Though it may not have been as high scoring as in recent years, Round 5 of the 2017 6 Nations left us with a lot to talk about. From Scotland shutting out Italy in Vern Cotter’s last game in charge to Ireland denying England consecutive Grand Slams, all via a stunning 100 minute marathon in Paris.
England’s first loss under Eddie Jones may have denied them the Grand Slam, but they still ended the evening lifting the 6 Nations trophy, having been confirmed as winners a week earlier. There was still plenty to play for further down the table, with 2nd to 5th place still up for grabs and, more importantly, places in World Rugby’s rankings ahead of May’s World Cup draw.
Now that the dust has settled on the tournament for another year, here are my thought on the final day of matches.
Scotland 29 – 0 Italy
They may be 2 of the most exciting players in the tournament, but there have been questions about Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg’s ability to control a game. Though it may not have been against the best of opposition, they certainly took control of the game with their kicking for territory in wet conditions. There was nobody on the pitch more influential than these two, with 2 try-saving tackles from Hogg and many of the tries being scored or assisted by one of them – I’m sure Hogg will try to claim an assist for Matt Scott’s try – as well as 3 conversions from Russell and a monster penalty from Hogg to open the scoring. When these two guys are on fire, Scotland will be hard to beat. Hogg is the popular pick for the Lions 15 jersey and, though he may not make the Test squad, I can imagine that Russell will be joining him in New Zealand this summer.
Once again I found myself watching Italy struggle to perform and found myself reminiscing of the players they have had in the past that they are clearly missing now. I focussed on the forwards last week so will let them off the hook this time (though Ornel Gega needs to massively improve his consistency at the line out) and talk about the backs. Though I feel Edoardo Gori and Carlo Canna are the half back pairing to see Italy through to the World Cup, Canna seemed to lose his confidence off the back of 3 missed penalties that an international kicker really can’t afford to be missing. Between the kicking performances of Canna and Tommy Allan the last 2 weeks, Italians must be looking back favourably on the kicking of former winger Mirco Bergamasco, whose unconventional style helped them pull off some big results in the past. Luke McLean has not seemed as impressive at inside centre as he used to in the back 3, and it felt like they missed him in that area. Giovanbattista Venditti struggled all day under the high ball – which Russell took full advantage of – and fullback Edoardo Padovani fumbled a couple of relatively simple balls at crucial points… something he has done in a number of matches this tournament. Angelo Esposito twice had chances to score in the corner but was unable to finish either chance. Granted, he was forced to check his run due to a bad pass on the first attempt, but I still feel that an international winger should be finishing at least one of these chances. Outside of the half-backs and Campagnaro, there do not seem to be any players stepping up to replace the likes of Bergamasco, Andrea Masi and Gonzalo Garcia. This needs to change soon, otherwise the calls for relegation will just continue to grow.
France 20 – 18 Wales
I had real sympathy for Wayne Barnes as the clock ticked its way through 20 minutes of added time. With player safety so important in this day and age I don’t want to outright call the team medic a liar in his decision that Uini Atonio needed a HIA, but it was suspicious to say the least. Barnes has shown in the past that he values the wellbeing of players and having seen the medic speaking to him, he was quick to check Atonio was OK, being told by the prop that he had a ‘sore back’. And yet one reset scrum on the Welsh try-line later, the medic was running on declaring he needed a HIA, allowing Rabah Slimani (a better scrummager) to come back on. It’s arguable that Barnes could have awarded a penalty try in the 96th minute with the Welsh collapsing a scrum the French had the ascendency in, but I wonder if Barnes chose not to award this due to the dubious circumstances surrounding Slimani’s return. This feels very much like the 2017 equivalent of the Bloodgate scandal so it is very good to see officials are looking into this. Maybe future games should have a neutral medic who makes the calls on HIAs, to ensure that player safety is still paramount, but also not being used as an excuse or a tactical substitution.
During the Autumn Internationals, the big talk was about Wales changing their style of play under Rob Howley, but has this really worked? The Welsh defence has been typically solid – they did hold the French out for over 25 minutes on their 5m line – but the attack has not really stepped forward in the way that fans would have hoped. Against a French team that was ripped apart in midfield by the Irish just a few rounds ago, the Welsh had to rely on the boot of Leigh Halfpenny and rarely looked like scoring a try. Players like Dan Biggar and Jamie Roberts are quality performers, but their style of play suits the old Warrenball tactics rather than the more expansive game that Howley is trying to encourage. Meanwhile Jonathan Davies, so often in contention for being named the best 13 in the tournament, looked a shadow of the player that we have seen in recent years. Regardless of whether Biggar is selected for the Lions this summer, maybe it is time to give Sam Davies a chance to start. With Halfpenny there for the goal kicking, there is less pressure on Davies and he would be able to focus on his natural open game, which could help the Welsh change their style of play in the way they want.
Ireland 13 – 9 England
What a result for Ireland! Already missing Conor Murray and Rob Kearney after a devastating loss to Wales, when the news went out that Jamie Heaslip was a late withdrawal I thought that any chance of an Irish victory was gone. But the replacements stepped up well with Kieran Marmion and Peter O’Mahony being among Ireland’s top performers and Jared Payne also having some big moments. As a rugby fan, it was great to see O’Mahony back in the starting lineup as he is a great talent and consistently puts it all on the line for both club and country. Jamie Heaslip has been the de facto number 8 for the national side for donkeys years, but with Sean O’Brien, O’Mahony, CJ Stander & Josh van der Flier (many of who are able to play multiple positions in the back row) among his rivals for a place in the Irish back row, we may be reaching the end of Heaslip’s time in the Irish jersey.
18 wins on the bounce… Unbeaten under Eddie Jones… It had to end sometime for England! The writing has been on the wall for the team all tournament, with the ‘finishers’ delivering the great escape against France and Wales and their game against Scotland being the only real 80 minute performance. As much as I would have loved back-to-back Grand Slams, I don’t think this England team would have really deserved it this season. Hopefully the loss will make the coaches look critically at the lineup ahead of the summer tour. Dylan Hartley’s early removal in games suggests that his days as captain may be numbered. If he goes on the Lions tour, it would not surprise me if Jamie George’s performances in his absence earn him the number 2 shirt. The balance in the back row did not look right for much of the tournament, with the Irish dominating us there on Saturday evening, though this probably wasn’t helped by Billy Vunipola not looking 100% fit. Jonathan Joseph, fresh off a hat-trick against Scotland, was back to the anonymity of the first 2 rounds. Mike Brown is still a very reliable fullback, but does not really bring much to the England attacking performance any more. If Elliot Daly is not selected for the Lions, then I feel this summer would be the perfect chance to try him at 15, where his pace, handling and monster left boot could take England to a new level.
What were your thoughts on Saturday’s matches? Want to give your opinion on anything I’ve mentioned? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge