Six Nations 2021: Wales v England

Six Nations 2021: Wales v England

With Sunday’s match between Scotland and France postponed, Round 3 of the 2021 Six Nations came to a premature end in Cardiff as Wales hosted England. The Welsh had a number of key players returning from injury and they took an early lead through the boot of Dan Biggar, but almost immediately threw it away as Maro Itoje charged down Kieran Hardy’s box kick from the restart, only for Liam Williams to just beat him to the ball as it bounced in-goal. England were soon on the board through an Owen Farrell penalty, but hey were having their own disciplinary problems that would soon prove costly. With quarter of an hour gone, Farrell was penalised for not rolling inside his own 22, and referee Pascal Gaüzère put the team on a warning and told the England captain to talk to his team. The French referee gave the team time to have a talk, but the moment they came out of their huddle blew for time on and the ever-alert Dan Biggar took advantage of the defence all being clumped under the posts and kicked the penalty out to the left wing for Josh Adams to catch and score. Farrell soon cut the deficit with a penalty, but Wales scored again on the half-hour mark, once again in controversial fashion. Josh Adams slotted a grubber in behind the England defence and Louis Rees-Zammit beat everyone to the ball. However the speedster was unable to collect cleanly, knocking the bouncing ball forward, only for it to hit his leg before it hit the floor, which gave the ball some degree of backwards movement as it bounced fortuitously into the hands of Liam Williams who dotted down over the line. To anyone who has seen a game of rugby (and Rees-Zammit himself), it was a clear knock on, but Gaüzère, his AR and TMO Alexandre Ruiz all unbelievably agreed that there was no knock on and allowed the try to stand. Biggar added his second conversion of the match, but England still had time to respond before halftime, with Anthony Watson forcing himself over in the corner and Farrell kicking a penalty with the final play of the half to cut the Welsh lead to 17-14.

Farrell had a chance to level the scores early in the second half, but his attempt siled wide, and this soon proved costly as Jonny Hill gave away a penalty on the edge of his 22 for entering a breakdown from the side. Kieran Hardy was alert to the chance and took a quick tap, scything through the retreating English defenders to go over for Wales’ third try, which Callum Sheedy converted. England continued to fight and keep the game close with another Farrell penalty, and when England finally put together a couple of phases of quality attacking play to make a break down the left wing, Ben Youngs managed to snipe over for a try, which Farrell converted. That was as close as things got for England though, as their discipline fell apart in the final quarter. Callum Sheedy broke through the English line and grubbered to the corner, but Anthony Watson just beat Kieran Hardy to the ball, but a raft of England penalties allowed the Welsh to add 9 points from the tee. England went on one last attack, but Dan Robson’s pass was intercepted by Sheedy, who booted the ball downfield. Louis Rees-Zammit gave chase but the ball would not sit up nicely for him despite a couple of kicks on, allowing the England defence to get back and cover, though they knocked on in the process. From the resulting scrum Wales went through a couple of phases and Cory Hill crossed beneath the posts for the bonus point try, which Sheedy converted for a 40-24 victory that secured the Triple Crown for Wales – something most Welsh fans could only dream about going into the tournament.

Wales

Who would have thought that Wales would be unbeaten after 3 games? Granted, they have been given a hand by 2 red cards and a couple of questionable calls, but the performances have clearly been improving and the injuries they have had to deal with are creating options for them. The rise of Kieran Hardy has just created even more depth at 9, while Callum Sheedy is solidifying his place in the 23 and providing a great alternative to Dan Biggar, with 1 playing a more territorial, defensive game and the other opening the game up in attack. The experiment of moving George North to 13 is working better than I expected, and while Jonathan Davies is still an obvious pick when fit, Ulisi Halaholo, Johnny Williams and Nick Tompkins all look at home on the international stage and bring something different to the game. In the pack, Elliot Dee put in a great performance replacing Ken Owens after an hour, while Taulupe Faletau’s return to form is a massive boon for the back row as they try to find the right balance.

Anything other than a bonus point victory over Italy in 2 weeks would be a shock, and then it is just the French standing between them and the unlikeliest of Grand Slams. Personally, I don’t feel that the Welsh are ready to defeat Les Bleus yet, but if their squad is still being affected by COVID in 3 weeks, that final match of Super Saturday could get very interesting.

England

Don’t be shocked if those in the England camp try to focus on the shoddy officiating. Don’t let them off if they do though, as it was their own indiscipline that cost them the game.

Whether it is due to players thinking they know better than the officials (in the case of the French officials they probably do, but you still have to play to the man with the whistle) or players off the pace from not playing rugby this season, England’s discipline has gone down the drain. Maro Itoje, the darling of England fans and pundits, always plays as close to the line as he can and often crosses it, but he was not getting away with it in this game, giving away a whopping 5 penalties on his own. What was even more worrying is that he gave away an early penalty for jumping across the lineout, and instead of cutting that from their game, the team went on to give away 2 more penalties for this in the final quarter as they lost all control of the match.

Do England have a right to gripe about the first try? Yes, Gaüzère was pathetic, but it must also be highlighted that England were already at the stage of being put on a team warning for the number of penalties after just 15 minutes, and it could arguably have come sooner!

England have 2 weeks to sort out their mindset. However, just like Eddie will keep ignoring players on form, I doubt that there will be any difference when England host France in 2 weeks, and that could lead to another devastating result.

Lions Watch

Taulupe Faletau‘s return to form has come at the perfect time to force his way back into Lions contention, and with CJ Stander able to also cover 6, he could even force his way into the starting XV, while Callum Sheedy will also be drawing Warren Gatland’s attention with some great attacking play without looking weak in defence. For England, Anthony Watson continued to make some key plays at either end of the pitch, while Ben Youngs had one of his better showings at a time when most of the Home Nations’ regular scrum halves are being forced to fight for their place.

After another week of dreadful handling skills and inexcusable defence (including turning his back when the penalty was given against Jonny Hill for the Hardy try), Elliot Daly should be hoping that he gets a chance to add to yesterday’s 50ᵗʰ cap. Meanwhile, George Ford‘s inclusion as England’s supposedly best attacking fly half was summed up by an aimless kick that drifted into the Wales 22 for an easy mark – with players like Marcus Smith and Joe Simmonds excelling in the Premiership, he should be nowhere near the England squad, let alone the Lions!

Six Nations 2021: Italy v Ireland

Six Nations 2021: Italy v Ireland

After a week off from the competition, the 2021 Six Nations returned with just 2 of the 3 scheduled matches following an outbreak of COVID-19 in the French squad. First upon Saturday was a trip to the Stadio Olimpico, where Italy were hosting Ireland.

