Six Nations 2020: England v Ireland

Six Nations 2020: England v Ireland

Round 3 of the 2020 Six Nations came to an end in Twickenham with the visit of Ireland. Andy Farrell’s men came in off the back of a great performance against Wales, but soon found themselves behind after they failed to deal with a Ben Youngs grubber, gifting George Ford a try. Issues with England’s kicking game continued and led to a try for Elliot Daly, while in attack, they rarely looked dangerous, going in 17-0 down at half time. Things evened out a little in the second half, with Robbie Henshaw soon crashing over for a try, but England’s pack and backs bundled Luke Cown-Dickie over the line from 5 metres out to secure the win. A late try for Andre Porter giving the score a bit more respectability, with John Cooney kicking the conversion to bring an end to the game, England emerging 24-12 winners to become the only team still capable of winning the Triple Crown.

England

Does Eddie Jones actually understand what a number 8 does? With Billy Vunipola missing the tournament through injury, many – myself included – were shocked at the lack of a specialist number 8 in the squad for the tournament, especially given the form of Alex Dombrandt and Sam Simmonds. With Ben Earl in incredible form for Sarries and having experience across the back row, I assumed that he was being given the shot at 8, but that chance has instead gone to Tom Curry, who has started all 3 games at the position.

Now fair play to Curry, he has looked better at the position by the week, but he is still not a specialist number 8 and it is clearly limiting the team’s options, as England have barely used the number 8 pick-up option over the first 3 rounds of the tournament, especially in an attacking sense. With England putting themselves in a comfortable position at the hour mark, it was surely time to let Ben Earl show what he could do at the position. Instead, he as kept on the bench for almost another 10 minutes and the number 8 role went to… Charlie Ewels! Certainly he added some heft to the back of the scrum, but again his inclusion at the position is limiting the effectiveness of the England scrum.

Right now, I can’t even begin to imagine how demoralising it must be for Earl and even more so for Simmonds, Dombrandt and Zach Mercer to see that the national team’s head coach will prioritise players with no/limited experience at the position even at club level over players who are putting in starring performances at the position week in, week out.

How many more players will we see thrown in at number 8 ahead of a specialist? Hopefully none, but this is Eddie Jones we’re talking about. If he is to try one more though, I’ll keep my fingers crossed for Ellis Genge – just imagine the destruction he would cause picking up from the base of a scrum!

Ireland

When the game is collapsing around you and everything is going wrong, you turn to your stars and leadership group on the field. But what if they are the ones causing the problem? What were they bringing to the team in this match?

  • Conor Murray looked horribly off form. His famed kicking game was woefully wayward and gifting England possession in good areas, while he could not up the pace enough to catch out the England defensive line
  • Jonathan Sexton looked anything but a former World Rugby Player of the Year. His inability to deal with a grubber into the dead ball area gifted George Ford a try, his kicking at goal was so horribly shanked to the left I was left wondering if he was seeing double and his control of the back line was best summed up with him slipping on his butt when missing a boot
  • CJ Stander’s biggest impacts in the game were the ones he made with his right hand on Owen Farrell. Yes there was provocation from Farrell, but Stander was lucky not to be penalised
  • Cian Healy (whose impact was limited by an early injury) and Tadhg Furlong were overpowered by the English pack
  • James Ryan was more noticeable for his torpedoing into breakdowns and his picking fights than he was for any actual rugby

That just isn’t good enough from a set of key players. I have been arguing that John Cooney should have been the starting scrum half all tournament, and he clearly improved the team dynamic after he came on, upping the pace to help them get behind the defence, while he as also nailed his only attempted kick at goal, a much more difficult one than one of Sexton’s missed kicks. Likewise, Caelan Doris added something late on with his carrying, making more metres per carry than anyone else in the Irish pack.

This has to be the moment when Andy Farrell moves on from some of Joe Schmidt’s stalwarts and brings in the new blood that can help the team moving forward. Will he make the swaps, or will he continue to show faith with the tried and tested players?


My standout players

As I mentioned above, John Cooney‘s introduction certainly improved the Irish performance during the second half, which should now begin his time in the 9 shirt, while Bundee Aki but in a strong defensive performance, making 10 tackles and causing issues at the breakdown, while carrying hard to try and create a platform.

For England, Manu Tuilagi‘s big hits and bigger carries set England up to dominate the game, while Man of the Match Courtney Lawes appeared to carry harder than usual, looking more at home in the 6 shirt. Similar to Gaël Fickou yesterday, I think that Jonathan Joseph put in a strong performance out of position on the left wing, with some good sniping runs in attack, while he also benefited from not really being tested by the Irish kicking game. For the last 2 picks, I’d still prefer an actual back row and winger to play the positions, but their performances today deserved recognition.

Six Nations 2020: Wales v France

Six Nations 2020: Wales v France

We reached the halfway point of the 2020 Six Nations on Saturday with France’s trip to Wales. France’s young guns came into this match with 2 victories under their belt and took an early lead as Wales’ failure to deal with a high ball led to Anthony Bouthier’s early try, while Paul Willemse crashed over from short range, Dan Biggar’s boot keeping Wales just in touch, with a 9-17 halftime score. Romain Ntamack added a try and a further 5 points off the tee, and though Dan Biggar replied with a try and conversion of his own, France managed to hold on in the final minutes and Camille Chat earned a penalty at the breakdown with the clock in the red to secure a 23-27 victory and keep their Grand Slam hopes alive.

Wales

Wayne Pivac had great success with the Scarlets playing an expansive gameplan, but it’s not quite clicked yet for Wales. In this match, the attack looked very poor. Despite fantastic attacking talents like Gareth Davies, Nick Tompkins, Johnny McNicholl and Josh Adams in the backs, the attack often looked panicky trying to deal with France’s blitz defence.

If Wales set up the breakdown, then France were often able to reset and blitz again, pushing the Welsh back, but the team cohesiveness was not there to keep the ball moving out of the tackle with the sheer number of offloads the team was trying to throw. To me, this came back to an issue that I think Wales have been finding of late: they do not have enough physical ball carriers. They certainly have players like Alun Wyn Jones and Ken Owens, who will carry all day, but they are not going to push the gain line back in a way that for example the Irish pack of CJ Stander, Tadhg Furlong, Cian Healy and James Ryan will, which makes it hard for Wales to get on the front foot.

Right now, George North has become a shadow of the player he used to be and this latest concussion could be accelerating the end of his international career. Hadleigh Parkes is currently one of the only players regularly making metres in the tighter areas. Personally, I think that Ross Moriarty is being used in too much of a defensive role and a couple of late carries were a good reminder of how destructive he can be when allowed to carry in attack, while I also think that Taulupe Faletau is yet to reach anything near his best following his injury nightmares and so I think another stronger carrier like Aaron Wainwright would help this team create the platform that they are currently missing.

I will be interesting to see if any changes are made ahead of Round 4.

France

Last week I mentioned how Wales really seem to be missing Shaun Edwards, this week we got to see just how much France are benefiting from having him.

The French team are full of physical players through the pack and midfield, which combined with an organised blitz defence to continually push Wales back towards their own line, making a whopping 177 tackles over the 80 minutes. They are not yet the finished article as they are giving away more penalties than you would expect from a Shaun Edwards defence and maybe aren’t hitting the tackle completion percentages Edwards woudl want (they finished on 87%), but even when they were down to 14 men (on 2 occasions!) they defended admirably and rarely looked in real trouble.

This defence will just get better over the next couple of seasons as the players gain more international experience and get to spend more time with Edwards. This is a team on their way to being world-beaters.


My standout players

For Wales, the back row pairing of Ross Moriarty and Justin Tipuric put in strong defensive performances while also making some dangerous carries in attack, while Hadleigh Parkes once again Carried hard in midfield to try creating a platform for the team.

For France, Antoine Dupont and Man of the Match Romain Ntamack controlled the game almost perfectly, while Gaël Fickou actually appeared more involved from his left wing position than he had at centre the last few weeks. Meanwhile, fullback Anthony Bouthier answered the questions that the Welsh kicking game asked of him, while asking questions of his own and scoring an important early try.

Six Nations 2020: Italy v Scotland

Six Nations 2020: Italy v Scotland

The Six Nations returned after a week off with our first trip to Rome in 2020. Scotland and Italy have generally shared the Wooden Spoon between them most years since the tournament took its current form, and the first 2 rounds made that likely to be the case again this year.

In a tight affair, Stuart Hogg put Scotland ahead with a wonderful solo attack on 23 minutes for the only points of the first half. The game continued in much the same way in the second half: Scotland and Italy both fighting hard for possession and territory with limited success in each other’s 22, though Chris Harris did manage to power himself over for a try 7 minutes after halftime. Then in the dying minute, a final attack from Italy was turned over and Adam Hastings was able to sneak away down the blind side to score and convert a try for an eventual 0-17 victory.

Italy

It’s never nice to see a player give the shepherd’s crook early in a game, but sometimes a player’s performance will be so bad, there is no way they can be kept on the pitch. Sadly, that was the case today for young Italian tighthead Giosuè Zilocchi. He may be great in the loose, but the Zebre prop put in one of the worst scrummaging performances I have seen in professional rugby. Every scrum saw him set up with his legs so far back that his body was almost perfectly aligned from head to toe – not a good scrummaging position at all as it left him unable to keep the scrum up the moment it began to move on his side. By the time that he had been replaced at the half-hour mark, he had already given away 3 penalties.

I can understand why the coaching staff want him involved, as he showed his abilities in the loose when an injury to his replacement Marco Riccioni forced him back on for the final 25 minutes (which were thankfully light on scrums), but with the scrum such a vital part of the game, play like that made him a liability.

This performance from Zilocchi has left me with some big questions. Has he been scrummaging like this in training or did this suddenly happen in the match? If this has happened out of nowhere in the match, why has this happened? If this has been happening in training, why was he selected if the coaches had not been able to get him scrummaging properly? The coaching team have had limited time with the squad, but this was something that would be obvious to an observer.

Hopefully Zilocchi can improve his technique over the coming fortnight.

Scotland

What has happened to this Scotland side? Even though they have struggled to win games at times over the last few years, one of their big positives has been the tries they score. Now they are seriously struggling to cross the line. Their 3 tries in this game were their first in the tournament… and even 2 of these were from counterattacks rather than structured attacking play – Stuart Hogg exploiting a mismatch when running back a kick and Adam Hastings sneaking away down the blind side following a turnover.

I’ve talked about how Scotland needed to get more of a balance to the squad between hard runners and flair players – which they now have – and supporting better around the park, but despite this, they could still barely break down the Italian defence. For me, some big changes need making over these final 2 rounds: Rory Hutchinson needs to be given a starting spot and Darcy Graham needs to return to the wing if he is fit.

Ideally as well would be the return of Finn Russell, but it doesn’t look like that will be happening while Gregor Townsend remains in charge. Right now, that could sound the death knell for Townsend’s time as head coach.


My standout players

Such was the disappointment in Scotland’s performance, the only players who really stood out to me for them were flankers Hamish Watson (who was named Man of the Match) and Jamie Ritchie, who made the breakdown a nightmare for the Italians with a number of turnovers, while they also played key roles in one of Scotland’s more promising attacks.

For Italy, the back three of Matteo Minozzi, Jayden Hayward and Mattia Bellini were limited in their chances to attack, but took them well when they arose, looking far more exciting than their opposite numbers. Bellini especially showed a set of hips that Shakira would be proud of on one first half break. Jake Polledri continued to stand out with his strong carrying and tireless tackling as well as a couple of big turnovers, while replacement back row Giovanni Licata also contributed well tot he defensive effort and made some big carries late in the game, so much so that I would love to see him start in the back row with Polledri and Braam Steyn in Round 4.

A Big Decision for Wayne Pivac

A Big Decision for Wayne Pivac

Wayne Pivac is having some horrible luck in his early games in charge of Wales. Going into only his 4ᵗʰ match in Round 3 of the Six Nations, it looks like he may have only 1 fit fly half. But how did he get here and what are his options?

Falling like dominoes

Things were already going wrong at fly half for Pivac before he even took charge of the team, with Gareth Anscombe picking up a serious knee injury in the World Cup Warm-ups that will keep him out for the season. Going into the Six Nations, he also found himself missing Rhys Patchell, who is still recovering from shoulder surgery.

Then in Round 2 of the Six Nations, things reached breaking point for Wales as Dan Biggar went off in the first half for a HIA and didn’t return. With this being his 3ʳᵈ concussion in a short space of time (he suffered knocks in the World Cup against Australia and Fiji), they are understandably being careful in managing his recovery, putting his chances of passing the return to play protocols in time for this weekend’s match against France in doubt. That wasn’t all though as Gloucester fly half/centre Owen Williams, who has only recently returned from a long injury lay-off, tore his hamstring in the warm-up before the Ireland match.

This means that the only recognised fly half in the squad who is currently fit is 23-year-old Jarrod Evans, who has just a handful of caps to his name.

Calling for reinforcements

While this is a big opportunity for Evans, Wales need to call someone up to cover him from the bench. The big talk that has come up over the weekend is that Wayne Pivac will try to use the exceptional circumstances of having 4 fly halves injured to allow him to bring Rhys Priestland into the squad despite being based outside Wales and having less than the required 60 caps.

While Priestland is a quality player and brings so much experience, I don’t understand this decision form Pivac and hope that he is not allowed to call Priestland up. At 33, and playing for Bath, it is unlikely that he will gain any more caps once Biggar is back, so surely Pivac should take this as an opportunity to look at an eligible option who could look to put themselves in contention over the coming years.

Just a couple of years ago, Sam Davies was fighting with Dan Biggar for the number 10 jersey, but he fell out of favour and lost form. He made the decision to move to the Dragons rather than take a more lucrative option outside Wales, and at 26 he still has plenty of years of international rugby ahead of him. Picking Priestland ahead of him would be a kick in the teeth, whereas bringing him back into the fold, even if just for a match or 2, could be just what Davies needs to fire himself into contention moving forward.

Alternatively, Pivac could look to the West Country for a fly half who would be eligible. Bristol’s Callum Sheedy has played for Ireland U19s and Wales U16s, and has been a key part of the Bears’ recent success. At 24, he is just hitting his prime and would be a great addition to the squad. He has played for England, but that was in an uncapped XV, so he is still available for Wales. Bringing him in and getting him a cap now would be another one stolen from England hot on the heels of Nick Tompkins, while also all-but assuring that another talented fly half would be returning to Wales at the end of his current Bristol contract. It’s a win-win situation.

Finally, Pivac could look back to his old club, the Scarlets, for another young fly half he knows well: Dan Jones. I don’t think Jones would usually come into the international discussion, but desperate times call for desperate measures and his familiarity with the new Wales coaching staff’s tactics may just give the former Wales U20 stand-off an advantage coming in at the eleventh hour.

 

With 3 first choice 10s missing, Pivac will not be judged too harshly, so he should take the chance to add one of these 3 options to his squad to see what they could do. With at least 1 of his fly halves likely to be on the Lions Tour, he may need to look back to this player next summer, so he may as well get them in now.

Who would you call up if you were in Pivac’s position?

Six Nations 2020: France v Italy

Six Nations 2020: France v Italy

The 2ⁿᵈ round of the 2020 Six Nations came to an end in Paris as Italy took on France. Les Bleus took an early lead through the boot of Romain Ntamack before Teddy Thomas and Charles Ollivon crossed to give them a handy advantage. Italy grew into the game and Matteo Minozzi crossed to make it a contest, before Grégory Alldritt’s try just before half time. The second half was a much closer affair. Ntamack crossed to secure a bonus point for France, before a series of French penalties led to a try for Federico Zani.

Italy frequently found themselves (wrongly) on the wrong side of the officials’ decisions as the game went on, with referee Andrew Brace ignoring/missing (honestly it happened so often in the match, I’m not certain!) a number of French offences that allowed them to push the Italians right back, and a late try from substitute Baptiste Serin secured the game for Italy, despite a late try from Mattia Bellini, the game ending 35-22.

France

Romain Ntamack is a fantastic young player and is doing a good job of leading the French back line despite not always being considered the starting fly half for Toulouse yet. However, he is not yet perfect and in a closer game, his goal kicking could prove to be an issue.

Granted, this match was not the ideal conditions for a goal kicker, but Ntamack ended the game with just 3/7 successful kicks, missing a couple that an international kicker would be expected to nail. Even one of those successful kicks needed a double-doink off both posts to ensure it went through! When the game became a tight affair in the second half, it looked like those missed kicks could potentially prove costly, and it seemed to hit his confidence a little, causing further errors in his game as the team dropped off. Luckily for France it didn’t prove costly this weekend, but it is certainly possible that one of their remaining matches could come down to goal kicking. Ntamack is not the first choice kicker at Toulouse, so will this lead to a change for France in Round 3?

There are certainly options. Thomas Ramos could come in at 15, but he currently seems down the pecking order. Baptiste Serin is an adept kicker, but has the issue of competing for the 9 jersey with Antione Dupont, who is arguably one of the best scrum halves in the world right now. Another option would be to bring in Matthieu Jalibert or Louis Carbonel at fly half. While they could drop Ntamack from the bench in this final case, I also think that they could look to move him to 12, as Gaël Fickou has had a limited impact so far, so a change to a dual-playmaker system could help unleash a back line that includes (when they are all fit) Damian Penaud, Virimi Vakatawa and Teddy Thomas.

Italy

Sometimes, I really don’t know what Italy are trying to do. Early in the game, the Azzurri seriously struggled to make any ground as they were unable to get around the French blitz defence. The blitz was also making Tommaso Allan stand very deep when looking to kick the ball clear. This meant that it was even harder for him to make ground with the pressure coming on him. and yet it took forever for Callum Braley to start taking charge and box kicking himself in dangerous situations.

Similarly, Carlo Canna is the last person I would think of if I heard the phrase “crash ball centre” but he was frequently used as such in this game – honestly I’m surprised that he lasted the full 80 minutes in one piece! And once again, the game began with Italy sending one-out forward runners into the heart of the French defence. I was worried that this game could become a bloodbath.

Then in the 24ᵗʰ minute, things began to change. Jake Polledri took the ball on the blind side, but instead of crashing forward, he turned and played the ball out to Allan, catching out the blitzing French and leading to Minozzi’s try. Then as the game went on, Italy seemed to be supporting their runners with more intent, quick ball was produced and the forwards used this to make even more ground, adding in offloads out of the tackle and off the floor.

Unfortunately, the officials were either incapable or unwilling to referee the 2 teams equally and a number of promising attacks were unfairly ended by the French, to the point that I feel the Italians can consider themselves hard done by to come away with nothing from the game.

After seeing such positive results, hopefully we will see more of this more varied game from Italy in 2 weeks.


My standout players

It’s no real surprise to see Antoine Dupont and Matteo Minozzi featuring in this section as they are absolute live-wires on a weekly basis.

Jake Polledri was a big par of Italy’s success, with a whopping 25 tackles and also 11 carries, many of which helped put Italy on the front foot.

Finally, Carlo Canna deserves some recognition for his variety of play, helping Allan control the back line and spreading the ball to the wings, but also doing a good job of crashing the ball up the middle to keep the French defence guessing, though I imagine he’ll be feeling it tomorrow!

Six Nations 2020: Scotland v England

Six Nations 2020: Scotland v England

Saturday’s second Round 2 match was a battle between Scotland and England at Murrayfield. The poor weather may have held off for the opening game of the day in Dublin, but it was at Edinburgh in full force, leading to a game full of handling errors and (often misplaced) kicks.

England went into halftime with a 0-3 lead, with Owen Farrell having missed a couple of penalties kicking into the wind, but the Scots came out firing in the second half and Adam Hastings pulled them level, but the Scots could not take advantage of their superiority and open up a lead, which proved costly as another mistake from Stuart Hogg put England in position for Ellis Genge to drive over for the only try of the game, leaving Hastings to kick a late penalty to earn a losing bonus point, with the final score 6-13.

Scotland

If you ever wanted to see the impact that momentum has on a game, you just need to watch the second half of this game. Coming out for the second half 0-3 down and playing into the wind, Scotland should have been in a worrying position, but an early break from Rory Sutherland put them right on the front foot and they refused to let up the pressure. They eventually came away with 3 points from that attack, but their tails were up and they were making the right calls, coping with the weather far better than England, who were continually kicking the ball out on the full. To fuel this momentum even more, Stuart Hogg made a great break down the left after fielding a kick, stepping his way past both Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph before slotting a grubber kick between Jonny May and George Furbank to the corner.

Scotland kept the pressure on, but the momentum started to shift as referee Pascal Gaüzère inexplicably missed/allowed the most obvious of rips on the floor from Kyle Sinckler 5m out from the England line, allowing England to clear deep into the Scotland half. The momentum then switched completely as Stuart Hogg completely failed to deal with a questioning kick from England, almost conceding a try but instead giving England a 5m scrum, which led to Genge’s try. Suddenly after this, it was Scotland who were unable to deal with the conditions and the call to take the 3 points with a late penalty was definitely the right one as it allowed them to come away from the match with something.

Obviously it’s not often that Scotland will play in such terrible conditions and they should be happy at how well they adapted to them, but they will look back at this as a game they should have won and they need to find ways to control the momentum of the game better.

England

Only England could come away from this match with a thoroughly undeserved win. This team completely failed to deal with the conditions and can consider themselves lucky that a couple of key moments went in their favour.

“Did I ever tell you what the definition of insanity is? Insanity is doing the exact same f***ing thing over and over again, expecting s*** to change. That is crazy.”

