Allan Massie: There is surely no doubt that Stuart Hogg is currently the outstanding full-back in the Lions countries
There weren’t many surprises in Gregor Townsend’s first training squad, though I was sorry to see that Mark Bennett hasn’t been called up.
The omission of Magnus Bradbury raised a few eyebrows, likewise the inclusion of Blair Cowan after a four-year absence. It seems that Cowan is a beneficiary of the revision of the Law at the breakdown - a revision to which many players haven’t yet adapted their game if one is the judge by the large number of penalties all teams are conceding. Let’s hope they do so quickly. Nobody wants to see even three or four times as many penalty goals as tries in a match, let alone the nine penalties which Leigh Halfpenny kicked for Scarlets against Munster. Cowan, however, seems to have responded effectively to the revision; hence his return to the fold.
As for Bradbury, one hopes that he is being given a message. He remains a player whose potential exceeds his performance. Nobody doubts his ability to have an effect on a match. What seems to be in question is a tendency to drift out of games. I have long thought he could be as important to Edinburgh and Scotland as Peter O’Mahony is to Munster and Ireland. But nobody, I would suppose, has ever accused O’Mahony of going missing for stretches of the 80 minutes.
Meanwhile, today’s Champions Cup final, the last club match of last season, is an enticing prospect, and not only because, with Stuart Hogg and Jonny Gray on one side and Finn Russell on the other, there is more Scottish interest than has usually been the case. Hogg and Russell are also on the short-list of five for the European Player of the Year award, the winner to be announced this evening. Both have flourished since moving from Glasgow as I expect Gray to do also, and, though we may wonder just what Glasgow might have achieved in the last couple of years if they had remained with the club, one can’t doubt that the change has been good for the players. Even English scribes who used to be eager to identify defensive frailties in Hogg’s game now wax enthusiastic about his play, and there is surely no doubt that he is currently the outstanding full-back in the Lions countries.
The move to Paris has been good for Finn. He has made a success of club rugby in France as Jonny Wilkinson did and Johnny Sexton didn’t. At Glasgow he often played as a genius, sometimes as a daft laddie. Now he has reached maturity. Like all the greatest fly-halves I have seen from Jack Kyle to Dan Carter he now knows how to wait and pick his moment. When his delicious chip-kick found space between two lines of the Saracens defence and created the try that secured Racing 92’s place in today’s final, he was asked why he had waited till the 75th minute before trying it.
His reply was instructive: “In this kind of match you have only one or two opportunities to bring off this ploy. You don’t want to try it too soon, because you risk losing surprise. So for 70 minutes we passed and passed . When we decided the chip was on, Saracens were no longer looking out for it.”
It was of course, as he explained, something they had done time and again in practice. Virimi Vakatawa, the No 13, who collected the kick and then passed back to Russell, was doing what he had done repeatedly on the training field. It was, Finn said, a move they had “mastered rather well”.
Exeter will start favourites this afternoon, partly because the match is being played in England not France, and partly because they are the best team in England while Racing aren’t quite the best in France, probably not as good as Toulouse whom Exeter beat in the semi-final. In that match they were behind at half-time, then more or less completely denied Toulouse any ball for the first 20 minutes of the second half.
All the same, good as Exeter are, it’s absurd to say, as the former England scrum-half Matt Dawson has, that they are “overwhelming favourites”. If Racing don’t give away penalties which allow the excellent Joe Simmonds to put the ball into touch a few metres from the try line, thus giving his forwards the chance to do what they do better than any other team in Europe, then it could be a very even match. Both teams can strike from a distance, and, if Stuart Hogg scores remarkable tries, so does Vakatawa. Finn says he is “the best No 13 on the planet – there’s no argument about that.”
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