Week 3 of the 6 Nations was the week of the home teams. Scotland managed their first win against the Welsh in a decade, Ireland continued their unbeaten run at home in the tournament against France and England overcame some early struggles to beat an inventive Italian team. With just 2 rounds left, England remain on course to defend their title, with remaining opponents Scotland and Ireland the only teams who could dethrone them.
I would usually stick to just 6 thoughts from the weekend’s action, but I felt that the performance of a couple of the Scottish players required a special mention. With this in mind, here are my thoughts from Week 3.
Scotland 29 – 13 Wales
Wales may have deserved their lead at half time, but it doesn’t mean that they were playing great. Their physical defence was halting the Scottish in their tracks but the attack was rarely looking that dangerous, with Liam Williams’ from Rhys Webb’s quick-tap penalty one of the few stand-out moments. The Welsh had made a clear decision to keep the ball off the floor, offloading on many occasions, not always when the opportunity was actually there. If Jonathan Davies’ offload to Webb had been collected cleanly, then this result could have been very different, but too many offloads were forced and resulted in turnovers.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only one thinking that Scotland could struggle without top players like Sean Maitland, Josh Strauss and captain Greig Laidlaw. Things certainly weren’t helped by the forced removal of John Hardie for the second game in a row. However, the Scots kept themselves in contention in the first half, before scoring 20 points without reply in the second half. With scrum-half Ali Price making his first start at this level, there was a lot of extra pressure on Finn Russell to marshal the team in Laidlaw’s absence. It’s safe to say he stepped up to the task, controlling the back line as part of a Man of the Match performance. He also showed that he is an international quality kicker with a 100% success rate on his 7 attempts.
As someone who used to play prop, I’ve been impressed with how Zander Fagerson has performed so far in the tournament. At only 21 years old, the injury to WP Nel has meant Fagerson is having to learn international rugby on the fly. Though he has struggled against some of the stronger scrummagers, his work rate has been impressive and it has been good to see him complete the full 80 minutes twice in this tournament already, something that is rarely seen of an international prop.
Ireland 19 – 9 France
Conor Murray is surely the favourite to start at scrum-half in the Lions Tests. Regardless of who plays at fly-half, he can always be relied upon to pull the strings and control the game. He has one of the best all-round games of all the Home Nation’s scrum-halves, with a good pass and a strong kicking game, which he used to devastating effect in his Man of the Match performance this weekend. He may not be as lively round the park as his Welsh rivals, but give him a ruck on the try-line and the chances are that he will be strong enough to push over for a try. I have some real sympathy for his replacement Kieran Marmion, as Murray is such an important part of the team it is rare to see him come off much before the 70 minute mark.
As impressive as Ireland were on Saturday, I feel that France were the architects of their own downfall. Johnny Sexton is well-known for looping outside his centre to get the ball back and help generate an overlap. To watch the French defence, you’d think he’d never tried it before. Gael Fickou and Remi Lamerat were frequently caught out by this ploy, allowing the Irish to quickly make their way downfield. Despite this, they still lost by only 10 points, but just a couple of moments could have changed the game if they were replayed differently. After a period of concerted pressure on the Irish try line, Yoann Huget collected a cross-field kick just short of the line. With the outside defender committed, a quick pass to the looping Scott Spedding would have resulted in a try. However Huget cut back inside and in the resulting play, Fickou just knocked the ball on while trying to collect it. With the score at 7-6 early in the second half, Louis Picamoles attempted a pick and go off the back of a scrum right in front of the posts, but Nigel Owens penalised Baptiste Serin for a pull back on Conor Murray that even a blind man could blatantly see. These 2 brain-fades cost the French a swing of at least 8 points, a different outcome at either of these moments could have given them the momentum to go on and win the game.
England 36 – 15 Italy
2 weeks ago, Italy put in an embarrassing display as they were routed by the Irish. Though they left Twickenham with nothing, the performance from the team was so much better. Full credit to the coaching staff who completely outwitted the English with their decision to employ ‘the Fox’ at the breakdown. I know many people – including Eddie Jones and Matt Dawson – did not like this tactic, but as someone who has seen it performed by teams as far back as 2012, I thought it was brilliant to watch. To successfully perform that tactic, the team’s discipline has to be at a very high level, so I was impressed that Italy only conceded 3 penalties (by my count) when doing this. England were completely rattled in the 1st half but started to deal with it after half time. It was great to see Italy try something different (but completely legal) to win the game. The only disappointment that I had with this was that they didn’t appear to have a Plan B for once England eventually figured out how to counteract the tactic, as it is something that is very easy to deal with once a team has identified what is going on. I can guarantee the French will be spending some time devising a plan to deal with this ahead of the next game.
Some players are so good, you just can’t leave them out of your starting team, so have to find a way to fit them in, even if it’s not in their regular position. Elliot Daly is fast becoming one of those players. A regular at 13 or 15 for Wasps, he’s got a left boot that is capable of both cultured nudges and also long-range drives. He has impressive handling skills and on the whole his defending is of a high enough level to not be found wanting at international level. He may not be Usain Bolt, but he’s fast enough to have made his home on the wing for England so far in this tournament. He has a good work rate both in attack and defence, as seen by his attempt to get back and stop Michele Campagnaro’s try and his race to score a second try that was only denied by a last second intervention from Carlo Canna, and is always looking to chase kicks and compete in the air when possible. Whilst he may be performing well, I don’t see him staying on the wing for England long-term, as I expect him to either move inside to 13 or follow a similar route to All Black Ben Smith and replace Mike Brown as full back, as neither Jonathan Joseph nor Mike Brown has set the world alight so far in this tournament.
Did I miss anything? Fan of the Fox? Want to give your opinion on anything I’ve mentioned? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge