European review: Biggar holds his nerve as fly-halves shine

Dan Biggar will not feature in Wayne Pivac’s opening match in charge of Wales against the Barbarians but the fly-half served up a reminder of his cool under pressure in a thrilling victory for Northampton Saints.

Dan Biggar will not feature in Wayne Pivac’s opening match in charge of Wales against the Barbarians but the fly-half served up a reminder of his cool under pressure in a thrilling victory for Northampton Saints.

Biggar is not eligible for the clash with the Baa-Baas but will be back in contention come the Guinness Six Nations, and he held his nerve for Saints as they escaped from Treviso with a 35-32 victory.

Benetton had looked on course for victory when they led 25-8 shortly before half-time but Saints fought back, and with the teams level at 32-32, they had a penalty shot to win it. It was then that Biggar stepped up and slotted straight through the uprights from 35 metres out on the angle.

It was cruel on Benetton, for whom young flanker Giovanni Pettinelli topped the tackle count with 15 as he pushes for international recognition, while back-row colleague Braam Steyn was similarly impactful with ball in hand.

Biggar was far from the only No.10 to impress, with Finn Russell once more underlining his remarkable all-court game as Racing 92 secured a valuable draw away to Munster.

It could have been even more with Russell pulling the strings to help the French side run in three tries. He scored the first of those with a delightful grubber through the legs of Rory Scannell before collecting to cross. And their third was thanks to more Russell magic, ghosting through in the midfield before putting Juan Imhoff in.

In Round One of the 2020 Championship Russell could go head-to-head with Johnny Sexton, who earned man of the match honours as Leinster travelled to Lyon and beat the French leaders 13-6.

It was an attritional encounter, with Sexton’s eight points proving crucial, while he had a try chalked off late on that would have made life easier.

Meanwhile, in the Challenge Cup a pair of French fly-halves caught the eye with crucial late kicks. Matthieu Jalibert made no mistake for Bordeaux-Bègles as they picked up a draw in Edinburgh, while Anthony Belleau slotted a late conversion to hand Toulon victory against the Scarlets.

Romain Ntamack was France’s first-choice fly-half during the World Cup, but he will face competition from the pair when Fabien Galthié puts together his first French squad.

Another Scottish playmaker who caught the eye was James Lang. The Harlequins player, who is capable of playing at fly-half and in the centres, played a crucial role in Quins’ victory over Bath and will be pushing for a place in the Gregor Townsend’s Championship squad.

At the World Cup Joe Schmidt made the bold decision to select just two scrum-halves, with Conor Murray and Luke McGrath the men to get the nod.

While Murray has been the man in possession of the No.9 jersey for the best part of a decade, the identity of his back-up has been a little less consistent.

McGrath remains a class act for high-flying Leinster, but a pair of scrum-halves staked their claim in Europe this weekend. John Cooney was exceptional for Ulster as they beat Clermont Auvergne, scoring a crucial try in the second half with a clever chip over the top and race through.

And Connacht’s Caolin Blade showed his ability to run the perfect support line as he added a try to the one he scored last week, albeit in defeat in Toulouse.

While we are on scrum-halves in Toulouse, Sébastien Bézy also took advantage of the absence of Antoine Dupont to play a key role in the 32-17 success.

Dupont has not returned from the back injury that affected him during the World Cup, but it did not affect Toulouse as Bézy was on hand to score their first try with a brilliant support line.

The scrum-half, who will join Clermont next season, was part of France’s squad during the 2019 Guinness Six Nations, but did not make a matchday squad.

As well as Bézy, a pair of French outside backs also stood out in the shape of Vincent Rattez and Teddy Thomas.

While it was in a losing cause, Rattez produced a perfect line to score for La Rochelle away at Sale.

And Thomas was in electric form for Racing, scoring one try with a perfect chip and chase, and making six clean breaks in all as he caused havoc in the Munster defence.

The World Cup gave us another reminder that England are hardly short of options in the back three and after Gabriel Ibitoye’s mazy run last week, three more experienced campaigners made an impact.

Chris Ashton missed the trip to Japan to be with his pregnant wife, but extended his record as the highest try-scorer in European history, notching up number 40 in Sale’s win over La Rochelle.

In Barnet, Elliot Daly got his Saracens career off to a flyer, setting up two tries in a thumping 44-3 success from full-back.

And finally Jack Nowell, who could only contribute in a bit-part role in the World Cup, was back to his best to help Exeter Chiefs see off Glasgow Warriors. Along with England teammate Henry Slade, Nowell was deadly with ball in hand as Exeter secured a bonus-point success, leaving them as the only team with maximum points from two games.