January 2019 in the Premier League

January 2019 in the Premier League

Hey guys, sorry for taking almost half of February to write this one, as I’m sure you can see from the amount of 6 Nations content, this is a busy time of year for me and that’s before I even take into account work and anything else going on in my life!

January saw the winter transfer window come and go with less excitement than in some previous years. While some teams were busy looking to improve on their season like with Chelsea bringing in Gonzalo Higuain and Newcastle breaking their transfer record to sign Miguel Almiron for £20m, some started planning for next year (Chelsea signed Christian Pulisic then loaned him back to Dortmund for the rest of the season), and some made no action at all, such as Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United. United continued their resurgence under Ole Gunnar Solskjær, going unbeaten in the league to close the gap on the teams above, while a 2-1 loss to Manchester City at the beginning of the month and a draw at home to Leicester reduced Liverpool’s lead at the top of the table.


Transfer talk

The January transfer window is far from easy. Swapping clubs halfway through a season can mean it takes a while for a player to bed into their new surroundings, while the club have likely signed them due to a pressing need for them to perform.

Alvaro Morata started his Chelsea career so well but then struggled to keep scoring the goals and this has led to Chelsea loaning him out t Atletico Madrid and bringing in Gonzalo Higuain on loan to replace him. While Higuain is clearly a talented player and has the experience of playing for Maurizio Sarri, but he has no experience of playing in the Premier League and at 31 years old it could be argued that his best years are behind him, so there is no guarantee that this move will have any more success than playing Morata. If Higuain does not work out as hoped, then they could be forced to once again rely on Eden Hazard leading the line, though it has been shown that playing him in the false 9 position is a detriment to his game and is not good enough to have consistent success in the league. I also feel surprised with the Pulisic signing as the playmaker positions (both out wide and centrally) are pretty well covered by Chelsea – to the point that England international Ruben Loftus-Cheek is not even a regular starter – whereas further forwards they are lacking that guaranteed quality to compete at the very top of the table.

A player who has made an immediate impact though is Ryan Babel for Fulham. The Dutchman has immediately improved the Fulham attack with his pace causing the Spurs defence serious issues in a 2-1 loss and a couple of his crosses leading to goals in the 4-2 comeback victory over Brighton. With a target man like Aleksandar Mitrović up front, you need quality wingers to get the ball in to him from wide positions and the former Liverpool man is doing exactly that.

One team who may be regretting some of their transfer activity is Liverpool, who allowed Nathaniel Clyne to go out on loan to Bournemouth. It is strange that he has so quickly fallen down the pecking order at Anfield but with Joe Gomez out injured long-term, Clyne was the clear backup to Trent Alexander-Arnold at right back. With him moving to the Vitality Stadium, it was Sod’s law that Alexander-Arnold would get injured, and that has left Liverpool playing a range of midfielders at the position, leaving them vulnerable in defence, as we saw when James Milner was tasked with defending against Wilfried Zaha, leading to a red card following 2 bookable offences.

Perhaps the best work in the transfer market this January belongs to Bournemouth and West Ham, who both managed to keep hold of star strikers Callum Wilson and Marko Arnautović respectively. Wilson is having a career-best year in the Premiership with 10 goals and also marked his England debut with a goal, but the rumour mill suggested a move to Chelsea was imminent. Personally, I think that he would have been a safer bet for Chelsea than Higuain (who had scored 8 goals in about as many games while on loan for AC Milan). I can’t help but wonder if a knee injury that led to a minor operation during January helped save the Cherries from losing their star striker. As for Arnautović, he has helped make West Ham’s attack look much more dangerous since moving into a central striker role and is one of their top scorers this season, but looked set for a move to China that looked all-but certain when he waved to fans following his substitution against arsenal and then didn’t feature against Bournemouth. However, he chose to stay and signed a new contract with the Hammers. A player of the Austrian’s ability, able to play up front and in a wider position, is such a big part of the team and would not be easy for West Ham to replace. It will be interesting to see if either of these players looks to move in the summer…


On borrowed time?

