Who’s hot and who’s not: Jac Morgan and those making the knockouts offer positive at end of disappointing week for rugby

Adam Kyriacou
Who's hot and who's not

It’s time for our Monday wrap of who has their name in lights and who is making the headlines for all the wrong reasons after the weekend.

THEY’RE ON FIRE!

Those making the knockouts: We have our final 16 teams in both the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup which means congratulations are in order. Hats off to pool winners Leinster and La Rochelle – we wouldn’t be surprised to see them meet again in the final – and also the likes of Exeter Chiefs, the Stormers, Ospreys and Munster, the latter pushing Toulouse all the way at Stade Ernest Wallon on Sunday. The Challenge Cup pool winners were Toulon and Scarlets, who are joined in the knockout stages by South African duo the Lions and Cheetahs. Roll on the Round of 16 showdowns in both competitions as at least we can put that ever so confusing pool format to bed, hopefully forever. Also a word for the much-maligned United Rugby Championship, which has seen all eight of their teams qualify for the knockout stages in the Champions Cup.

Jac Morgan and Ospreys: The back-row simply has to start for Wales in the Six Nations. The 23-year-old was outstanding for the Welsh region on Friday as they stunned defending Premiership champions Leicester Tigers at Welford Road. He scored the winning try 10 minutes after the clock had gone into the red and it was just reward for an unbelievable effort in the previous 89 minutes. Morgan was like a bowling ball in the carry, sending defenders flying everywhere, while his defensive work was, as ever, impressive. Quite how previous head coach Wayne Pivac initially thought that Morgan wasn’t physical enough for Test rugby is anyone’s guess. He’s set for a blockbuster Championship.

350 up for Danny Care: The Stoop stalwart played his 350th match for Harlequins on Saturday and it was celebrated in style thanks to a bonus-point success over the Sharks, which included a Care try. The scrum-half’s special day was topped off as he walked out before kick off with his three children and he said afterwards he “feels so lucky and privileged” to play for the club, which has been such a huge part of his life. Care doesn’t show any signs of slowing down either as the 36-year-old continues to produce high quality performances in the Quarters.

Newbies named in Six Nations squads: 26 players could make their Test debuts in the Six Nations, with all the squads now named for the tournament. France head coach Fabien Galthie rewarded form in the Top 14 with eight uncapped players named in his squad, the most rookies included across the competition. Steve Borthwick is also testing the waters with five newbies selected in the Red Rose squad, while Italy, Scotland and Wales all have four new players called up. Only Jamie Osborne could impress Andy Farrell enough to earn a maiden Test call-up. Amongst the new individuals, Paul Boudehent, Louis Bille-Biarrey, Ollie Hassell-Collins, Fin Smith, Stafford McDowall, Keiran Williams and Osborne have been in red-hot form, with wing Hassell-Collins especially being someone who looks set to be a Six Nations star.

One club legend Frans Malherbe: In the modern era, players seldom play their entire career at one club, but prop Malherbe continues to march to the beat of one’s own drum. The Springbok veteran overtook Schalk Burger’s record for the most appearances for the Stormers last year, and his standing with the supporters of the Cape Town-based side will have only grown after he penned a new deal with the URC champions until 2026. The powerful tighthead wouldn’t have been short on offers from abroad but has stayed true to the Stormers, who he has spent his entire career representing since debuting at 20. Stormers head coach John Dobson waxed lyrical of Malherbe, saying: “Frans embodies what we would like this team to be all about. He is already a DHL Stormers legend and will only add to that in the years to come.”

COLD AS ICE!

Edinburgh’s confusion: Harsh, maybe. But in an age where information is so widely available and communication is easily possible, how all of Edinburgh’s playing squad did not know that one further score against Saracens would seal them a home Round of 16 clash is hard to understand. A day had passed since the Sharks lost to Harlequins and even if the maths were not fresh in the memory on the field, surely a message could have been passed on to push for that crucial score. Yes, the win is impressive but Edinburgh have made a blunder in our eyes.

Kurtley Beale allegations: Beale was on Friday suspended from all forms of rugby by his club side the Waratahs after he was arrested for alleged sexual assault as part of an investigation into an incident at Beach Road Hotel in Bondi last year. The Wallaby veteran was taken into custody after being stopped at a vehicle stop and went to Waverly police station where he was later released on bail. The alleged assault took place on December 17, 2022 and has been denied by 32-year-old Beale, who faces four charges and is due to appear back in court in March.

Rufus McLean case: That news followed another low point for rugby union when on Thursday it was reported that Glasgow Warriors and Scotland wing McLean pleaded guilty to domestic abuse charges. McLean has admitted to engaging in a course of ’emotionally abusive and controlling’ behaviour between April 2019 and January 2021, with some of the details particularly distressing as his behaviour towards his then girlfriend was horrific to say the least. Glasgow have suspended McLean and we hope the victim gets all the support she needs.

Tackle height farce: The Rugby Football Union announced that the legal tackle height will be lowered to the waist across English community rugby from next season. Cue outrage from current and former players, as well as fans, as many could not believe the news. The RFU stated the move is “designed to improve player safety and informed by data, this change aims to reduce head impact exposure and concussion risk in the tackle for both the ball carrier and tackler”. Questions have since been asked like how to tackle when teams pick and go close to the try-line, with many feeling tackling lower increases the risk for the tackler. It’s a hot topic.

Exeter exodus: The exodus continues at Exeter, with Ruben van Heerden leaving the side to join the Stormers with immediate effect. The second-row requested to leave as he wished to return to South Africa after battling with homesickness. Rob Baxter expects Jack Nowell to depart at the end of the season. Luke Cowan-Dickie and Sam Simmonds are off to Montpellier, while former club captain Joe Simmonds is reportedly joining Pau. Seasoned flanker Dave Ewers has sealed a move to Ulster, while Jannes Kirsten is also rumoured to be returning to South Africa to re-join the Bulls. It’s a tough time for the Exeter fans, and by the sounds of it, the exodus won’t slow down anytime soon.

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