The European Cup provides us with the chance to see great players rise to the occasion with moments of brilliance which light up the stage. So who will be the stars this season?
My choice is a handful of game-changers who bring a fizz of excitement and anticipation to any match they play in.
Let’s start with Liam Williams, the Welsh winger who has begun his second season at Saracens in style. Williams will always be known for the iconic Lions try against the All Blacks in the first Test of the 2017 series, which he sparked with a brilliant counter-attack from his own 22 before Sean O’Brien scored at the other end of the pitch.
What I like so much about Williams is not just his ambition but the fact that he is hard-working, and it is those qualities that will ensure he has a field day running onto the endless stream of quality ball that the Saracens pack is currently producing.
Williams will revel in it because he is a natural runner rather than a kick-chase style of winger. He knows instinctively that with that sort of possession you have more of a licence to attack from anywhere and take risks – including from behind your own goal-line. You can almost do anything you want with ball like that as long as you are in tune with your team-mates.
Williams shows every sign of having found the right wavelength with back three partners like Sean Maitland, David Strettle and Alex Goode, and Saracens have reaped the rewards with bonus point wins in their first five Premiership games.
That ambition will be shared by Goode, who has been in scintillating form ahead of their visit to Glasgow Warriors next weekend. The words you hear about the Saracens full-back more than any others are, “I can’t believe he’s not in the England squad”, and it’s because he never plays a bad game for his club.
Maybe he is one of those players whose mojo just does not seem to work at international level, or perhaps he simply has never really had the opportunity to make his case. That’s because under Stuart Lancaster the paramount full-back requirements were safety under the high ball and a strong kick-chase game, and Mike Brown fitted the bill, and it continued under Eddie Jones.
Goode is more of an attacking full-back, but so far the dice haven’t rolled favourably for him when it comes to international selection. He has won titles galore with Saracens, but it doesn’t seem to register with Jones.
However, Goode is knocking at the door even louder because he appears to have taken his counter-attacking skills up another notch this season, running with real elusiveness and awareness of space.
Maybe Jones is a bit risk-averse, or thinks that without the well-balanced Saracens support systems around Goode he will not be as effective. Or maybe it will take until England play the Saracens and Exeter way before Goode is seen as being the right pick at full-back.
When it comes to automatic selections look no further than Johnny Sexton. The Leinster fly-half’s organisation is second to none, and is a big factor in why they are the reigning European champions. The Irish 10 drives himself very hard, and he expects the same of the team he plays in. Leinster rely on him, but in return he insists that they practice under high pressure conditions so that when they go out on match day the intensity they bring his second nature.
Sexton is an 8/10 performer almost every time he plays because he executes all of the fly-half skills very well and is so tactically precise that it is like Leinster having a coach on the field.
Three-time champions Toulon have not had the best of starts in the Top 14 but they have got so much firepower that they cannot be ignored.
Nowhere is that more obvious than with recent signings Rhys Webb and Julian Savea.
Webb has put himself on the map as one of the most talented scrum-halfs with his dynamic displays for Wales and the Lions, even if his move to France has cost him his international place.
Webb is one of those 9’s who fills the fringes around the breakdown with his presence because he is such a dangerous runner and so effective at looking for the gap. He is an active, buzzy scrum-half who does not make many errors and is on-point every time he is in the opposition half.
Webb was the heartbeat of the side when he played for Wales, and he will be looking to play a similar role for Toulon.
Savea’s record as one of the great try-scoring All Black wingers is intact even though Steve Hansen’s decision to pick Rieko Ioane ahead of him led to him looking for a fresh start in France. At 28 he is still a force of nature, and if he gets hungry and nasty he could be a devastating finisher for Toulon.
At his very best Savea is unstoppable, and if he finds that form for Toulon they will not miss Chris Ashton that much. He is a one-man strike force, and has been called a baby Lomu – but there’s nothing baby about him.
Savea has another couple of levels on most powerhouse wingers in terms of speed, and if he gets interested and wants to become a superstar again, then I’m sure he can be.
If he gets a taste for it at Toulon there could be a few wingers – and others – getting steamrollered.
By contrast, Jack Nowell is one of those wingers who is always switched on, and he’s got to love being at a club like Exeter where he gets a lot of the ball. However, he gives as much as he gets because he has such a great work ethic.
Not too many wingers are known as grafters, but Nowell is one of them, and in many ways he is the pulse of the Exeter team.
He is not the quickest, and he might not appear to be hugely gifted, but he is very consistent, very effective, deceptively powerful, and makes very few mistakes. He is also defensively very sound.
My only slight criticism – because I like wingers who pass a bit – is that sometimes he should pass rather than take the ball to ground.
Nowell is more elusive than quick, but because he runs low to the ground and has very good balance he is a constant danger whether he’s playing for Exeter or England. His work-rate makes him a 9/10 performer virtually every time.
The European Cup is a great stage, and I cannot wait to see these stars make the most of it.
Tagged Alex Goode
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