Following Chelsea’s 2-0 loss at Arsenal, Maurizio Sarri shocked people with a scathing attack on his players, saying that they lack motivation and determination. It was an interview that divided fans and pundits and while it initially led to a reaction – with a 2-1 win against Spurs seeing them progress to the Carabao Cup final on penalties and a 3-0 victory at Sheffield Wednesday putting them into the 5th round of the FA Cup – the next Premier League match was an unmitigated disaster as they lost 4-0 to a Bournemouth side that was missing start striker Callum Wilson. Since then, a 5-0 victory over Huddersfield will have barely started to paper over the cracks before 6-0 loss at Manchester City saw them drop to 6th in the table!

Sarri has such a talented squad and had a great unbeaten run at the start of the season, but now everything is falling apart. Despite their defensive issues, club captain Gary Cahill has barely featured this season in any competition and has apparently been barely spoken to by Sarri since his arrival, Callum Hudson-Odoi has barely featured yet was not allowed to leave with Bayern Munich keen to take him, there have been concerns over N’Golo Kanté being used in a more forward position than the holding role where he excels and the lead striker role has been a mess with neither Alvaro Morata or Olivier Giroud given a decent run of games or any confidence from the manager and Eden Hazard often wasted in a false 9 position when there is a legitimate striker on the bench.

The players may not have been at their best, but as we have seen with United this season, it is the manager’s duty to get them performing and if they cannot do so then they have no reason to be at the club. Roman Abramovich is not known to be patient with his managers and I will be shocked to see Sarri still in the role next season. With Chelsea currently on the worst run of form of anyone in the top 6, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him gone within the month unless performances and results improve considerably.


Another sad day

In what has been an exciting season of Premier League football, the 2018/19 season is one that will be looked back on with more than a hint of sadness. Following the terrible helicopter crash at Leicester that claimed the life of Leicester City chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha and 4 others, January saw the loss of Emiliano Sala after his plane went missing over the English Channel. The Argentine had just signed from Nantes to Cardiff for a club record fee of £15m on January 19th but his aircraft was declared missing on January 21st and the official search was called off on January 24th, though a privately funded search continued and found the wreckage of the plane on the seabed on February 3rd. A body was recovered on February 7th and identified as Salah, while pilot David Ibbotson is yet to be found.

This is yet another tragic story this season and my thoughts go out to the family and friends of both Sala and Ibbotson. As with the helicopter crash though, it was heart-warming to see the response of the wider footballing community, from players and pundits continuing to donate to the private search while Ibbotson remains unfound, to Arsenal including him on the programme’s team sheet when Cardiff faced them, with the image of a daffodil where his squad number would have been. Meanwhile Nantes plan to retire the number 9 shirt in his honour.

Unfortunately not all fans have reacted as well, with a pair of Southampton fans having been found to taunt Cardiff fans with plane gestures, but I am glad to see that Southampton acted quickly to ban those involved – hopefully forever!

Football, especially its fans, can have a bad reputation (I myself have been disgusted at fans actions in the past) but moments like this and the tragedy in Leicester show that there is still something to be proud of in this sport.


Top 6 prediction

  1. Liverpool
  2. Manchester City
  3. Tottenham Hotspur
  4. Manchester United
  5. Arsenal
  6. Chelsea

 

Eyes On: England v France – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: England v France – 6 Nations 2019

England returned to Twickenham looking to back up last week’s victory in Ireland with victory in Le Crunch against a French team who fell apart in the second half against Wales. If anyone was wondering before kickoff which French team would turn up and if England could continue to play like last week then they didn’t have to wait long, as Jonny May went over for a try within 2 minutes. The Leicester winger crossed for 2 more before the half hour mark and Henry Slade earned England the bonus point before half time, a Morgan Parra penalty and Damian Penaud try on the counter the only answer the French could muster. They couldn’t even manage a point in the second half while England extended their lead via Owen Farrell and a penalty try, to finish 44-8.

