Winter arrived in the North, as games resembled freezer interiors, and fans largely chose to stay at home, but while the rugby world continued to rage about the dismissal of Eddie Jones, there was some sumptuous pieces of individual skill on show. In some early festive cheer, England fans would have been buoyed by the welcome return of a certain Anthony Watson and there was much more to savour. Here’s what RugbyPass+ picked out…
Welcome back, Anthony Watson
England, with their wealth of resources, have always like a shiny new go-fast toy on the wing. Adam Radwan, Cadan Murley, Ollie Hassell-Collins and Henry Arundell are four young bucks who can light up any game with their dexterity, fast-twitch fibres and propensity for crossing the whitewash. However, often you need to look back and appreciate the tried-and-tested Rolls Royce options. Players who ooze class from their every pore, but who spent some time getting treatment under the hood with the V12 playing up.
It’s easy to forget, Anthony Watson, is only 28. Having burst onto the scene as a 20-year-old, making his England debut against New Zealand in 2014, he roared to 56 Test caps, including two tours as first-choice wing for the Lions, plundering 22 tries, but since a ACL injury incurred against Saracens for Bath in Oct 2021, it has been a long road back. A club change to Leicester Tigers was completed over the summer, but thought fit, he was still overlooked for the recent Autumn Series. The, ‘where has Anthony Watson gone?’ question was answered emphatically last night against the Ospreys, with two words, ‘I’m back’.
In a fairly forgettable game, and with the Tigers narrowly leading 13-10, on 57 minutes, Watson, playing at full-back, received the ball 40 metres out. With a sea of Ospreys jersey in front of him, he produced a side-step that left Jac Morgan clasping as thin air before pulling away from Rhys Webb and slicing through the despairing tackles of Max Nagy and Joe Hawkins to score under the posts unopposed. In eight seconds, he had transformed the game and made casual watchers sit up and wonder whether incoming England coach and incumbent Leicester coach Steve Borthwick would be making 2023 a happier year for the Ashford-born flyer.
An option anywhere in the back three, Watson’s overall game was class personified. He ruled the blisteringly cold South Wales skies, showed positional maturity and physicality when required to stunt Ospreys attacks.
The Test stage will be poorer if he does not return to it.
That wasn’t a result Leinster posted on Saturday. It was a statement, a chilling message. Think we’ve gone soft? Right, next time you come into our patch then this is what you’ll get.
Everyone better get used to that patch because that’s where teams are heading if they want to win this year’s Champions Cup, the final being set for the Aviva Stadium, Leinster now set for top seeds after their sensational 42-10 win over Racing in Le Havre.
So, it’s not really Leinster you face when you jet into Dublin; it’s Ireland, the No1 side in the world.
Since winning a fourth star in 2018, they have lost two finals, a semi-final and a quarter-final in Europe, beaten up by Will Skelton whether he was in a Saracen or La Rochelle shirt, but with Jenkins, their big South African lock on board now, they look formidable.
They certainly were on Saturday. Racing 92 were one of the pre-tournament favourites. Leinster destroyed them, Ringrose – again – offering a decent Brian O’Driscoll impression. Imagine how good they’ll be when Sexton, Furlong and Henshaw come back.
Gatland’s in-tray runneth over
Three years after having a gate named after him at the Principality Stadium, and leading Wales to a second World Cup semi-final, Warren Gatland will be officially unveiled to the media at a press conference this week, along with new Chairman Ieuan Evans, and under-fire CEO Steve Phillips.
As ever, the main spotlight will fall on Gatland, the grizzled Kiwi, who found his way into the affections of the Welsh rugby public over 12 years – which is no mean feat. It is undoubtedly a risk to his legacy in Wales. He brought three Grand Slams, a further two Six Nations titles, a No 1 world ranking and coached the British & Irish Lions, stacked full of Welsh players to a Series win in Australia, and a creditable draw in 2017. It is some CV.
The Wales team he is inheriting is at a low-ebb, however. Defeats to Italy and Georgia have left Welsh rugby looking moribund and seeking answers. Every level of the dysfunctional game in Wales is being scrutinised and the fans are voting with their wallets as fans stay away from regional games and choose alternatives. In short, if we’re being kind, the game needs a reboot, or if we’re being fatalist, CPR is needed to bring it back to life. Whether Gatland gets involved in the murky internecine politics of Welsh club rugby remains to be seen.
Some decisions will be easy, some will prey on his mind. You’d expect old heads Neil Jenkins and Bobby Stridgeon to add consistency, while decisions will need to be made quickly on Stephen Jones, Gethin Jenkins and Jonathan Humphreys, before he assembles his squad, with an open-chequebook.
Gatland will surely present some upbeat rhetoric about making Wales competitive at the upcoming Six Nations, but his mood will not have been improved by seeing reports that Gareth Anscombe would likely miss the Six Nations and beyond. In short, Gatland has to refind that Welsh obduracy in a short space of time, as he did in 2008, months after taking over from Gareth Jenkins. He has tough personnel decisions to make. Does he nurse Alun Wyn Jones to the World Cup? Is there a final hurrah for his battered heroes, Dan Lydiate, Jonathan Davies and Leigh Halfpenny? If not, the selection for the Six Nations could be very, very interesting.
