Six Nations 2020: 6 to Watch

Six Nations 2020: 6 to Watch

It’s that time of year again: the Six Nations is just one week away! This season will see 4 of the 6 nations going into the tournament with new head coaches as everybody looks to move on from the 2019 Rugby World Cup and begin a 4-year build towards glory in France in 2023.

It has become a custom of mine to look at each nation’s squad ahead of the tournament to pick out one player per team that is not widely known on the international scene, but that you should keep an eye on this season. Do you think I missed someone? Let me know in the comments.

England

England come into the tournament with 8 uncapped players in their squad, but I think the one most likely to have an impact on this Six Nations is Ben Earl. The 22-year-old covers the entire back row and with no specialist number 8 in the squad, I think that he has a very good chance of making the shirt his own throughout the tournament. He has been developing well at Sarries for a couple of seasons, but this has truly been his breakout season and after 8 rounds of Premiership Rugby action, he is the top try scorer (6) and joint 2ⁿᵈ (but top among just forwards) for clean breaks (12). While combining him with Tom Curry and Sam Underhill may leave a back row with limited international experience, it is one that should never be taken lightly.

France

So this is a bit of a difficult one as France have selected a whopping 19 uncapped players, but due to Top 14 rugby not being available to watch in the UK currently, I have had limited opportunity to see these players in action. Matthieu Jalibert and Louis Carbonel create a great trio of young fly halves along with Romain Ntamack. For this pick, I have gone with Camille Chat, who is a little more experienced with 26 caps to his name, but has often been second fiddle to former captain Guilhem Guirado. Already and experience international but now given the chance to come out of his shadow, Chat has a chance to show his quality and become the man at hooker for the next 2 World Cup cycles.

Ireland

If Andy Farrell wants to be taken seriously as Ireland’s new head coach, then Conor Murray’s tenure as Ireland’s starting scrum half will be coming to an end, with John Cooney taking over the number 9 shirt. The Ulster halfback is one of the form players in Europe at the moment, with 5 tries and a super-reliable boot leaving him the top point scorer from the Champions Cup pool stages. Murray and Johnny Sexton are not getting any younger and it feel like this could be the moment that Cooney establishes himself as the man for this World Cup cycle.

Italy

So regular readers will know my love for Jake Polledri and after good performances in the World Cup, this will be the moment that he truly breaks out into an international superstar. The Gloucester back row can play at flanker or number 8 and will be a fantastic replacement for the departing Sergio Parisse. Polledri is deceptively strong and hard to put down – it is vary rare that he will go backwards in contact – but he also has good pace to exploit any gap that opens in front of him and will cause problems at the break down too.

Scotland

Judging by his form in 2019 and the early weeks of 2020, Gregor Townsend must seriously be regretting leaving Rory Hutchinson out of his World Cup squad. The Northampton centre is capable of slotting in at either 12 or 13 and brings and incredible attacking talent to the team. He has the potential to have the same positive impact that Huw Jones had when he first came into the Scotland squad and should be one of the players they build around over the coming years.

Wales

I really wanted to pick Louis Rees-Zammit here and also want to give an honourable mention to Nick Tompkins, but there is a player who I have loved watching for a couple of years and is now eligible for Wales: Johnny McNicholl. The Scarlets star is an exceptional attacking talent either at wing or fullback, finishing in the top 5 for tries scored in the Pro14 for the last 2 seasons – despite Scarlet’s struggles last season! Already 29, he will not be around long term, but I expect him to quickly establish himself as a key part of the Wales squad for the next 4 years.


While watching the Six Nations is always fun anyway, one thing that has really improved it for me the last couple of seasons has been doing fantasy rugby with my friends, and I’m opening the opportunity for you to join in too!

I am running a fantasy rugby league on The Rugby Magazine’s website, and you are all welcome to join. There is no buy-in and no prize, this is just for fun. You can join the league here and use the Unique Token b6c1e40d48e6

Six Nations 2020: The England Squad

Six Nations 2020: The England Squad

We are less than 2 weeks from the beginning of the Six Nations and – as of today – we know the squads of all 6 teams in the competition. Eddie Jones announced his 34-man squad at midday today, with their first match since being humbled by South Africa in the World Cup final coming on Sunday 2ⁿᵈ February away to France.

