It’s crunch time in Heineken Champions Cup and Eddie Jones labels Nowell a Jack of all trades

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Owen Farrell and Co may be safe but for the rest it


Here we go then, one more round in the Heineken Champions Cup before we break for the Six Nations.

Who will blast through to the quarter-finals? Who will fizzle out?

And will they all stay fit to take their place on the grand stage in two weeks’ time?

There will be some nervy coaches around this week – at club and Test sides – but here to bring you the calm before the storm is Scrum’s the Word!

Owen Farrell and Co may be safe but for the rest it's crunch time in Europe this weekend

Owen Farrell and Co may be safe but for the rest it’s crunch time in Europe this weekend

POOL-BY-POOL PERMUTATIONS

POOL 1

LEINSTER know a bonus-point win over Wasps guarantees them a home quarter-final. TOULOUSE must better the Irish result to usurp them, but will surely make it as a best-second placer by beating BATH – who like WASPS are out.

POOL 2

EXETER need either to beat MUNSTER and deny them a bonus point, or beat them by scoring four tries or more – nothing else will suffice for them to go through. A draw or better, or even a close defeat will put Munster through top of the pool. CASTRES and GLOUCESTER are out.

POOL 3

SARACENS will cement top seeding with a win, but if they suffer a big (unlikely) home defeat to GLASGOW, could relinquish top spot – but would qualify as a fastest loser. Even just a losing bonus point for Glasgow might see them qualify. CARDIFF BLUES and LYON are out.

POOL 4

RACING 92 will guarantee a home quarter-final by beating sunk SCARLETS. ULSTER can nick in if the French lose – but it is more likely they will fight across groups with Toulouse, Glasgow, and possibly Montpellier, for a runner-up place. LEICESTER are out.

POOL 5

Tight with EDINBURGH and MONTPELLIER playing each other, three points apart. Winner takes all, but if the loser is Scottish then the capital club might sneak in too, depending on other results. NEWCASTLE and TOULON are out.

Once we know who the top eight seeds are on Sunday evening the quarter-final draw will be 1 v 8; 2 v 7; 3 v 6; 4 v 5.

NEWS FROM ROUND THE GROUNDS

COCKERS OF THE WALK

Richard Cockerill loves this stuff. His Edinburgh side, against all the odds, could qualify on Friday night with a win over Montpellier.

A team already sculpted in his image (abrasive, unabashed, clever) they have ripped the old – or at least large and French – order apart.

But they need one last result – and Cockerill is fired up. So here he came firing himself and his players up this week.

‘You would expect the motivation to be equal because they have to win the game to qualify,’ he said on Montpellier.

Richard Cockerill fired up his Edinburgh side, who could qualify with a win over Montpellier

Richard Cockerill fired up his Edinburgh side, who could qualify with a win over Montpellier

Richard Cockerill fired up his Edinburgh side, who could qualify with a win over Montpellier

‘But they live in a nice part of the world where the weather is pretty good most of the time. Most of them are South African anyway and come from a warmer country than France. We want it cold, windy, rainy.

‘They are the A-listers and they need to beat us to qualify. They are the side that has spent a lot of money.

‘On the face of it, they should be better than us but, as ever, the sum of our parts has always got to be stronger than the individuals and we have got to make that really count. I’m going to back us.

‘I am not sure we are meant to win, but Christ we are going to go out there gumshields in, sleeves rolled up, we are going to get into the middle of it and see where we get to.’

Wouldn’t you want to play for him this Friday?

A team already sculpted in his image (abrasive, clever) they have ripped the old  order apart

A team already sculpted in his image (abrasive, clever) they have ripped the old  order apart

A team already sculpted in his image (abrasive, clever) they have ripped the old order apart

JACK OF ALL TRADES

It was all going so normally, then this question was asked to Eddie Jones at Twickenham on Thursday after he had announced his squad for the Ireland match: ‘How do you see Jack Nowell in terms of position? He played full-back on Sunday. Is he an option at full-back?’

A fairly simple question. Then chaos ensued following the answer.

‘Seven,’ replied Jones.

‘Jack Nowell at seven? Why would that be?’