Vaas Montenegro – Far Cry 3

Watching this game, I couldn’t help feel that the coaches had drilled into the team to focus on kicking for the corners to turn the defence or putting the ball up high to test their handling… to the point that nobody on the pitch had the strength of leadership to move away from this tactic. After Elliot Daly made a great break down the left wing, there was a great chance for England to work an overlap to put Jonny May over in the corner, but Owen Farrell instead chose to put a grubber into the corner. Playing with the wind behind them in the second half, Willi Heinz put 3 touchline box kicks out on the full, while Owen Farrell, George Ford and Elliot Daly all found their kicks going too long with astounding regularity.

Last week, England tried to run Jonathan Joseph hard at the France defence as if he was Manu Tuilagi. This week, they refused to go away from a kicking game that wasn’t working. How many more times will England continue to just do the same thing over and over again when it’s clearly not working?

Did I ever tell you what the definition of insanity is?


My standout players

In a day of horrible conditions, I need to give some respect to Adam Hastings for running the Scotland attack so well and dealing with the weather far better than England’s more experienced playmakers.

Tom Curry had a much better game at the back of the scrum and caused some mayhem at the breakdown alongside Sam Underhill.

The big standout player for me, though, was George Furbank. After a debut to forget last week, these kind of conditions were the last thing he would have anted, but he dealt with them well and really grew into the game, looking one of the more assured players in the England back line.

Six Nations 2020: Ireland v Wales

Six Nations 2020: Ireland v Wales

The 2ⁿᵈ weekend of the 2020 Six Nations kicked off with a match begin 2 of Round 1’s winning teams. Wales travelled to the Aviva Stadium, but after a close start they found themselves going behind after Jordan Larmour stepped his way through Nick Tompkins’ attempted tackle for the opening try. Tomos Williams soon crossed and Dan Biggar converted to give Wales the lead, but it was short-lived as Tadhg Furlong barrelled over to put the Irish back ahead. The second half saw the home team pull away with tries from Josh van der Flier and Andrew Conway either side of a disallowed Hadeigh Parkes try, while Justin Tipuric crossed with the final play of the game to make the final score of 24-14 look more respectable.

Ireland

For so long, Wales have been one of the best teams in the Northern Hemisphere when it comes to the breakdown. Though they had some success early in the game, it was generally as an Irish player found themselves isolated. When the breakdown became a contest, Ireland were largely dominant.

Perhaps it helps that they have an extremely physical pack and midfield when Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw are on the pitch, but whatever it is, it is hard to stop. I was critical of CJ Stander last season, but he has looked back to his best in these first 2 rounds and was the real stand-out player on Saturday. Every time Wales got something going, it felt like Stander was there bent over the man on the floor, winning the ball back or earning the Irish a penalty. Yes, he was pinged a couple of times, resulting in a late yellow card, but even a couple of those decisions were very close (by the standards that you see at every other breakdown, even if technically the calls were correct).

With Josh van der Flier and Peter O’Mahony taking responsibility for the majority of the tackling in the back row, it allows Stander to focus on winning the ball back. The one thing this back row does lack though is significant carrying metres. It will be interesting to see how the back row’s performance changes if Caelan Doris is given that starting spot back in favour of Peter O’Mahony in Round 3.

Wales

While the big talk has been about the change of head coach from Warren Gatland to Wayne Pivac, what probably hasn’t been discussed enough is the loss of Shaun Edwards to France. Byron Hayward may be a great coach, but he is replacing arguably one of the best defensive coaches in the game and it will take time for him to settle at international level. His case certainly isn’t helped either by having some key personnel like Jonathan Davies missing.

While it is still early days, it looks like the defensive organisation needs a lot of work over the next couple of weeks. I can’t remember the last time I saw the team defend so narrow!Right from the opening minutes, Ireland were finding joy spreading the ball wide and getting around the edge of the Welsh defensive line. I can’t help wonder if this was the case against Italy as well, but just not as obvious as the Italians allowed the defence to drift better.

Why did they defend like this? Had they predicted a tighter game due to the predicted adverse weather conditions? Were they trying to defend super narrow to deal with the physicality of the Irish pack and midfield? Or is Hayward seriously miscalculating his players’ ability to cover the width of the pitch effectively from a narrow starting point?

With France up next and likely coming in off the back of 2 wins with one of the most dangerous back lines in the competition, Wales need to sort their defence out quickly.


My standout players

As I’ve already mentioned, CJ Stander was superb in his defensive work and is really looking back to his best.

Jordan Larmour continues to look assured in the starting lineup and appears to ave made the 15 shirt his own, while his fellow back 3 member Andrew Conway appears to be doing the same with the 14 shirt, putting in a great 2-way performance and making some fantastic clearing kicks.