England’s 34-man squad

(denotes apprentice players who are not full members of the squad)

Hooker: Luke Cowan-Dickie, Jamie George, Tom Dunn

Prop: Mako Vunipola, Ellis Genge, Harry Williams, Kyle Sinckler, Will Stuart, Joe Marler

Back 5: Alex Moon, Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchbury, George Kruis, Maro Itoje, Charlie Ewels, Ted Hill, Ben Earl, Tom Curry, Lewis Ludlam, Sam Underhill

Scrum half: Ben Youngs, Willi Heinz (Alex Mitchell)

Fly Half: Owen Farrell, George Ford, Jacob Umaga

Centre: Ollie Devoto, Manu Tuilagi, Jonathan Joseph, Fraser Dingwall

Back 3: Elliot Daly, George Furbank, Jonny May, Ollie Thorley, Anthony Watson (Josh Hodge)

So right now, I find myself less-than enthusiastic about this squad and don’t really understand what Eddie Jones is going for. Some selections suggest that this is a look to the future with some of the young talent being brought in, but there are then also other selections that make me wonder if Eddie is really caring about the future.

At hooker, there’s not really much surprise there with Dylan Hartley retired and Jack Singleton depriving himself of regular rugby by joining Saracens. George will be the starter and Cowan-Dickie will continue to make an impact off the bench.

Moving onto the props, it’s not really a surprise to see England move on from Dan Cole, but the form of Will Stuart for Bath means that things look promising at tighthead. I can see Sinkler starting at 3 with Stuart off the bench, while Harry Williams is a strong 3ʳᵈ choice here. I must admit that with the quality of looseheads out there, I am a little surprised that Joe Marler has remained available and think that this could impact England in the long-term if he does not plan to continue through RWC2023. To me, this was when Ellis Genge should have been becoming a regular in the 23, but it looks like he will be having to target the Italy match while Vunipola and Marler take most of the minutes.

And so we come to the locks, of which there are a lot, so many that I will actually just ignore Ted Hill here and count him as a flanker. There’s no real surprises in the selection of the usual 5 (Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchbury, George Kruis, Maro Itoje and Charlie Ewels), but Alex Moon is a massive shock and I don’t understand how he has justified a spot here off of so little 1ˢᵗ XV rugby for Northampton, especially when you consider it means that players like Lawes and Itoje will likely spend time in the back row in favour of top-quality specialist back rowers who have been ignored.

In the back row, there is a immediate and obvious lack of players at a key position. Ted Hill, Ben Earl, Tom Curry, Lewis Ludlam and Sam Underhill are all fantastic players in the back row, but with Billy Vunipola out injured, there is no specialist number 8 in this squad, which for a Tier 1 nation is frankly ridiculous. I am really happy to see Earl in this squad as he has been one of the form players this season for Sarries, but I can’t help feel that all of these players should have been included, with at least one of Moon and Ewels (or maybe Hill) being dropped for Sam Simmonds and Alex Dombrandt, who are more experienced number 8s and have been shown that good form means nothing to Eddie Jones  – Alex Goode is sending them memberships to the snub club as you read this.

On to scrum half and this is only a look to the future if Eddie Jones has found the fountain of Youth. Ben Youngs has been in this squad on the strength of his name for a while and it was time for him to make way as he will be 34 come the next World Cup, while Willi Heinz is already 33! Neither of these has a long future in the England squad, whereas apprentice player Alex Mitchell seems to suggest that Dan Robson and Ben Spencer have just had the door slammed shut in their face again!

At fly half, George Ford and Owen Farrell are no real surprise, but Jacob Umaga was a shock. He has been playing well this season, but I’m not sure if he is currently ahead of both Marcus Smith and Joe Simmonds and a cynical part of me wonders if he is being selected so that they can cap him and make him ineligible for Samoa (who I had him representing in an ideal world where the game is growing and the Pacific Islands are looking attractive to eligible players). It will be interesting to see how much time he gets during the tournament, as the loss of Henry Slade to injury limits the number of playmakers at centre, so I wouldn’t be overly surprised if Owen Farrell is used more as a centre than a fly half.

At centre, Tuilagi and Joseph are a great combo (or Farrell/Tuilagi) assuming Manu can stay fit, while Ollie Devoto is a fine player who has done very well for Exeter. The Fraser Dingwall selection surprises me, however. He is certainly a future star but at the moment he isn’t even a regular starter at Northampton, while Mark Atkinson – who has been in the form of his life the last couple of seasons – appears to have not even been considered once again.