‘Cos he’s a great player. He is going to be the new breed of player. The game has changed. The game used to be 80 minutes, now it is 100 minutes. The next change is you will have players who can play backs and forwards. He has great ball carrying, great tackling skill; he puts his head over the ball, he’s a tough little bloke. He’s a great option. he can play wing, 13, 15, seven for us.’

Eddie Jones believes Jack Nowell is such a good player he can play in numerous positions

Eddie Jones believes Jack Nowell is such a good player he can play in numerous positions

Eddie Jones believes Jack Nowell is such a good player he can play in numerous positions

After then assured the gathered journalists he was not joking, and the laughter had died down, it was time to genuinely consider this.

Ok, Sir Clive Woodward rightly pointed out that this is not a new idea and slammed it as a ‘distraction’ an ‘own-goal’ and a ‘gimmick’ in his Sportsmail column – but if Jones were to be seriously considering it, could it work?

To our mind it is a bit bonkers, but is not actually as far-fetched as it may seem. The truth is Nowell plays like this already.

If England tries it, what is likely is that Nowell would wear No 14, and play as a ‘blindside winger’ (positioning himself in areas of the field closest to rucks, scrums and lineouts) and would be used as an auxiliary forward in the loose.

In attack Nowell is already adept at finding gaps around the breakdown, exploiting space by running in the heavy traffic close to rucks – as shown by his sensational comeback try against Castres last Sunday.

This is an absolutely classic example of what they’d want from Nowell in this ‘ninth forward’ role.

England could position him as a floating man behind rucks in attack, ready to pounce when quick ball is available, using his fast footwork and powerful running style to find holes among lumbering forwards.

But in defence he could be even more useful. Nowell is especially good for a back at winning turnover ball at the breakdown, stealing it from the opposition, an area where England traditionally struggle.

By holding off, not committing into every ruck like other traditional pack-members, and loitering behind breakdowns he could pick his moments to leap in and try and win the ball back. Australians David Pocock and George Smith – who play in the back-row – are experts at this.

Fanciful? Maybe. Distracting? It certainly has averted gazes. But possible? Quite probably.

England coach Jones said this week: 'He's a great option. he can play wing, 13, 15, seven for us.'

England coach Jones said this week: 'He's a great option. he can play wing, 13, 15, seven for us.'

England coach Jones said this week: ‘He’s a great option. he can play wing, 13, 15, seven for us.’

MEG RYAN, TO JURASSIC PARK – THE BONKERS WORLD OF SOCIAL MEDIA SIGNINGS

Why not have the famous scene from ‘When Harry met Sally’ – where the latter fakes an orgasm in a restaurant to announce you’ve signed Nathan Hughes?

That’s what Bristol Bears did this week, having nabbed the England No 8 from Wasps. Previously they’ve used Rafiki from the Lion King to tell their fans that Steven Luatua had signed a new deal and the Hulk when Alapati Leuia penned.

And this week not content with losing half their squad – with Will Stuart, Willie le Roux and Hughes all confirmed off – Wasps got in on the act, snapping up Jeff Toomaga-Allen.

But it was the way they told the world they had signed Malakai Fekitoa, with the help of Dan Robson, Lima Sopoaga, Brad Shields and Dai Young, that turned heads.

It’s rugby – scrum’s the word readers – but not as we know it.

Wasps announced they had signed Malakai Fekitoa with a bizarre video post on Twitter

Wasps announced they had signed Malakai Fekitoa with a bizarre video post on Twitter

Wasps announced they had signed Malakai Fekitoa with a bizarre video post on Twitter

NO EXCUSES, ENGLAND

Often when it comes to Eddie Jones’ squad announcements, the list at the bottom of the press release is as long as the one entitled ‘forwards’.

Vast numbers listed as ‘unavailable for selection’ – it was as many as 11 for the recent autumn Tests – but this time there are just six ‘players unavailable due to injury.’

Piers Francis (Northampton), Dylan Hartley (Northampton), Jonathan Joseph (Bath), Chris Robshaw (Harlequins), Sam Underhill (Bath), Anthony Watson (Bath). That is the shortest list Jones has had since his first squad when four were out.

In 2016 Matt Kvesic replaced Dave Ewers, Henry Thomas was in for Kieran Brookes, Ollie Devoto for Manu Tuilagi and Sam Hill for Henry Slade. And that year, England won a Grand Slam.

