European Review: Biggar, Hutchinson and Vakatawa among statement-making performers

After a weekend of European club action, there were both existing stars and new names who made a statement and staked a claim for international recognition.

After a weekend of European club action, there were both existing stars and new names who made a statement and staked a claim for international recognition.

The World Cup may only have recently finished but there are just 76 days until the 2020 Guinness Six Nations begins, so let’s have a look at who is throwing their hat into the selection ring.

Northampton Saints recorded a dominant 25-14 victory over Lyon at Franklin’s Gardens and it was two men that could have a big role to play in the 2020 Guinness Six Nations that did the damage.

Fly-half Dan Biggar was imperious, not only booting 20 points as he consistently punished Lyon’s ill-discipline but steering the Saints admirably from the play-making channel.

That will particularly excite new Wales coach Wayne Pivac given that two of his other No.10 options – Rhys Patchell and Gareth Anscombe – will miss the Championship through injury, meaning Biggar could well be donning that storied jersey when the Grand Slam defence begins against Italy on February 1.

While Biggar has 79 caps of international experience, his Northampton teammate Rory Hutchinson has just three.

The Scotland centre impressed during the World Cup warm-ups but ultimately missed out on Gregor Townsend’s 31-man squad for Japan and has set about reacting to that disappointment by dominating for Saints ever since.

He put in another romping display on Sunday – making 45 metres on eight carries, beating six defenders and scoring his side’s only try as he glided through the Lyon defence after receiving a quick tip-on from Biggar.

Hutchinson will surely be a big part of Townsend’s plans come February.

Former England Under-20s star Gabriel Ibitoye cemented himself as a Harlequins regular last season and now he’s starting to put himself in the senior international reckoning.

In truth, Quins were outclassed as they suffered a heavy defeat in Clermont but the moment of the match belonged to the explosive Ibitoye as he danced back and forth around halfway before surging through a gap, weaving through the tackles with the ball in one hand and then acrobatically offloading to James Lang just metres from the line for a remarkable try.

England aren’t exactly short of wing options, with the likes of Jonny May, Anthony Watson, Jack Nowell, Joe Cokanasiga and Ruaridh McConnochie all currently ahead of him in the pecking order, but the 21-year-old is making some noise.

He has also beaten the most defenders in the Premiership this season, so Eddie Jones may well be taking notice.

It seems almost unthinkable now but heading into this year’s Rugby World Cup, Virimi Vakatawa did not even make France’s initial squad.

But injury to Wesley Fofana opened up a spot, and the Fijian-born flyer grabbed it with both hands.

He was a star in the No.13 jersey for Les Bleus, giving Wales nightmares in that quarter-final defeat and he has returned to club duty with Racing 92 and barely missed a beat.

The 2020 Guinness Six Nations looks his for the taking, four years on from his debut on the wing.

The move to centre has made a real difference for Vakatawa, who has also found time to impress in 7s since that debut for Les Bleus.

Against Saracens on Sunday, he was powerful and poised in equal measure, grabbing a try and beating defenders all afternoon.

Fabien Galthie and the French coaching staff will be licking their lips about what the 27-year-old can bring to camp after Christmas.

Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton may be well set as Ireland’s first-choice half-back pairing – although who knows if Andy Farrell plans to shake up the established order – but the depth behind them increases by the week.

A slew of contenders put their hand up over the European weekend with Connacht duo Caolin Blade and Jack Carty at the front of that list.

The injury-depleted, Galway-based side recorded a memorable 23-20 victory over Montpellier at the Sportsground and Carty was at his conductorial best in the ten jersey – firing passes, making sniping runs and pinning the French side deep with precision kicks.

Inside him, Blade controlled the pack and after a first half that perhaps saw Connacht try to be too expansive, consistently made sensible, controlled decisions to manage the game after the break.

He also made a trademark burst for his side’s third try to put Andy Friend’s men on course for victory and Farrell will have watched the game with interest.

Twenty-four hours earlier, another Irish scrum-half was shining as John Cooney crossed for Ulster’s opening try away at Bath when he blocked a clearance kick, collected and darted over.

His conversion made it 7-0 and he also converted a second-half Rob Lyttle score before adding a 71st-minute penalty that gave the Irish side a 17-16 lead they wouldn’t relinquish – earning man-of-the-match honours for his display.

The victory was only secured thanks to Jacob Stockdale’s last-minute heroics however as the man best known for his attacking exploits – he is the record holder for most tries in a single Guinness Six Nations after all, following the seven he grabbed in the 2018 Championship – tracked back brilliantly, reading Zach Mercer’s offload to intercept and deny Bath a certain try in the final minute.

Transformed into a centre during Italy’s World Cup matches, Jayden Hayward was back in the more familiar No.15 jersey upon his return to Benetton.

He looked right at home there, despite his side losing 33-19 to Guinness PRO14 rivals Leinster on Saturday as he used the additional space afforded to full-backs to scythe through the Irish side’s defensive line on multiple occasions.

He ended with 59 metres made and beat a joint game-high seven defenders – a total matched by, of all people, Johnny Sexton – as he consistently slalomed Benetton into promising attacking positions.

Whoever ends up being Conor O’Shea’s successor as Azzurri head coach may have the rather welcome headache of Hayward being able to shine in a number of positions.