Amazing England

England’s performances so far this Six Nations are a light-year away from last year’s tournament. This time last year – or even potentially in the Summer and Autumn Tests – there were question marks over who would be the starter in a number of positions, especially the backs. Now, it is likely only injuries and players returning from injury that will alter that starting pack, while in the backs the lack of chance being given to Dan Robson suggests that Ben Youngs (who is finding his form again) will be the starting 9, the midfield combination of Farrell, Tuilagi and Slade look like they have been playing together far longer than 2 matches and Jonny May and Elliot Daly look nailed on in the back 3 with Chris Ashton and Jack Nowell likely fighting for the 14 shirt. Suddenly this team looks settled and firing on all cylinders and they look like they could be pushing for a World Cup semifinal again.

Against France, England continued the in your face defence that troubled Ireland, with Courtney Lawes managing to knock even Mathieu Bastareaud backwards, while the England attack added a new facet to its game this week by a pinpoint kicking game. Time after time they turned the French defensive live and sent the back 3 scrambling across the pitch with a cleverly placed kick, with 2 of May’s tries, Farrell’s try and the penalty try all coming directly from the kick chase, while it was a kick behind that put England on the French try line for Henry Slade’s try. They found a weakness in the French game and fully exploited it for the victory.

The worry for other teams must be that this team does not even yet appear to be at its dangerous best. Eddie Jones commented that they left 15-20 points on the field and I think that is a fair assessment as there were a few times in the second half that they appeared to force things too early rather than work an opportunity by going through the phases. They will also be disappointed by how easily Yoann Huget was able to break through out wide for Penaud’s try, but with 2 weeks now until they take on Wales (the only other team still capable of the Grand Slam) I’m sure they will be confident in their ability to take another step forward.

Headless cockerels

This France team has so many talented players, yet they have failed to do anything of real note in the last 3 halves of rugby now. If the second half capitulation against Wales (complete with the story that Sébastien Vahaamahina had been made captain following their substitutions) did not make the running of the teams already look like a shambles, then this week certainly did.

Wholesale changes were made with only a few due to injury, while both of France’s starting wingers were technically centres, so it is no real surprise England found it easy to catch them out of position in the kicking game. The French centres have such a range of playing styles (consider the difference between Bastareaud and last week’s starter Romain Ntamack), France cannot continue to play the same tactics from one week to another with completely different personnel. Morgan Parra was probably one of France’s best players in the opening 40 as he went to-to-toe with Ben Youngs in the tactical kicking game but he was replaced early in the second half by Antoine Dupont who arguably opened up gaps with his sniping around the fringes but did not have the ability to control the game and put France in the right areas of the pitch. Not only that but the French were throwing on their subs so early in the second half in an attempt to do something vaguely good, the whole thing smacked of desperation.

The French have a habit of getting things together just in time for the World Cup ready to put a strong run together, but honestly right now the thought of them even making it out of their pool seems laughable considering they will likely need to beat at least one of Argentina or England in order to do so.

Change is needed. Not just with the man in charge but the entire mentality. Half the squad cannot be changed each week or no chemistry will build up. If France can get consistency in their selection, they will be a real danger. Until then, they should consider 4th in the tournament a success.

Cool it down

Kyle Sinckler has firmly taken hold of the number 3 shirt for England, but he has to be careful. He has developed well as a scrummager and is a wrecking ball with deceptively good handling skills in the loose, but he does have to watch out for his temper.

Last week he did a great job of getting under Peter O’Mahony’s skin and rattling the Irishman, but this week he got himself in trouble after an incident where he appeared to try and rip the scrum cap off Arthur Iturria’s head. Sinckler appeared to be arguing that Iturria was the instigator with an action not seen on the replay, but regardless of this, Sinckler has developed somewhat of a reputation as a hot-headed player. Obviously I don’t want him to take away from his style of play, but he just needs to be careful to not get himself in trouble with the referee as a penalty (or worse, a card) at the wrong time could prove crucial in a match.

