So “Tim’s Thoughts” has finally got a decent (well… better) name moving forward: Eyes On! I’ll be honest; I was never happy with the original name but was going through a horrible patch where my creative juices had well and truly dried up. Now I don’t feel quite so ridiculous each time I try to write one of these articles.
Week 1 of the 6 Nations certainly didn’t go as planned. A fantastic win by the Scots against the favoured Irish kicked off the tournament in a style that was unfortunately rarely matched either in England’s ‘Le Crunch’ victory or Wales’ win against the Italians. Bonus points didn’t seem to have much of an effect on the games, other than Wales’ frantic attempt to get the 4th try in the dying seconds against Italy, but there were hints in the open play styles of some teams that we could be looking forward to plenty more tries in the upcoming weeks.
With this in mind, here were my thoughts on each Week 1 match.
Scotland 27 – 22 Ireland
In my recent article about players to watch this tournament, I wrote about Tadhg Furlong’s ability in the loose. On Saturday, he also showed that he’s a high quality scrummager. Poor Allan Dell was given a horrid time at the scrums, especially in the 1st half. The Scottish scrum was frequently in retreat and a number of penalties were given, mainly on Furlong’s side. If he can continue in this form for the rest of the tournament, I think he will be a shoe-in for the number 3 jersey on the Lions tour.
Sean Maitland has had an up-and-down couple of years. Since touring with the Lions while at Glasgow, he has been in and out of the Scotland squad courtesy of injuries and poor form in a struggling London Irish squad. Now at Saracens, he is getting back to top form and had a great performance against Ireland. Though his chances in attack were limited, he chased kicks well and made 2 try-saving interventions, with an interception of Jamie Heaslip stopping a dangerous break and a tackle on Rob Kearney denying Keith Earls a try. His interventions are as important as the tries scored and Laidlaw’s kicks. Many wingers these days are fantastic attacking threats, but lack the ability or the will to get back and defend effectively. When you’re the only player on the pitch wearing luminous yellow boots, you need to play well; Maitland did exactly that on Saturday.
England 19 – 16 France
I was at work on Saturday and rushed home to make sure I didn’t miss the England game. I might as well have not bothered. This was the worst English performance I can remember since the World Cup debacle. Granted, injuries have robbed the squad of some top players, but the players left did little to impress. In the absence of the Vunipola brothers, there was limited success up front, and when the ball got to the backs, the decision was often to kick downfield or take contact. Not a single player in white made over 100 metres. Nathan Hughes has unfortunately not yet managed to have the same impact for England as he has for Wasps, but did seem to be improving as the match went on. When the subs came on, including the physical James Haskell and Ben Te’o, England suddenly looked much more dangerous, and eventually scored their only try of the game. It will be interesting to see how much Eddie Jones looks to change for the trip to Cardiff.
In contrast to England, France had the ultimate strike runner in Louis Picamoles. It is not often that a player on the losing team will win Man of the Match, but the Northampton number 8 was the clear – if not only – option for the award. His strong running helps France make big yards, and his ability to find an offload out of the tackle can cause problems for even the greatest defence. The quality of number 8s in the tournament is very good, but I fully expect King Louis to make my team of the tournament, and it also wouldn’t surprise me if gets named Player of the Tournament.
Italy 7 – 33 Wales
Much like England, the Welsh attack really struggled to get firing on Sunday afternoon. Whether it is that they are struggling to figure out the style of play they want, or were taking aback by the strong start from the Italians, it wasn’t until the second half that Wales started to look dangerous. Even then, it required the loss of Italian prop Andrea Lovotti to the sin bin before they started to get across the try line. In the pack, Ross Moriarty and Justin Tipuric had quiet games by their own standard, and with George North looking to be struggling with a leg injury for most of the game there was no-one really picking up the slack to get the Welsh attacking on the front foot. Dan Biggar is a very reliable fly half, but he is not the sort of player that will get an attack firing without front-foot ball. Credit where it’s due, Sam Davies appeared to improve the attack when he came on a half time. If Biggar recovers from the rib injury that forced him off in time for the England game, it will be interesting to see who gets the nod to start at 10. If this tournament ends up being as close as early results suggest, the lack of a bonus point against Italy could prove damaging to Welsh hopes of winning the title.
Having gone in 7-3 up at half time, there were thoughts that Italy had finally turned a corner. Though they had limited possession in the first half, they took their chances and arguably deserved their lead, courtesy of Edoardo Gori’s try and Calo Canna’s conversion. Unfortunately the second half was a much more familiar tale, with a number of infringements giving the Welsh territory and points on the board, before Lovotti’s sin binning opened the floodgates in the Italian defensive line. Conor O’Shea may have had a point when talking about the referee’s perception of the team. Italy conceded 16 penalties to Wales’ 5, but there were some decisions from referee JP Doyle that were understandably questioned by fans on twitter, most notably the penalty against Braam Steyn for what appeared to be a textbook dump tackle on Moriarty, or the decision to tell Rhys Webb that if he appealed for a penalty again he would be the one penalised… Only to allow him to continue doing so for the rest of the game, and in fact penalize Sergio Parisse for doing exactly that later in the game! While I’m not saying there was a bias in the refereeing, there does appear to be a perception that Italy are an ill-disciplined team, much in the same way that Pacific Islanders are perceived to be more at risk of sanctions under the new tackle directives. When playing a Tier 1 team, it is enough of a challenge to match the level of the opponent’s play, without also having to fight a preconceived idea of how you will play.
Did I miss anything? Want to give your opinion on anything I’ve mentioned? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge