The Grand Slam dream is over for Wales in 2018 as they leave Twickenham with a losing bonus point following a tight, enthralling and controversial encounter. Following their victory against the Italians, Ireland and England are the only teams still able to go unbeaten but they cannot start eying up their Round 5 showdown yet as they each have 2 more games to win first. Meanwhile Scotland got their 6 Nations back on track with a win against the French, who currently join Italy as the only winless teams after 2 rounds.
Ireland 56-19 Italy
I wonder how Ireland will react to the loss of Robbie Henshaw, who will likely be out of the tournament with a shoulder injury. Though I was not sure about the balance of the midfield in Round 1, I thought he and Aki were starting to work better and rebuild on their chemistry from Henshaw’s Connacht days. With Henshaw out, they have a couple of ways that they could replace him against Wales:
- Dual Playmakers – take a leaf out of England’s book and copy the Ford/Farrell axis by playing either Ian Keatley or Joey Carbery in the centre. This would improve the distribution options in the backline and as it is something that Ireland have not really done recently, the extra playmaker may help to catch out a Wales team expecting 2 physical centres.
- Safe options – bring in either Chris Farrell, Rory Scannell or Fergus McFadden as Aki’s centre partner. This would allow the Irish to continue with the same sort of gameplan, and while Farrell and Scannell are in the squad as centres, McFadden’s international experience (he has 33 caps compared to the combined 19 caps combined for the 4 players mentioned as options so far) could give him the advantage, though Farrell’s physicality could be crucial against Wales’ strong midfield.
- The returner – Garry Ringrose is close to a return from injury and if everyone was available and fully fit he would probably be the 13 of choice. However I see this as an outside bet as coming into a clash against Wales is a big ask for someone who has just returned from injury. I think Joe Schmidt would do better in the long term allowing him to ease himself back in during the tournament with Leinster.
- The switch – as well as just being a damn good winger for Munster and Ireland, one of Keith Earls’ best features is his versatility as he is comfortable at either wing or centre. Earls moved into the 13 position following Henshaw’s injury and while the defensive organisation did drop off a bit, 2 weeks of preparation would likely see to this. This could lead to a start for either Andrew Conway (who was man of the match against Fiji in the Autumn Tests) or the exciting Jordan Larmour, whose footwork against Italy was one of the highlights of the match. An improving Welsh team would be a big step up in quality for Larmour’s second cap, but the thought of him and Steff Evans attacking each other all day is mouth-watering.
I think that either McFadden or Farrell are the more likely options for Joe Schmidt, but it will be very interesting to see what the Kiwi chooses to do.
As with most Italy matches at the moment, there are clearly positives to take – they scored 3 tries against a team ranked in the top 4 in the world – but again there were negatives and clear areas to work on. The defence was bamboozled by some of the attacking lines from England in Round 1, but this week they were leaking some very disappointing tries. Obviously it is hard to defend effectively against interceptions like for Jacob Stockdale’s try and Robbie Henshaw’s second, but Henshaw’s first and Bundee Aki’s try were far too easy as they crashed over from close range taking the ball direct from Conor Murray on out-to-in lines. The defence was too busy looking inside and watching the ball rather than picking up the runners and that will prove costly against teams at this level. Scotland scored a similar try against France this weekend through Huw Jones, so I am sure they will be making notes on this Italian weakness ahead of their Round 5 fixture.
England 12-6 Wales
Whether at 10 or 12, you can always rely on Owen Farrell to put in a huge performance for England. Against Wales, Farrell was part of a miserly defence and shut down a number of attacks with well-timed tackles to cause knock-ons and also brought an end to Shingler’s attack and popped up with a key turnover deep in his own half to stop another Welsh advance. With ball in hand, he controlled the game so well, from his kick to set up Jonny May’s opener that got better every time you saw it, to his command of the phases in the build-up to May’s second and his willingness to take the big hit from Ross Moriarty as he floated the ball out to Joe Launchbury. It wasn’t just Farrell who controlled the game well, as George Ford pulled the strings well inside him while Danny Care looks to have really improved his box kicks and made almost all of them contestable for the chasers. Steff Evans is not the best in the air and Anthony Watson rightly dominated the air on that wing, while Jonny May also had some luck in the air on the left wing. England’s kicking game combined with their resolute defence won them the game and deserves a lot of credit. When even your Welsh mate is saying that, you know how well they’ve done!