Eyes On: Italy v Wales – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Italy v Wales – 6 Nations 2019

Wales came to the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday looking for a record-equalling 11 consecutive victories. After being handed victory by the French last week, Warren Gatland chose to make 10 changes to his squad and it may have backfired as Braam Steyn scored the only try of the first half compared to 4 penalties from Dan Biggar, for a 7-12 halftime score. Wales improved again in the second half with tries from Josh Adams and Owen Watkin, while Edoardo Padovani scored late to make the final 5 minutes interesting but the Italians could not push on for a losing bonus point and Thomas Young had a try disallowed at the death, resulting in a 15-26 final score.

 

Too many changes

It’s a familiar tale for Wales under Warren Gatland: a match against a weaker opposition that everybody expects to be an easy victory result in a raft of changes to the starting lineup. The starting team put in a poor performance and struggle to pull away, leading to a bevy of early substitutions as the usual starters are forced to come on to save the game.

I felt that last week’s halfback partnership of Tomos Williams and Gareth Anscombe should have started again this week to get used to playing together at international level, but instead Dan Biggar was brought back in with Aled Davies at 9. Biggar did well off the tee but struggled to create anything in open play, while his kicking out of hand was poor at times with kicks going out on the full and one cross-kick to Josh Adams deep in the Wales half won by Padovani to put Wales under unnecessary pressure. Davies looked largely out of his depth and his hesitation at the back of the ruck and maul led to a couple of big turnovers for Italy.

Young and Josh Navidi did everything they could to win ball back and give the Welsh a platform to attack from, but the back line looked disjointed, likely due to the lack of time playing together as a unit, which limited the effectiveness of a dangerous back 3 (Josh Adams, Jonah Holmes and Liam Williams).

I understand wanting to get experience for the next players up and testing the depth of your squad, but this close to the World Cup it feels like there are some key positions that are not yet sorted and it means that the players are not playing together regularly enough to build up a chemistry. Not only that, but with bonus points now being part of the Six Nations, Wales have potentially put their position in the table at risk by failing to come away with 4 tries against Italy, which is something that I can see most teams doing.

Signs of improvement

Italy may be on a disappointing run of results in the Six Nations, but there are clear signs of improvement under Conor O’Shea. With so many influential players having retired over recent years, the Irishman has not just been working to improve the national team, but the whole of Italian Rugby. Things are clearly starting to improve in the domestic game with Benetton currently sitting 2ⁿᵈ in their Pro14 conference and 3 wins for Zebre, the U20s are on the up and bringing through talent for the national team, who are playing a much more attractive and well-rounded brand of rugby than they used to.

In the first half especially, their defence held strong and it was only moments of indiscipline that allowed Wales to get on the scoresheet. They scored the same number of tries as Wales, made 5 clean breaks to Wales’ 4 and on the day had a much more effective lineout. In recent years, they have found themselves falling off at the end of matches, the last 15 minutes was probably their best period of the game against Scotland last week and they held their own once again this week, with Padovani finishing off a well-worked try near the end.

There are still areas where they can improve, such as their discipline, their control of the game via the halfbacks, the scrum and their general depth of talent, but this is a team that is clearly going in the right direction and O’Shea should be commended for this.

Options in the back row

Arguably Italy’s star player in this game was openside flanker Braam Steyn. The South African-born Benetton flanker’s 24 metres from 12 runs was the most by an Italian forward, his 20 tackles was the most by any man on the pitch (next was Thomas Young – 15), he was one of the main targets in the lineout, won a couple of turnovers… oh and scored the opening try!

Jake Polledri’s injury has been a shame as it is a big loss to the Italian back row, but the back row of Steyn, Seb Negri and captain Sergio Parisse have played well and led by example. When Polledri is back from injury, I would love to see Conor O’Shea find a way to get all 4 of them into the starting XV, potentially by moving Negri into the second row to free up a spot for Polledri on the flank.

Will O’Shea do this, or will he choose to keep one of them as a impact player off the bench?

Eyes On: Scotland v Ireland – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Scotland v Ireland – 6 Nations 2019

Round 2 of the 2019 Six Nations kicked off on Saturday afternoon with Scotland’s second consecutive home match, this time at home to defending champions Ireland. The Scots came into this off the back of a win over Italy and started the better team, but 2 tries in quick succession gave Ireland a lead. Scotland pulled one back through Sam Johnson for a 10-12 halftime score, but the home team could not push on in the second half and Keith Earls finished off a Joey Carbery break to guarantee victory, 13-22 being the final score.