The Azzurri were already missing a number of players coming into the match and lost scrum half Stephen Varney to injury in the warm-up, but took an early lead through the boot of Paolo Garcia. Ireland soon drew level through Jonathan Sexton, before Iain Henderson thought he had scored the opening try of the match, only for referee Mathieu Raynal and TMO Romain Poite to both decide that he had lost control during the grounding. This only delayed the inevitable though, as a series of phases just short of the line drew in the Italian defence, allowing the ball to be spread to Garry Ringrose, who crossed next to the posts, giving Sexton an easy conversion. Sexton added another penalty and then on the half hour match found themselves over for another try, with a break downthe blind side of a maul from Jamison Gibson-Park, Sexton and Keith Earls, and when the ball came left, Garry Ringrose offloaded to Hugo Keenan on a great line to go in unchallenged, leaving Sexton with another easy kick for the extras. Just a few minutes later, some silky hands from Ronan Kelleher, Sexton and Jordan Larmour saw Will Connors put over for a try out wide with Sexton scoring a much more difficult conversion. The game was at risk of getting away from the Azzurri, but a penalty at the end of the half gave them a lineout 5m out, and after bringing the ball infield for a couple of phases, Garbisi attacked the blind side and managed to get his arms through the tackle to offload to Johan Meyer for the try, which the young fly half converted for a 10-27 halftime deficit.

That was pretty much the last time that the Italians looked like scoring in this game, while Italy soon found themselves securing the bonus point as CJ Stander powered over just a couple of minutes after the restart, Sexton again converting. The rest of the third quarter was a dull affair as the replacements stared to break up the game, but all that changed on the hour mark as replacement prop Giosuè Zilocchi was sent to the bin for going off his feet at a ruck. From the resulting penalty, Kelleher took the tap and go, and a couple f phases later CJ Stander had his second try, though this was ruled out when the TMO found a knock on in the build-up. This as just a brief reprieve however, and after captain Luca Bigi was also sent to the bin, the Irish pack used their numerical advantage to control a 5m catch and drive, pushing Will Connors over for his second of the day, with Sexton once again adding the extras. The Irish thought they had another try just minutes later as James Lowe came onto a Craig Casey pass at pace to burst through the Italian line, but a TMO referral eventually decided that the replacement scrum half’s pass had gone forwards. There was time for one more try from the Irish, as one final attack ended with Sexton throwing a flat miss pass to send Keith Earls over in the corner, and the Irish captain kicked the conversion to secure a 10-48 victory.

Italy

This was the most disappointing performance so far in this year’s competition from the Azzurri, but it’s almost understandable. While they have been playing some great rugby at times, they are seriously missing the spark that some of their absent stars create.

While Johan Meyer can be relied on to make a couple of impressive carries per game – usually out on the wings – he and Michele Lamaro have so far failed to replicate the impact that the injured Jake Polledri has on a game, while Danilo Fischetti’s impact was missed in and around the breakdown today. Meanwhile in the back line, injuries have ruined what looked to be a bright future for Michele Campagnaro, while Matteo Minozzi’s 11 tries in 22 Tests have been severely missed as he ruled himself out of the tournament, describing himself as “physically and mentally tired, a bit too much to live another two months in a bubble.” And then to add to this, livewire scrum half Steven Varney was forced to pull out with an injury in the warm-up, leaving Italy with more experienced, but less deadly options.

Sometimes all it takes is one spark of magic to turn something into nothing, and these are the players who would usually be providing it. Paolo Garbisi is certainly trying his best to provide it when playing with ball in hand, but then lets himself down with his kicking game that invites the opposition to counter. Seb Negri can always be relied on to run hard, but Polledri’s absence is allowing defences to put more focus on stopping him, while Montanna Ioane has shown glimpses of the danger he possesses, but has generally been well marked by defences so far.

This spell of playing without so many gamechangers will benefit Italy in the long term, as it will force other players to step up and create those chances, leading to even more dangerous options when the usual stars return, as defences will have more stars to account for and will not be able to double up on them. If Franco Smith could find a way to convince the currently uncapped Paolo Odogwu to switch allegiance to Italy, that would be another player that defences would need to account for in their defensive planning.

Ireland

When it comes to the British and Irish Lions, the second row position is always going to be a tough call, with all 4 countries boasting such talent at the position. One person who is surely securing his place in the 2021 Lions squad (assuming there is one) is that of Tadhg Beirne.

Finally enjoying a spell of consecutive games in the Irish starting XV, Beirne has fully settled into Test rugby and is now showing the level of performances that those who have watched him play regularly for the Scarlets and Munster knew he was capable of. He’s a huge player and can use his physicality well, but is also so fleet of foot in the loose and has such impressive handling skills, while he is also an expert at jackaling over the ball while still supporting his weight. With this wide skillset and an incredible engine, he is one of the few players who is successfully managing to play both lock and back row to such a high quality.

With this Man of the Match performance, it is becoming all but impossible to drop him from the XV, putting him at 6 if you want a bit more ballast in your pack, or moving him into the second row if you want to add a different dynamic into your back row. Against the Springboks’ giant pack, don’t be surprised to see a dual-position player like Beirne earning a spot in the Lions squad, and potentially even pushing for a spot in the XV.

Lions Watch

So I’ve already waxed lyrical about Tadhg Beirne above, but I think that the entire starting back row for Ireland enhanced their chances of making the Lions squad, with CJ Stander continuing to highlight a return to form with another try, while Will Connors showed his reliability in defence as well as scoring 2 tries.

While nobody really stood out as having a bad performance, another solid performance from Jamison Gibson-Park and a great increase in tempo from replacement Craig Casey will surely be making it difficult for Conor Murray to earn his spot back when fit, while the continued form of Hugo Keenan means that Jordan Larmour is becoming somewhat of a forgotten figure, having a largely quiet first half today before being replace by Keith Earls.

5 to watch from Super Rugby Aotearoa 2021

5 to watch from Super Rugby Aotearoa 2021

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, it brought a premature end to the biggest club rugby tournament in the Southern Hemisphere, Super Rugby. With conditions improving in Australia and New Zealand, they returned with more domestic versions of the competition, Super Rugby AU and Super Rugby Aotearoa respectively.

The second season of Super Rugby AU kicked off on Friday – 10 weeks of rugby that will see each of the 5 Australian teams face each other home and away, with the teams finishing 2ⁿᵈ and 3ʳᵈ facing off in a Qualifying Final and the winner facing the 1ˢᵗ-placed finisher in the final a week later. This Friday will see the beginning of a slightly shorter Super Rugby Aotearoa tournament (which is just a 10-week round-robin tournament, without the playoffs), which is running concurrently with Super Rugby AU before all 10 teams face off in a new tournament: Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like those of us who live in the UK will get the chance to watch after no company picked up broadcasting rights, but for those of you who can watch, who should you be looking out for in these tournaments? I’ve looked at each of the New Zealand teams and picked one player per team to keep an eye on this year. If you missed my Australian picks, you can find them here.

