Peter Bills: Hernandez v Evans - clash of the classiest

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The Independent Online

Dan Carter and Matt Giteau are almost certainly the world's top two outside halves. But there's every justification for naming Juan-Martin Hernandez and Nick Evans as the next best two in world rugby.

Saturday's Heineken Cup clash at the Stade de France between Stade Francais and Harlequins was a minor classic of its kind. The contest between Hernandez and Evans was not far behind. Here is a look at the two contrasting, master playmakers on view at the Stade de France.

JUAN-MARTIN HERNANDEZ

He's the James Bond of rugby union, the high roller who will gamble everything. Alas, unlike Bond, it doesn't always come off.

He exudes authority, with his tall, angular presence and carries himself in keeping with that air of control and mastery. Beyond dispute, he offers a figure of command and potential control. He reads a game like a book, has the kick of a mule and stays calm and upright when he takes the ball into contact.

He's a player who could sit back in the pocket and run a game from the safety of an armchair. But that's not Bond-style. Hernandez likes to roll the dice, gamble and pursue the jackpot. Unfortunately for Stade, this is a philosophy that can come back to haunt him and them.

His kick is so strong and potentially so lengthy that he can slice badly off the side of the boot. That is by far an unknown scenario and Hernandez's penchant for adventure can also cost his team, as it did in the first half against Harlequins.

Back in defence where he covers shrewdly, he was first to a downfield kick but then tried the high risk off-load to a colleague, instead of taking the ball into contact and re-cycling for his pack. The ball went loose and Quins centre Turner-Hall picked up to race clear for the try. In the end, those five points were the difference between defeat and a draw for Stade.

The Argentine can absolutely bomb his up and under kicks, they are great towering efforts. But constantly, the analyst gets the feeling that intrinsically the Argentinian is a hot/cold type of player. When he's right on his game, he's dynamite but at even 10% less efficiency, he makes costly mistakes. And there are frequent instances when Hernandez's super creative mind strays into strategies that are way beyond the compass of his colleagues. In those circumstances, errors can occur; mighty expensive ones, too.

But then, using the motoring analogy, what would you prefer – a Porsche, albeit one that can misfire when it isn't properly tuned, or a bog-standard Peugeot?

Hernandez plays the game with his head up, a commendable trait. He always looks for options, and likes to off-load. All the while, his mind is a whirl of invention. The chip over the top of a flat defence, the grubber kick along the ground, the mis-pass, the probe for a gap himself – Hernandez remains a constant danger when in possession for he seeks space and craves continuity.

But it can be a danger to his own team-mates, too. A first half hospital pass to Gasnier didn't look as though it was hugely appreciated and you sense, Hernandez feels he must ALWAYS do something inventive, inspirational. Stooping so low as to do the predictable, the mundane simply isn't in his lexicon.

That, of course, is the classic Latin temperament emerging but such genes are often flawed, as in his mistake before half time that cost one try.

But it depends how you like to see your rugby players. If you like the gambler, the adventurer then Juan-Martin is your man for one thing is certain – you can't take your eyes off him.

NICK EVANS

Evans is a child of his age, a player who mirrors the world's greatest No. 10, Dan Carter.It's no surprise Nick Evans got fed up always sitting on the bench watching Carter in the All Blacks jersey. If he was any other nationality, he'd be an automatic choice in their Test team. Imagine if England could pick him with Danny Cipriani at full-back.

In Paris, Evans showed precisely why so many rate him as one of the finest outside halves to come out of New Zealand. He is classy, composed and in control – of himself and of his team and the match. Like so many New Zealand rugby men, he understands implicitly where he needs to put the ball for the greatest benefit to his side.

He has a squat, compact frame and is a neat, tidy almost meticulous player. You may not see his brain actively working, as with Hernandez, but it's like a duck on the pond – what you see is calm and serene but the legs are invariably going like the clappers below.

Evans is a thoroughbred, a cool operator who can dissect a field with the quality of his tactical kicking. He has the full repertoire – the long, booming kick to touch, the cleverly placed, beautifully weighted effort that just drops into touch a few yards short of the opposition line or rolls out of play tantalisingly beyond the reach of a covering defender.

The New Zealander is the masterful operator in terms of tactical acumen and running a game. He understood intrinsically where ‘Quins needed to go at specific moments during the match in Paris and most times he got them there.

Above all he is composed; a sportsman who never looks especially hurried whatever the pressure. That, of course, is the hallmark of the finest, like the batsman with time to caress the bowler's fastest delivery through the covers for four as though only gently pushing at it.

Evans never looks harried or hassled because his positioning allied to his neat, fast footwork gives him the time and space in which to operate. He can be inventive when the moment calls for it but essentially, he is much more of a percentage player than Hernandez, the pragmatic type of performer who can guide his team through difficult moments to victory.

Like Hernandez, he covers well and reads a game with real intelligence. We didn't see it much in Paris but he possesses a spring-heeled step off a standing start which can launch him past all but the most committed tackles, into a gap and then open territory.

The pinpoint accuracy of his kicking was admirable, his composure impeccable. He switched the point of the attack, inviting inventive angles of running from his colleagues, with great subtlety and aplomb.

Perhaps his great strength, just like Dan Carter, is that he is prepared to settle for modest ambitions. Given a clearing penalty kick that was critical, he wasn't greedy in attempting to make 60 metres. Instead, shunning high risk, he accepted making 35 metres and the security of getting the ball off the park. Practicality, pragmatism; it was one of the differences between him and Hernandez.

To some, Evans might not appear as exciting a player as Hernandez. The truth is, he can be more effective and more efficient. Beyond dispute, he is world class.

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