The hour is late and some of England’s most ambitious clubs are drinking in the dark, dingy bar of last chances. Bath, Leicester, Saracens and Wasps will be out of contention for a European Champions Cup knockout place – or at best, as good as out – if they lose this weekend, while Northampton, the Premiership team with the strongest set of title-challenging credentials, will make life gruesomely difficult for themselves if they fail to beat Ospreys in Swansea on Sunday.
Given the proximity of the baggage-laden Six Nations opener between Wales and England under the Millennium Stadium roof, just two weeks away and counting, it will be surprising indeed if Alun Wyn Jones, Rhys Webb, Dan Biggar and Justin Tipuric take a gentle approach to their business with the Midlanders in the penultimate round of cross-border pool matches.
Ospreys may be clinging to some mind-boggling mathematical equation in terms of their immediate future in this tournament, but big European games post-Christmas always have another dimension to them – a dimension that ensures maximum interest from those who, on the face of it, should barely be interested at all.
On Tuesday, the Wales coach, Warren Gatland, will name his squad for the Six Nations. Twenty-four hours later the England coach, Stuart Lancaster, is scheduled to declare his intentions. Both men should have a very clear vision of what’s what by now – if they are still stuck halfway up rugby selection’s version of the Dawn Wall with no idea how to get down, God help them – but there are still serious points to be made by big-name players who do not quite fall into the category of automatic Test first-choicers.
Take the midfielders Luther Burrell and Brad Barritt as examples. Both men have had their injury issues this season – Burrell before and during the autumn international series, Barritt after it – but they will be involved in high-profile contests this weekend and are within touching distance of starting places against Wales. Strong performances for Northampton and Saracens respectively are likely to move them ahead of Billy Twelvetrees, whose hit-and-miss form for Gloucester is of deep concern to Lancaster and his lieutenants.
Last season, it was the Twelvetrees-Burrell combination that freed up England’s attacking game in the Six Nations, where a 14-try return was far better than anything previously accumulated during Lancaster’s stewardship of the national team.
Sadly, Twelvetrees was mishandled by the red-rose hierarchy during the summer tour of New Zealand and is now lost in a fog of confusion. He does not even have a half-decent match in which to redeem himself this weekend, for the very good reason that the Gloucester side he leads are stuck in the second-tier Challenge Cup and must take on Oyonnax – a competent French side, admittedly, but some way short of tantalising.
Poor old Thomas Waldrom, the Exeter No 8, finds himself in a similar position. Ever since Ben Morgan left Kingsholm on a stretcher last Friday night, all the talk has been about Nick Easter of Harlequins, whose performance against Leicester a few hours later was a minor masterpiece of intelligent, creative rugby – a display that had at its heart finesse as well as fire, precision as well as passion. On Friday night, Easter lines up against a Wasps back row certain to feature James Haskell, one of the men ahead of him in the red-rose pecking order, and he will treat the game as an audition for a place in the England squad. Waldrom? Having been recalled to red-rose training duty during the autumn, he is now in Twelvetrees land, playing an out-of-sight, out-of-mind Challenge Cup game against Connacht over there in the wilds of Galway.
As things stand, the indications are that Lancaster will make precious few changes to the starting line-up that registered a much-needed victory over the Wallabies in the last of the pre-Christmas Tests. It is difficult to see him tinkering with his back three of Mike Brown, Anthony Watson and Jonny May. George Ford is pretty much nailed on at No 10, even though Owen Farrell will be back between the shafts for Saracens when they take on Munster on Friday night. The tight five will surely be retained en bloc, even though Alex Corbisiero and Mako Vunipola are playing again after long-term injury and will slowly crank up the heat on the Harlequins captain Joe Marler. As for the back-row unit, Billy Vunipola is expected to return in Morgan’s absence, flanked as usual by Tom Wood and Chris Robshaw.
Around the fringes is where Lancaster is in a position to cut some shapes, so to speak. He could, for instance, respond to the season-long clamour surrounding the Sale outside-half Danny Cipriani by restoring him to the elite player group, although it may well be that two younger playmakers – Henry Slade of Exeter and Ollie Devoto of Bath – are of more interest. Equally, he could look over his shoulder at the two-tour Lions flanker Tom Croft and bring him back into the fold. Certainly, Croft could use a big performance for Leicester against Scarlets on Friday night in the first of this weekend’s Anglo-Welsh squabbles.