Looking at the game as a whole, England probably deserved the win, but Wales could have very easily come away with the victory. They chose to kick a couple of penalties to the corner rather than go for goal and combined with Rhys Patchell’s miss, this could have been enough to put the scoreboard in their favour. They also created some great chances, with the tackle of the tournament from Sam Underhill the only reason Scott Williams didn’t get a try, while a questionable decision to kick from Aaron Shingler stopped another attack. And then of course there’s that TMO decision. The TMO decided that the try should not stand as though Steff Evans played the ball with his knee rather than his hand, Gareth Anscombe did not clearly ground the ball. Wrong on both parts! Anscombe clearly grounded the ball but actually Scrum V proved that the ball did in fact go forward off Evans’ finger. So the TMO got the right decision for the wrong reasons, though I would argue if we look at clear and obvious evidence then the try should be awarded – and that’s coming from an England fan! To lose a goal kicker as accomplished as Leigh Halfpenny so close to the match, it was always going to make things more difficult for Wales but the team stepped up well and came so close to a huge win at Twickenham. What they really need to work on though is their kicking game, as Gareth Davies continually kicked too long which made it easy for Mike Brown to win the high ball. They are so close to getting the results despite the number of players missing, Ireland will have to be very careful in Round 3.
Scotland 32-26 France
Gregor Townsend made a very brave call by replacing Finn Russell midway through the second half and moving Greig Laidlaw to fly half. Laidlaw started his Scotland career at 10 and played there on occasions for Gloucester, but he has very much become a 9, yet his performance after being shifted from 9 to 10 was exactly what Scotland needed. The Glasgow centre partnership of Peter Horne and Huw Jones looked much better than last week and the back row had a much better balance, but despite this, Russell struggled for the second week in a row, misjudging a number of kicks from hand and giving the French easy territory – though he did not seem disappointed whenever they showed him following a poor kick. He was also at fault for the first France try as he allowed Teddy Thomas to beat him to the outside 1v1 then fell off with a weak tackle attempt. Laidlaw controlled the game so well from 9 and 10 and was perfect off the tee, while Russell’s removal allowed Stuart Hogg’s monster boot to earn Scotland the territory whenever the French gave away a penalty outside Laidlaw’s range.
In the early scrums it looked like France were going to give the Scots a torrid time as the French front row got an early advantage over their less experience rivals, however they failed to capitalise on this and gain dominance at the set piece, while they continued in the same vein as last week by giving away a high number of penalties, especially as the half went on. Without the pressure of kicking, Lionel Beauxis had on the whole a good afternoon, however a few times when he was put under pressure we saw flashes of the fly half who once tried – and failed – to kick a ball passed to him on the volley, as he flicked on an awful pass to his captain and also put fullback Geoffrey Palis under heaps of pressure when he slipped a pass to him rather than clear under pressure on their own try line. Baptiste Serin and Louis Picamoles both looked assured from the bench and I will be interested to see if these performances help them get a starting spot for the game against Italy, but right now the French attacks are far too infrequent and they do not have the fitness to make it through the full 80 minutes. Their fixture with Italy on the 23rd is really looking like the battle for the wooden spoon. Right now, I would predict a French victory, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Italians pulled off the win.
Fantasy rugby images are from the ESPN Fantasy Rugby website: http://fantasyrugby.espn.co.uk
6 Nations table and Round 2 fixtures are from the 6 Nations website: www.sixnationsrugby.com