Blues

If you read my thoughts on last year’s tournament, it’s probably no surprise that I’m picking Finlay Christie for the Blues. Having signed from the Hurricanes, the Scotland-born halfback put in some great performances to earn the starting spot in the latter half f the campaign, bringing quick ball to the attack and repeatedly getting himself in the right position to exploit a teammate’s break, while in defence he was a complete nuisance for opposition scrum halves. If he can put together another similar campaign, the All Blacks should come calling.

Chiefs

While Super Rugby Aotearoa may be best known for its stunning attacking play, you only get that due to the hard work f the tight 5. While Tupou Vaa’i was the one to earn an All Blacks call-up last season, it was his lock partner Naitoa Ah Kuoi who stood out for me. Ah Kuoi was a solid enforcer in defence and did a great job of carrying to help put the Chiefs on the front foot. He missed the middle of last year’s competition through injury, but if he can stay fit this season, he will add some much-needed clout to the Chiefs pack.

Crusaders

My initial pick here was Will Jordan, who got more minutes than expected due to David Havili’s injury issues, but after such a great season that also included his All Blacks debut, that seemed too obvious. Instead, I have gone for Tom Christie, who at just 22 already looks like he will be close to an All Blacks cap and potentially becoming the long-term option at 7 in the coming years. The flanker is already a top quality jackal and does a great job of making the important metres in attack. Have the Crusaders found their new Richie McCaw in Tom Christie?

Highlanders

The Highlanders had a disappointing 2020 Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign, but things certainly got better for them with the return of Josh Ioane from injury. Capable to play across most of the back line, Ioane is at his best at fly half and will be looking to take advantage of Beauden Barrett’s sabbatical to Japan to push his cause for an All Blacks call-up. A young and highly skilful player, he Highlanders should be building their team around him in the coming years.

Hurricanes

While Peter Umaga-Jensen certainly deserves a mention here, TJ Perenara’s Japanese sabbatical has opened up the door for Jamie Booth to show his quality. The 26-year-old has made his way around the Super Rugby franchises, being contracted for the Blues (where he never made an appearance) and playing for the Highlanders, Hurricanes and Sunwolves. It was with the Sunwolves that I first noticed his quality, which he continued to show off the bench last year for the ‘Canes. Now, with Perenara gone, he will likely get much more of a chance to show his ability to generate quick ball, while his quick footwork makes him a real danger if given any space around the fringes of the ruck or following up a break.


During the competitions, I will be running predictions pools on Superbru. For each match, you pick who you think will be the winner and the margin of victory and get points depending on how close your prediction was. The pools are entirely for fun, so everyone is welcome to join and there is no buy-in!

Super Rugby AU: You can find my pool here or by downloading the Superbru app and searching for the pool with code: lidsbops

Super Rugby Aotearoa: You can find my pool here or by downloading the Superbru app and searching for the pool with code: harmgirt

5 to watch from Super Rugby AU 2021

5 to watch from Super Rugby AU 2021

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, it brought a premature end to the biggest club rugby tournament in the Southern Hemisphere, Super Rugby. With conditions improving in Australia and New Zealand, they returned with more domestic versions of the competition, Super Rugby AU and Super Rugby Aotearoa respectively.

On Friday, the second season of Super Rugby AU will kick off – 10 weeks of rugby that will see each of the 5 Australian teams face each other home and away, with the teams finishing 2ⁿᵈ and 3ʳᵈ facing off in a Qualifying Final and the winner facing the 1ˢᵗ-placed finisher in the final a week later. This will run concurrently with a slightly shorter Super Rugby Aotearoa tournament (which is just a 10-week round-robin tournament, without the playoffs), before all 10 teams face off in a new tournament: Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.

But, assuming that someone picks up the broadcast rights to the competitions here in the UK (I’m getting very nervous with no news just a few days out) who should we be looking out for in these tournaments? I’ve looked at each of the Australian teams and picked one player per team to keep an eye on this year. Keep an eye out for my New Zealand picks, which will come out early next week.

Brumbies

Kicking things off in Canberra and my pick is fly half Noah Lolesio. The youngster missed most of the 2020 tournament through injury, but has since gone on to appear for the Wallabies. he was a big miss for the Brumbies last year despite their success, as it hampered the back line’s ability to take advantage of the quality front-foot ball that the forwards will provide. Expect to see him pushing for a more regular spot in the Wallabies squad moving forward.

Rebels

Moving from fly half to the engine room for the Rebels as my pick here is Cameron Orr. The former Gloucester prop is starting to come into his prime at 25 years old and last season really grew into his role with the Rebels. Orr is improving at the scrum, but really came into his own in the loose, with his strong carrying and impressive handling skills add an extra dimension that makes any front rower even more of a threat.

Reds

If anyone watches the Reds regularly during their 2020 campaign, then they probably won’t be shocked to see me pick Tate McDermott here. The 22-year-old was an absolute livewire and was duly rewarded with a call-up to the Wallabies squad at the end of last year. With incredible pace, he can’t be given an inch of space around the breakdown, while he will often find himself in the right spot to carry on a break and often finish it off. With another season like 2020, it will be almost impossible to keep him out of the Wallabies 23.

Waratahs

Lachlan Swinton was about to get my vote here, until my scanning of the 2021 squad’s backs noticed a familiar name: Izaia Perese. The 23-year old first came to my attention with some impressive performances at 13 for the Australian U20s, and his form on the wing for the Reds led to a Wallabies call-up in 2017. He disappeared with a move to rugby league and the NRL, but was sacked by the Brisbane Broncos for drug-related offences and returned to union with a short spell at Bayonne. Now back in Australia, this is the chance for the youngster to have a do-over, and if he gets it right, he will be a welcome addition to the Tahs’ back line.

Western Force

Maybe it’s from my time as a prop, but I’m going back to the front row here with Santiago Medrano. At 24 years old, the tighthead is already an experienced international and the disappearance of the Jaguares is a great benefit to the Force, wo also picked up fellow Pumas Tomás Lezana, Tomás Cubelli and Domingo Miotti. One of the big issues for the Force last year was a reliance on props coming tot he end of their careers, who did not have the fitness to keep playing at the required high level all match, but Medrano will bring more youthful energy to the front row alongside former Waratah Tom Robertson.


During the competitions, I will be running predictions pools on Superbru. For each match, you pick who you think will be the winner and the margin of victory and get points depending on how close your prediction was. The pools are entirely for fun, so everyone is welcome to join and there is no buy-in!

