Four Champions Cup stars fighting for their World Cup hopes this January
When it comes to preparing yourself for the rigours of Test rugby, there is no greater challenge and/or preparation than the final block of pool stages in the Champions Cup. With teams across the five pools fight tooth and nail knockout rugby, a number of club stars will be hoping to use the competition as a springboard to the World Cup in Japan.
Whether they admit it or not, most Six Nations bosses put a healthy volume of stock in the final block of European pool fixtures when it comes to selecting their annual tournament squads. Eddie Jones and Warren Gatland in particular favour European form over domestic. With this being said, which stars will be in the hunt for a successful fortnight in the Champions Cup in hopes of Six Nations, and potentially World Cup, inclusion?
Mike Haley – Munster and Ireland
Having watched from a distance as former Sale Sharks teammate and summer departer Will Addison rose through Ulster’s ranks to Test recognition in 2018, Munster fullback Mike Haley will be out to follow in his former housemate’s footsteps this calendar year.
In the time that Haley has found himself within the outer fringes of Joe Schmidt’s squad, Addison has enjoyed copious column inches dedicated to his value to Ireland’s World Cup campaign later this year. Undoubtedly Haley will be thrilled for once colleague, but he will also be dead set on enjoying a similar rise this year; potentially rivalling Addison for a squad spot.
With Irish stalwart Rob Kearney back to form in the green 15 jersey, the sensational young Jordan Larmour and indeed the utility man himself, Will Addison, there are a few rungs yet to be climbed to compete for such a place and reach a much-coveted Six Nations role.
With a trip to Gloucester coming up this evening, with all eyes on Kingsholm, and a home fixture against English powerhouses Exeter Chiefs next weekend, Haley has a prime opportunity to rediscover his 2016 England Saxons form, cutting apart the English defenders he would have seen as his competition this time last year.
Danny Cipriani – Gloucester and England
Gloucester soon became rudderless in the Premiership after English rugby’s favourite poster boy - or fall guy depending on your preference – succumbed to a four-week long pectoral strain during the Cherry and White’s latest European bout against Exeter Chiefs. But the former Wasps, Sale and Melbourne standoff has passed a late fitness test and returns to Gloucester’s line-up, starting against the aforementioned Haley.
Despite snubbing him during the November internationals, Eddie Jones included Cipriani in England’s latest squad meet up over the Christmas break. Clearly, the 31-year-old’s World Cup hopes are still alive and kicking.
With George Ford back to something near his best for Leicester Tigers and Owen Farrell shifted to his natural position of fly-half for England, Cipriani will have to prove his solidarity in defence, leadership, maturity and ability to turn a game on its head against Munster and Castres if he is to attempt to leapfrog Ford later this month.
Gary Graham – Newcastle Falcons and Scotland
Newcastle Falcons flanker Gary Graham, the second man on our list to switch international allegiances in 2018, has nailed his colours to the thistle’s mast and is ready to enter the Test arena.
Despite offering the grunt and grit Gregor Townsend favours in his backrowers Graham is yet to earn inclusion in a matchday squad. In direct competition with Edinburgh openside Hamish Watson, Glasgow’s Ryan Wilson, injured skipper John Barclay and potentially Falcons teammate John Hardie – who joined the Premiership club mid-season – it is easy to understand Graham’s difficulty in securing a squad spot in a competitive flanking department at Murrayfield.
With Newcastle in a hole at the bottom of the Premiership and in need of a morale jumpstart in Europe, Graham has a prime opportunity to catch the eyes of Townsend and his fellow Scotland selectors with standout performances against French outfits Montpellier and Toulon over the next fortnight.
Jamie Roberts – Bath and Wales
The final name in our four-man stands as our most experienced, but a country mile, with Bath’s Jamie Roberts boasting 94 Wales and four Lions caps to his name. Having seen his long-standing spot in Warren Gatland’s squad handed to (at the time) Scarlets pair Hadleigh Parkes and Scott Williams, Roberts has not featured in a red jersey since November 2017 and is swimming against the tide as the clock continues to cruelly tick. Like time, international rugby waits for no man.
While Roberts is certainly up against the sizable challenge of proving himself compatible with Wales’ increasingly expansive game plan, injuries tend to come thick and fast at World Cup time. The Cardiff Blues product’s substantial experience could prove invaluable to Gatland and co in the situation that 2015’s injury issue should rear its ugly head for an encore in Japan.
A task made tougher for Roberts after having been left out of Bath's matchday 23 to face Wasps at the Rec tomorrow, limiting him to one potential appearance in Europe away to Toulouse next weekend. Although this being said, the 32-year-old is sure to be harbouring the ambition of a Wales recall and the hopes of joining the 100-cap club.
You feel one or two of the above quartet will be more likely to settle for playing our fantasy Six Nations than his comrades, but each man will have to execute standout performances in Europe to earn first of further caps next month
Champions Cup, International, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Bath Rugby, Gloucester Rugby, Munster, Newcastle Falcons
Written by: Alistair Stokes
Follow: @alistokesrugby · @therugbymag