This season has been as topsy turvy as we've ever experienced. With the pandemic, shuffles in the international game, a new strictness over contact discipline and disrepute across so many popular sports, its no wonder Rugby has been effected. This week, of all weeks, we've seen the road map reach the next stage, pubs and restaurants reopen, the European Super League announced and promptly torn apart, games being re-scheduled (or not in the case of Worcester, bloody Worcester) and just an immense amount of turbulence for sport... Luckily we have a blockbuster weekend of Rugby to hopefully silence the doubters. Top of the table clashes, mid table firefights, bottom of the table slobber knockers, this weekend has the hardest to predict fixtures we've had all season. So what happened when the two top teams met?
Sam Simmonds, The Gift That Keeps On Giving
It's getting boring now, singing the praises of one standout player every weekend. Simmonds continue to dominate the domestic eight jersey, putting in a potential performance of the tournament candidate in this match. Multiple line breaks, buckets of metres made, fantastic turnovers and miraculous double tackles, his performance was nothing short of Hollywood. Bristol simply couldn't contain him, and his natural gas has become a real weapon in the loose for Exeter; it's often like watching a game of sevens. The fact that fans were so quick to discount him over one standard performance against European heavyweights Leinster, just proves that we all have no idea what we are talking about. Back to his best, but then he never really left. Exeter's strategy of picking and go, and making the hard yards, often downplays their ingenuity around the fringes, a genius that is constantly exploited by Sam Simmonds' urge to play. Soft hands when tackled, he offloaded like an All Black on a couple of occasions to keep Exeter trucking forwards. A clinical showing by a clear man of the match.
What Next For Max Malins...
Outside of lazy comparisons to Alex Goode, Malins has become an all action back, capable of playing pretty much anywhere but 9. He had glimpses of superstar quality in this game, with audacious back door passes, some real hot steps and an eye for a weak shoulder. However, for every stunning piece of individual skill, came another surprising lack of judgement. Choosing to play from deep in their 22, meant that Bristol were constantly putting in 110% effort in the wrong areas of the pitch. I know you hardly want to keep kicking to a back three of Hogg, Nowell and O'Flaherty, but constantly fucking back into the likes of Hill and Simmonds is a far dumber move. Just hoof it! Unfortunately his decision making in key areas left Bristol under the kosh more often than it put them on the front foot. Also he missed a sitter for Bristol's first try off the tee; it's fair to say that 10 is perhaps not the position he should concentrate on in the future. Despite being a star in the youth game at stand off, he just doesn't possess the calm, controlled, lateral decision making of others like Marcus Smith and Charlie Atkinson in his age range.
One area you cannot deny for either side, is how impressive they are defensively. Exeter threw huge ball carriers into half back running lines and yet still, Bristol held strong. Bristol constantly threatened to expand the game, with O'connor constantly finding the better of Slade, yet still they couldn't fully break. The covering tackles by either team were spectaculour, especially considering some attacks felt un-defendable. It was the tackling in the tight that kept striking me with awe, with the likes of little Adeolokun putting in chop tackles on big second rowers... I mean what was he even doing there! But fair play, every player put their body on the line in this game, and even when shirked off, they immediately bounced back onto their feet to hit the next man. A mixture of fitness, determination, and sheer pig headedness meant that it took 10 minutes for us to even see a clear break... And what a break it was!
Andy Uren, Most Underrated Back in the League?
It's been somewhat frustrating to watch the treatment of Andy Uren by the press across this season. There are constant yells for international inclusion in celtic squads for Harry Randall, despite Uren fist fighting him for the starting jersey over in the South West. I know Randall is injured, I know he was playing well before the injury occurred, but Uren has more than filled the void in his absence. Electrifying in the loose, Uren runs fantastic support lines and has a clean pair of heels when called upon to finish; just look at that Bristol first try for an example. He made a few, unforced kicking errors in this game, being charged down in the first few minutes and kicking out on the full early into the second half, but they largely came from a lack of platform and protection around the breakdown. It constantly felt that he had to snatch at kicks as Vui and Attwood laid over rucks, rather than guarding the fringes to allow their half backs some space. Uren's passing is also ace, with his service being as good as anyone in the league.
Sam Simmonds - Best player on the pitch, and right in front of Gatland too, not bad timing...
Jack Nowell - The guy is so hard to bring down! The tackle completion on his carries sat well below 50%, that's world class levels of carrying.
Dan Thomas - One of Bristol's only bright spots in the forwards, Thomas stripped the ball in a couple of rucks and put his all into every tackle.
Sam Skinner - Took his try well and went about his work consistently, tough and abrasive, filled Ewers boots perfectly.
Piers O'Conor - Continues to prove why he is the best 13 in the league this season, found plenty of room outside Slade and threw some deft passes.
Jake Heenan - Largely anonymous in this game, made virtually no ground with ball in hand and barely left a mark in the loose.
Bryan Byrne - A couple of silly penalties given away and again, largely anonymous around the pitch.
Henry Slade - Slade wasn't bad per say, but his shortcomings and questionable tackle success rate was exploited by O'Conor; he hits hard in the straight, struggles when players are heading right around him.
Photo Credit: @ Bristol Live 2021