Missed chances

I have real sympathy for Scottish rugby fans as cheering for them is a roller coaster. Scotland created a number of chances against the Irish despite them defending well, but with the exception on Johnson’s try from a Finn Russell interception they were unable to cross the line.

One chance went begging when a Huw Jones pass went behind Tommy Seymour, causing him to check his run and give Jacob Stockdale time to get over and cover just short of the line. I’ve watched the chance a number of times and to me it is a matter of Seymour not holding his depth well enough, which is a poor error for an international winger of his experience.

Perhaps even worse was a decision to take a tap and go penalty 5m out with the Irish defensive line set, only to be turned over pretty much instantly. I understand that the penalty out wide was not necessarily a gimme for Greig Laidlaw and the lineout was clearly not functioning perfectly (it finished 7/10, likely hampered by the constantly changing cast of locks and back rowers due to injuries), but there must have been better options at that penalty than what they did.

While these were chances lost inside the Irish 22, there were also a number of attacks ended far too early by players trying to do too much as they chased the game rather than take the tackle and set up a ruck, while they were also let down at times by handling errors or silly penalties – while incredibly soft, Jonny Gray taking Sean O’Brien beyond the breakdown as Scotland had a chance to break down the right was unnecessary and stupid from a player that is one of the team’s leaders.

Scotland’s attack has come a long way in recent years and is looking good, but they need to start finishing more chances if they want to win regularly.

The understudy

After last weekend’s loss to England and with the Scots pressuring behind the gain line, losing Johnny Sexton after just a quarter of the match is the last thing Ireland will have wanted. The 2018 World Rugby Player of the Year has not looked at his best so far in this tournament and took a couple of hits early on that appeared to leave him struggling, but he did well to set up Jacob Stockdale for his try. Joey Carbery has been his international understudy for a few seasons now and has been playing very well of late for Munster, but he has had limited playing time against Tier 1 international teams.

This lack of experience appeared to show in the first half especially with Sam Johnson’s try, where his attempted pass to Rory Best was far too telegraphed and laid out on a platter for Russell to intercept. However he grew into the game in the second half and showed some of his Munster form for Earls’ try, recovering to take a poor bouncing pass from O’Brien, breaking through the tackles of Allan Dell and Rob Harley (who appeared to knock each other off the player), turn on the gas and run a line to draw in the winger, before throwing a wide pass to the now-available Keith Earls to score the third and final try.

With a week off either side of a trip to Italy, it will be interesting to see who gets given the number 10 shirt for the next match (assuming Sexton is fit). I would usually argue for picking Sexton for consistency and because 3 weeks without a match could see him off the pace against France in Round 4, but I think that with the World Cup just around the corner Carbery needs to have more time playing from the start to get used to controlling the game against fresh opposition at international level rather than coming on against a tired opponent.

Bish, bash, bosh

Last week, England pressured the Irish behind the gain line when defending and kept their defence on the back foot when attacking. Scotland tried to do similar this week but were unable to pull it off. The reason as far as I could see: the personnel.

Kyle Sinckler, the Vunipolas and Manu Tuilagi especially played such a big part in England’s highly physical approach last week, but the Scottish team did not have the players to pull it off. The back line especially does not have a crash ball runner like Tuilagi, instead focusing on a ball-playing centre pairing in Johnson and Jones with Peter Horne on the bench. In the forwards, Josh Strauss and Ryan Wilson are strong runners, but neither of them would be expected to have the impact of a Billy Vunipola (Strauss managed just 44 metres off 17 carries), while Wilson was replaced at halftime for the more defensive Rob Harley.

What impact does this lack of ball carriers have? It makes it harder to attack especially once they reach the opponents 22 as they do not have the players to punch it up down the middle and draw in the defence, making it harder for them to create the space to finish out wide.

