Challenge Cup: Three talking points as Gloucester reach the semis
James Hook and Matt Kvesic shine for Cherry and Whites as English club reach last four with 14-7 win despite late Connacht fightback
Hook unlocks door to European glory
Gloucester outside-half James Hook may not be able to get near a Wales jersey in 2015, but he continues to produce match-winning performances for his club, setting up both tries for the Cherry and Whites as they held on against Connacht to reach the semi-finals. With the Rugby World Cup approaching, Hook can still produce the magic in broken play that would help Wales against Australia, Fiji and England, but head coach Warren Gatland seems intent on bringing through Blues outside-half Gareth Anscombe, who was part of the RBS 6 Nations squad and often the 24th man for the match-day squad. Wales’ loss has been Gloucester’s gain in his first season with the club, and his skills were on show at Kingsholm as his gainline break set up the first try and a deft left-footed grubber bounced kindly to beat the Connacht defence for the second. The Aviva Premiership club may have struggled in the league, but they have produced the goods in the Challenge Cup and, on this latest showing, there is still a lot more to come when they face Exeter Chiefs or Newcastle Falcons in a home semi-final. If they repeat their 2005/06 heroics of winning nine consecutive European matches to land a second Challenge Cup title at The Stoop in May, it will be Hook who has steered them to it. Dan Biggar may be Wales’ first-choice 10, but Gatland may want to take another look across the Severn Bridge before selecting his three outside-halves.
Henshaw continues to impress
Is Robbie Henshaw the new Brian O’Driscoll, in Ireland green, or the new Gordon D’Arcy, in Leinster blue? Time will tell on that front, but his performance for Connacht starting at 12 against Gloucester shows he could grow into either or both roles. It wasn’t a flawless performance, but his defence was magnificent for the most part – nine tackles in the opening 60 minutes. Strong running caused the English side problems, notably twice off a line out in the first half, and his second-half bursts also had the Gloucester defence scrambling as Connacht dominated possession, led by Henshaw’s ball carrying and metres made – stat tables he topped for his side. How long will it be before he outgrows Connacht? That must be the question on the lips of many fans in the west of Ireland and, probably, all four provinces. No doubt the branch blazers and the national team management are already mulling over where his future lies, despite a young Connacht squad’s continued rise and development under Pat Lam. There would certainly be plenty of interest in England, and perhaps elsewhere for his services, with the lure of plenty of cash thrown in as a sweetener. Despite his relative youth, his three seasons with Connacht have shown him to be a world class player in the making, and still the talk of being O’Driscoll’s successor continue near and far. While the case of Johnny Sexton at Racing Metro may dissuade the 21-year-old from seeking a move away from Ireland with his international career still in its early days, indeed just 10 caps and an RBS 6 Nations title in, just which of Ireland’s “big three” secure his services could be a protracted affair conducted behind closed doors. Arguments could be made for him to join Leinster, Munster or Ulster, and most fans of all three would be delighted to have him in their side. Leinster remains the likely destination, perhaps apt that the Athlone man be drawn between the two provinces his birthplace straddles.
Kvesic form deserves England call
A third man of the match award in Europe sums up why Matt Kvesic deserves a recall to Stuart Lancaster’s England squad for the Rugby World Cup warm-ups in the summer: he has regularly been one of the stand-out players in a squad of big names, who have collectively underperformed. He topped the tackle count with 15 against Connacht as the Irish province enjoyed 70 per cent of possession in the second half, and his nine carries resulted in 51 metres made – only Hook and Jonny May made more metres. He may have played for the England Saxons against the Wolfhounds in Cork at the end of January, and been called into the England training camps in the last 18 months, but he deserves a chance to be in the mix to challenge Red Rose captain Chris Robshaw for the openside flanker role – that requires Lancaster to give him a go against France or Ireland. Many would argue that Kvesic offers more as an all-round seven than Robshaw. That much may be debated given his lack of experience on the big stage, but what isn’t up for debate is the 22-year-old’s ability to get his team over the gainline with ball in hand, win match-winning turnover ball, and provide a fairly robust defence. It has been almost two years since he won his two senior international caps on England’s tour of Argentina at the end of his time at Worcester Warriors with Robshaw sitting out after being overlooked for the British and Irish Lions squad, but the time has come for him to be given a another crack; his form demands it.