I said it before the weekend began – during Heineken Cup periods, Armitage always thrusts himself back into England fans’ minds. This weekend was no exception and in fact his performance was so good that it has had many calling for Lancaster to break the RFU’s rules on foreign-based players and include him in the squad for England’s tour to NZ. We won’t debate whether it’s right or wrong to ignore that rule here, we’ll just focus on whether he’s good enough to be in England’s team – an unequivocal yes. He packs down at eight for Toulon these days but is essentially a hybrid of all three back row positions – he tackles as hard a six, carries like an eight and forages like a seven. It’s unlikely he’ll ever be picked while he stays down in Toulon, which seems such a shame for England.
Ireland’s wing selection during the Six Nations was a touch conservative – Andrew Trimble and Dave Kearney are both excellent players, but they do not possess that ability to make something from nothing that Munster’s Zebo does. Ironically, it was not that sort of performance that saw Zebo stand out at the weekend. As Munster’s power game steamrolled their visitors from the South of France, it was the kick chasing, aerial ability and power of Zebo that impressed so much. Indeed, instead of dancing round Jano Vermaak for his try, he simply ran over him. He can do the basics well as well as the fancy stuff – it is a nice conundrum for Ireland to have, and with Tommy Bowe also performing well at the weekend they have four top quality wingers fighting it out for places, but surely they must find space for Zebo somewhere.
Big Billy was playing his first match since an injury sustained in the Six Nations so a touch of rustiness would have been perfectly acceptable – someone forgot to mention this to man himself, however. Saracens made a meal of what should have been a comfortable win against 14-man Ulster (all credit to the hosts for battling so hard despite the numerical advantage, but when you play 76 minutes of a game with a man down you shouldn’t be within striking distance of a win come the final minute) but Vunipola was one of the sole shining lights in a disjointed team performance. He punched holes in the Ulster defence every time he got the ball, bounced off defenders and finished his side’s third top tackler without missing a single one. He played the whole game, too, so anyone who still thinks he’s not an 80 minute man is just plain wrong.
Everyone’s been banging on about Leicester’s young Welsh fly-half recently and he has certainly been playing well, but it is in games like their trip to Clermont at the weekend that we will truly get a gauge for if he is ready for international rugby. There can’t be any more doubt about it – the composure he showed to kick several difficult penalties as well as put a crossfield kick on a sixpence that led to the try that got his side back into the game should be enough to convince Gatland to put him on the plane to South Africa. Whether he will or not is a completely different matter, but to come through such a heated encounter in such a bear pit of a stadium at the age of just 22 shows an amount of temperament and maturity that has been lacking from Welsh out halves in recent times.
Toulouse rolled into Thomond park with a humungous pack ready to try and beat Munster up at their own game, but that plan came unstuck against the smaller but technically superior Munstermen. Dave Kilcoyne was at the heart of this effort, and even though he received a harsh yellow card in the second half he was still an integral part of the inspirationally powerful Munster pack that set their team on course to victory. Cian Healy is rightly number one for Ireland and Jack McGrath has shown a huge amount of potential, but his issue is that more often than not he sits on the bench and waits for Healy to come off. If Kilcoyne continues to start and play like this, he will not be far from Schmidt et al’s minds.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images