And finally we come to the back 3. Jack Nowell’s omission was a shock, but if he can keep himself injury free for the rest of the season and get back to top form then I think he has every chance of getting back into the squad for the summer tour. Being a Gloucester fan, I have loved watching Ollie Thorley over the last couple of seasons and think that he brings a great balance of pace and power that will cause people issues. At just 23, he could be the long-term future for England. May and Watson are fantastic wingers that will scare any opponent, but Elliot Daly at 15 is an experiment that should have finished last season and I really hope that George Furbank is given a legitimate chance to claim the 15 shirt. Finally a quick word on apprentice Josh Hodge, who impressed me when I saw him for the U20s, but similar to Mitchell, I don’t think a call-up is warranted at this moment, even as an apprentice.

What do you think of the squad?


While watching the Six Nations is always fun anyway, one thing that has really improved it for me the last couple of seasons has been doing fantasy rugby with my friends, and I’m opening the opportunity for you to join in too!

I am running a fantasy rugby league on The Rugby Magazine’s website, and you are all welcome to join. There is no buy-in and no prize, this is just for fun. You can join the league here and use the Unique Token b6c1e40d48e6

Six Nations 2019: Team of the Tournament

Six Nations 2019: Team of the Tournament

With the Six Nations over for another year, there is just one more important job to do: picking a team of the tournament. I’ve been doing this for a couple of years now and this was probably the hardest so far as injuries and Jacques Brunel’s inability to settle on a team meant that some players had limited game time, while poor matches or halves of rugby harmed the chances of others. And yet despite that, at some positions I was spoiled for choice and could have picked from 4 or 5 players!

So without further ado, my team of the tournament is:

1- Allan Dell: Mako Vunipola was the choice early in the tournament and I genuinely think England missed him after his injury. Rob Evans has been getting a lot of love but the player who stood out to me was Allan Dell. Dell topped the tackle charts for Scotland with 76 (putting him 5ᵗʰ overall in the tournament) but what really impressed me was his carrying in the loose, which was so important for them given the number of carriers they lost to injury.

2- Jamie George: Did the Saracens hooker do enough to cement the number 2 shirt ahead of regular captain Dylan Hartley? In my opinion, yes. George was reliable in the lineout and a big part of the England defence, finishing the tournament joint-3ʳᵈ in the tackle count with 78, alongside Mark Wilson. What really stood out for me though was his pass to set up Manu Tuilagi for a try against Italy… I’m sure there are centres who would be proud to give a pass like that!

3- Demba Bamba: There wasn’t really any standout performer for me in this position and if I’m honest, I changed my mind as I was writing this. Kyle Sinckler was so close to getting the nod, but I swapped to Bamba at the last moment. At just 20 years old and not even playing in the Top 14, Bamba did not look out of place at all in senior international rugby despite having to take over the starting role early in the tournament following Uini Atonio’s injury. Bamba carried 42 times for 54 metres with a whopping 22 gain line successes (4ᵗʰ most of anyone) and 14 defenders beaten. He may have given away the most penalties in the tournament (8, level with Tom Curry) but this will improve as he gets more experience at this level. Watch out for him over the coming years.

4- Alun Wyn Jones: There have been people wondering if Jones has just played his last Six Nations game. If so, then he has gone out on a high. Despite all the off-field distractions surrounding Project Reset, Jones led the team to a deserved Grand Slam and led by example. He fronted up when he needed to and finished joint-6ᵗʰ in the tackle counts with 71 made and just 4 missed.

5- George Kruis: I wasn’t really enthused by Kruis’ selection at the start of the tournament, however he looked back to his best this year. Kruis was 4ᵗʰ for tackles made in the England squad with 67 (joint-11ᵗʰ overall). But his key point was his work solidifying the England lineout, amassing 17 catches himself to finish joint 3ʳᵈ in the table.

6- Josh Navidi: This was one of the hardest to pick from the quality of performances. Mark Wilson was Mr Reliable for England and Braam Steyn was a big presence for Italy. Peter O’Mahony was going to get the spot until his anonymous performance against Wales. Navidi gets the spot here and I would argue he is one of the most underrated players int he Wales squad. The Cardiff Blues back row finished 2ⁿᵈ overall with 83 tackles and 4 turnovers saw him just miss out on a spot in that top 5 list. He does not look huge but he is so strong and smart, leading to him playing a key role in the Welsh defence with a number of choke tackles and I would argue that his ability attacking in open play is underrated, making 45 metres from 30 carries.

7- Tom Curry: Jamie Richie had a great tournament being thrust into a starting role but in the end the 7 shirt has to go to Tom Curry. Sam Underhill’s injury gave Curry the chance to start and it is hard to imagine him handing the shirt over to anyone else now. Curry’s 86 tackles saw him top the charts and he was joint-4ᵗʰ for turnovers with 5. It has been rare that England have had a proper jackal at 7 under Eddie Jones and Curry has been a real breath of fresh air here. 2 tries didn’t harm his chances either.