Super Rugby AU: You can find my pool here or by downloading the Superbru app and searching for the pool with code: lidsbops

Super Rugby Aotearoa: You can find my pool here or by downloading the Superbru app and searching for the pool with code: harmgirt

Six Nations 2021: Ireland v France

Six Nations 2021: Ireland v France

Round 2 of the 2021 Six Nations came to an end in Dublin on Sunday as Ireland hosted France. Ireland were missing 4 experienced players from Round 1 through injury and suspension, but after both Billy Burns and Matthieu Jalibert missed early kicks at goal, Billy Burns broke the deadlock on 20 minutes with a penalty. A few minutes later, France found themselves temporarily down to 14 after Bernard Le Roux was caught tripping Keith Earls as they chased an Irish kick downfield. The Irish kicked the penalty to touch and thought they had taken an immediate advantage of the extra man as the spread the ball wide on first phase to James Lowe, who powered through Brice Dulin’s tackle to score in the corner, only for a TMO referral to find that his toe had brushed the touchline before he touched down. This let off appeared to galvanise the French, who immediately went on the attack and a series of offloads brought them into the Irish 22. With the Irish defence in disarray, the ball was spread wide to Charles Ollivon, who was able to outpace CJ Stander as he tried to get across to cover and score the opening try. Jalibert kicked the conversion and then a penalty with Le Roux back on the pitch to take a halftime lead of 3-10.

Les Bleus started the second half on the front foot and almost had another try straight away as Julien Marchand broke into the 22, only for Antoine Dupont’s attempted wide pass from the base of a ruck to be blocked by the face of dummy runner Paul Willemse. This attack cost Ireland Billy Burns, who went off for a HIA that he failed, while just a minute later, Cian Healy and captain Iain Henderson clashed heads and were required to leave the pitch for their own assessments. With so much leadership off the pitch, the French were able to get themselves into the 22 again, and when Jalibert reversed the play back to the right, his wide pass drew in James Lowe, who was stepped inside by Dulin, with the fullback drawing the final Irish tackler and popping the ball off to the looping Damian Penaud to extend the lead, Jalibert missing the conversion. The Irish desperately needed the next score and got it almost immediately, winning a penalty from the restart and kicking the ball up tot the French 22. Replacement hooker Ronan Kelleher’s first action of the game was to throw into the lineout, and the ball was stolen but not cleanly, bouncing in the 5m channel, and the Irish hooker reacted fastest to collect the ball and scamper in unchallenged. Ross Byrne kicked the conversion and added a penalty with 15 minutes remaining, but the Irish could not make any further breakthrough and after Jalibert struck the post with a late attempt at goal, the game fizzled away to a 13-15 win for Les Bleus.

Ireland

I can imagine that many people were nervous as to how Ireland would perform in this match with Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray, James Ryan and Peter O’Mahony all missing. I would argue that the team actually performed better without them on the whole.

With Jamison Gibson-Park and Billy Burns controlling the game, the pace of the Irish attack was so much better, which allowed the Irish pack and midfield to get into the French early on, while Burns’ high bombs were putting Brice Dulin under incredible pressure. Unfortunately, the quality appeared to be missing on the bench, with Craig Casey not even trusted to come on while experienced and talented 9s like Kieran Marmion, John Cooney and Luke McGrath were all ignore. Similarly, Ross Byrne once again looked a passenger (and not in a good way) after replacing Burns and I think that it cost them. We all know what Sexton and Murray can do. Now is the time to leave them out for the rest of the tournament and look at other options, with one of the aforementioned 9s coming in to compete with Gibson-Park for the staring job and Ian Madigan coming in to replace Ross Byrne, as his ability to cover both 10 and 12 would allow him to either replace Burns or come in at centre to give the midfield a different shape late on.

At lock, I understand that James Ryan is the darling of Irish rugby, but he has always seemed to be a good workrate but little more, while this weekend’s pairing of Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson brought that and more. Capable of turning out at lock or 6, the pair brought dynamism with their carries, were dangerous at the breakdown and were also tireless workers in the tighter parts of the game, while Henderson certainly led by example from first minute to last.

Finally in the back row, I have always found O’Mahony to be a penalty risk if a referee is doing their job right, and while I’m not sure Rhys Ruddock was the right pick at 6, I would argue that Will Connors had a great impact in defence when he was brought on later in the game, while Caelan Doris will also provide a great carrying option once back.

France

I dare you to find me a better player in World rugby right now than Antoine Dupont. The Toulouse scrum half is a walking highlights reel! Every match, you can almost guarantee that if a player makes a break, he will be there on their shoulder to keep the attack going, while he has the pace and footwork to exploit the tiniest of gaps – and even highlighted in this match that he has a decent fend despite being one of the smaller players on the pitch.

Even when he’s not able to be so attacking, he’s still showing a range of skills, with a cultured boot – and the calmness to not rush under pressure – while his defence is also an underrate part of his game. And the scary thing is that at 24, he may not have even quite reached his peak yet, while he has a legitimate chance of starring at both the 2023 and 2027 Rugby World Cups. In the meantime, let’s just sit back and enjoy the show.

Lions Watch

Only the Irish to focus on here, and captain Iain Henderson put in a great performance all over the park, and was unlucky to not steal an attempted short lineout and long throw by the French on the own 5m line. Meanwhile, Hugo Keenan looked assured once again at the back and appears to be making the Irish 15 shirt his own, but will have to go a long way to beat out Stuart Hogg.

It wasn’t such a good day for James Lowe, who is currently getting limited chances to run at the defence like he would like to, and his disallowed try in a week where a number of wings shone for the Home Nations will hurt.

Six Nations 2021: Wales v Scotland

Six Nations 2021: Wales v Scotland

Round 2 of the 2021 Six nations saw a match-up between the 2 countries still able to win the Triple Crown, as Scotland hosted Wales at Murrayfield. After an impressive 2020 and an historic Calcutta Cup win at Twickenham last week, Scotland came in as the favourites and after both Leigh Halfpenny and Finn Russell kicked early penalties, Scotland got the early try as Darcy Graham reacted quickest to Ali Price’s clever chip from the back of a ruck to go in untouched under the posts, giving Russell an easy conversion. The Scots soon extended their lead as they spread the ball wide to the right on first phase ball. Stuart Hogg waited for the defence to commit to him before chipping in behind, and Leigh Halfpenny on the turn could not control the ball as he went to ground, allowing Hogg to dive on the loose ball and slide over in the corner, Russell again nailing the kick. Wales were coming into the game with an extensive injury list and desperately needed the next score, and they got it just before half time as they spread the ball wide following a 5m lineout, getting the ball to Louis Rees-Zammit, who stepped inside Graham and went over for the try. With Leigh Halfpenny off following a failed HIA, Dan Biggar was unable to land the kick from wide right and he half ended 17-8.

