Team of the Week: Europe's best
OPINION: The European Champions Cup pools really began to take shape this week, as the 'double header' rounds, perhaps the most tactically interesting two-week slot in the competition, were wrapped up.
Wasps bounced back from a disheartening loss to keep their qualification hopes alive, Ulster and Ospreys continued their resurgences and pool leaders Leinster, Bath, Munster and Clermont will all go into January confident about their chances.
We picked our XV of the week below.
15. Anthony Watson, Bath
Watson scythed through the Toulon defence for two tries in front of a watching – and seemingly pleased – Eddie Jones. His vision to exploit holes or mismatches in the Toulon defensive line was excellent and it was the kind of showing that will add fresh impetus to the calls for Watson to don the 15 jersey for England, as well as for Bath. He kicked and dealt with aerial balls well, too, making it a complete performance from the fullback.
14. Aled Brew, Bath
Brew might have been playing on the left wing for Bath, but the 14 on his back gives us an easy out here, on a weekend when left wings were dominant. The Welshman has reinvigorated his career at the Rec and is in blistering form. He gave Josua Tuisova a constant headache on Saturday evening, both as an attacking threat raiding down the wing and stopping the Fijian powerhouse defensively before he built up the momentum to go on his trademark bullocking runs. A nod, too, to Craig Gilroy and Charlie Walker, both of whom impressed in Belfast on Friday.
13. Paul Asquith, Scarlets
The Australian was one of the few Scarlets players to really impress in their narrow win over Benetton last week and backed it up with another strong showing this week. The centre was a constant threat on phases after Scott Williams crashed the ball up, either as a runner himself or linking with wings Johnny McNicholl and Steff Evans. It was that variety to his game that saw him narrowly pip the equally impressive Frans Steyn.
12. Ma’a Nonu, Toulon
There were flashes of vintage Nonu on Saturday, with the Kiwi running the out-to-in line and targeting the space between Rhys Priestland and Ben Tapuai on several occasions. Stuart McCloskey also excelled, albeit in a more open game, but Nonu’s powerful carrying kept Toulon in contention at the Rec right up until the 80th minute.
11. Nemani Nadolo, Montpellier
If it was a relatively quiet week for right wings, it was a barnstorming one for left wings. Jacob Stockdale, Isa Nacewa, Elliot Daly and Virimi Vakatawa were all excellent in their respective games, but none that managed quite the same dominance as Nadolo. The behemoth wing battered and bruised the Glasgow defence and whilst there were a couple of moments when he was compromised defensively, the positives he brought in attack overwhelmingly outweighed those moments. There may be no player in the world game who the opposition must tactically prepare for as much as Nadolo.
10. Danny Cipriani, Wasps
Ulster’s Christian Lealiifano came very close with a classy display on Friday night, but Cipriani orchestrated a vital win for Wasps off the back of a pummelling in France a week previously. The veteran Englishman played with freedom and fearlessness on the gain-line, allowing himself to take several big hits in the process of unleashing runners through holes. He lost his pressure valve, Jimmy Gopperth, to injury early in the game, too, but managed the disruption perfectly and took on full puppeteering duties for 80 minutes.
9, John Cooney, Ulster
A second commanding performance in as many weeks for Cooney, as he contributed 27 points personally, as well as popping up to assist three tries, making him responsible for 42 of Ulster’s 52 points against Harlequins. His distribution was excellent, he constantly picked the right runners or options and his own work as a support runner was invaluable to keeping Ulster attacks alive. In this form, Cooney should be catching the eye of Joe Schmidt. Dan Robson and Gareth Davies both deserve honourable mentions, too.
1. Beno Obano, Bath
A second appearance in as many weeks for Obano, whose ascent this season is beginning to border on meteoric. He took his try well to give his side a fast start to the game and continued to make impact players at the Rec, whether it was powerful carries around the fringes to keep Bath on the front foot or manful tackles on the gain-line. The Scarlets’ Rob Evans deserves a nod, too, for his strong display against Benetton.
2. Kevin O’Byrne, Munster
Luke Cowan-Dickie and Tom Dunn came close but O’Byrne excelled on his European debut. At a rainy Welford Road where ball security was paramount, O’Byrne nailed all 15 of his lineout throws, as well as forcing a couple of knock-ons with powerful tackles in the greasy conditions. It was the perfect foundation for Munster in a dogged, close contest.
3. Vincent Koch, Saracens
Montpellier’s Johannes Jonker was in the mix, as would’ve been Kyle Sinckler if only his first 40 minutes at Ravenhill had counted, but it was Koch who distinguished himself from the rest of the pack this weekend. It wasn’t just his marauding runs, but the amount of clearing work he did at the breakdown and the eagerness with which he dived on and secured loose balls. Scrummaged well against a cohesive Clermont unit, too.
4. Sébastien Vahaamahina, Clermont Auvergne
Vahaamahina’s powerful thrusts through the middle of the Saracens defence were one of the key differences between the sides in the second half and something which allowed Clermont to sneak a game that was balanced on a knife edge for most of the contest. Clermont struggled for the go forward that they enjoyed so prolifically at Allianz Park in the previous round, but Vahaamahina helped make up for a Clermont pack unable to exert the same kind of physical dominance they had a week earlier.
5. Jonny Gray, Glasgow Warriors
Fair play, Gray. Glasgow’s chances of European qualification were ended a week earlier, but the big lock didn’t let that stop him from putting in a powerful and impactful performance against Montpellier. Sam Skinner came close with a very good outing, but a late penalty for obstructing at the maul cost Exeter a shot at securing a rare win in Dublin.
6. Sean O’Brien, Leinster
It wasn’t quite the blood and thunder with ball in hand performance that O’Brien is capable of, but it was the physicality he brought in the tackle and the contact area that played a key role in subduing a much-improved Exeter side. Where Exeter had success was when they shifted the ball wider and played with speed, because their often used one-out runner strategy was constantly being stymied by the physical presence of O’Brien and a handful of his teammates.
7. Francois Louw, Bath
James Davies went well against Benetton and a big cameo from Dan Leavy helped Leinster see out their win over Exeter, but Louw just sneaks it. The South African was a vice over the ball, both as an individual fetcher and supporting teammates who got to the contact area ahead of him. He carried and tackled strongly as well, helping counter the Toulon power game.
8. Leone Nakarawa, Racing 92
It doesn’t seem to particularly matter where you play the big Fijian, as you know you’re going to get an outstanding performance irrespective of the number on his back. Nakarawa brought all the power carries, offloads and defensive lineout ability to the eight jersey that he has shown countless times in the row. The duelling Jack Conan and Sam Simmonds came close, as did Nathan Hughes, but none could quite match the authority that Nakarawa stamped on the game in Paris.