Taking his chance

One player who has really impressed me over the first 2 rounds of the tournament has been Jamie Ritchie. Someone who probably wouldn’t have been starting were it not for Hamish Watson’s injury, Ritchie has really taken his chance so far. In this match, his 13 metres from 5 carries was bested by only Josh Strauss on the Scottish stats sheet, while in defence he completed 24/25 tackles and was a constant nuisance at the breakdown.

While the incredible raft of injuries in the back row is certainly hurting Scotland right now, when they get everyone back from injury Gregor Townsend will be spoiled for choice!

Eyes On: Ireland v England – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Ireland v England – 6 Nations 2019

Ireland kicked off their Six Nations campaign at home to England on Saturday, but it’s safe to say things didn’t go as planned for them. England came flying out the blocks and went ahead within 2 minutes through Jonny May, while tries from Cian Healy and Elliot Daly left the halftime score at 10-17. A second half brace from Henry Slade confirmed England’s victory, while Ireland got a late consolation through John Cooney for a final score of 20-32.

Welcome returns

It was great seeing Billy Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi back in the starting XV for England this weekend  and for me, it was one of the key reasons for their success. Often in recent matches, England have found themselves lacking the big ball carriers, which has often limited their attacking options. However having these two big names back, along with Mako Vunipola and Kyle Sinckler in the front row, gave the team a number of options when looking for the hard metres and this gave the attack a new edge where they could be attacking the Irish in a dumber of different ways.

Further than this, the added impetus from a couple of big names returning after so long could draw a big performance from the players around them, as happened in this game. Everyone stepped up in this match and did everything they could to deny the Irish even a foothold in the game. Johnny Sexton, Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose were quickly closed down every time they got the ball and it gave the players outside them very little decent ball to attack with.

Watching this game, I found the performance reminiscent of the win over New Zealand in 2012 under Stuart Lancaster. After a poor 2018, are things once again on an upwards trajectory for England?

Sorely missed

Though I wouldn’t say that his presence would have given Ireland victory, I really think Rob Kearney was missed this weekend. When it was suggested that Robbie Henshaw could start at 15 in the days leading up to Joe Schmidt’s team announcement, I scoffed at the idea considering how long it has been since he frequently played the position. I understood that with Kearney having just 1 appearance for Leinster under his belt since his return from injury meant he was unlikely to play, but I thought that we would see his deputy at Leinster, Jordan Larmour given the 15 shirt given his recent experience in the role.

Henshaw played a decent game, but he was put under heavy pressure which is exactly what you don’t want when playing in a position that you’re not 100% comfortable in. England continually had him running around his 22 trying to get to their kicks, which often found him finally getting the ball in a corner, close to his line, with a wall of white stopping him doing anything.

I can’t help wonder if Kearney’s presence would have helped as he is so good at getting himself in position ahead of time, it may have allowed him to deal with the England kicking game better. I think Kearney’s ability under the high ball would have been utilised too, as Elliot Daly was not tested in this area anywhere near as much as I expected given his performances in the Autumn Tests.

With a trip to Scotland (who will likely be fielding 2 recognised fullbacks in Stuart Hogg and Blair Kinghorn again) next weekend, it will be interesting to see if Henshaw keeps his place in the 15 shirt.

Unused

With just a couple of minutes left, and the game won, Eddie Jones brought on George Ford, Ellis Genge and Luke Cowan-Dickie from the bench. Now first off, I don’t understand why these changes were made with just a couple of minutes left as I doubt the players they replaced all got inured at the same point, but there was no time for them to have any impact on the match or really gain anything from the experience. And if he was just looking to give the players a cap, then why was Dan Robson left on the bench?

Gregor Townsend did something very similar in bringing on Adam Hastings with just a few minutes left, but besides getting players an extra cap, I don’t see what benefit it has for anyone!

Eyes On: Scotland v Italy – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Scotland v Italy – 6 Nations 2019

Scotland kicked off their 2019 Six Nations campaign at Murrayfield with the visit of Conor O’Shea’s Italy. Though they dominated territory and possession, they could only manage a 12-3 lead going into halftime, courtesy of a brace from Blair Kinghorn. But they came alive in the second half and Kinghorn finished his hat-trick, while Stuart Hogg and Chris Harris also crossed the line. Italy put on a late surge and following a yellow card to Simon Berghan, they scored 17 points in the final 10 minutes to give the final score a respectable look at 33-20.