8- Billy Vunipola: This was a shootout between Vunipola and Louis Picamoles, but Vunipola’s greater consistency over the tournament. Vunipola’s 71 carries was more than anyone else in the tournament and he finished with more metres than any other forward (231m) and 27 gain line successes (3ʳᵈ behind Braam Steyn and James Ryan). England seriously missed him last season.

9- Antoine Dupont: Not involved in Round 1 and on the bench in Round 2, Dupont took his chance and ran with it. He still has areas of him game to work on, such as controlling the game when his pack aren’t on the front foot, but he brought some great attacking quality to the French attack, finishing with 8 clean breaks (joint-5ᵗʰ overall), 17 defenders beaten (joint-4ᵗʰ) and 7 offloads (joint-2ⁿᵈ). Shockingly, he was also joint-2ⁿᵈ in the turnover charts with 6, going really under the radar with his defence.

10- Owen Farrell: This was probably the hardest pick for me. Gareth Anscombe and Dan Biggar split their time which made it hard to pick between them, while Finn Russell had some great moments in a struggling Scotland team. However Farrell gets the nod for me as I feel that – other than the second halves against Wales and Scotland – he was the most consistent of the 10s, while he finished with 2 assists and was the top scorer in the competition with 59 points.

11- Jonny May: I’m a big fan of May so to have seen him grow into one of England’s most reliable players in recent years has been wonderful! May carried 52 times (the most of any back, joint-6ᵗʰ overall) and made 284 metres (4ᵗʰ overall) and 11 clean breaks (2ⁿᵈ overall), while beating 9 defenders. He also played a big part in the kicking game, with his pace allowing him to outrun defenders chasing back to deep kicks and finishing with 23 kicks caught – 3ʳᵈ overall in the tournament. Oh, and there’s the small matter of his 6 tries making him the top try scorer and 4ᵗʰ highest points scorer.

12- Hadleigh Parkes: The stats may not back this selection up as much as some others, but Parkes gets the nod here over other impressive 12s Manu Tuilagi, Sam Johnson and Luca Morisi. The Welsh defence was the cornerstone of their tournament success and Parkes was one of the linchpins of that defence, putting his body on the line to protect the Welsh try line. Man of the Match against Scotland, he was involved in 2 of the Key moments against Ireland, scoring the early try and then bringing down Jacob Stockdale when he looked set to break away and score.

13- Henry Slade: When England were playing well, Henry Slade was shining. Despite having not played alongside Manu Tuilagi before this tournament, the pair worked great together and Slade’s range of skills helped him keep defences guessing and resulted in him carrying 38 times for 271 metres (8ᵗʰ overall) with 12 clean breaks (1ˢᵗ overall) and finishing with 3 tries and 2 assists. Outside centre is a difficult position to defend, but Slade was generally impressive at the position and did a great job of shutting down the channel.

14- Josh Adams: I heavily considered putting Josh Adams into my 6 to watch article ahead of the tournament but in the end he just missed out to Gareth Anscombe. Leigh Halfpenny’s concussion left room for Adams to come into the starting lineup and he grabbed the ball with both hand – just like his try against England! Adams’ 257 metres made (9ᵗʰ overall) and 9 clean breaks (4ᵗʰ overall) were the most of any player in the Welsh squad and he scored tries against Italy, England and Scotland.

15- Liam Williams: Elliot Daly and Jayden Hayward both had their moments in the tournament and Blair Kinghorn was certainly in with a shot of making the 15 spot until he got injured. Liam Williams gets the place after taking over the Wales 15 shirt in Halfpenny’s absence. He may have had a quieter tournament than we are used to, but he was so assured under the high ball (his 24 kicks caught was 2ⁿᵈ behind Daly) and this helped nullify an England team that was looking unstoppable at that point.

So there’s my XV, who makes yours?

Eyes On: England v Scotland – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: England v Scotland – 6 Nations 2019

With Wales having already secured the Six Nations title with their victory over Ireland, the tournament finale between England and Scotland was a dead rubber except for the rivalry between the 2 countries. England came out the blocks quickly with Jack Nowell crossing in the 2nd minute and they added 3 more tries by the half hour mark through Tom Curry, Joe Launchbury and Jonny May before Stuart McInally scored what appeared to be a consolation try to make the halftime score 31-7. The game was flipped on its head after the break though as Scotland scored tries through Darcy Graham, Magnus Bradbury, Finn Russell and Sam Johnson put Scotland ahead, only for George Ford’s converted try on the last play of the game to level the scores at 38-38 and end the game as the highest scoring draw in international rugby history.

