So most rugby fans are probably waking up with a hangover today. I’m sure plenty of England fans will have been drinking to forget the day’s action, while the Scots will probably declare a national holiday following their Calcutta Cup victory – which I can imagine many fans in other countries celebrated too! Elsewhere in the tournament, France’s victory in Marseille all but assures Italy will finish with the wooden spoon, while Ireland are now the only team able to win the Grand Slam following their victory over Wales.
France 34-17 Italy
We are far from having a great French team right now but there are certainly some good signs going forward. Mathieu Barstareaud may not look like your conventional centre but deserved the Man of the Match award in this game. His physicality in attack brought good ground and made space for the men outside of him – just watch Hugo Bonneval’s try again and see how important his part is in that. Remy Grosso looked very dangerous on the left wing and I look forward to seeing more of him in the current weeks. While I don’t think he was better than Bastareaud in this game, Yacouba Camara impressed me at 7 and I think he will do a great job helping the team get front-foot ball. While these guys impressed against Italy, I am still not being won over by Lionel Beauxis at 10. He has undoubted quality but no consistency, then will occasionally do something that nobody seems to expect (not in a good way). Sebastien Vahaamahina continues to concede penalties and I’m surprised that he has not yet received a yellow for persistent offending. It may be indicative of the numerous changes Jacques Brunel is making each week but there was very little resembling teamwork from the French team and it cost them inside the Italian 22 and stopped them earning a bonus point.
Much like the French, Italy are another team in the middle of a rebuild and with an number of relatively new players. I talked about Tommaso Boni and Sebastian Negri following Round 1 and they have continued to impress throughout the tournament – Negri especially growing into his role within the XV. Another player who has really impressed is fullback Matteo Minozzi. The Zebre 15 may look tiny next to many of his fellow players, but has looked electric in the 6 Nations and followed up his try in Round 2 with another on Friday night. As well as that he appears to have a good rugby brain judging by his recognition that a kick downfield was a better option than trying to run the length of the field following a turnover on their own line and recognised the opportunity for a quick 22-dropout, only to be cynically stopped by Benjamin Fall (who should have really received a yellow for this). He also has very good tackle technique when covering a break wide, as showed when he shepherded Grosso towards the touchline and then took him low around the legs to take him into touch. However like the French, I have not been impressed by the men controlling the game for Italy. Marcello Violi often seems to take his time behind the ruck and this gave the French defence time to reorganise and in some cases counter-ruck to turn the ball over, and I don’t think Tommy Allan has done enough with the number 10 shirt. With the wooden spoon 99% confirmed for another year I think O’Shea should restore Edoardo Gori to the starting lineup (provided his late injury wasn’t serious) and look at Carlo Canna or Ian McKinley at fly half.
Ireland 37-27 Wales
Considering Ireland lost 3 British and Irish Lions heading into this game (Furlong, Henderson and Henshaw) this was arguably their best performance in the tournament so far. Chris Farrell may have been making his 6 Nations debut on only his third cap, but he looked assured from the off against the Welsh. A starting back row of O’Mahony, Leavy and Stander (with Conan on the bench) shows just how strong the Irish are in this area that they can deal with missing Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien and Josh van der Flier. Jacob Stockdale has been so impressive for the national team and continues to score tries at an average of about 1 per game, while Keith Earls could have had a couple of tries had the forwards not got white line fever. Johnny Sexton had an awful day off the kicking tee, but some of his play with ball in hand was sublime and helped remind me just how good a player he is. They have 2 huge matches to come at home to Scotland and away at England, but if they continue in this vein the Grand Slam is a real possibility.
“I will be very interested to see what happens when the usual starters are available again: how many of them will get straight back in the team and whether the style of play shifts back to what we have become used to seeing.” – Eyes On: 6 Nations 2018 – Round 1
We got the first look at Wales with some of their stars coming back this week as Liam Williams and Dan Biggar returned to the squad for the first time in this year’s tournament. It wasn’t great viewing. Dan Biggar is a very good fly half so this is nothing against him, but his playing style does not easily fit with the Scarlets-esque style of play that Wales have been going for in recent weeks. Once Biggar was replaced by Gareth Anscombe the Welsh attack appeared much more dangerous. The general consensus between my mates and I was that dropping Rhys Patchell from the 23 the moment Biggar was back was a giant kick in the ball-sack considering how well he had played on the whole both for Scarlets and in the first 2 rounds of the tournament, it seems clear now that he will not get a fair shot at the Welsh squad while Gatland and Howley are in charge. Biggar’s big features for Wales (besides his experience) are his goal kicking – which is dealt with by Halfpenny anyway – and his work under the high ball which is already covered by Halfpenny and Williams. Patchell and Asncombe bring more to the Welsh game so I think the team would benefit from one of them starting, with Biggar on the bench able to come on and help see a game out with his territorial kicking or to take over goal kicking duties if Halfpenny is removed.
Scotland 25-13 England
Let’s start witht he positives here: Scotland were great! Finn Russell bounced back from a couple of bad games to win the Man of the Match award against the Auld enemy. John Barclay and his pack dominated their opposite numbers and stopped the England backs getting front-foot ball, while often winning turnovers when England did make ground. Huw Jones is a player that I have rated ever since he came on the scene for Scotland and he just seems to get better as he gets more international experience. With an eye for the gap and a great combination of pace and strength he has almost everything you want in a 13. I would argue that Jones is quickly becoming one of the best outside centres in the world and I look forward to watching him more over the next few seasons.
*Sigh* As an England fan, I’ve put off writing this for as long as I can. It is not easy having to relive last night, but it needs to be done. I can’t remember the last time that I was so disappointed by and England loss. I have no problem with England losing to a team that were better on the day, but they did not seem up for it at all! I hate to accuse the players of this as I doubt it was really the case, but it was as if the players were going through the motions and not playing with any heart! The first half especially was embarrassing and looked as if the players thought they were still in a training session against Georgia rather than a 6 Nations match. Support men were too often too far behind the man with the ball and when they were there they just leaned onto a ruck like you expect in junior rugby rather then clearing the man out or creating a strong bridge (something drilled into the minds of us Pistol Shrimps by Mr Mike Gledhill). If you want one moment that summarised the England performance, you just need to look at the final seconds of the game. Anthony Watson – who did a wonderful job of reminding me why I’ve never been sold on him defensively – reached out a lazy hand to catch a pass a bit far in front of him, only to knock the ball on into touch. Minimal skill, minimal effort… another England error. Hopefully this will be the kick up the ass that gets the team going again, it will be interesting to see what changes (if any) Eddie Jones makes for their trip to France. Personally, I would love to see Te’o brought in at 13 as his physicality will help the backs if the forwards are struggling to generate quick ball, while also replacing Watson with the more well-rounded Jack Nowell. Hughes looked good on his return but if Sam Simmonds is available for Le Crunch I would find a way to get them both in the starting lineup by playing 3 specialist back rowers and moving Courtney Lawes to the second row or the bench. I would also replace Richard Wigglesworth on the bench with Dan Robson as much like Biggar for Wales, I don’t think his playing style suits what England are trying to do, whereas Robson could easily push for a starting place if given fair chance. It wouldn’t surprise me though if Jones goes for the same 23 again with any changes being due to players returning or being unavailable through injury.
6 Nations table and Round 2 fixtures are from the 6 Nations website: www.sixnationsrugby.com