The 2020 Six Nations kicked off on Saturday in Cardiff with a match between Wales and Italy. Both teams were early in the process of moving on from the Rugby World Cup with new men at the helm in Wayne Pivac and interim head coach Franco Smith respectively.
Wales came in with a number of players missing through injury, leading to George North making a rare appearance at outside centre, but they made the better start and found themselves taking an early lead with 3 penalties from the boot of Dan Biggar (my thoughts are with everyone who picked Leigh Halfpenny as their fantasy kicker this weekend) before adding 2 tries through Josh Adams. Italy fought hard but the closest they could come to scoring was at the end of the half when their 5m catch and drive lineout was dealt with. In the second half, it was all Wales, as the men in red added a further 2 tries through debutant Nick Tompkins and George North, before Josh Adams finished off his hat-trick with the final play of the game to complete a 42-0 victory.
This may have ended up a comfortable victory for Wales, but there will certainly be some things that they look at ahead of next week. The Italian scrum has not looked great in recent years, so to see it look so strong in this game makes me feel that it is in part due to Wales’ weakness in this area, something that hurt them in the latter half of last season.
Wyn Jones has looked strong at loosehead of late, moving ahead of Rob Evans and Nicky Smith, but he had a torrid time against Andrea Lovotti. Meanwhile on the other side of the scrum, things look a lot bleaker when Tomas Francis is unavailable. I think that it’s time for Sale’s WillGriff John to be given a shot in the national team.
Similarly, there were some issues for Wales at the lineout. Ken Owens is a fantastic servant for Wales but overthrew one lineout and had another throw pinged for not being straight. There was also another moment when Wales gave away a free kick for not setting up properly.
Between the scrums and the lineouts, this is an area of the game that Wales need to try and tighten up. They may have got away with it against Italy, but issues on your own set piece in a tight game are going to put you in a very difficult position.
As someone who frequently argues that Italy deserve a spot in top tier competition, watching them play can be a chore at times.
Going into this match, I was interested to see how Italy would fare with a dual-playmaker system of Tommaso Allan at 10 and Carlo Canna at 12. While they certainly got the ball moving more than in some recent matches and made almost 400m with the ball, their attack still looked horribly stifled and to be honest, I don’t think the system worked for them.
Though they had 2 playmakers, there was very little being done in the Italian attacking line to create space and break the defensive line in midfield. When you watch many teams, there will be players running crash balls or dummy runners, however watching Italy, it often felt like this was missing and that Italy were just playing the ball along the line, meaning that the defence was able to drift on them. The back rowers and forward runners did some good work but it was usually limited to just one pass out from the ruck. In players like Jake Polledri, Seb Negri, Braam Steyn and Niccolo Cannone, Italy have a great set of ball carriers who they need to take advantage of in midfield. A player like Polledri could cause some real trouble if he can break through the defensive line in the centre of the pitch, while the players needed to defend against him as a dummy runner would create space for Luca Morisi, Mattia Bellini and Matteo Minozzi.
Personally, I would like to see Jayden Hayward promoted to the XV in place of Carlo Canna, as I think that his ability as a fullback still gives him some playmaking ability, but also adds a bit more physicality to help give the midfield more of a presence.
My standout players
Wayne Pivac finds himself in a great place when it comes to selecting scrum halves. Gareth Davies has been a star at the position of late and Rhys Webb is a former British & Irish Lion who will get even better once he is playing regular rugby again. But after his performance this weekend, I think that Pivac should stick with Tomos Williams for the next match. He controlled the game well in his hour on the pitch, but was also a livewire in the loose, and was one unfortunate bounce away from crossing the whitewash himself.
Josh Adams was the top try scorer at the Rugby World Cup and his hat-trick has put him in a great place to take that same award in this tournament. He may not have had many chances to stretch his legs, but he took his opportunities and is becoming a permanent fixture in the starting XV.
Finally, I want to take a moment to look at Nick Tompkins. As an England fan, I was gutted to see England ignore him and so happy to see his quality noticed by the Wales coaches. He came off the bench for a brief cameo in the first half and in that time managed to win a turnover and unleash Leigh Halfpenny (to set up Josh Adams’ opener) with a pass that looked simple but would not be as easy to execute in the moment. Coming back on later in the game, he proved that the strong start was not a fluke as he immediately looked like someone with 20+ caps to his name, slotting in comfortably at both 12 & 13 and deservedly scoring on his debut. While George North performed admirably at 13, I think the back line looked better with Topkins involved and would love to see him promoted to the starting XV next week.