Week 4 saw the teams who will finish top and bottom of the table confirmed, with England’s victory over a hobbled Scotland side confirming them as champions and Italy’s loss to France guaranteeing them the wooden spoon. Everything is all to play for in between, with just 1 point the difference between 2nd and 5th.
As we begin to prepare for Super Saturday on March 18th, here are my thoughts from Round 4 of 2017’s 6 Nations.
Wales 22 – 9 Ireland
Friday night’s game was a tale of 2 scrum-halves. Ireland’s control of the game began to disappear after Conor Murray’s arm injury, but Rhys Webb ran the show for Wales. Where Murray pulls the strings, Webb makes things happen with his support runs and his sniping around the breakdown. His support line and his long pass to Leigh Halfpenny were instrumental in George North’s first try and he expertly guided the maul before drawing in Simon Zebo to put North over for his second. He needs to work on his discipline a bit, having conceded silly penalties in consecutive games, but will certainly be going to New Zealand with the Lions this summer. He could even get the starting job if Warren Gatland decided that he prefers his playing style to that of Murray’s. If nothing else, it’s good to see him getting a run of games in the Welsh shirt after a number of injuries in the last few years.
In the last round, I discussed how a couple of poor decisions seriously hampered the French’s chances of victory. Robbie Henshaw proved that again this week. I feel for him, he is a very reliable player in the Irish midfield and doesn’t make too many mistakes, but the ones he made on Friday night were costly. His entrance to the maul was not from the back foot, so what looked to be a certain try instead became a penalty – hats off to Wayne Barnes for making and feeling confident enough to not involve the TMO. He also picked up a ball from an offside position after a knock-on from a colleague deep in the Welsh 22. As if cancelling out a definite try was not bad enough, both these offences allowed the Welsh to clear their lines and left Ireland with nothing to show for their efforts.
Italy 18 – 40 France
The Italian team of the last 2 weeks has been almost unrecognisable to the one that played in the opening 2 rounds. Italy combined timely use of their no-ruck tactic and wheeling attacking mauls to try to nullify the strength of the French pack. This is clearly a team benefitting from the minds of coaches Conor O’Shea, Brendan Venter and Mike Catt, but there is still plenty of room for improvement. They still fall off far too much as the game goes on and fell off far too many tackles (33%) during the match. Campagnaro looked dangerous when given a chance, but he was underutilized and the way he was holding his arm when going off did not look promising for the next round. Unfortunately the dominant pack that Italy have been able to boast in the past has been reduced by retirement to many of its most influential players (Castrogiovanni, Lo Cicero, Bortolami, Bergamasco etc.), their replacements need to step up soon to allow the team to build their game around a reliable set piece once again.
France’s greatest strength all tournament has been the power of their pack. While the Italians were able to nullify this at the line out by wheeling the maul to one side, the true power of the pack came to the fore in the scrums, as Italy were constantly pushed backwards. This, combined with the strong running of players like Louis Picamoles and Guilhem Guirado helped to get Les Bleus on the front foot and allowed the back line to attack a defence that was still retreating. Their dominance at the scrum has been there all tournament, and their impact in open play has been improving as the weeks have gone on. Historically strong performers following a Lions tour, this is a team that could be pushing for the title in 2018.
England 61 – 21 Scotland
Finally, we got a first half performance from England! Nathan Hughes put in his best performance of the tournament, and his teammates in the back row and second row joined him in making their presence known against the Scottish defence. It’s no real surprise then to see that finally with some quick ball, Ben Youngs looked like the man who was named Player of the Series in the Autumn and the entire back line, most notably George Ford and Jonathan Joseph, looked the best they had all tournament. Though Scotland’s defence will have been affected by the reshuffle due to injuries, many of England’s best attacks came through a midfield that was unchanged, with a myriad of running lines from the backs causing havoc for the Scots. It’s fair to expect that Billy Vunipola will be back in the starting line-up for the Grand Slam game against Ireland, so it will be interesting to see if the backs can perform to the same level again.
You can’t help but feel sorry for Scotland. 2 weeks of preparation for their best shot of a victory at Twickenham in years, only for the game to be over as a competition within 15 minutes. Fraser Brown’s early yellow card rattled the Scots and put the at an immediate disadvantage. Soon down by 2 tries and with a makeshift back line following early injuries to superstar fullback Stuart Hogg and his replacement Mark Bennett (Scotland have had awful luck with injuries this season), Scotland’s chances of getting anything from the game were all but gone, especially with England in such clinical form. Fair play though to captain John Barclay refusing to blame injuries for the team’s performance when interviewed after the game, but you’ve got to imagine that it will have impacted the performance. What really impressed me is the way that the team didn’t give up and continued to push on for the full 80 minutes. I feel that this was a clear argument in favour of bonus points, as even with victory impossible, the Scots continued to push on for a 4-try bonus point. The chance of a bonus point – not to mention Scottish pride – helped the team to keep going and helped keep the game entertaining as a spectacle for the neutrals.
Do you think I missed anything? Want to give your opinion on anything I’ve mentioned? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge