Few players in northern hemisphere rugby have been as influential in the last 18 months as Toulon back-row beast Steffon Armitage. England head coach Stuart Lancaster is reportedly keen to bring him into the England set-up in July for their Rugby World Cup warm-ups. That’s all well and good, but if he’s going to use the loophole to bring Armitage back at all, he may as well do it during the Six Nations to have more time to integrate him into an England set-up vastly different to the one when he won his last cap in 2009. Hat-tricks are rare for wingers in professional rugby, so for an openside to do it is something extra special. To do it against Ulster in the European Champions Cup is almost incomprehensible. Against Benetton Treviso, sure, but Ulster aren’t exactly tournament whipping-boy material. There’s a good argument that England don’t really need Armitage with Chris Robshaw and James Haskell playing as well as they are, while number eight Billy Vunipola appears to have found form at the right time and Nick Easter and Thomas Waldrom can cover Ben Morgan, who will miss the tournament with a broken leg, but having a weapon like Armitage on the bench covering the back row will strike fear into the opposition. Just having him in the training squad will make a difference and give Lancaster a better chance to get him working England’s systems long before the crucial World Cup warm-ups. Messieurs Boudjellal and Laporte of the Mayol won’t like it, but it makes no sense not to call up Armitage next week for the Six Nations.
Undoubtedly a day to forget for Irish rugby. If Munster struggled to turn up in North London in their woeful defeat to Saracens, Ulster left half their team on the tarmac in Belfast as they conceded the most points in their European history. Only three-time European champions Leinster can still reach the quarter-finals this season, and that is no guarantee as they go to Wasps next week. How many predicted that before the tournament began in October? The worst thing for Ulster is that they were up against the reigning champions who have been far from their best, both in Europe and in the Top 14, and their backline had been hit by flu earlier in the week. Even the Scarlets with their abysmal away record pushed Toulon, who have never been defeated at the Stade Mayol, back in October. Ulster have had one of the best defences in the Guinness PRO12 in recent seasons and, going into this match, they had conceded just 24 tries in 17 matches in the PRO12 and Champions Cup this season. In seven European matches last season, they conceded just seven tries. Conceding eight tries in one match is very rare for Ulster – the last time they did was in September 1997 at Loftus Road when they lost 56-3 to Wasps as Scotland international Kenny Logan bagged a hat-trick. Despite being thrashed by Toulon, Ulster managed to score four tries. That would be some achievement had Ulster been able to contend with Toulon and their 34 offloads. It’s barely consolation for Neil Doak’s side with two of those tries coming in the last 12 minutes, but even then Toulon had the final say as Armitage grabbed his third with 90 seconds left.
Ulster outside-half Paddy Jackson is probably the first-choice to step into Johnny Sexton’s boots when Ireland get their Six Nations title defence going in Rome against Italy in February, but his injury against Toulon could have derailed Joe Schmidt’s plans. The extent of the injury has to be determined, but the Ireland head coach will be sweating on the medical update before he names his squad next week. With Sexton not available until the second week of the competition, at the earliest, because of a series of concussions in 2014, there is no guarantee the Racing Metro man will be risked having not played since Ireland’s win over Australia in November. Next in line are Leinster’s Ian Madigan, who has been swapped between outside-half and inside-centre, and Munster’s Ian Madigan, who has cycled between brilliant and indifferent when started ahead of JJ Hanrahan, who could play for Ireland, but barely gets a look in. Both Madigan and Keatley lack considerable international experience, but if Jackson is out for Italy, then Madigan probably edges it. The big dilemma will be who takes the jersey when they host France a week later.
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