Dan Biggar has clarified the No. 10 equation for Warren Gatland by giving himself a certainty for the Lions tour – but that leaves the head coach faced with a painful decision about which big-name playmaker to omit.
Either Johnny Sexton or Finn Russell are destined to fall victim to Biggar’s timely personal peak. Northampton’s fly-half was brilliant again on Saturday, leading the Saints to victory over local rival Leicester at Welford Road.
There was authority and courage in his play. When Biggar felled raging South African Jasper Wiese, it was a symbolic glimpse of the resilience he could provide the lions this summer as they prepare to face the power and fury of the Springboks.
Dan Biggar has clarified the No. 10 equation for Warren Gatland with excellent recent form
Warren Gatland faces a painful decision that the great playmaker must leave out
Later, the 31-year-old Welsh veteran endured a painful collision with massive Tigers wing Nemani Nadolo, but pushed on as Northampton ran out of replacements.
His Kiwi rugby director, Chris Boyd, said: “If you have to go into the trenches and take someone with you, he is the first person you would choose. He’s brave as hell. On BT Sport’s commentary, Austin Healey paid his own tribute, saying, “ He reads the game so well. He’s checking the procedure. ‘
In terms of Biggar’s Lions’ prospects, he added, “I think he’s the safest bet.” But it brings more than just safety. Biggar is an impressive competitor. He’s not captain of the club, but when the Saints get together, he talks like he’s in charge. In addition to offering tremendous experience and a great pedigree, he also has a world-leading ability to reclaim his own high kicks.
Unless Gatland completely ignores form, Biggar will have to make the cut when the 36-man squad is named on May 6. He is number one, while his Lions rivals are not even in action.
Northampton’s Biggar will have to 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 – he got another head knock against Exeter, threatening his availability for a Champions Cup semi-final in La Rochelle on Sunday. If he misses that marquee, his inclusion with Lions must be questionable, despite the majesty of his performance in Ireland’s victory over England last month. Sexton turns 36 in July and is struggling to keep fit.
Meanwhile, Russell – Scotland’s creative wonder – hasn’t played for Racing 92 since he was sent off to victory over France in Paris and banned from three games. The presence of Gregor Townsend and Steve Tandy on Lions’ coaching staff may help his cause, but the common perception is that Gatland is not naturally inclined to step on a flawed genius, especially in such a central position.
Owen Farrell will be elected despite being guilty of England’s terrible Six Nations campaign, but he will likely be designated as a center – creating squad space for two real tens. One of these has to be Biggar. That’s the choice of shape, so the other can be by reputation, meaning Sexton and Russell are the ones to miss.
The title race is heating up
The Premiership title race is beautifully balanced amid a four-team battle for three play-off places. Despite their home defeat to Exeter on Friday, Bristol are ahead enough to secure a semi-final, so that leaves the Chiefs, Sale, Harlequins and Northampton vying to join them.
Rob Baxter’s champions radiated authority during their memorable victory at Ashton Gate to show that they have recovered from Leinster’s elimination of Europe, but they still need to organize Sale and head to Franklin’s Gardens to take on the Saints.
That match is on the weekend of June 4/5/6, when Sale will face Quins, and the Cheshire club will probably have the toughest showdown, 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 heading to Devon, or Northampton could take them out.
Rob Baxter’s champions radiated authority in their memorable victory against Bristol Bears
Positive tactics are shown
Rugby is experiencing a wave of tactical positivity and on Saturday there was a game passage in the London Irish-Harlequins game in Brentford that sums up the current sense of adventure within the sport.
Marcus Smith claimed an interception and scored clear on the right, but his pass into the field was recovered by Nick Phipps. Rather than kicking for territory, Exiles’ scrum half launched a counterattack from deep in his own half and after smooth control and wide support, Ollie Hassell-Collins dove forward to score.
It was enchanting, skillful, 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 everyone involved just let it go? 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-term gem for a try against Sale. Fin Smith’s cross kick was well won by Alex Hearle who released Jamie Shillcock and kicked the fullback forward, rallied again and scored.
Fast show: Sam Simmonds put in another captivating performance for Lions head coach Warren Gatland and the Exeter No. 8 was clocked at 20mph when he took a break in the first half.
Dramatic finish: Harlequins kept their winning habit as fly-half Marcus Smith danced through the London Irish defense for a last-minute winning attempt. A debut in England must be on the way.
A touch of class: English lock Jonny Hill was fantastic for Exeter and wowed viewers – and no doubt his own teammates – with a great kick from his 22 that forced a lineout deep into Bristol’s half.
Top shot: Leicester No. 8 Jasper Wiese has to stop for a moment, but he was brutally turned back to end an attack on Welford Road when JJ Tonks went low and Lewis Ludlam delivered a sledgehammer hit.
Worcester’s misery returns
Just as Worcester managed to put in a more creditable performance on the field against Sale on Saturday, the club’s reputation has been damaged for several reasons.
Wasps revealed they approached the Warriors about moving their Round 19 Premiership game at the Ricoh Arena to Monday, May 17 – as other clubs have done – to let some fans in, but Worcester turned down the request.
Such a shame they couldn’t show solidarity and see the bigger picture by agreeing to the switch, especially as they don’t have a game the following weekend, like when the European final takes place. It’s no time for big-hearted decisions, and this one reflects badly across the hierarchy at Sixways.
After a good show vs. Sale has damaged Worcester’s reputation for several reasons
After another title and another trophy, what now for England’s world-leading women?
Simon Middleton’s squad beat France in a tight, thrilling Six Nations Final at The Stoop on Saturday to ensure they topped the stack in Europe for the third consecutive year.
They will meet the French again next weekend in a one-off test across the Channel, but otherwise there is uncertainty after the postponement of this year’s World Cup. New Zealand’s global showpiece is now taking place next fall, so England urgently needs to fill the void with meaningful competitions.
What would be ideal is if they could take on Canada – which ranks third in the world – in July to join the proposed men’s test between the countries. After that, their desire is to play the Kiwis, which will be the main threat to their global ambitions next year.
If officials can make it work despite COVID restrictions, a series of three tests against New Zealand in the fall would be the best way for England to accelerate a crucial transition to leadership and game management. It would also be a big showcase and a likely blockbuster for the female game in these regions.