Scotland were in the ascendency soon after the break, and thought they had scored through Gary Graham after turning down a kick at goal for a 5m tap-and-go penalty, however the try was ruled out due to Scott Cummings running a blocking line right in front of him. This loss of points was exacerbated as a couple of penalties saw Wales deep in the Scottish half just seconds later, and after a catch and drive went 20 metres to deep in the 22, Rees-Zammit came on the loop as the ball was spread left to hit a gap in the Scottish defence out wide and timed his pass perfectly to send Liam Williams over, with replacement fly half Callum Sheedy converting. Things got even worse for the Scots just minutes later, as Zander Fagerson was given a red card for a cleanout to the head of Wyn Jones, very similar to the Peer O’Mahony dismissal last week. From the resulting penalty, Wales kicked to touch and after another big driving maul brought them to the Scottish line, they went through the phases before Wyn Jones forced his way over for the go-ahead try, with Sheedy missing the conversion. The Scots recovered and got some momentum back, eventually earning a penalty between the posts 5m out from the Wales line. Again, they turned down the easy 3 points and went for the scrum – having replaced Darcy Graham with WP Nel to keep a full 8-man pack – and after a couple of resets, the ball was spread to the right and Hogg fended off the challenge of Owen Watkin to go over for the try, with Russell converting. The game really opened up in the final 15 minutes and a Callum Sheedy grubber to the corner flag saw Stuart Hogg just beet Rees-Zammit to the ball to dot down for a 22 drop-out, however just a minute later Rees Lightning got his chance to shine again as he chipped over Stuart Hogg and won the footrace to score the bonus point try. The Scots didn’t give up even with the clock in the red, and created one final chance as Finn Russell forced an offload out the back of his hand under pressure from multiple tacklers to release Duhan van der Merwe down the right wing. The powerhouse wing was flying but a last-ditch tap tackle from Owen Watkin brought him down, and Liam Williams just got a finger to the offload ahead of Stuart Hogg, allowing the Welsh to recover the ball and put it into touch to secure a 24-25 victory.

Scotland

Scotland have never won a Six Nations Championship (their last tournament victory was in the final season before Italy joined) and it has been a long time since they have looked this strong. However, as a result of this, they are now finding themselves in positions that they are not used to, being able to overcome a numerical disadvantage and have a legitimate chance to still win a game at the death.

In games like this, there will always be one or 2 moments where a player’s decision will win or lose a team the match. Unfortunately, that moment belonged to Ali Price in this game, as with just minutes left on the clock and with Scotland going through the phases just inside the Welsh half, he put in an aimless kick with nobody chasing, that Louis Rees-Zammit was not only able to take his time to recover, but also then smashed back downfield to deep in the Scottish half. Of course, he almost got saved by his team with the break at the death, but in any games, that aimless kick would have been game over.

There are very few Scotland players who have been in those high-stakes moments in big games over the last couple of seasons, and they will learn from this heartbreak. They have a week off now before facing France, which now becomes a must-win game if they want to win the tournament. I don’t see them pulling off a win in Paris this year, but as long as the team learn from this weekend, then it will be a benefit in the long run.

Wales

Wayne Pivac made a big call with less than 10 minutes gone in the second half, taking off both his halfbacks in Gareth Davies and Dan Biggar. That was 148 caps coming off the pitch, with their replacements Kieran Hardy and Callum Sheedy combining for just 9 caps (including the 2 they were coming on to earn).

Such a big call could have ruined the team, when you consider that they already had a centre on the wing and an inexperienced centre pairing, but it worked to perfection here as it changed Wales’ attack to a more possession-based game rather than a territorial fight. By keeping hold of possession, Wales were able to start finding the gaps in the Scottish defence as Sheedy moved his backs around – something we see all the time when he plays for Bristol – and this forced the Scots to give away a number of penalties.

It’s no surprise that the Scots only gave away a handful of penalties against an England team that were afraid to play attacking rugby, but faced with a team looking to take the game to them, the penalties returned, while Fagerson’s red card merely added to the gaps for Wales to exploit.

Will Sheedy and Hardy et the star in 2 weeks? It’s unlikely, as Wayne Pivac should have a number of players return from injury, but watching back the highlights from the Italy game will show that England were not as comfortable as you would expect against an expansive attacking game, so don’t be surprised to see Sheedy making an early appearance off the bench if the game is close.

Lions Watch

The Springbok scrum will always be a weapon, so a strong performance by Wyn Jones will have done the loosehead a number of favours, not just securing his spot in the Welsh number 1 shirt, but also pushing him into contention for the Lions’ Touring Party. Meanwhile on the wing, Louis Rees-Zammit shone with 2 tries and 1 assist to highlight his attacking quality. For Scotland, Duhan van der Merwe continued to show his unique blend of size, power and pace, while Chris Harris put in a solid performance going both ways in a position that looks up for grabs with Jonathan Davies’ limited gametime in recent years.

On the flip side, the early removal will be just what Dan Biggar didn’t want with many of his rivals for the Lions 10 jersey underperforming, while Zander Fagerson struggled in the scrum before his red card.

Six Nations 2021: England v Italy

Six Nations 2021: England v Italy

Twickenham played host to its its second consecutive week of rugby as England hosted Italy to kick off Round 2 of the 2021 Six Nations. The Italians showed a much more expansive attacking game in their loss to France last week, but it soon gave them the lead today as they worked the overlap down the blindside following a series of phases around the England 22, releasing Montanna Ioane to score in the corner, Paolo Garbisi missing the kick from out wide. England soon got on the board through an Owen Farrell penalty and took the lead on 14 minutes as a series of pick-and-go phases from the forwards on the Italian line came to an end when Jonny Hill was pushed over the line, though Farrell missed the conversion under heavy pressure from the Italian charge. A third penalty against England at the breakdown allowed Garbisi to level the scores, but it didn’t last long as England countered a loose kick. The ball went to ground in midfield, but the men in white shirts reacted fastest and spread the ball to Anthony Watson, whose hard step inside found a gap that he dashed through to score under the posts, though a couple of questionably forward passes from England in the preceding phase were conveniently ignored by referee Mike Adamson and TMO Joy Neville. England looked to have another great chance towards the end of the half as Billy Vunipola charged down Garbisi and the ball fell to Henry Slade. Ioane managed to stop the Exeter centre, but his offload to Anthony Watson lacked any sympathy or weight and it died on the winger, resulting in him knocking on with a clear run to the line. However, there was still time for one more attack and with advantage for a penalty, George Ford reversed the play back to the left and a couple of quick passes found Jonny May in space on the touch line. The Gloucester winger quickly got up to speed before diving high and early under pressure from Luca Sperandio, dotting down the ball just before his body hit the floor to make the score at halftime 20-8 following Farrell’s missed conversion.