While Wales had a poor day, Alun Wyn Jones put in another majestic performance, completing 22/23 tackles while also playing an important role in the attack with some strong carrying and deft offloads.

Hadleigh Parkes also looked back to his best after an injury-disrupted World Cup, putting in a strong defensive performance and also being the team’s primary carrier with 16 carries for 27 metres.

Six Nations 2020: France v England

Six Nations 2020: France v England

The first round of the 2020 Six Nations came to a close in Paris with France taking on England on Sunday. Les Bleus came into the tournament with a new coaching team (including Shaun Edwards, William Servat and head coach Fabien Galthié) and a heavily changed squad full of young, inexperienced players, whereas Eddie Jones’ attempts to pick almost the same 23 as he did in the World Cup Final were hampered by injuries to both Vunipolas and Anthony Watson.

Another name was soon added to the English injury list as Manu Tuilagi was replaced by Jonathan Joseph after just 15 minutes, by which point a try for Vincent Rattez – who had been promoted from the bench after a late injury to Damian Penaud – had put the French ahead. New France captain Charles Ollivon crossed for 2 tries, before Jonny May restored some English pride with 2 tries out of nowhere, allowing Owen Farrell to kick a penalty with the clock expired to earn a bonus point, the game ending in a 24-17 victory for the home team.

France

Jefferson Poirot and Demba Bamba are 2 fantastic props in open play. Bamba is a wrecking ball who will carry and tackle hard, while Poirot managed to earn 2 penalties with his poaching at the breakdown. While these are both fantastic qualities, the first job of a prop is at scrum time… and here, they struggled. With Cyril Baille and Mohammed Haouas starting, the scrums were relatively even, but after the swaps were made in the 49ᵗʰ minute, the England scrum became dominant and was pushing the French back with ease.

Bamba is still a very young prop with limited top flight experience, so I only expect him to improve over the coming years as he gets to spend more time working with elite scrummaging coaches, but in the meantime the coaches must be careful not to leave him too exposed in the set piece. The scrum did appear to shore itself up somewhat with the change at hooker from Julien Marchand to Peato Mauvaka. Assuming that Camille Chat takes the starting spot back when he is fit, it will be interesting to see if Marchand or Mauvaka is selected as his replacement.

England

“Test match rugby requires experience and France have decided not to take experience in, they’ve gone with youth. And they might be wrong, they might right. We don’t know but it’s going to test those young players because they will have never have played against a brutal physicality and intensity that we are going to play with on Sunday.

This is not domestic rugby. You don’t get that intensity in domestic rugby. That’s why you call it Test rugby. You don’t get that in Under-20s competitions. So at stages they’re going to be looking at each other wanting to know where the answers are going to come from. There are not too many of them who have experienced that before. They don’t have the experienced players to call on to say “what do you do?” and that’s going to be our intent.

We played with that brutal physicality for the last four years and we just want to get better at it.”

Eddie Jones, 2019

Those were the words of Eddie Jones in the week preceding this match. Perhaps if he had spent more time ensuring he had picked the best possible squad rather than throwing verbal grenades at the French, England may have actually turned up. Instead, most of the players looked like their heads were still in Japan, or looking ahead to Championship rugby next season.

From the moment the wider squad was selected, I was nervous at the lack of specialised number 8 in this squad. What this match showed me is that Tom Curry is not the answer at this level, as he never looked comfortable at the base of the scrum. I have never really been comfortable with the use of Maro Itoje or Courtney Lawes as a starting international 6, and this performance from Lawes did nothing to change that as the back row never felt balanced. Meanwhile Ben Youngs continued to show that he is not good enough to be the starting scrum half for England at this point (Willi Heinz upped the tempo massively with his introduction and made considerably less errors) and Elliot Daly looked so woefully off form that the question shouldn’t be if he is a 15, but instead if he has a place in this 23!

Performances over recent seasons have shown the importance of a couple of big ball carriers to this squad, so it’s no surprise to see that England’s attack disappeared the moment that Manu Tuilagi went off injured. The squad was left with nobody who could carry for the hard metres, while Alex Dombrandt was putting his feet up after a 2-try performance for Harlequins in the Premiership Rugby Cup semifinal earlier that afternoon. Regardless of Manu Tuilagi’s status for next weekend (but especially if he is unavailable), Eddie Jones needs to look at bringing in some big ball carriers for next week. Though neither was in the wider squad, I think this week showed the need to bring in either Sam Simmonds or Alex Dombrandt to play at 8, while Ellis Genge and Luke Cowan-Dickie should also be looking to start in order to provide more carrying options. Heck, even throwing in Ollie Thorley woul provide a more physical option in the back line.

