The battle for back-row Lions selection took centre stage on a gripping weekend of European action that also featured bizarre decisions and calamitous finishing
Who’d be a Lions selector? The recent return from a hamstring injury of Peter O’Mahony has helped make the back-row conundrum ridiculously tough for Warren Gatland and Co.
The Munster captain, outstanding for Ireland against England 16 days ago, took the wind out of Toulouse’s sails with two early lineout steals in Limerick and looks just the sort of gritty and intelligent workhorse the Lions will need in New Zealand. Some have even suggested he go as captain.
Yet everywhere you looked this weekend there were other back-row contenders putting in a huge performance.
It started on Friday night at Murrayfield, where Hamish Watson showed what a strong ball-carrier he is in a losing cause against La Rochelle.
“A lot of the good stuff in the second half was sparked by him,” said Edinburgh coach Duncan Hodge. “He’s got X-factor and ball in hand he’s incredibly dangerous.”
Watson, who had a terrific Six Nations, made nine carries for 75 metres along with nine tackles and yet such is the competition for places that he can only be considered a long shot for a Lions spot.
Faletau steps up
The second Challenge Cup quarter-final, between Bath and Brive, saw Taulupe Faletau reassert his claim. The Wales No 8 is not a regular try-scorer – with only seven in 67 Tests – but he bagged a double in Bath’s win at the Rec and, like Watson, won Man of the Match.
For his first try he ran a blocking line and then appeared on Kahn Fotuali’i’s shoulder to take the scoring pass; for the second he produced one of several smart support lines off Matt Banahan to go through a hole.
One tap tackle on Takudzwa Ngwenya demonstrated his renowned defensive quality and he is surely a shoo-in for the Lions.
In Dublin it was Sean O’Brien’s turn to bolster his case, and by the time he took his leave in Leinster’s emphatic 32-17 victory over Wasps, he had made 16 carries (for 76 metres), ten tackles and a couple of turnovers.
If only he had better hands his place on the plane would not be in doubt.
Is Ross Moriarty, a try-scorer for Gloucester against Cardiff Blues, ahead of him in the pecking order?
The Welshman hits harder but carries less effectively and he will hope the Lions selectors have long memories, because by the time they firm up the squad to be named on 19 April, it will be ten or so weeks since his earth-shuddering performance against England.
The zing of Zebo
If you’re looking for a Lions bolter, Leinster’s Joey Carbery could be your man. The ten-cum-15 oozes class, none more so than the way he exploited the short side from a loose Wasps kick to engineer Jack Conan’s try.
Carbery made a staggering 25 carries and 200 metres but he may have to wait until South Africa 2021 for his chance because, among others with superior claims, Simon Zebo is playing with the panache befitting a Lion.
The Munsterman was immense under the high ball and at restarts against Toulouse and has the advantage of being a natural wing/full-back.
Chris Ashton’s attacking skills are exceptional, as he showed in Saracens’ magnificent 38-13 success against Glasgow, but his feeble failed effort to stop Lee Jones scoring is perhaps what will lodge strongest in the minds of the Lions coaches.
One man who definitely won’t be touring New Zealand is Billy Twelvetrees, but he reminded us all of why he won 22 England caps and was a regular Test starter up until three years ago.
The Gloucester player, who had to move sideways into the fly-half spot after Billy Burns’s early concussion against Blues, had one of those golden nights when he could do no wrong.
Four of Gloucester’s six tries came from first phase and it was Twelvetrees’s perfect cross-kick for Jonny May that sparked the remarkable turnaround (see more in Sinners).
Tigers legends out in force
Jim Hamilton, enjoying a spell in Sarries’ engine room while George Kruis continues his rehab (he may be back for the semi-final in Dublin), was one of the ex-Tigers who attended the first Six Nations Review Dinner at Welford Road.
Lewis Moody, Harry Ellis and Graham Rowntree also joined current Leicester players at a dinner that will become an annual event.
Rowntree, who will be going on the Lions tour as scrum coach, said the squad had the potential to be “the best in 30 years” and certainly you get a sense that the top players in Britain and Ireland are raising their game ahead of the squad announcement.
Dinner host Matt Poole, the ex-Tigers lock, added: “It’s always great to get the lads up on stage and let the conversation flow. From poking fun at one another to gaining incredible insights on the game we love, it’s a fantastic way for fans to get even closer to the players.”
Only one place to start: the Aviva Stadium. Willie le Roux encapsulated what is an all-too-frequent yet absurd occurrence – failing to safely touch the ball down for a try.
Wasps were trailing Leinster 8-0 midway through the first half when Kurtley Beale – a joy to watch – carved through the blue ranks and found Le Roux, alive to the opportunity, tearing up in support.
The South African left the defenders for dust but let the ball slip from his grasp during his prematurely triumphant dive. An absolute howler from which Wasps never recovered.
Running up a blind alley
Far more forgivable but still qualifying for this week’s Sinners section was Matthew Morgan’s ill-advised counter-attack at Kingsholm.
Cardiff Blues led Gloucester 26-20 when the full-back set off diagonally from his 22 with all of his team-mates in front of him. Ben Morgan, quicker than you might expect for a big man, made a super tackle and Gloucester forced a scrum turnover from which Jonny May scored a try.
Gloucester went on to win the second half 26-3, finishing 46-26 victors, and so clinched a semi-final date later this month with La Rochelle, where they lost 42-13 in December.
This column feels a bit guilty criticising when match officials but there were some bizarre calls made at the weekend.
The Italian TMO Stefano Penne ruled out a legitimate try by Brive wing Benito Masilevu for a so-called forward pass by Arnaud Mignardi.
It wouldn’t have changed the outcome but it denied the French team a superb score from a move featuring off-the-top lineout ball, two decoy runners and a beautifully weighted miss pass.
At Thomond Park, we had the other side of the coin because Paul Perez’s try from Yoann Maestri’s forward pass was allowed to stand by referee JP Doyle.
“I need an angle to prove it’s a forward pass,” said the RFU referee, even though he already had the footage he needed to rule it out. The surprised grin on the face of Fabien Pelous, Toulouse’s sporting director, spoke volumes.
The delays for TMO decisions in the Munster-Toulouse game were too long. For example, you could quickly see that Francois Cros had challenged Duncan Williams with a late elbow, so why look at it about eight times?
The business end
Champions Cup semi-finals (22-23 April)
Clermont Auvergne v Leinster (Matmut Stadium de Gerland, Lyon)
Munster v Saracens (Aviva Stadium, Dublin)
Challenge Cup semi-finals (21-23 April)
Stade Francais v Bath (Stade Jean Bouin, Paris)
La Rochelle v Gloucester (Stade Marcel Defiandre)