Team of the Week: Champions Cup, Round Six
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: The pool stage of the Champions Cup came to a thrilling conclusion this past weekend, as 14 teams bade to join Leinster in the knockout rounds.
For some it was a simple case of win and you're in, for others it was a complex calculation of bonus points, points difference and other results going in their favour. Whatever the requirements were, it made for an exhilarating array of matches.
We have compiled our XV of the week from the 10 games played where, remarkably, there were knockout places and consequences on offer in every single match-up.
15 Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors)
In his first game back from injury, it looked as if Hogg had never been away, as he scythed through the Exeter defence on Saturday at Scotstoun. He crossed the whitewash for a try and played a pivotal role in the scores for Matt Fagerson and Tommy Seymour, too. Exeter had no answer for his industrious support runs and quick hands unleashing his fellow Glasgow attackers.
14 Keith Earls (Munster)
A relatively quiet week for right wings sees Earls move over from the left, where he was every bit as impressive as the handful of standouts. A bloody nose and black eye sustained early on barely seemed to hinder the Munster wing, as he gashed the Castres defence and constantly looked for work off of his wing. He was full value for his try and did excellently to set up teammate Simon Zebo for his score.
13 Hadleigh Parkes (Scarlets)
A complete performance from the outside centre, who not only played a significant role in facilitating the Scarlets' attack, but also defended solidly, particularly against the unpredictable Semi Radradra. Parkes has really come to the fore over the last two weeks and played sublimely against both Bath and Toulon, proving key in the Scarlets' first trip to the knockout rounds in 11 years.
Honourable mentions here for Robbie Henshaw and Huw Jones, too. The Celtic nations' centre options certainly look in good form going into the Six Nations.
12 Owen Watkin (Ospreys)
The powerful inside centre was a nightmare for Clermont to bring down and though the Ospreys left France with their European hopes dashed, Watkin left with his stock continuing to rise. Kyle Eastmond was also impressive, but didn't quite have the same individual impact this weekend that Watkin did.
11 Nathan Earle (Saracens)
Nemani Nadolo, James Lowe and Rémy Grosso weren't far off, but Earle's first half arrival at Allianz Park injected impetus into Saracens and helped them reverse an early powerplay from Northampton. He ran with energy and ambition at space and helped create two tries with his breaks down the left wing.
10 Owen Farrell (Saracens)
With the fairly indifferent form of the English club sides of late, Eddie Jones will have found it hard to suppress a smile at Farrell's uber-clinical dissection of Northampton Saints. The flyhalf contributed 27 points with the boot, but also made the key passes in four of the seven Saracens tries.
Enough to reopen the debate of England playing him at 10?
A mention for two young flyhalves in Ross Byrne and Dan Jones, both of whom guided their sides to victory in calm and composed fashion.
9 Maxime Machenaud (Racing 92)
The recall to the French side certainly hasn't hurt Machenaud's confidence and he turned in a second excellent performance in as many weeks on Sunday. He controlled the tempo of the game, kicked accurately at goal and kept Racing moving forward, whether that was with carriers running off of nine, or distributing accurately to the back line.
Glasgow's George Horne and Munster's Conor Murray were also impressive.
8 Sam Simmonds (Exeter Chiefs)
In a week when pundits have been talking up Zach Mercer, with Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes sidelined, this was exactly the performance Simmonds needed to produce to push himself back to the forefront of Jones' consciousness. Exeter were uncharacteristically profligate in Glasgow on Saturday, but Simmonds continued to produce regardless, not just breaking the gain line, but gouging Glasgow for big territorial gains when he did, thanks to his breakaway speed.
7 Levani Botia (La Rochelle)
Botia completes an all-Fijian flank pairing and turned in a performance just as destructive as his national compatriot. The former centre thrived in space and tortured the Harlequins defence with his strong carrying. His quickness from breakdown to breakdown also shone through at Stade Marcel Deflandre.
The Scarlets' James Davies was also on top form and integral to the region downing European heavyweights Toulon.
6 Peceli Yato (Clermont)
Matt Fagerson and Facundo Isa were real contenders here, having turned in storming performances, but Yato just edged them out. The Fijian was in destructive form with ball-in-hand for Clermont and was vital to the French side in a game that, although the scoreline of 24-7 over the Ospreys shows a clear difference between the sides, was a lot tighter for much of the contest. Yato was key to the front-foot ball that Clermont were able to enjoy.
5 Jonny Gray (Glasgow Warriors)
With nothing left on the line for Glasgow in the competition apart from pride, it says a lot about Gray that he produced such a dogged, resilient and hard-working performance. He helped hassle the Exeter line-out along with second-row partner Rob Harley and defended manfully for the entire 80 minutes.
A nod to James Ryan, who had a very strong second half in Montpellier and helped see out an impressive victory for a young Leinster side.
4 Jean Kleyn (Munster)
The ever-impressive Tadhg Beirne was close, but the physicality Kleyn brought was something which separated him from the pack this week. He owned the gain-line as a tackler, refusing to allow the Castres ball-carriers any success in the tight. He was industrious at the breakdown, too, clearing out with force and allowing Conor Murray as easy a job as possible to send the ball on.
3 Ben Tameifuna (Racing 92)
Tameifuna may be the lone player to actually get fitter going from Super Rugby to the Top 14. He turned in an excellent 75-minute shift against Leicester Tigers, not only helping Racing to a clear superiority in the scrum, but also making telling contributions in the loose as a ball-carrier.
2 Sean Cronin (Leinster)
A 100 percent record throwing in at the line-out, a threat with ball-in-hand and an energetic defensive performance made a compelling case for Cronin. Going up against Bismarck du Plessis is an unenviable task at the best of times, but on the road? When you're a smaller hooker? Who has had throwing issues in the past?
Cronin certainly delivered against the South African, just seeing him edge out Wasps' Tom Cruse and La Rochelle's Pierre Bourgarit.
1 Mako Vunipola (Saracens)
The big loosehead showed no signs of fatigue as he powered his way through the Northampton defence time after time. His carries inevitably broke the gain-line and brought multiple defenders into the contact area to stop him, whilst he also played an important role in a Saracens scrum that had the edge on their counterparts.