Dan Biggar has clarified the No 10 equation for Warren Gatland, by making himself a certainty for the Lions tour – but that leaves the head coach facing an agonising decision over which big-name playmaker to leave out.
Either Johnny Sexton or Finn Russell are destined to be the casualty of Biggar’s timely personal peak. The Northampton fly-half was brilliant again on Saturday, in guiding the Saints to victory over local rivals Leicester at Welford Road.
There was authority and bravery in his play. When Biggar felled the rampaging South African, Jasper Wiese, it was a symbolic glimpse of the resilience he could offer the Lions this summer, as they gear up to face the might and fury of the Springboks.
Dan Biggar has clarified the No 10 equation for Warren Gatland with superb recent form
Warren Gatland is facing an agonising decision over which big-name playmaker to leave out
Later, the 31-year-old Wales veteran endured a painful collision with massive Tigers wing Nemani Nadolo, but soldiered on as Northampton had no replacements left.
His Kiwi director of rugby, Chris Boyd, said: ‘If you had to get in the trenches and could take somebody with you, he’s the first guy you would pick. He’s gutsy as hell.’ On BT Sport’s commentary, Austin Healey delivered his own tribute, saying: ‘He reads the game so well. He’s controlling proceedings.’
In terms of Biggar’s Lions prospects, he added: ‘I think he is the safest bet.’ But he brings more than mere safety. Biggar is a commanding competitor. He is not club captain, but when the Saints gather in huddles, he talks as if he is in charge. As well as offering vast experience and big-Test pedigree, he also has a world-leading knack for winning back his own high kicks.
Unless Gatland ignores form entirely, Biggar must make the cut when the 36-man squad is named on May 6. He is on song, while his Lions rivals are not even in action.
Northampton’s Biggar must make the cut when the 36-man squad is named on May 6
Ireland captain Sexton has played just 48 minutes for Leinster in the five weeks since the Six Nations – suffering yet another head knock, at Exeter, which threatens his availability for a Champions Cup semi-final at La Rochelle on Sunday. If he misses that marquee fixture, his Lions inclusion has to be in doubt, despite the majesty of his performance in the Irish win over England last month. Sexton will turn 36 in July and is struggling to stay fit.
Meanwhile, Russell – Scotland’s creative marvel – has not played for Racing 92 since being sent off in the win over France in Paris and banned for three games. The presence of Gregor Townsend and Steve Tandy in the Lions coaching staff may aid his cause, but the general perception is that Gatland is not naturally inclined to take a punt on a flawed genius, especially not in such a pivotal position.
Owen Farrell will be picked, despite being culpable in England’s dire Six Nations campaign, but he is likely to be designated as a centre – creating squad space for two out-and-out 10s. One must be Biggar. That is the form pick, so the other can be on reputation, which means including Sexton and Russell being the one to miss out.
Title race is hotting up
The Premiership title race is wonderfully poised amid a four-team tussle for three play-off places. Despite their home defeat against Exeter on Friday, Bristol are far enough ahead to be sure of a semi-final, so that leaves the Chiefs, Sale, Harlequins and Northampton vying to join them.
Rob Baxter’s champions exuded authority during their momentous win at Ashton Gate, to show that they have recovered from being knocked out of Europe by Leinster, but they still have to host Sale and go to Franklin’s Gardens to take on the Saints.
That fixture is on the weekend of June 4/5/6, when Sale will be up against Quins, and the Cheshire club arguably have the toughest run-in, culminating in the trip to Sandy Park.
Based on the remaining schedule, it looks like Bristol, Exeter and Harlequins plus one – and the Sharks will want to have done enough to make the cut before going to Devon, or Northampton could edge them out.
Rob Baxter’s champions exuded authority during their momentous win against Bristol Bears
Positive tactics are on show
Rugby is riding a wave of tactical positivity and on Saturday in Brentford, there was a passage of play in the London Irish-Harlequins game which summed up the current sense of adventure within the sport.
Marcus Smith claimed an interception and scorched clear on the right, but his in-field pass was won back by Nick Phipps. Instead of kicking for territory, the Exiles scrum-half launched a counter-attack from deep in his own half and after slick handling and support play out wide, Ollie Hassell-Collins dived over to score.
It was mesmerising, skilful, daring end-to-end stuff, in keeping with recent trends. Whatever delicate balance of laws, interpretations and coaching attitudes has been achieved to create this entertaining phase, can all concerned just let it continue? Please.
TEAM OF THE WEEK
C Piutau (Bristol); Louis Rees-Zammit (Gloucester), R Hutchinson (Northampton), O Devoto (Exeter), B Loader (London Irish); D Biggar (Northampton); D Care (Harlequins); J Ford-Robinson (Gloucester), L Cowan-Dickie (Exeter), P Hill (Northampton); D Ribbans (Northampton), J Hill (Exeter); H Liebenberg (Leicester), S Simmonds (Exeter), T Young (Wasps).
Super strike: Worcester conjured a long-range gem of a try against Sale. Fin Smith’s cross-kick was well won by Alex Hearle who released Jamie Shillcock and the full-back kicked ahead, regathered and scored.
Fast show: Sam Simmonds laid on another compelling performance in front of Lions head coach Warren Gatland and the Exeter No 8 was clocked at 20mph when he made a first-half break.
Dramatic finish: Harlequins maintained their winning habit when fly-half Marcus Smith danced through the London Irish defence for a last-minute winning try. An England debut must be imminent.
Touch of class: England lock Jonny Hill was superb for Exeter and stunned viewers – and no doubt his own team-mates – with a superb kick out of his 22 which forced a lineout deep in Bristol’s half.
Top shot: Leicester No 8 Jasper Wiese takes some stopping but he was brutally turned back to end one charge at Welford Road as JJ Tonks went low and Lewis Ludlam delivered a sledgehammer hit.
Worcester’s woes return
Just when Worcester managed to muster a more creditable performance on the field, against Sale on Saturday, the club’s reputation has been damaged for different reasons.
Wasps revealed that they approached the Warriors about moving their round 19 Premiership fixture at the Ricoh Arena to Monday, May 17 – as other clubs have done – in order to let in some fans, but Worcester rejected the request.
Such a shame that they couldn’t show solidarity and see the bigger picture by agreeing to the switch, especially as they have no match the following weekend, as it is when the European finals are taking place. It is no time for small-minded decisions, and this one reflects badly on the hierarchy at Sixways.
After good showing vs Sale, Worcester’s reputation has been damaged for different reasons
After another title and another trophy, what next for England’s world-leading women?
Simon Middleton’s side beat France in a tight, tense Six Nations Final at The Stoop on Saturday, to ensure they finished top of the pile in Europe for a third successive year.
They will face the French again in a one-off Test across the Channel next weekend, but beyond that is uncertainty, after the postponement of this year’s World Cup. The global showpiece in New Zealand is now due to take place next autumn, so England desperately need to fill the void with meaningful matches.
What would be ideal is if they could take on Canada – who are ranked No 3 in the world – in July, to align with the proposed men’s Test between the countries. After that, their wish is to play the Kiwis, who will be the primary threat to their global ambitions next year.
If officials can make it work despite COVID restrictions, a three-Test series against New Zealand in the autumn would be the best way for England to accelerate a vital leadership and game-management transition. It would also be a grand shop window and a likely box-office hit for the female game in these parts.