Best men on the pitch

What a match for Blair Kinghorn! The Edinburgh star had a fantastic match and was well deserving of his hat-trick – Scotland’s first in the Six Nations! The crazy thing considering how accomplished he looked on that left wing is that his preferred position is fullback. Of course, with Stuart Hogg available (he also had a stunning performance), the 15 shirt is firmly taken, but I really like that Gregor Townsend is willing to find a way to play the pair of them in the team together and get his best players onthe pitch at the same time.

He is by no means the first man to do this. Liam Williams has regularly played on the wing for Wales to accommodate Leigh Halfpenny and Ben Smith has spent a large chunk of his New Zealand career shifting between the 14 and 15 shirts depending on who else has been selected in the back line.

Will Conor O’Shea also look at this in the future? With last year’s breakout star Matteo Minozzi missing this year, Jayden Hayward has the chance to show what he can do in this team. While he was not as much of an attacking threat, he was very solid in defence and also put in a couple of big kicks. I felt that Michele Campagnaro did well but received limited ball out on the wing, while he also defended quite narrow at times, likely due to much of his international career coming at 13. I felt that the centre pairing had a limited impact in attack – though I will give them another chance as it sounded as if they have been suffering with illness – so it will be interesting to see if O’Shea tries to work both Hayward and Minozzi into the team when the latter is available again.

Impressive debut

This match saw Glasgow centre Sam Johnson handed his international debut and it’s safe to say that he didn’t look out of place in the team. He combined well with Finn Russell and the rest of the back line and was involved heavily in working a number of attacks that maybe didn’t always get the finish they deserved.

What I did notice though is that the man outside him, Huw Jones, had one of his quieter Six Nations matches (not helping my fantasy team) and I wonder if having more of an all-rounder at 12 – compared to the more defensive Alex Dunbar or the distributor Peter Horne – takes away from his own game.

Of course, this is just one game and Johnson will come up against much tougher challenges than Italy, so it will be interesting to see how the midfield performs for the rest of the tournament.

Another man down

While Gregor Townsend won’t be happy with Italy’s late fightback, I think what will worry him more will have been the injury to Sam Skinner. The Exeter forward covers lock and flanker but limped off after just 15 minutes, having rolled his ankle.

With both the Gray brothers currently missing from the second row and the back row having to make do without Hamish Watson, John Barclay, Magnus Bradbury, David Denton, Matt Fagerson and Blade Thomson, the last thing Scotland can afford now is any more injuries in this area if they want a chance of winning the tournament.

Eyes On: France v Wales – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: France v Wales – 6 Nations 2019

The 2019 Six Nations kicked off in spectacular fashion on Friday night as Wales took a trip to Paris to take on the French. The Welsh came into the game on a run of 9 consecutive wins but did not adapt to the conditions in the first half and were thoroughly outplayed by a much better French team, who led 16-0 at half time. A try for Tomos Williams 6 minutes into the second half sparked a French collapse and George North capitalised on 2 mistakes to score twice and give the Welsh a 19-24 victory.

Typically French

It’s become cliché to say that you never know which France team will show up from week to week. They took it one step further last night by doing a 180⁰ turn in their performance at half time!

In the first half, Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez were playing the conditions to perfection by kicking for territory and daring the Welsh to play the ball away, while Louis Picamoles trucking the ball forward and Arthur Iturria throwing some lovely offloads, while the back 3 looked to capitalise on any loose kicks from Wales.

However in the second half, the Welsh started to control the ball better and Tomos Williams’ try from Josh Adams’ break appeared to fluster them. Iturria disappeared from the game, Picamoles was marshalled better by the Welsh defence and handling errors began to creep into the French game – most notably Yoann Huget’s fumble on his own line to gift North his first try. What really surprised me is how soon France started making wholesale changes, most notably the removal of Guilhem Guirado – who may not have been having the best match of his career but is still such an important leader for the team – at a time when they needed leaders to settle things down.

