Another weekend of domestic action is in the books and a number of names – both new and old – served timely reminders to their international coaches.
For England and Eddie Jones, the returns from injury of Billy Vunipola and Joe Launchbury were great news while in Scotland, Edinburgh’s charge continued up the Guinness PRO14.
Over in France, another enthralling week of Top 14 action has given Jacques Brunel plenty to ponder ahead of Wednesday’s Guinness Six Nations squad announcement – we have taken a particularly close look at his midfield options here.
Meanwhile Benetton continue to impress and boost Conor O’Shea’s Italy while Rob Kearney returned for Leinster and Warren Gatland’s back-row injury issues do not look as bad as first feared.
FRENCH CENTRES OF EXCELLENCE
Mathieu Bastareaud was the heartbeat of France’s revival under Brunel last year in the 2018 Championship that included victories over both Italy and England.
But this year the battle for midfield spots for Les Bleus is extremely intense and once again this weekend the strength in depth was on full display.
Gael Fickou has been a man reborn at Stade Français and was key to their win over Perpignan this weekend on his return to action – making 104 metres with ball in hand, beating 12 defenders and also chipping in with 15 tackles, not to mention a fine individual try.
Damian Penaud and Virimi Vakatawa might both have played international rugby on the wings, but on club duty they were centres and both spectacular again this weekend.
Penaud is as elusive a runner as Fickou and helped Clermont down La Rochelle to stay top of the table while Vakatawa was the key weapon in Racing 92’s win over Toulon.
Throw in Geoffrey Doumayrou who appeared in two of France’s games this autumn and Sofiane Guitoune who has been one of the stars of European rugby so far this season and Brunel has much to ponder.
And that is without even mentioning the returning Wesley Fofana – arguably the most potent of the lot when fully fit.
Selected most defenders beaten this weekend in Gallagher Premiership, Guinness PRO14 and Top 14
Gael Fickou – Stade Francais – 12 Duhan van der Merwe – Edinburgh – 10 Damian Penaud – Clermont Auvergne – 8 Gabriel Ibitoye – Harlequins – 8 Darcy Graham – Edinburgh – 7 Jonah Holmes – Leicester Tigers – 7
RED ROSE FITNESS BOOST
The return of Launchbury appeared to pay immediate dividends for Wasps as they halted a five-match losing run to down Northampton Saints.
The lock’s numbers may not have been as eye popping as normal – five carries and seven tackles – but his leadership was key and he will be firmly back in contention for England when the Championship begins next month.
Injuries struck hard in the England pack last autumn, in addition to Launchbury, Billy Vunipola was also missing but the No.8 was back to his bullocking best on Friday.
He crossed for a try and beat three defenders from his ten carries for 30m in a fine effort that blew off the cobwebs.
But while the pack has been forced to grow in depth this season, Jones is blessed with an embarrassment of riches in the back three.
Jonny May cannot stop scoring tries – another double this weekend came for Leicester against his former club Gloucester.
Selected most metres made Matthew Morgan – Cardiff Blues – 144m Virimi Vakatawa – Racing 92 – 131m Jonny May – Leicester Tigers – 126m Alexis Palisson – Lyon – 122m Nathan Earle – Harlequins – 115m Andrew Conway – Munster – 111m
But with Nathan Earle on fire for Harlequins and on the other flank Gabriel Ibitoye beating defenders for fun – Jones has some new faces to look at.
Joe Cokanasiga and Jack Nowell are in fitness races for the start of the Championship but Denny Solomona and Chris Ashton are tearing it up for Sale of late and the ever dependable Mike Brown cannot be discounted – he broke Quins’ all-time appearance record this weekend as they climbed to third in the standings.
UNITED CULTURE OF BENETTON
Never before have Benetton Rugby made the Guinness PRO14 play-offs but that could be set to change this season.
Kieran Crowley’s men are on a four-match winning run and were, albeit temporarily, up to second in the Conference B standings at one point this weekend.