Italy kicked off the second half the more dangerous team again, and when a Garbisi cross-kick set up Monty Ioane to beat Elliot Daly round the outside and make it 60m down the pitch, England were soon pinged for another breakdown offence, allowing Garbisi to kick the first points of the half. Italy continued to attack and made it back into the England 22, but Garbisi found his pass to Seb Negri intercepted by Anthony Watson, who fended off Carlo Canna before going the length. The try was sent for review due to a late challenge by Farrell on Stephen Varney in the build-up, but the inept officiating of Adamson and Neville focused only on the legality of the hit and ignored the lateness, so the try was allowed to stand and Farrell duly kicked the conversion. This try proved to be the catalyst for a number of England changes, and they played a key role in England’s next try on the hour mark. England won a penalty at the scrum 30m out and Dan Robsn took a quick tap and scythed through the retreating Italians, finally being tackled just short of the line. England reset with a handful of pick-and-gos, before Jack Willis snuck over, riding the tackles of Varney and Garbisi, Farrell again adding the extras. Wllis had only been on a couple of minutes, but only lasted a couple more, suffering a horrible looking knee injury on Italy’s next attack as the Italians tried to roll him out of the breakdown. England had gone for a 6-2 split on the bench but had no other options available to cover the back row, leading to Max Malins coming on and Watson packing down in the scrum, and the unfamiliar formatin had an immediate impact, as the Azzurri scrum wheeled to the blind and Federico Mori crashed through a couple of challenges before offloading to Tomasso Allan, who went over for the try and kicked the conversion. England replied immediately, finding a gap around the breakdown to get back onto the Italy line, and when a wide pass was tipped by an Italian hand, it fell to Daly, who tiptoed over out wide, with Farrell kicking the conversion for a 41-18 scoreline. Both teams had one more chance, with Italy exploiting Daly’s pathetic attempt at defending out wide to break down the right through Luca Sperandio, but his bass back inside to the supporting Jacopo Trulla was cut out by the retreating Owen Farrell, while a late George Ford dart to the line down the blind side following a lineout 10m out saw the Leicester stand-off held up on the line to deny them one final score, though this would still finish England’s biggest win since they played the USA in the Rugby World Cup.

England

This was an improvement from last week by England insofar as that they actually played attacking rugby. Unfortunately for them, months of being trained to not play with the ball meant that they struggled to do anything truly of worth.

Half the team couldn’t even do the basics right, with passes going everywhere, and many of those that did go to hand were then promptly dropped! Against an inexperienced Italy team – and with the officials ignoring the majority of your errors and offences – England could get away with these errors and still win. But against a more competent defence – let alone an elite defence like France, play of this quality will be easily snuffed out.

Between his poor passing and his consistently questionable defence, this game should have been the end of Elliot Daly’s tenure in the XV, while the pace that Dan Robson brought to the game after his introduction should finally earn him the number 9 shirt. However, just like the idea of a back row made of form players (imagine the quality of a Curry, Earl, Simmonds trio), we can be sure that 2 weeks from now, Eddie Jones will pick the same solid but unspectacular line-up. The only real question will be if they have learned to do the basics well enough over the next 2 weeks to trouble the Welsh.

Italy

While the Italian attack has improved so much from last season, there is one area that seriously needs looking at over the next 2 weeks: the kicking game. Paolo Garbisi has a big left boot, but he doesn’t use it to the best of effect, generally just booting the ball downfield, making it easy for the back 3 to run it back.

England showed just what Italy need to do in this game, with a variety of different kicks, including the deep balls but also high bombs and other contestable kicks. Sometimes territory isn’t always the option if the opposition is allowed to counter, so a more contestable kick will put the opposition under more pressure and potentially lead to you winning the ball back while the opposition is disorganised. And simply by varying the types of kick, it makes it harder for the opposition to predict what you will do and get in the right prediction.

There is a lot of responsibility on his shoulders with both scrum half Stephen Varney and fullback Jacopo Trulla being attacking players rather than tactical kickers, but that means that Carlo Canna needs to get more involved in the kicking game if he is to be used at 12. Canna did in fact get a little more involved with the kicking in the second half, while an early cross-kick from Garbisi also paid dividends. If they can add that variety to their kicks over the next 2 weeks, it will take them a big step closer to that elusive win.

Lions Watch

Just one team to look at from this game, and in the front row, Kyle Sinckler put in a Man of the Match performance, lasting until the 73ʳᵈ minute while performing well in both attack and defence. Meanwhile, out wide, Anthony Watson put in a superb performance, with a crucial interception in defence, while he repeatedly showed the danger that his pace and footwork will present to defences.

On the other hand, Elliot Daly‘s defensive struggles will be a big red flag against a physical South African team, especially with other talented ball-players playing much better at the moment. Meanwhile in the pack, Billy Vunipola‘s impact on the game was extremely limited and it is hard to imagine him beating out CJ Stander for the number 8 jersey.

Six Nations 2021: Wales v Ireland

Six Nations 2021: Wales v Ireland

Round 1 of the 2021 Six Nations came to an end in Cardiff with Wales hosting Ireland at the Principality Stadium. Neither team had a 2020 campaign to be proud of, but it was the Welsh who had the better start, with Leigh Halfpenny kicking an early penalty after Peter O’Mahony was caught entering a ruck from the side. O’Mahony clearly needs to work on his ruck entry, as he was penalised again 10 minutes later for tucking in the arm and making contact with the head of Tomas Francis, leaving Wayne Barnes with no option other than to send him off. The Welsh were buoyed by the man advantage and soon doubled their lead after Jonathan Sexton was penalised for a high tackle on Johnny Williams. They let the Irish claw themselves back into the game however, and Sexton kicked 2 penalties to bring everything level. Then with just a few minutes left in the half, Robbie Henshaw ran a reverse and found a gap in the Welsh defensive line to break into the 22 before offloading to Josh van der Flier. The flanker was stopped just short, but a solid clean-out from the Irish allowed Tadhg Beirne to pick from the base and cross for the opening try, which Sexton converted for a 6-13 halftime lead.

The Welsh came out looking to play a bit more positive rugby after the break, and when they won a loose ball deep in the Irish half, Josh Navidi picked up from the base of the ruck and offloaded to outside centre George North, who used his support me to dummy his way past James Lowe to score in the corner, Halfpenny missing the conversion. 10 minutes later, wales found themselves in a similar position, and some soft hands under pressure from Halfpenny released Louis Rees-Zammit on the wing, who quickly got up to speed and dived in for the go-ahead try under pressure from Tadhg Furlong. Halfpenny added the conversion and a further 3 points just a few minutes later when Tadhg Beirne was harshly adjudged to have entered a ruck from the side. However the Irish hit back and with Jonathan Sexton off the pitch, Billy Burns kicked a penalty to cut the deficit to 5 points. The clock entered the red with Ireland in possession and making their way downfield, eventually winning an 84ᵗʰ minute penalty. Billy Burns went for the corner but overcooked his kick on a tight angle and the ball went out of play over the dead ball line, securing a 21-16 victory for Wales.

Wales

Wales should consider themselves very lucky to have won this game despite having a man advantage for over an hour of the game, because they played this game completely wrong.