It looked like they may have got back into things when at 19-17 with just 9 minutes left, Gaël Fickou beat Adams to a high ball just outside the Welsh 22, but from the resulting breakdown everything went wrong for France. 2 forwards got in the way of Baptiste Serin’s pass to Lopez, causing him to throw a looped pass that the fly half needed to take above his head. Lopez – knowing there was space on the outside – chose to throw a pass to Sébastien Vahaamahina but threw a pass that the second row had to jump to take above his head – an awful pass considering the lock is over 2 metres tall and there was no reason to put the pass high. After 2 such poor passes put the French on the back foot, Vahaamahina should have just driven forward and allowed his team to reset, but instead he tried to throw an audacious wide pass to Huget – missing out both Maxime Médard and Romain Ntamack – that was easily picked off by North and ran back for the winning try.

There is no way that a team should be throwing away a 16-point halftime lead at home and coupled with their loss to Fiji in the Autumn Tests, there is certainly a cause to be worried about the fragility of the French team when put under pressure, despite the obvious promise their first half performance showed.

Discipline almost costly

If not for the French mistakes, Wales’ lack of discipline would have cost them the match. There were so many silly little penalties that you would not expect a team of this experience to be giving away. From Justin Tipuric competing too hard at the lineout and pulling his man down to Ross Moriarty diving on the ball from an offside position after Gareth Davies knocked on at a scrum, in a game that they were struggling to control, these infringements were just giving he French extra chances. There was also a period following Liam Williams’ disallowed try where Wales gave away a series of silly penalties that allowed the French to make their way down the length of the pitch without any real pressure.

It was not even just the discipline in terms of penalties that was lacking at times in this game (particularly the first half) as they made errors that a team as well coached as they are should not be making. George North bit in to tackle Arthur Iturria when Gareth Anscombe was already making the tackle and this allowed the flanker to offload to Huget, who now had the space to run in for France’s second try. Then with just 30 seconds left in the half, Wales won a free kick in their 22. Rather than hold onto the ball for a couple of phases then kicking the ball out of play, they chose to kick downfield to the French, giving them the chance of 1 last attack before halftime and leading to a drop goal that could have proved crucial later in the game.

I hope that these errors do not count against some of these players as I think Wales had the right players involved for the game and I think Anscombe and Williams deserve an extended run in the starting line-up, but Wales need to ensure that they start matches faster and keep their discipline better if they want to win the tournament.

Bigger but not better

The French scrum showed on Friday night that, contrary to what some people may say, size isn’t everything. With behemoths like Uini Atonio, Vahaamahina and Paul Willemse starting, the French boasted one of the heaviest packs in the history of international rugby, considerably heavier than their Welsh opponents. Yet despite this, the Welsh scrum was the one winning penalties and free kicks for much of the match.

While size and strength obviously helps in a scrum, technique is also very important and I feel that this is an area where the French struggle without Rabah Slimani. The French began having more luck with the scrum later in the game, but whether this was down to their better scrummagers being on the bench or the Welsh replacements not being able to match what their starters had been able to do.

With England’s generally strong scrum next up, it will be interesting to see how the French pack fairs at Twickenham, especially if Atonio is missing as it appeared to be a hamstring issue that saw him be replaced early in the second half.

Top performance

George North may have been given the Man of the Match award, but to me the standout player in the game was his teammate Josh Navidi. The flanker did make a couple of mistakes, with a knock on ending an attack in the first half and one moment where he was out of position leading to a penalty for Dan Biggar holding on, but he put in a huge performance beyond that and had a real impact on the game. He ran hard with the ball and made good ground on a couple of occasions to put Wales on the front foot, including the build-up to Liam Williams’ disallowed try. But most notable was his defence. His strength in the tackle was stopping even Louis Picamoles in his tracks and forcing handling errors, while he also did a great job of holding players off the ground to create mauls and turnover ball.

To me, he would walk into the starting line-up of most 6 Nations teams, but if everyone was fit for Wales there is no guarantee he will start, such is the strength in depth in the Welsh back row!