They currently sit third and this weekend’s impressive win over Glasgow Warriors was their best victory yet.
It owed much to their pack – who will be key to the Azzurri’s hopes next month – as Dean Budd bagged a double.
Selected top tacklers Braam Steyn – Benetton Rugby – 23 Tommy O’Donnell – Munster – 22 Tom Curry – Sale Sharks – 20 Dan Cole – Leicester Tigers – 17 Dean Budd – Benetton Rugby – 16 Elliot Dee – Dragons – 16 Alex Dombrandt – Harlequins – 16 Brad Shields – Wasps – 16 Thomas Young – Wasps – 16
Budd’s double was supplemented by Braam Steyn in the back row who packed the stat sheet with 12 carries, 23 tackles, five defenders beaten and a try of his own in the victory.
A word too for Giulio Bisegni who carried manfully for 92 metres but was unable to prevent Zebre slipping to defeat to the Toyota Cheetahs.
Edinburgh’s rise to prominence under Richard Cockerill in the last season and a half has been little short of meteoric.
They now sit second in Conference B and have attacking talent to die for with the likes of Darcy Graham, Blair Kinghorn and Dougie Fife.
And that is not to mention the powerhouse Duhan van der Merwe who looks set for Scottish qualification on residency ground in less than two years and has already made clear his ambitions to represent the Tartan Army.
But up front Jamie Ritchie – who made his Scotland debut this autumn – continues to catch the eye in the back row while Ross Ford looks to be back to his best at hooker.
Selected top carriers Adam Ashe – Glasgow Warriors – 26 Zach Mercer – Bath Rugby – 22 Dougie Fife – Edinburgh – 19 Matt Kvesic – Exeter Chiefs – 19 George Horne – Glasgow Warriors – 18
FAR TOO MANY FARRELLS
Andy Farrell is the current Ireland assistant and soon to be head coach.
Meanwhile Chris Farrell, Ireland’s impressive centre who got injured in the 2018 Championship, made his latest injury return for Munster this weekend and but did not come through unscathed.
And with Robbie Henshaw in a race to prove his fitness for the Guinness Six Nations, Schmidt will be considering his options.
But yet another Farrell, Tom of Connacht, has caught the eye this season for the in-form Galway outfit in midfield.
And despite finishing on the losing side this weekend against Munster, Tom Farrell was at his best with 101 metres made from 14 carries, four defenders beaten and three offloads tossed in for good measure.
And with Garry Ringrose and Bundee Aki also in contention, not to mention Will Addison, Ireland’s centre depth is the envy of most.
Addison is equally capable at full-back but was rested this weekend by Ulster who were hit for six by Leinster on Saturday afternoon.
That victory saw the impressive Conor O’Brien – yet another potential Ireland centre option – impress once again.
But Schmidt will have been most delighted by the return of Rob Kearney to the No.15 jersey in time for the Championship.
BACK ROW BLEND
Sam Warburton has retired, Ross Moriarty was out injured this weekend as were Dan Lydiate and Taulupe Faletau.
That is four British & Irish Lions missing in Warren Gatland’s potential Welsh back row and yet the mood remains very optimistic that side of the Severn Bridge.
Thomas Young – still waiting for a first Guinness Six Nations appearance despite two caps in the summer of 2017 – is in fine form for Wasps and produced another man of the match outing this weekend.
His father Dai has called him an international player not playing international rugby and on this evidence it is hard to disagree. He made 16 tackles, nine carries, had a fine solo score chalked off for Nizaam Carr’s infringement in the build up and was his customary pesky self at the breakdown all game long in their win over Northampton.
Aaron Wainwright has also caught the eye this festive period in the derby games at both openside and blindside flanker.
And with Justin Tipuric his metronomic self and Lydiate, Faletau and Moriarty nearing returns, Gatland has a selection headache to die for.