Nick Abendanon's performance on Saturday evoked talk of "exceptional circumstances", but he was not the only English number 15 in form.
The top tier of European competition annually offers exiles a shot at the “exceptional circumstances” clause and a chance to prove England should cast aside domestic performers in favour of those residing further away from home.
Barrelling openside Steffon Armitage has loomed large for the entirety of Stuart Lancaster’s tenure, his consistent breakdown excellence winning a multitude of backers. However, another Brit abroad shone bright on Saturday.
Dismantling Northampton Saints for Clermont, two-cap Nick Abendanon moved to a haul of three tries, 38 beaten defenders and 716 running metres for the Champions Cup campaign and put his name firmly in the frame for World Cup involvement.
Now, Lancaster knows the former Bath man well from his time in charge of the Saxons. Hellbent on inspiring the nation this year, the England head honcho will likely assemble a large training squad including foreign-based members before naming 31 to take on the tournament.
That plays into Abendanon’s favour. But he was not the only English full-back to excel this weekend. In fact, every quarter-final featured a fine performance from a player in pursuit of Mike Brown’s place. Here is a run-down.
Mightily incisive, Abendanon helped conjure tries with two attacking contributions even before his own opportunistic 80-metre score after half-time.
The first came from an excellent piece of anticipation as Lee Dickson‘s box-kick fell into his hands and he fed Wesley Fofana to devastating effect:
The old sporting adage ‘you make your own luck’ holds sway here. Though Dickson’s poor connection means the ball was set to bounce well short of Abendanon, he hares off towards the landing area:
Fortune favours the brave and the full-back gets a lucky rebound off the hands of his scrum-half Ludovic Radosalvjevic. He bursts through bodies and picks a great pass as Dickson comes in to tackle:
Fofana does what he does best before linking with Napolioni Nalaga. The ball is then recycled and Noa Nakaitaci strolls over in the right-hand corner:
While rather inconspicuous, Abendanon’s role in the second part of this five-pointer is just as important. Staying on his feet, he sprints through in support and is first to the ruck as Nalaga is tackled:
Seven minutes later, Abendanon made a less subtle intervention:
This is a masterclass in joining phase-play as a full-back. Watch where Abendanon starts, curving around to receive the third pass of the movement.
Between the black arrows is the gap he eventually takes, between forwards Tom Wood and Salesi Ma’afu. This mismatch will already be in Abendanon’s mind:
On catching Fofana’s pass, a step off the right foot sees him onto Wood’s inside. His pace easily beats Ma’afu on the outside:
Another jink unbalances the covering Dickson and gets him onto the right shoulder of James Wilson, so the scoring pass is straightforward:
The reverse angle of Abendanon’s evasion is nice to watch:
On the rare occasions Clermont were on the back foot, their number 15 stayed composed and clear-headed.
No better was that illustrated than here, as he fielded George Pisi‘s grubber through before beating Luther Burrell and the kicker:
The pirouette is worth another look for sure:
Many precocious, attack-minded Englishmen over the years have come under fire for their perceived lack of defensive prowess – Charlie Hodgson and Danny Cipriani among them.
Abendanon may have been in that chastised contingent, too. Not any more. This try-saver on Christian Day was superb:
Just as the hit on Day, approximate 20 kilograms heavier than him, is excellent, Abendanon’s patience and decision-making is very good. Staring down a four-on two, he has no right to stop Saints as Burrell throws a mis-pass:
Aided by poor running lines, he drifts across, gets low and makes the tackle. After driving Day back, he gets to his feet and disrupts the ruck:
It is a fine piece of play that demonstrates athleticism and footballing intelligence, something the next candidate possesses in abundance.
Adept at fly-half, Goode is blessed with razor-sharp rugby instincts. These came to the fore throughout Saracens‘ 12-11 hi-jacking of Racing Metro.
This piece of back-field coverage provides a flawless example. Johnny Sexton, many of whom rate among the best tactical kickers in the world, makes a clearance that looks to be sailing towards the touchline.
Goode glides back to intercept effortlessly, calling a mark and injecting tempo by tapping and setting off:
Distribution is another skill Lancaster looks for in full-backs. Teams with more than one playmaker can impart two-sided attacks, whereby both blindside and openside are attended by runners.
Goode lacks for nothing in this area. Watch how he hits the line in this movement before flinging out a pass off his left hand.
The Racing defender is sucked onto Marcelo Bosch and the Argentinian match-winner creates the break with a quick transfer to Chris Ashton:
Kicking is integral to the Saracens gameplan, and on Sunday the visitors often used the tactic of wide runners chipping inside to follow-up support.
Joining from first phase this time, Goode executes this well:
Hooking into space, he follows up alongside Richard Wigglesworth and Chris Wyles. Racing carry over their own line, and a five-metre scrum results.
To save the best of Goode’s afternoon until last, this break hauled his side onto the front foot:
Sashaying past replacement tighthead Brian Mujati, Goode initially takes advantage of a mismatch.
Even after another step bypasses three more would-be tacklers though, the most important thing is how he acts in the open.
You learn a lot about a player when they are in space. Here, Goode knows how crucial retaining the ball is. He stays patient, and curves towards his support before staying on his feet for as long as possible.
As the below screenshot shows, this has the effect of allowing Kelly Brown to catch up and resource the ruck:
From the Parisian suburbs to Dublin, and another assertive display from an English 15.
Of the 660 minutes Watson has spent on the field in Test rugby – eight full-game shifts and a cameo from the replacements bench against New Zealand – only around 68 have come at full-back.
In that time, England scored six tries. Granted, the opponents were Italy, but the Bath youngster is definitely more comfortable in the more open expanses.
Despite a mistimed jump that brought a deserved yellow card after Rob Kearney was floored, Watson underlined as much. Twice he lacerated Leinster from a standing start.
Jimmy Gopperth planted this probing grubber early on. The chase is good, but Jordi Murphy gets comfortably beaten on the return. With a better offload from Matt Bahanan, Watson would have been the clear:
A similarly scything run in the second period punished Eoin Reddan’s rather loose box-kick, sparking a sweeping counter:
In terms of producing something from nothing – one of Lancaster’s favourite sayings – Watson’s fast-twitch footwork puts him out on his own.
Daly started Wasps’ eventual 32-18 defeat to European champions Toulon at outside centre, from where he has been causing havoc throughout the Premiership campaign and for the Saxons in Cork a couple of months ago.
However, he has worn the 15 jersey both for England and against them in Barbarians colours. Possessing a howitzer left boot as well as power and pace, the gifted 22 year-old would be an effective Test weapon from deep.
Two delicious forays into the 15-metre channel at the Stade Mayol reinforced as much, the first setting Rob Miller away thanks to a hitch-kick and step between Guilhem Guirado and Maxine Mermoz, before an explosive surge through contact and deft offload:
Then there was this assist for Will Helu. While Josua Tuisova’s trip undoubtedly manufactures the opening, Daly executes the two-on-two superbly. His outside arc burns Mathieu Bastareaud, forcing Delon Armitage to step in:
As shown by this screenshot, the scoring pass is timed to perfection – coming just as Armitage loses trust in his teammate and, quite understandably, turns his shoulders:
Throw in Brown and Chris Pennell of Worcester Warriors and Lancaster has a plethora of extremely plausible full-back options, even without injured Ben Foden. The selection decisions will be difficult. Exceptional circumstances indeed.