With Ireland going down to 14 men so early in the match Wales should have been looking to keep the ball in hand as much as possible, probing along the defensive line to find the gap that will inevitably appear due to the 1-man advantage, whether it is by creating a hole in the middle or catching the defensive line too narrow to create space out wide for Rees-Zammit. In doing this, not only would it have created chances, but it would have also tired the Irish out, creating even more gaps to exploit as the game wore on.

Instead, Wales entered into a kicking duel with the Irish that on the whole they lost, while the Irish would then utilise their own possession and territory to work the Welsh defence as Wales should have been doing to them. It was only a couple of moments in the second half when Wales really played this right – and they finished both of these occasions with tries!

At the end of the day, a win is a win, but for me there are still a lot of questions about the way Wayne Pivac has this team playing.

Ireland

Ireland have such strength in depth throughout this squad, with almost all of the 15 men starting all able to be replaced by someone of similar quality. However, there are 2 key positions where the Irish are struggling to do this: in the half backs.

Though both Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray are in the twilight of their careers and hold the team back against top quality opponents, they are still given all the minutes by Andy Farrell, exactly as was the case under Joe Schmidt. Meanwhile, players in the form of their lives are lucky to make it onto the bench and get just a handful of minutes, usually once the result is secured. If they’re lucky, they may get a start against a team like Italy, but usually in a team so heavily changed that they build no chemistry with the first team players. This lack of chemistry with the first team and lack of minutes in key international matches leads to performances like today, where Billy Burns is brought on with just 10 minutes left and expected to change his natural game to fit into the scheme that has been made to get the best out of Sexton, and leads to extra pressure on their shoulders in situations like today’s final kick to touch, where they know they must be inch-perfect in order to to even stand a chance of being given minutes over the incumbents, and that extra pressure in an unfamiliar situation leads to mistakes.

At some point, Sexton and Murray will be unavailable, either through injuries or retirement. When that moment comes, Andy Farrell may regret having not given the players just below them in the depth chart more time with the first team.

Lions Watch

Tadhg Beirne and Robbie Henshaw were the standout players from this game and were very unlucky that being n the losing side meant they were not considered for Man of the Match, while CJ Stander looked more mobile than last season without losing any of his power. For wales, Alun Wyn Jones put in a true captain’s performance, carrying hard and repeatedly leaving Irish bodies crumpled on the ground following his tackles.

Arguably the biggest loser from this weekend will be Peter O’Mahony, whose red card just highlighted once again that he is not the player he was a few years ago due to the changed interpretations at the breakdown, while larger players like Beirne and Iain Henderson’s ability to cover the back row as well as lock will make them look more attractive against the massive Springbok packs. Similarly, Johnny Williams has a potential to be a bolter for the squad but needs the minutes at international level, so a failed HIA would have been the last thing he wanted, and he will be hoping that he is fit to face Sotland next weekend.

Six Nations 2021: England v Scotland

Six Nations 2021: England v Scotland

England kicked off the defence of their Six Nations title by hosting Scotland. Gregor Townsend’s team showed a vast improvement in 2020 but almost found themselves going behind in the opening seconds as Maro Itoje charged down Ali Price’s clearance, only for Jonny Hill to be penalised for sealing off 5mfrom the line. The Scots cleared their lines and took the game to the Auld Enemy and a series of penalties saw them work their way down the pitch and open the scoring with a Finn Russell penalty. The English indiscipline continued and led to Billy Vunipola being sent to the bin on 24 minutes for persistent offending by the team. Scotland looked to take advantage of the extra man by kicking to the corner, but Hamish Watson was held up on the line and 5 minutes of reset scrums resulted in a Finn Russell cross-kick that bounced just a little too high for even Duhan van der Merwe to claim. The Scots soon got the try they were looking for though, as Sean Maitland beat Jonny May to a high ball on the edge of the England 22, and when the ball was spread wide to van der Merwe, the wing powered through tackles from Elliot Day, Owen Farrell and Mark Wilson to score the only try of the game. Russell was unable to score the conversion from out wide, and when Rory Sutherland gave away a penalty for not rolling away, Owen Farrell kicked the 3 points to get on the scoreboard, before adding another penalty right before the half as Russell was sent to the bin for a trip on Ben Youngs, leaving the halftime score at 6-8, a scoreline that flattered the English.

The Scots had to see out the first 9 minutes of the second half a man down, but did so with aplomb by keeping the ball tight and drawing England into giving away more penalties, which allowed Russell to come back on and immediately kick the team back into a 5-point lead. The rest of the half saw England try – and fail – to produce anything that even resembled attacking play, while the Scots held firm in defence, and though Stuart Hogg’s team missed a couple of kicks at goal and began making a few errors, they were able to hang on for an historic 6-11 win to regain the Calcutta Cup.

England

This was a result that has been coming for England, and Eddie Jones has nobody to blame but himself. Over the last couple of years, he has created a team that actively discourages any form of positive rugby and instead focuses on defensive solidity, forward dominance, accurate kicking – both from hand and at goal – and taking advantage of their opponents errors in order to put points on the board. That’s all well and good, until your pack gets outplayed and you’re the team giving away all the penalties.

Of course, the selection can’t have helped either, with half the team having not played in months due to either the league not playing (the Saracens players who make up a key core of the team) or COVID outbreaks in the squad. This was a team coming in missing crucial rugby fitness and it showed, with flat performances across the board. Owen Farrell looked shell-shocked, Billy Vunipola could only make it just past the hour despite having a 10-minute break in the first half, while Ollie Lawrence and the backs outside him must have been wondering who they had insulted to get so little ball.

An when England so desperately needed an attacking spark coming off the bench, they replace Mark Wilson – a solid defensive player but not an attacking star – with Courtney Lawes, leaving Ben Earl on the bench. For so long, Eddie Jones has got away with his ridiculous selections and tactics by drawing out wins; now that their opponents have rebuilt, England are going to have a much harder run, and it’s time to move onto a coach that selects players on form and looks to play attractive and effective rugby at the same time.

Scotland

In an alternate reality, Cameron Redpath could have been playing for England today, instead he was making his debut for Scotland and playing a key role in the victory. Aged 18, he was called up to Eddie Jones’ England training squad but an ACL injury ruled him out for months. Tied in with the arrival of big names at Sale, he found his chances limited, but a move to Bath has really worked out for him and I feel that switching allegiance to Scotland will work better for him than staying with England as Townsend will do a better job getting the best out of him that Eddie Jones would.

In this match, he really showed England what they were missing, running brilliant lines and always being willing to take the ball on, while also earning a key turnover penalty on halfway that would have stretched the lead to a 2-score claim had Stuart Hogg not kicked wide. He will certainly face bigger challenges in defence, but he already looks like an established international rather than a debutant, and that is the highest of praise.