This is the squad Jones wants, and he has been hardly much hindered this time… that is of course before the final round of European games.

Chris Robshaw was one of six unavailable for selection for Six Nations squad due to injury

Chris Robshaw was one of six unavailable for selection for Six Nations squad due to injury

Chris Robshaw was one of six unavailable for selection for Six Nations squad due to injury

Contrast his rare good fortune (although often it isn’t bad luck as a substantial amount of injuries occurring during his training) with Scotland.

Gregor Townsend, their head coach, had a list of 19 (NINETEEN) players injured on his Six Nations squad announcement, which included John Barclay, Mark Bennett, Fraser Brown, David Denton, Zander Fagerson, Richie Gray and Duncan Taylor – all potential starters.

And when you look at Wales Warren Gatland – rather than list them as injured and call up new players – has included many crocks. Nicky Smith, Leon Brown, Adam Beard, Jake Ball, Ross Moriarty, Dan Biggar, Rhys Patchell and Leigh Halfpenny are all carrying knocks of vary degrees, but were included.

This was how Gatland explained it: ‘In the past we’ve had a smaller squad, 31 or 32, and we’ve found that there’s more opportunity in training with the bigger squad.

‘We wanted to select more numbers so there is an opportunity to do 15 on 15 in training. We’ve had benefits from that in the last few campaigns.

Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend, meanwhile will have to cope with nineteen injuries

Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend, meanwhile will have to cope with nineteen injuries

Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend, meanwhile will have to cope with nineteen injuries

‘We wanted to select more numbers so that they would become fit leading up to the first game or second game.

‘If we do pick up more injuries, we probably won’t replace them in the squad.’

Jones’ view was different. He said: ‘We have taken a completely different approach to the camp this time. We are specifically focusing on the Ireland game.

‘So we are taking players who we believe we be available to play against Ireland, so we are not taking any longer-term rehab players.’

So there are no excuses now. England are not hampered by injury issues – they must thrive. 

STATCAVE

8 Away defeats in nine for Toulon. The once formidable French outfit have fallen dramatically, losing on each of their last five trips. And this year they have been thrashed 34-13 to Montpellier and 40-14 to Edinburgh away from the Stade Mayol.

2004 The last time Edinburgh won five matches in succession, and they have not won all three home games since they last made the quarter-finals in 2012.

73 Points scored by Lyon and Castres in this year’s tournament so far – the lowest of any club in the Champions Cup in 2018-19.

0 Never have Glasgow won three away games in the Champions Cup. So far they have won two – Cardiff and Lyon – but are unlikely to add Saracens to that list.

Ireland Jacob Stockdale levelled the try record for a single-Championship last Six Nations

Ireland Jacob Stockdale levelled the try record for a single-Championship last Six Nations

Ireland Jacob Stockdale levelled the try record for a single-Championship last Six Nations

6 Tries for Jacob Stockdale so far in the Six Nations – he has scored the most of anyone, and at least once in every round.

2 Away wins in their last 14 trips for the Scarlets. They have only beaten Benetton Treviso and Bath in that run, and now go to Racing 92.

37 Months since Munster last lost at Thomond Park in Europe. Leicester were the last team to beat them in Limerick, winning 31-19 in December 2015. They have won their last 11 home games.

60 Per cent of goals kicked by Castres in the competition this season – the worst in the tournament.

0 Home wins for Wasps so far in the tournament this season – they drew to Bath and lost to Toulouse – but have never lost all three at home in the same campaign. 

EUROPEAN MATCH GUIDES

EDINBURGH v MONTPELLIER 

Friday 7.45pm Murrayfield LIVE BT Sport 2 from 7pm

Richard Cockerill sticks with the same team that won in Toulon for the crucial match at Murrayfield.

That means Scottish Six Nations picks WP Nel, Stuart McInally, Grant Gilchrist, Ben Toolis, Hamish Watson, Chris Dean, Darcy Graham and Blair Kinghorn play.

Montpellier bring back Bismarck du Plessis, his brother Jannie as well as Springbok Jan Serfontein.

Prediction: Home win

NEWCASTLE v TOULON 

Friday 7.45pm Kingston Park LIVE BT Sport 3 from 7.30pm

Mark Wilson is not fit to play for Newcastle, but Nemani Nagusa does come back in for the Falcons.

