 21 (Leinster)
There was a time when it was Munster who regularly produced lock-forwards of prodigious quality. Paul O’Connell and Donncha O’Callaghan wore the Irish jersey with pride on over 200 occasions, but if you were to go out on a limb, you could suggest the pairing of James Ryan and Ryan Baird could be the next pairing to replicate the Munster legends in the next decade. Baird served notice of his quality against Glasgow in March with a remarkable 50m run-in from distance, showing his raw athleticism, but the basics were there for all to see; the leg-pumping carries in the tight, the spring in his step at the set-piece and his defensive zeal for defensive duties, and yesterday against their old rivals, in only his third regional start, he was again to the fore. He topped the tackle count with 18, carried for the second most metres in the pack with 26, but the highlight would have included his work in the wide-channels for James Lowe’s try. After taking the ball at pace from Johnny Sexton, he expertly pinned Andrew Conway before putting Lowe away down the left flank. If he’d had a 13 on his shirt, no one would have batted an eyelid but then 6ft 6in Baird has all the makings of a special player. Whisper it, but he could be a mainstay for Leinster and Ireland for years to come.
Johnny Williams, 23 (Scarlets)
The headlines were deservedly taken by Steff ‘Billy Bob’ Evans, who rammed a stake in the turf, mullet-and-all, to keep his wing-berth even though his region boast Liam Williams, Johnny McNicholl, Ryan Conbeer and Tomi Lewis out wide. His was a performance of wit and invention topped off with two opportunistic tries, but it was the man in the ‘Reserved for Hadleigh’ sized car-parking space at Parc-Y-Scarlets who will have forced a watching Wayne Pivac to take note. Not blessed with centres, Johnny Williams was prised from Newcastle Falcons on account of his Welsh father, John Bleddyn Rhys Williams, and that sell was made infinitely easier for the WRU when his former coaches at London Irish, Glenn Delaney and Richard Whiffin pitched up in West Wales, but the player still had to perform and his early bow with the Scarlets suggest he has the game to start being in the conversation for the vacant No 12 Welsh shirt. With 75 metres carried and seven tackles made, the 23-year-old caught the eye, but the highlight came in the breakaway try from the Scarlets which saw the 6ft 3in centre galloping his way up from the 5m line to just short of the half-way line where an infield pass put away Angus O’Brien before Johnny McNicholl applied the coup de grace, but his work ethic impressed. A willing support runner for Steff Evans’ first try, and a muscular carry in the build-up for Ed Kennedy’s try out wide point to a midfielder who far more than a bash ‘em and crash ‘em merchant.
The heavens have opened, and so have the floodgates ?@scarlets_rugby go from one try line to the other in lightning speed with Johnny McNicholl finishing it off ?
— PRO14 RUGBY (@PRO14Official) August 22, 2020
Duhan van der Merwe, 24 (Edinburgh)
Van der Merwe may have admitted to not having heard of Edinburgh before signing on the strength of his former coach at Montpellier, Richard Cockerill’s, hard-sell but the strapping wing with George North-sized dimensions has had little to regret when plumping for a blind move to Scotland’s capital. Apart from his debatable geography nous, the blond Afrikaan from the Western Cape has been an unqualified success, with the wing topping the metres carried, clean breaks and defenders beaten this season in the Pro14. After 31 tries in 57 appearances, he lies fifth in the all-time scoring chart for his club and the No 11 was again terrorising defences at Murrayfield, where Edinburgh ran out 30-15 winners at an eerie Murrayfield. Van der Merwe was Edinburgh’s most effective back, running for 65m and it was his foraging run on the left-flank which drew appreciative glances. Carrying the ball in one gigantic left mitt, the wing scurried around Glasgow defenders with ease before popping the inside-ball to Nic Groom to dot down for an easy score. It’s this match-winning ability that has seen Gregor Townsend ink van der Merwe into his plans, and there’s little doubt he would have capped him had the tour to his native South Africa not been called off this summer, having now qualified on residency status. An Autumn bow beckons.
We've said it before, we'll say it again: don't mess with the @duhanvdmerwe ?
— PRO14 RUGBY (@PRO14Official) August 22, 2020
Kieran Williams, 23 (Ospreys)
It is with a heavy heart that Leon Brown, after a tub-thumping 30m carry to the tryline, wearing Dan Evans as a neckline accessory, was overlooked for the outstanding player of the match, while there were also claims for Ashton Hewitt after two brilliant finishes, but after a 20-20 draw that was high on tension, but limited on quality, it was the player who left the proceedings on 70 minutes who left a lasting impression. Kieran Williams was one of the Ospreys players to stand out in a disastrous season pre-lockdown, but the barrelling centre carried on where he left off against the Dragons. With three Test centres also on the field in Nick Tompkins, Owen Watkin and Jack Dixon (Wales U20), Williams was the standout among the quartet, topping the carrying stats with 81m and tackles made in the Ospreys backline (8). His timing to hit the hole and power through to then pass inside for Sam Parry’s try showed all his composure and raw power in a matter of second, and truthfully, he gave Dixon and Tompkins an intensely uncomfortable afternoon with his aggression in defence and ball-carrying. At 5ft 10in and over 15st, he has certain physical similarities to another Ospreys centre, Scott Gibbs and alongside Johnny Williams, he appears to be easing Wales’ centre crisis.
What drama. Finishes 20-20 in Liberty after a late try and a red card. Young gun Kieran Williams stands out as MoM in a team full of experienced leaders for the Ospreys. Huge talent, bright future.
— Lauren Jenkins (@laurenemmaj) August 23, 2020
Bundee Aki, 30 (Connacht)
Okay, so we’ve bookended this little list with a player who is entering his ‘vintage’ years but with Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw purring yesterday as Leinster narrowly overcame Munster, and Stuart McCloskey and Chris Farrell providing sizeable alternative options the Irish midfield, Bundee Aki knows he cannot afford to let standards slip. On his 100th appearance for Andy Friend’s men, the powerful islander shone on both sides of the ball. He tackled with venom in midfield, lining up Ulster’s ball-carriers for some rib ticklers, before making metres when it counted, notably on 55 minutes. At the set-piece, the influential 20-cap Ireland back took the ball and used the returning Ian Madigan as a speed bump as he performed the famed Samoan sidestep before crashing over the line, despite the attentions of two further Ulster tacklers. It was a deserved 26-20 victory over the Ulstermen and Aki was front, middle and centre of the win. He’s been quite the signing for Connacht and is far too useful a weapon for Andy Farrell to discard.
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