For someone like Rhys Webb, there is a chink of light. So long ignored by Wayne Pivac, he could yet add to his 35 Welsh caps. For bruisers like Ross Moriarty or James Botham, an invite into the fold maybe forthcoming, while Rhys Carre, erroneously left out of the Autumn Series squad, will surely add ballast to the under-strength Welsh artillery.
Wales will never want for talent, yet it is underperforming due to structural and governance issues. Fasten your seatbelts for Gatland 2.0.
Edinburgh learn harsh European lesson
To prosper in Europe, you have to be ruthless. You have to gobble up your chances with clinical efficiency. You have to nail your set-piece, defend like wild dogs, and manage the idiosyncrasies of a referee.
Edinburgh’s return to the rarefied environs of the Champions Cup was overwhelmingly positive. They pushed Saracens, rampant in the Premiership, to the final play, forcing mistakes and uncanny sloppiness from their illustrious hosts.
So we should not be unduly harsh on Edinburgh for coming up short. But nor should we go easy on them. Yes, they were up against a brilliant team, nine wins from nine in the Premiership with seven try bonus points. Yes, Saracens had nearly all their big dogs on show, and playing in their own back yard, where they hardly ever slip up. But there was a large element of self-harm in Edinburgh’s demise.
Their set-piece collapsed. Three scrum penalties in the first half, with Luan de Bruin hauled off after 32 minutes. More in the second. Three messy late lineouts on the spin, costing Edinburgh momentum, territory, and ultimately, points. A miscommunication between Blair Kinghorn and Emiliano Boffelli, leaving just enough inviting StoneX plastic for Alex Lewington to scurry on to Elliot Daly’s beautiful grubber. A bad missed shot from Duhan van der Merwe allowing Daly to step inside and score. James Lang ploughing alone for the line and being held up in the wake of a stunning Damien Hoyland interception that should, by whichever means Edinburgh chose, have yielded a try. Ultimately, a huge opportunity to scalp Saracens was lost.
And there was so much to like in that Edinburgh performance. Boffelli is one of the form players in world rugby. Kinghorn looks to have rediscovered his mojo after what must have been a bruising autumn, enduring the fanfare of Finn Russell’s return from the international wilderness and his own abrupt relegation to the bench.
Luke Crosbie is a different shape to Hamish Watson, but proving equally effective this season. The towering Livingston snarler won three turnovers alone and carried with fury. Edinburgh dominated the breakdown skirmishes.
They host Castres on Saturday knowing Pierre-Henry Broncan will likely send a shadow squad to Scotland having seen his team take nothing from their home opener against Exeter Chiefs. Home matches are always must-win in the Champions Cup pools, but this one especially so.
For Edinburgh will be stinging. This was a heartening showing, no doubt. But heart only gets you so far in Europe. This is where Edinburgh want to thrive and where they should be judged. In the cold light of day, a handful of errors separated them from a famous win.
Ewers remains class act
When the great Martin Bayfield, all 6ft 10ins of him, calls you ‘big’, you know you’re not exactly Lilliputian. So it was on Saturday night in the BT Sport studios, as the television panel hailed the titanic exploits of Dave Ewers. Or, to give the Exeter behemoth his full title, Big Dave Ewers.
The Zimbabwean has long been a mighty contributor to Chiefs, and their soaring ascent from the second tier to the summit of English and European rugby. He is, as you might imagine, a vast specimen, even by the frightening standards of the modern game. Legs like oak trunks, a frame broader than a gable end, with the V8 engine capable of hurling it around a rugby field over and over.
That’s how it went down at Stade Pierre-Fabre anyway. Exeter’s tussle with a Castres side who play precious little rugby was never going to be a classic, and so it fell to Ewers and his meaty pals to roll up their sleeves and go to work. The upshot? Four unanswered tries, a gritty win on the road, where Castres had not lost since January, and a superb away performance.
Ewers carried several Frenchman with him en route to a typically powerful score. He ran like an ox all evening, jackaled furiously, and put in telling shots on the Castres attackers.
He is 32 now, and coming to the end of his contract. There are directors of rugby across the length and breadth of France who would give an arm, a leg and several vital organs to have such a fearsome weapon in their arsenals.
Rob Baxter is not concerned by this talk; nor is he anxious that with so much home-reared excellence leaving the building, Exeter will lose their identity. Re-signing Ewers would go a long way to maintaining lofty standards, and entrenching that distinctive Chiefs blueprint.
Hard to see clarity amid the fog
We keep being told how good it is on the training field at Limerick, keep being told they are turning a corner and then we keep looking at Munster’s results. Sunday’s defeat to Toulouse leaves them with four wins from ten competitive fixtures this season. Yes, there was a stunning win over a Springbok selection in Cork, but while that win boosted morale and the coffers, it didn’t give them any points.
They need them now. A trip to Toulouse is daunting – back-to-back dates with Northampton less so – but if Munster are to get knock-out rugby this year, and qualify for the Champions Cup next season, then they have to start picking up wins away from home. So far this year, they’ve had five road trips and four losses.
The funny thing is how their former coach, Johann van Graan, continues to be criticised. He left Limerick in May. It’s hard to see how an ex-employee can take the blame for what’s happening right now.
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