Will Jones make the necessary changes? I won’t hold my breath.


My standout players

About the only player who came away from this game with an enhanced reputation for England was Jonny May, whose 2 tries from nowhere allowed England to come away with a much more respectable scoreline than they deserved.

For France, scrum half Antoine Dupont controlled the game well (bar one moment at the end where the stadium clock was inaccurate), put in a huge tackle on Willi Heinz when England had a chance to score and also tore the defence apart with one great break, which led directly to Ollivon’s second try.

Captain Charles Ollivon also deserves praise as he led the team from the front, winning a number of lineouts and also carrying for more metres than anyone else on the pitch on his way to scoring 2 tries.

Six Nations 2020: Ireland v Scotland

Six Nations 2020: Ireland v Scotland

Ireland kicked off their first Six Nations campaign under Andy Farrell with a match at home against Scotland. The two teams faced off in their first match at the Rugby World Cup, where Ireland thoroughly outplayed their fellow Home Nation, but this was a much closer affair.

Scotland had some disruptions in the build-up to the match with Finn Russell being stood down for “breaching team protocol”, but his replacement Adam Hastings gave Scotland an early lead off the tee before Johnny Sexton crossed the whitewash for a try which he converted – he went on to score all of Ireland’s points in this match. Stuart Hogg was the new Scotland captain after having asked for the role and it looked like he had scored a try of his own, only for replays to show that he has lost possession of the ball as he went over – a costly error as Ireland went on to win 19-12.

Ireland

When I looked at Ireland in my RWC2019 Debriefs, I mentioned that I felt the time of relying on Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton should be coming to an end for Ireland. Apparently Andy Farrell thought otherwise as he chose to stick with both of them, despite having one of the form players in Europe (John Cooney) in his squad.

In this match, I wouldn’t necessarily criticise the performances of either player, nor Peter O’Mahony or Devin Toner – who was left out of the World Cup squad – but I also don’t feel that any of them put in truly standout performances, aside from Murray and Sexton’s link for the try. To be frank, Ireland were there for the taking and were lucky that Scotland struggled in a key area (more on that below).

Personally, I thought that Cooney really improved the tempo when he was introduced for the last quarter, while Jordan Larmour gave a real spark in the 15 jersey that it looks like he has inherited from Rob Kearney. Right now, I’m not sure if someone is ready to step up and replace Sexton, but they need to start getting regular gametime to build up that experience. If I was Andy Farrell, I would take advantage of Cooney’s form to bring him into the 9 shirt and make him a fixture in the XV this season. That way, they can build to make the transition to a new 10 as Sexton (probably) tours with the Lions.

Scotland

Last year, Scotland’s issue was that they did not have the right balance to their team. They did not have the physical carriers to help them earn the right to go wide. Against Ireland this weekend, the balance as there and Scotland were fully able to hold their own against the Irish. Unfortunately, it looks like they are still trying to get used to this.

While they often got into the Irish 22, the only time they made it across the line was when Stuart Hogg knocked on. Otherwise, a number of attacks came to an end as Ireland managed to get latched onto the tackled ball carrier and either complete the turnover or win the penalty. This happened far too often and arguably cost the Scots the game.

Scotland need to make sure that as well as trucking it up the middle, they are getting the support men there to secure quick ball. If they can make this little change, they will be deadly!


My standout players

CJ Stander was another player who I had previously said needed to step up and earn his place back, and he certainly did that on Saturday, carrying hard and regularly while also earning a couple of key turnovers, all while having to adapt from playing 6 to moving to number 8 just a few minutes in following Caelan Doris’ early head injury.

The aforementioned Jordan Larmour also put in another strong counterattacking performance at 15 and will have put himself in a good position to make the position his own for the coming years.

For Scotland, Adam Hastings put in an assured performance, controlling the game well and putting his team in the right areas of the pitch. His performance here should reassure Scotland fans that they can still be competitive without Finn Russell if his absence continues.

In the back row, Hamish Waston continued to show himself to be one of the key players on the team. The flanker was a constant nuisance at rucks and mauls and one great break was a timely reminder of his ability with ball in hand.

Six Nations 2020: Wales v Italy

Six Nations 2020: Wales v Italy

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.

Wales

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.

Italy

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.