French half-backs shine as England players stake final claim

The final weekend of European pool action brought with it plenty of excitement and a host of players pushing their claims for a Guinness Six Nations starting role.

The final weekend of European pool action brought with it plenty of excitement and a host of players pushing their claims for a Guinness Six Nations starting role.

If Saturday was dominated by some of Ireland’s back-three stars and a Scottish winger, on Sunday a number of Frenchmen caught the eye ahead of joining up with Fabien Galthié’s squad.

And with England set to become the final team to name their squad on Monday, there were a few late pushes for inclusion in Eddie Jones’ thinking.


Toulouse needed a win at home to Gloucester to secure a home quarter-final and, despite going behind early on, they did just that as they powered to a 35-14 success.

Romain Ntamack demonstrated the try-scoring ability that has been apparent all season with a double on his way to being named man of the match, while half-back partner Antoine Dupont looked back to his best.

Dupont made 74 metres with ball in hand, including two clean breaks and setting up Ntamack’s first try off the back of a lineout.

While there is plenty of competition, the pair could yet line up for Les Bleus in the Championship opener against England in Paris.

Elsewhere, uncapped winger Gabriel Ngandebe scored two tries in Montpellier’s win over Connacht, while Virimi Vakatawa beat nine defenders and scored a double for Racing 92 in their defeat to Saracens.

There was some bad news for France though as prop Dorian Aldegheri suffered a knee injury that could put his involvement in the Championship in doubt.

Likewise England’s Billy Vunipola suffered a suspected broken arm for Saracens, while Welsh hopeful Louis Rees-Zammit went off early for Gloucester with an ankle injury.


Eddie Jones will name his England squad on Monday, with a number of Saracens players doing their chances no harm as they came from behind to beat Racing 92, despite Will Skelton’s first-half red card.

Maro Itoje went over for tries in each half, while Owen Farrell held his nerve late on with a penalty in the 27-24 win that sets up a Champions Cup final rematch with Leinster in the last eight.

On Saturday, Exeter Chiefs had booked their first home quarter-final in Europe as they saw off La Rochelle and a fit-again Sam Simmonds will hope to add his seven England caps after crossing twice in that game.

Luke Cowan-Dickie was another to impress, while lock Jonny Hill was arguably Exeter’s most dangerous player, making 89 metres with ball in hand and four clean breaks as he looks to break into England’s deepest position.

Northampton Saints are also into the last eight, and Lewis Ludlam played a big part in that, making 61 metres on 13 carries in their win in Lyon.


While Glasgow Warriors eventually fell just short of a place in the quarter-finals, they finished on a high with Adam Hastings in flying form in a 45-7 win over Sale.

The fly-half, who will hope to push Finn Russell for a starting role in Dublin for the Championship opener, made three clean breaks and beat nine defenders while also setting up a try in the win.

George Turner came off the bench and in less than half an hour grabbed a try, 56 metres made and seven defenders beaten – a stunning return for the hooker.

But there was no question who the standout Scot was this weekend. As well as scoring four tries, Edinburgh’s Darcy Graham made 124 metres with ball in hand, beat 11 defenders and made four clean breaks as the side from the capital clinched their spot in the last eight of the Challenge Cup.


It will have been a strange weekend for Wayne Pivac, watching Justin Tipuric, one his most experienced forwards, filling in for the Ospreys in the midfield.

While George North has Test experience there and could be an option against Italy at the start of February, he was joined by Tipuric as the Ospreys suffered more losses in the centres. Tipuric is arguably as well-suited as any back-rower to playing in the back-line and he racked up 17 tackles in a losing cause.

He was not the only player to make a big impact defensively, with Alun Wyn Jones making 18 tackles and missing none in the game.

Meanwhile, Hadleigh Parkes was the defensive rock that the Scarlets built their gameplan around, making 12 tackles in a bonus-point win at London Irish that put them into the last eight of the Challenge Cup.

Zebre also had a number of players who put up a defensive wall in their 7-7 draw with Bristol Bears, as Giosue Zilocchi (13 tackles made), Luca Bigi (17) and Giovanni Licata (14) all produced flawless defensive displays after being named in Franco Smith’s Azzurri squad.


Ulster needed a win to clinch their place in the last eight, and although there were some nervy moments against Bath, they got over the line in Belfast.

Jacob Stockdale did not get on the scoresheet, but was threatening with ball in hand, making 119 metres and two clean breaks as well as setting up a try.

He could be joined in the Ireland team by Will Addison who impressed once again from full-back, get a try and an assist as well as topping 100 meters with ball in hand.

Meanwhile, for Munster Jack O’Donoghue continued his fine form, making 61 metres and beating five defenders in their win over the Ospreys.