Events at Welford Road will be fascinating in and of themselves: Leicester are still spitting tacks about their desperate performance in Llanelli in the opening tranche of matches, identifying it as the moment when their European campaign slewed off-track, and are hell-bent on revenge. They have recalled Freddie Burns – remember him? – at outside-half for the proceedings, and while they have chosen to pick forwards as good as the Argentinian prop Marcos Ayerza and the England hooker Tom Youngs on the bench rather than in the run-on formation, they will unquestionably go in search of the bonus-point victory that might keep the qualification flame flickering for another week.
As for the Scarlets, injuries are likely to undermine them. Liam Williams, the Wales outside back, misses out, as do the Test front-rowers Ken Owens and Samson Lee. It will also strike Gatland that Leicester’s decision to give Burns a run ahead of the much talked about Owen Williams deprives him of a valuable opportunity to cast an eye over one of his Six Nations candidates ahead of Tuesday’s squad announcement. What was that about the Wales-England relationship being based on trust and understanding? That’s right: “We don’t trust them and they don’t understand us.”
This first season of European Champions Cup competition, with its tighter format of 20 teams in five pools rather than 24 in six, is proving highly unpredictable, with no one nation asserting complete authority. Three French clubs – the northern hemisphere title holders Toulon, Clermont Auvergne and Toulouse – are leading their groups, but only the latter have won each of their matches and not even Guy Noves, their wonderful greybeard of a coach, is arguing that they are playing the rugby of their dreams.
Ireland’s provinces are not what they were: Leinster, shorn of Jonny Sexton and Brian O’Driscoll in midfield and of Joe Schmidt in the strategist’s chair, are unrecognisable from the majestic side of 2011 and 2012; Ulster, so often a major presence in the group phase, are dead in the water; Munster, those European campaigners par excellence, are one defeat at Saracens away from joining the men from Belfast in the wet stuff. Deep in a rebuilding phase, they are afloat on the ferocity of their commitment and not much else.
Maybe this is the year of the Scots. While Alex Salmond himself would hesitate before risking so much as a groat on Glasgow winning the big prize, it is not beyond the realms that Gregor Townend’s side will surf the feel-good wave washing over rugby north of the border following the sharp improvement at Test level and have some sort of say in its destination. Glasgow are a proper team, cleverly coached by the old Lions outside-half and shot through with game-breaking talents, from Jonny Gray and Josh Strauss up front to Nico Matawalu and Stuart Hogg behind the scrum.
Soothsaying at this delicate stage is a mug’s game, but this much is certain: in one way, shape or form, the forthcoming Six Nations will be affected by what happens over these two European weekends. Who knows? If Sam Burgess puts a hat-trick of tries past Toulouse and has a hand in four more, Lancaster might make him captain of England.
Fiji’s Nakaitaci called to the French colours
Noa Nakaitaci, the latest Fiji-born player to force his way on to the international stage in the colours of another country, has been included in a 31-strong French party for the Six Nations. The Clermont Auvergne wing, still uncapped, will be up against three rivals – Yoann Huget of Toulouse, Teddy Thomas of Racing Métro and Sofiane Guitoune of Bordeaux-Bègles – for a starting place against Scotland in Paris in 16 days’ time.
There are some notable absentees from Philippe Saint-André’s squad: no Fulgence Ouedraogo of Montpellier among the back-rowers; no Morgan Parra of Clermont at scrum-half; no Maxime Médard or Maxime Mermoz or, indeed, Gaël Fickou, who scored his country’s match-winning try over England last season, in the backs.
The captain will be the Toulouse flanker Thierry Dusautoir, who is now set fair for another tilt at World Cup glory after the near miss in New Zealand in 2011.
The Italy coach, Jacques Brunel, confirmed that another stellar loose forward, Sergio Parisse, will be leading the Azzurri. The surprise selection is Marcello Violi, an uncapped scrum-half who plays for Calvisano in the Italian league rather than for one of the two fully professional Pro12 teams.Reuse content