Morris, Malins and the magnificent Simmonds brothers – Jacob Whitehead highlights standout performances on a weekend of mixed fortunes for English clubs in Europe
Five Things We Learnt from the European Semi-finals
The home team may have won every game last weekend but there was far more of interest than that simple fact suggests, with numerous players putting their hands up for selection ahead of the Autumn Nations Cup.
We’ve seen monkeys shed from backs, dynasties ending and possibly another beginning – although we’ll wait another few weeks before handing over the crown. Plus, we got 100 minutes of Semi Radradra, meaning the weekend’s excitement was used up by ten o’clock on Friday night. But what have the weekend’s results taught us – if anything?
1. Racing can win big games
Deontay Wilder delivered a brilliant piece of trash-talk before his 2018 meeting with Luis Ortiz, claiming: “You have to be perfect for 12 rounds. I only need to be perfect for two seconds and then, in the blink of an eye, it’s bam, baby, goodnight!”
Juan Imhoff’s late winner, delivered on a silver platter by bad-boy butlers Finn Russell and Virimi Vakatawa, was the rugby equivalent of Wilder’s famous right hand. A perfect Saracens defensive performance for 75 minutes seemed to have delivered them to a fourth final in five years, but momentary perfection from the Racing back-line sent that to the canvas.
Racing 92 were in danger of becoming like domestic rivals Clermont Auvergne, with only a solitary Top 14 title to show for a period of recent dominance.
Their record in Europe over the last four years reads losing finalists, bottom of the group, losing finalists, losing quarter-finalists. But whereas recent years have seen them lose close European games – see 22-21 to Toulouse last year, 15-12 to Leinster the season before that – they may have finally summited the hump with last weekend’s tight win.
However, next month, can they climb the mountain?
2. Sarries young guns are going to be just fine
If the surprise package of the quarter-finals was 19-year-old Northampton loosehead Manny Iyogun, Saturday’s equivalent was Saracens centre Dom Morris. The academy graduate only made his European debut in the last moments of the previous week’s victory in Leinster, but was pressed into action after just 12 minutes in Paris.
Jogging onto the pitch as a replacement for the stricken Duncan Taylor, he set up for the resulting lineout and looked at his opposite number. Virimi Vakatawa. Gulp.
But Morris was superb, reading the play superbly as the designated blitzer in Saracens’ defensive scheme, with Imhoff’s winning try only coming when Morris was stuck on the floor from a previous phase. It’s testament to Morris’s quality that his curly lid was nearly indistinguishable from Taylor’s mop in a relief performance of real bravura.
His break with 20 minutes left could have been one of the great knockout scores, but will instead be slotted into the Mathew Tait 2007 file.
Those Saracens fans who tucked into Friday night’s aperitif of Bristol v Bordeaux can take some solace in the star turn of loanee Max Malins. He had a couple of teething problems in the first half, but Matthieu Jalibert will break many a full-back’s ankles in the years to come.
Malins’s second-half and extra-time performance was something to behold, with his offload in the first minute of the added period the match-winning moment. Oh, and he’d profit from Radradra’s speedy wrists to put the final flourish on the score-line, and bag himself a double.
3. Simmonds brothers stake their claims
Who is England’s third-best fly-half? Exeter fans will tell you it’s one of Owen Farrell or George Ford until the cows come home. Joe Simmonds, they say, should play for England.
Captain of the season’s dominant team at 23, the possessor of one of the best dummies in England, a dead-eyed goalkicker – he’s pushed ahead of the pack in the quest to be England’s next cab off the rank.
Possibly more of a game-manager last season behind a ferocious Exeter pack, the Exeter pack is, well, still ferocious, but Simmonds has taken the next step towards talismanic status. Aided by a half-back partnership with Jack Maunder which has flourished since their teenage years, Simmonds’s try was rich rewards for an impeccable vein of form this season.
Comfortably receiving the ball the least of any starting stand-off last weekend, Exeter used him as something of a key – the smooth touch when breaking down the front door was taking just a little too long. Even if he doesn’t make a match-day 23, he’s surely a player to get in camp before England’s Autumn Nations campaign.
And what of his brother Sam, so unlucky not to have added to his seven England caps from 2017-18. He may have scored a first-half try, meaning he’s scored more European tries in a single season than any other forward, but his most important intervention came with a brilliant try-saving tackle on Alban Placines. He’s another name in the conversation alongside Vunipola, Curry and Dombrandt.
4. Harry Randall stars in England No 9 watch
Max Malins has been mentioned in dispatches, but it could be argued that Bristol’s key man on Friday night was scrum-half Harry Randall. There are possibly even two spaces for a scrum-half in Eddie Jones’s autumn squad up for grabs – and a squall of potential candidates.
So what a piece of timing it was for Randall to have his best game since the restart, the highlight reel moment an ingenious grubber through to the onrushing Malins. One criticism of Randall has been his box-kicking, but Luke Morahan had a field day with his scrum-half’s bombs from the base.
Jones loves a scrum-half with the tempo of Randall, and on form like this England would do well to pick him – Wales are sniffing around for the Llandovery College product.
5. Liability Lavanini hurts Leicester again
Tomás Lavanini delivered possibly the most Tomás Lavanini of performances against Toulon on Saturday night. An outstanding physical presence, a canny lineout operator – before a sloppy yellow card undid all his good work. Who won the sweepstakes this week?
Some Leicester fans have claimed Lavanini’s reputation precedes him, but reputations do exist for a reason. He can have no complaints here, a late hit on the scrum-half capping off a string of indiscretions.
We’ve seen him sent off in Argentina’s key 2019 World Cup game, yellow-carded in their 2015 quarter-final, he’s the most carded Puma in history. Generally it’s a good thing when players replicate their international form for their club side – but not here.
A high earner at Leicester Tigers, is it time for the men from the Midlands to cut their losses?
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