Congratulations to Ireland whose victory over Scotland wrapped up the 2018 6 Nations with a week to spare, winning their record 11th Test match in a row. They will be hoping to end the tournament with a Grand Slam on Saturday at Twickenham against an England team reeling from back-to-back losses to Scotland and now France. Meanwhile making 10 changes to the starting XV was not enough to deny Wales a bonus point victory over Italy, which leaves them 2nd in the table, a point above England.
Ireland 28 – 8 Scotland
Injuries have forced Ireland to test their depth at 13 this tournament, but things are looking very good for them there. Jared Payne will always be an option but still hasn’t played since the Lions tour, while an injury to Garry Ringrose led to Robbie Henshaw playing for the first 2 rounds until his own injury. Chris Farrell put in a man of the match performance against Wales, but injury ruled him out against the Scots and Ringrose was back just in time to take back the 13 shirt. You wouldn’t have thought the Leinster centre had just returned from injury with the way he played as he nullified Huw Jones for much of the game, while in attack he made a number of breaks. He is the heir apparent to Brian O’Driscoll’s 13 jersey both for Leinster and Ireland and when 100% fit will likely be one of the first names on the team sheet. The quality available in the centre means that Keith Earls can remain as a winger, opening up the depth in the back 3 despite the retirement of Tommy Bowe.
28-8 is not an accurate representation of the game. Though Ireland were arguably the better team, the match would have been a lot closer were it not for some timely errors from Scotland. The opening try was gifted to Jacob Stockdale through a horribly overthrown pass by Peter Horne, while Huw Jones did everything right to break through the Irish defence, only to get the pass horribly wrong when he and Stuart Hogg had a 2v1 against Rob Kearney. Hogg and Horne also both sent passes to Blair Kinghorn – who impressed on his first start – too high, denying them opportunities. There was a lot to be happy about in the Scotland performance, especially considering the number of players they have still missing or just returning form injury, but there is still improvement needed if Scotland want to be winning away from home and pushing for titles.
France 22 – 16 England
Not a stunning performance from France but they did what they had to in order to get the win. Their attack may not have been too flashy, but defensively they were very solid. Mathieu Bastareaud had another good game at 13 and fronted up well against Ben Te’o, while the entire team took a leaf out of Scotland’s books and caused England untold agony at the breakdown. They really need to cut out the stupid mistakes though, as Hugo Bonneval’s blind pass back infield almost put his team in trouble, while Lionel Beauxis gave England one last chance to win it at the death when he failed to find touch with a clearance following Luke Cowan-Dickie’s overthrown line out. If the French can continue to build as a squad while cutting out these stupid error, they will become a formidable team again.
Following Ireland’s bonus point victory over Scotland, it didn’t take a maths genius to calculate England’s hopes of winning the 6 Nations relied on bonus point victories in booth their remaining games. Yet England continued to kick their penalties at goal rather than touch, leaving them needing 4 tries in the second half. Barring a monumental collapse, that was not going to happen in Paris. As someone who has felt Dylan Hartley’s time in the 2 shirt has reached an end I hate to admit but there was no leadership from the players out there. Owen Farrell would have been my shout for the captaincy but did not appear to thrive in the role, while fellow starters Joe Launchbury, Chris Robshaw and Danny Care have all been club captains (Robshaw even has plenty of experience as England captain). Dan Cole and Courtney Lawes were also starters with over 50 caps, while Mako Vunipola and George Ford are also highly experienced internationals. Between the lot of them they should have been able to adapt to the game better. Hughes’ early injury would have been a blow to their plans but injuries happen and an international team should be prepared. I don’t want to come down too hard on this team as many have not had an ideal rest period following the Lions Tour due to the level of competition in the Premiership. It’s no real surprise that Elliott Daly and Kyle Sinckler looked two of the better players considering they have just had a chance to rest while recovering from injury and coming back from suspension! With the chances of victory gone I would love to see Eddie make a few changes against Ireland and rest a few regulars to give players like Kyle Sinckler, Denny Solomona, Don Armand and Luke Cowan-Dickie a chance to start.
Wales 38 – 14 Italy
Job done for Wales who got a bonus point win despite 10 changes to the starting XV, but that really doesn’t give a real idea of the game. They scored 2 tries in no time but one was poor Italian defending (more on that below) and the other came from an interception. Other than that, there was not much for the time to write home about in the first half and they can consider themselves lucky that Liam Williams only saw a yellow card for his hit on the impressive Matteo Minozzi. Wales have a habit of underperforming after making a high number of changes against a weaker team and this was no exception, and it was more poor play from the Italians that helped the Welsh to the win. Warren Gatland needs to be very careful when selecting his teams against supposedly weaker opposition, otherwise he could get left with egg on his face when a ‘lesser’ team turns them over and gets the result.
“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.”
I wrote the above following Bundee Aki & Robbie Henshaw’s tries against the Italians in Round 2, unfortunately, they do not seem to have sorted this yet and were once again weak either side of the ruck against Wales. The opening try from Hadleigh Parkes was another pass from the back of a ruck to a centre running out-to-in running line. The defence were too busy looking in at the ruck again and though they managed to attempt a tackle this time, their positioning was all wrong and led to Parkes spinning out of the contact and dotting down, while the attempted tackler had to go off with a head injury. Cory Hill’s try was also far too easy for international rugby as the Italian forwards were too slow to come out of the scrum and wrap around tot h far side of the ruck, making it easy for Hill to push over for a killer score while Wales were at a numerical disadvantage. There have clearly been some signs of improvement from the Italians when you consider the massive rebuild Italian rugby as a whole is currently going through, but they need to sort out such a glaring defensive issue soon or they will struggle to win many games.
6 Nations table and upcoming fixtures are from the 6 Nations website: www.sixnationsrugby.com