The Bristol Bears pulled off a sensational victory against the Exeter Chiefs on Sunday, fighting back from a 17-0 deficit at halftime to score the match-winning try in the final play of the game.
The 20-17 victory at Sandy Park puts Pat Lam’s side at the top of the Gallagher Premiership table and establishes them as a force to be reckoned with this season.
In order to mount such a comeback against such a formidable side, there had to be some standout performances, and man of the match Nathan Hughes spearheaded Bristol’s resurgence.
The no.8 picked up his second man of the match award in just four games, and is proving to be one of the shrewdest signings of the season.
The loose forward was not playing badly when he left Wasps last season, but he looks reinvigorated this season, and perhaps more dynamic than he has been in the past. Last season was particularly unfortunate for the 28-year-old, though, as he missed out on Eddie Jones’ England squad for the Rugby World Cup.
Hughes was a mainstay in the England squad for three years after making his debut in 2016, but with Billy Vunipola in the squad, Jones opted not to take another no8 specialist to Japan. However, given his form so far this season, Hughes is forcing the Australian to reconsider his squad.
Nathan Hughes has to be back in the England squad.
— Ben Brookes (@SameOldBrookesy) November 10, 2019
The Six Nations is still almost three months away, and a lot can happen before then, but if Hughes’ form continues, it will be hard to ignore him. There was always a case that he never truly seized his place in the England squad during his 20 caps, and that Jones’ style doesn’t necessarily suit the way he plays, but all he can do now is maintain the level he is playing at Ashton Gate.
Nathan Hughes back in England contention?
— Abiola (@AbiolaHP) November 10, 2019
After his display against last season’s runners-up, particularly his 18 carries, calls are mounting for the no8’s return to the national fold, although he will face stiff competition in what looks to be the most competitive area in the England squad.
Not only was another England rival, Sam Simmonds, packing down opposite him at no.8 for Exeter, but the depth of talent in the back row across the Premiership is astounding currently, so it will not be easy to break into the squad, particularly as every member of England’s back row at the RWC played an important part.
— Chris Gilbert (@brisbrom) November 10, 2019
There is always the possibility that Hughes could operate as a blindside flanker alongside Vunipola, which is an idea that has been flirted with in the past. But as it stands, Jones’ ‘Kamikazee Kids’ Tom Curry, 21, and Sam Underhill, 23, look set to occupy either side of the scrum for a while. Breaking such a mobile and effective partnership, particularly for someone so stylistically different as Hughes, seems unimaginable, but Jones is always the pragmatist, and often picks his sides based on the opposition.
All the towering no8 can do is keep performing at the level he has for Bristol this season, and he could be in luck come January.
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now