Could he be in with a shot of a place on the Lions Tour, assuming t goes ahead? I think that this Tour may have just come a little too soon for him, but if he can carry on performing like that, he could certainly push his way in as a late bolter.

Lions Watch

And so with the British and Irish Lions Tour to South Africa due to take place this summer, it is the return of Lions Watch, looking at players whose chances of making the squad were helped or harmed by this game.

As well as Redpath, fellow recent Scotland call-up Duhan van der Merwe showed his quality in attack, with his size and power giving an extra dimension out wide. Hamish Watson continues to shine every time he puts on a Scotland shirt and it’s hard to imagine that his power carrying and doggish determination at the breakdown would not see him make the plane. As for England, Maro Itoje was probably one of the few players to not do himself harm with a performance that saw him solid in defence and putting heavy pressure on Ali Price whenever he was kicking from the base of a ruck. Finally, Stuart Hogg put in such an assured performance including some inch-perfect kicks to touch that really highlighted his quality at a moment when the fullback shirt looks up for the taking.

On the flip side, Owen Farrell‘s struggles may lead to a worry that a lack of top flight rugby will see him fail to reach his heights this summer if he can’t turn things around quickly. Finn Russell had some moments of quality, but his trip on Ben Youngs was a timely reminder that he is not the most solid option in defence, while Ellis Genge may have taken a hit as his struggles against Zander Fagerson in the scrum may outweigh his carrying in the loose when you consider how dangerous a weapon the Springboks scrum is. Finally, Billy Vunipola looked far from fit and very rarely looked a threat with ball in hand – is his time at the top of the game over?

Guinness Six Nations

Six Nations 2021: Italy v France

Six Nations 2021: Italy v France

It may feel like the 2020 Six Nations only just finished, but the 2021 edition kicked off today in Rome as Italy hosted Rome at the Stadio Olimpico.

The French came into the match one of the favourites to win the tournament, and they soon found themselves on the Italian try line, with Dylan Cretin managing to stretch out an arm to dot the ball down over the line under the posts after 6 minutes, Matthieu Jalibert adding the conversion. Jalibert soon added a penalty to the score before his opposing number Paolo Garbisi kicked three points of his own. Italy were missing a number of big names but playing positive rugby and put together a strong series of phases in the French 22, which came to a disappointing end as Michele Lamaro knocked on as he tried to run a crash ball line off a ruck. Italian indiscipline then proved costly as the resultant French scrum became a French lineout in midfield, and another unnecessary penalty gave the French a lineout in the Italian 22. The French set up the maul and as it stalled, Antoine Dupont recognised that Stephen Varney was not covering behind the defensive line, leading to him kicking into the sizeable in-goal area for Gaël Fickou to dot down. Dupont proved decisive again just minutes later as he hacked on an Italian pass that had gone to ground. The bounce beat Azzurri fullback Jacopo Trulla and favoured Gabin Villière, who offloaded to the supporting Dupont. The scrum half was stopped just short, but found Arthur Vincent for try number 3, while Jalibert continued his 100% record off the tee. Dupont did end the half with one blot on his record, however, as Stephen Varney came away from a ruck and snuck down a 5m blind side, selling dummies to both Cyril Baille and Dupont before feeding Monty Ioane to go over in the corner, however TMO Karl Dickson rightly adjudged that the final pass was forward, so the half ended with Les Bleus on top 3-24.

Les Bleus were soon back on the offensive after the break and while Jacopo Trulla managed to beat Teddy Thomas to Brice Dulin’s grubber into the in-goal, it only delayed the inevitable as Dulin and Villière countered an Italian kick just minutes later and Dulin beat everyone to Villière’s kick forward before riding Garbisi’s tackle to secure the bonus point. Just minutes later, the French were scoring again, with Thomas on the loop on first phase from a lineout, outpacing Brex with his outside arc and feeding back inside to Dupont for the try. With the next attack, Jalibert snuck through a gap between the Italian locks to feed the supporting Dupont, and the scrum half duly repaid his debt to Thomas by spreading it to the wing for a try of his own, with Jalibert maintaining his 100% record off the tee before being removed. With the result secured within an hour, a deluge of substitutions affected the flow of the game and the Italians found a reason to cheer as Maxime Mbanda turned the ball over and after a couple of phases, the ball came to Luca Sperandio, who chased his own chip and too it on the full to cross for an Italian try, converted by Garbisi. However, there was time for one more try as France earned a scrum 5m out from the Italian try line. The ball went blind and Brice Dulin bravely ignored the impending smash from Ioane and calmly flicked the ball through his hands to put Thomas over for his second try of the game. Louis Carbonel was unable to kick the conversion from out wide, but it didn’t matter in the long run as France ran out 10-50 winners.

Italy

With so many big names missing – including Jake Polledri, Matteo Minozzi, Braam Steyn and Michele Campagnaro – this was never going to be an easy match for the Azzurri. But rather than do as most do whenever the Six Nations comes around and highlight the score and the negatives of the Italian performance, I am instead going to look at the positive of how they have improved from last tournament.

Frequently in 2020, I found myself lamenting the lack of variation in the Italian attack, with everything either being a 1-off pass to the pack or spreading the ball wide without earning it. However, with exciting stand-off Paolo Garbisi and recognised centres in Marco Zanon and Argentine-born debutant Juan Ignacio Brex, Italy looked much more dangerous and varied in midfield, with all 3 making breaks, while there was also much more variety to how the forwards were getting the ball, with crash balls off both 9 and 10 as well as forwards tipping the ball on or playing it to the backs.

And it was clear that this variety was having an impact, with Italy looking dangerous when able to put the phases together and forcing breaks both out wide and in midfield. There is still room for improvement though, as the players making the break were often lacking the support to fully take advantage of the situation, while the attack also appeared to be stymied by the introduction of Carlo Canna for the injured Zanon early in the second half. With such a young team playing great attacking rugby without their stars, that elusive win may not come in this tournament, but I don’t think that it is far away.

France

There wasn’t much to criticize Les Bleus about in this game, but one thing could be their kicking game. While many of the kicks were competitive, there was also a strikingly large number that found themselves sailing and bouncing into the sizeable in-goals and even over the dead ball line. It could have been even worse at many stadia as the Stadio Olimpico in-goals almost doubled the length of the pitch, so even more scrums could have been given away in dangerous areas had they been playing on another pitch.

Maybe it was a tactic to kick deep and force the Azzurri to play from deep, maybe it was unfamiliarity with the ball – the balls have shown some horrifically unpredictable bounces over these first 2 games – or maybe it was a bit too much exuberance from the youngsters, but the French need to remember that their players can already kick the living **** out of the ball and may want to work on taking a little length off their kicks during training this week, otherwise a more dangerous team could take advantage of the free possession and territory.

Guinness Six Nations