The festive period is one of the most exciting and crucial times for sport in the South West, writes Gareth Davies.
For players from our rugby and football clubs, they would perhaps rather a winter break which is common-place in mainland Europe, but the bean-counters at said clubs and traditionalists would certainly argue otherwise.
While sport at all levels from the very top to grassroots continues to evolve at breakneck speed, some things have survived professionalism in rugby or mega-bucks television deals in football and that is fixtures scheduled at Christmas and New Year.
Matches around this time, in front of bumper attendances, can often make or break a season and with the domestic calendar very much seen as downhill from January onwards, momentum of a positive nature is imperative.
The flip side of this particular coin is that a lousy run of form in late December can often be catastrophic, although it’s not a totally incongruous concept for a team or player to survive a torrid festive period and still come out the other side smelling of roses – or wearing a woody flowering plant if you are an English rugby player.
For those at the very top of our oval ball, 15-man game, it is about this time of the year that selection dilemmas start cropping up about who will get the nod for Six Nations starting berths.
This puts an additional amount of pressure on the shoulders of players, with some grabbing their opportunity with both hands, while others let the opportunity pass them up.
For our region’s four Premiership clubs, it would be a huge shock if England’s initial Six Nations squad doesn’t contain a number of West Country players.
The clock is ticking though as England begin their campaign in just 42 days with a trip across the Channel to take on Les Bleus. Eddie Jones’ side go into this year’s competition on the back of a roller-coaster World Cup and searching for a first Six Nations crown since 2017.
Given the events in Japan just over six weeks ago, there will be greater intrigue around how England will perform. Quite rightly the bookies favourites, Jones and his side will either banish their World Cup demons or the hangover will linger longer than the Australian would have imagined.
With this in mind, Jones’ selection will be intriguing as he could, barring injury, stick with those that served him so well on the global stage. That would be the most sensible and likely scenario although the scars of losing a World Cup final you were expected to win doesn’t heal overnight and the England head coach could, therefore, opt for fresh blood.
That would seem unlikely and despite Jones’ own future still being very much undecided as his contract with the Rugby Football Union expiring in August 2021, England proved in Asia that they can be spoken about in the same breath as the dominant Southern Hemisphere nations.
The knock-out victories over Australia and more importantly the All Blacks clearly demonstrated a shifting of the sands in terms of global supremacy. Yes, England came up short in the final, but pre-tournament, if you had offered Jones and even the most pessimistic England supporter a runners-up spot, along comprehensive defeats of Oceania’s best, hands would have been snapped off in double-quick fashion.
Undoubtedly, England are moving in the right direction by playing a style of rugby based on power throughout forward and back division that many thought they weren’t capable of – apart from Jones himself of course.
Based on the World Cup and what has happened since, Bath’s flying winger Joe Cokanasiga is unlikely to play again in 2019-20, although Anthony Watson, his Rec team-mate, is very much back in contention and plays today against London Irish.
But as one door closes here in the West Country for Cockanasiga, another opens and after a troubled six months due to a succession of injuries, Exeter’s Jack Nowell, on current form, has to be close to a starting berth against France in February.
The same applies to Nowell’s Sandy Park team-mates Luke Cowan-Dickie and Henry Slade with a number of Chiefs who were close to making the World Cup squad, also very much in contention for an international call-up.
Props Ben Moon and Harry Williams both missed the final cut and didn’t board the plane to Japan. Despite this obvious personal disappointment, the duo have been form players in a very efficient and typical Chiefs wheel which finally seem to lay their European demons to rest.
A huge part of Exeter’s brilliant recent form – five wins in all competitions – is due in no small part to a pair of brothers from Teignmouth however.
Joe Simmonds has made the Exeter number 10 jersey his own and while it would seem unlikely that the 22-year-old is ahead of England skipper Owen Farrell and former Bath man George Ford, if anything untoward happened to either of the aforementioned, he would be the next cab off England’s rank.
With Joe excelling behind the scrum, his older brother Sam has enjoyed a superb campaign to date at the base of it for Exeter. The fact he’s playing at all is remarkable as just over a year ago, Sam suffered a serious knee ligament injury but after defying the odds, the 24-year-old was back playing before 2018-19 finished.
His late return meant that the World Cup was always going to be a long shot and he was never really in Jones’ plans although little over six months later, Sam has certainly thrust himself into the forefront of everyone’s mind when it comes to selection.
Last Sunday against Sale, as Exeter continued their march towards the last eight of the Champions Cup, Sam picked up two tries and the sponsors’ champagne too. His display was virtuoso and not just because he bagged two tries either.
There were times when he broke clear in midfield with the pace of an outside back along with devastating power close to the line when the try-line was gaping.
These qualities from a back-row forward are exactly those that Jones’ modus operandi demands, but to think it will be an Exeter Chief wearing the number eight jersey in the Stade de France would be presumption of the highest order.
An hours journey up the M5 to Ashton Gate and you will find Nathan Hughes, another loose forward who has started this year like a house on fire – a polar opposite to how he finished last term.
Despite being part of the last Six Nations campaign, which ended for England with defeat against Wales in Cardiff and then a draw against Scotland at Murrayfield, Hughes’ form tailed off dramatically and after looking like a shoe-in for England a year ago, he wasn’t even the reckoning for Japan.
But in every form of adversity there is strength and after speaking to Hughes before this current season began, fresh from leaving Wasps to join Pat Lam’s Bristol revolution, he was keen to use international rejection as an ingredient for motivation.
Again, like Sam Simmonds, the newest member of the Bears’ pack has been in eye-catching form this term with his all-round game mirroring that of the Exeter man as Bristol have performed above expectations in Europe and domestically too.
Of course, both players and Harlequins’ Alex Dombrandt – another very much in the reckoning for England – have Billy Vunipola in their sights as it was clear from the World Cup that the Saracens man is very much Jones’ choice at loose forward.
This view was only strengthened with England taking just one specialist number eight in Vunipola to Japan and after returning home, amidst all the salary cap scandal, the 27-year-old, who was schooled at The Castle in Thornbury, has still delivered at Allianz Park.
A week today, Vunipola and his Saracens side face Exeter in what many are calling an old-fashioned grudge match because of matters off the field which have prompted comment and counter comment from both parties.
That can’t be denied unfortunately, but if you look beyond all the finger pointing and verbal jousting, an intriguing part of Premiership rugby’s big guns clashing is an absolute audition for England’s number eight jersey between Sam Simmonds and Vunipola. A stand-out performance from either will go along way towards swaying Jones’ selection judgement although if there is no stand-out performance, then Hughes and Dombrandt will be waiting in the wings.