Sinoti Sinoti also returns in this dead-rubber game, as Scotland call-up Gary Graham plays openside flanker.

Toulon have an enormous centre-pairing of usual wings Julian Savea and Jos Tuisova.

Prediction: Home win

CARDIFF BLUES v LYON 

Saturday 1pm Cardiff Arms Park LIVE BT Sport 3 from 12.30pm

The Blues make 11 changes for Lyon, as Nick Williams captains from No 8.

Rory Thornton and Wales’ Josh Navidi are the only pack survivors as new Six Nations pick Josh Turnbull comes in. Gareth Anscombe plays full-back as Jarrod Evans plays 10 for the first time in six weeks.

The French have Englishman Carl Fearns back in.

Prediction: Home win

SARACENS v GLASGOW 

Saturday 1pm Allianz Park LIVE BT Sport 2 from 12.30pm

Six of Saracens’ England players start against Glasgow as Brad Barritt returns to captain.

Owen Farell, Jamie George, Maro Itoje, George Kruis and the Vunipolas all play, as Ben Earl is rested.

Adam Hastings comes in for the Warriors as Tim Swinson moves into the second row. Stuart Hogg continues at full-back.

Prediction: Home win

RACING 92 v SCARLETS 

Saturday 3pm La Defense Arena LIVE BT Sport from 3pm

Jonathan Davies returns to captain the Scarlets who face a fully-loaded Racing side.

The French are gunning for a home quarter-final and have Leone Nakarawa, Finn Russell and Simon Zebo all in.

The Welsh give starts to Hadleigh Parkes, Steff Evans, Gareth Davies, Rob Evans and Samson Lee ahead of the Six Nations, but Ken Owens is given a rest.

Prediction: Home win

LEICESTER v ULSTER

Saturday 3.15pm Welford Road LIVE BT Sport 2 from 3pm

Tigers’ England quartet all play against Ulster – Jonny May, Manu Tuilagi, George Ford and Dan Cole starting at Welford Road.

Ellis Genge, though, is rested. Iain Henderson returns for Ulster seven weeks early, having had thumb surgery in December. Jacob Stockdale – the tournament’s top scorer with six tries – starts again on the wing.

Prediction: Away win

MUNSTER v EXETER

Saturday 5.30pm Thomond Park LIVE BT Sport 2 from 5.15pm/Channel 4 from 5.05pm

Jack Nowell continues at full-back, not flanker as Eddie Jones suggested, for Exeter’s must-win Munster match.

Alex Hepburn – left out of the England squad this week – starts prop ahead of Ben Moon, and Ollie Devoto plays inside centre with Henry Slade outside.

Munster make one change after their demolition of Gloucester, John Ryan replacing Stephen Archer at tight-head prop. Peter O’Mahony starts and skippers.

Prediction: Home win

CASTRES v GLOUCESTER 

Saturday 6.30pm Stade Pierre Fabre LIVE BT Sport 3 from 5.15pm

Gloucester are out so rest most of their first XV, including Danny Cipriani.

Only Henry Walker, Gerbrandt Grobler, Lewis Ludlow, new England man Ollie Thorley and Tom Hudson are kept in the starting line-up.

Castres pick Rory Kockott at scrum-half, and Scott Spedding at full-back.

Prediction: Home win

TOULOUSE v BATH

Sunday 3.15pm Stade Ernest Wallon LIVE BT Sport 2 from 2.45pm

Jonathan Joseph plays for the first time since April, having recovered from an ankle injury.

The centre was not picked in the England squad, but is straight back in the Bath squad for the trip to Toulouse.

The four-time winners have Jerome Kaino, Romain Ntamack and Cheslin Kolbe starting.

Prediction: Home win

WASPS v LEINSTER 

Sunday 3.15pm Ricoh Arena LIVE BT Sport 3 from 2.45pm

Elliot Daly plays wing for Wasps after a week’s rest against the European Champions.

Leinster bring back Robbie Henshaw for the first time since October, having recovered from an ankle injury, and Devin Toner is in too after an ankle knock. Sean O’Brien makes the bench – his first involvement in over two months.

England’s Nathan Hughes, Brad Shields, Joe Launchbury and Dan Robson all play too.

Prediction: Away win



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