Momentum swings

Maybe England hadn’t heard the result of the Wales match by the time they kicked off as they came out with such a fierce determination to rack up the score. Their attacks were clinical and they used their options in the back line to manipulate the Scottish defence in ways that made it easy for them to finish their tries. Scotland weren’t necessarily playing bad rugby, but they couldn’t get much going in attack that was dangerous enough to trouble England – who were flying up in defence and putting them under heavy pressure – and they struggled defensively to deal with all the attacking options their opponents had.

McInally’s try from a charged down kick and half time coming just a few minutes later brought England’s momentum to a complete half and gave the Scottish time to recover and reset. When the second half started, suddenly Scotland were cutting out the individual errors and starting to make some ground against an England defence that was no longer getting in their faces as fast. England were still making big metres in attack, but the accuracy of the first half was gone and they were beginning to make individual handling errors that would prove costly come the final whistle.

This was an extreme but perfect example of just how easy it is for a switch in momentum to completely change a game. Scotland will be hoping that they don’t find themselves in this position again, but given their injury issues this tournament it is a testament to the character of their team that they were able to turn the game around after such an awful opening half hour.

Finishers and Game Changers

Eddie Jones may call them “Finishers”, Harlequins may call them “Game Changers”. Yep, I’m on about substitutes. No matter what you call them, they’re all doing the same jobs. But perhaps Jones’ name for them has a bit more meaning that it originally appears.

I suggested after the Wales loss that Eddie Jones did not trust his replacements to change the game and that seemed to be the case here as well. As momentum first started to turn in Scotland’s favour and with Ellis Genge having already come on early for the injure Ben Moon, the only changes Jones made were to replace Mark Wilson and Kyle Sinckler (who had both been looking pretty impressive) and replacing them with Brad Shields and Dan Cole, who failed to have as much of an impact on the game. In the backs, it was only in the final 10 minutes that Jones began to make changes despite the Scottish having taken complete control well before this.

In contrast, the moment Scotland scored a couple of quick tries, Gregor Townsend recognised the shifting momentum and made a raft of changes, bringing on more experienced players like Greig Laidlaw, Josh Strauss and Fraser Brown on to take control of the game.

Some of Eddie Jones’ selections have been questioned in recent years, but in this match it felt like he did not trust his replacements to be able to change the game until he had no choice but to give them a shot. For such an experienced and talented coach, in this match he was thoroughly outplayed by Gregor Townsend. If England are to avoid these second half collapses, Jones needs to have a think about the players he is selecting on the bench and how they can be used.

Shoulder Boy

There were hearts in mouths for England fans in the second half as referee Paul Williams went to the TMO to look at a late challenge by Owen Farrell on Darcy Graham. Graham had kicked on and Farrell appeared to be trying to close him down but ended up clattering into him late, but the replays also showed that Farrell did not use his arms at all in the challenge.

The incident reminded me a lot of Samu Kerevi’s hit on Leigh Halfpenny during the Autumn Tests in that neither of them seemed to make much of a legitimate attempt to charge down the kick and instead took out the kicker after the ball was gone. What I found really interesting is that Paul Williams decided to punish Farrell for the late hit but did not take into account the use of a shoulder rather than the arms as he felt that Farrell was protecting himself rather than trying to make a tackle. While I can understand where he is coming from, this seems like an odd decision to me considering tackles are generally judged on their outcome rather then the players intent. For me, this was a yellow card incident and should have probably cost England the game.

This is the 3rd incident including a no-arms tackle by Owen Farrell in the last 10 Tests. Whether you agree with the decisions or not, Farrell’s uncompromising defence is such a big part of what makes him the great fly half that he is. He just needs to be a bit more careful with using his arms or one of these days a tackle could prove costly.

Eyes On: Wales v Ireland – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Wales v Ireland – 6 Nations 2019

The entire tournament led to this moment: Wales taking on the Irish at the Principality Stadium with not just the tournament but also the Grand Slam on the line. A home victory would earn Wales the Grand Slam, whereas a victory for the Irish would see England win the title provided they beat Scotland. Unfortunately for Ireland and England fans, Hadleigh Parkes crossed the line in the second minute and Wales didn’t look back from there with 20 points from the boot of Gareth Anscombe seeing them go 25-0 up. Ireland looked set to be nilled but Jordan Lamour’s try on the final play of the game and Jack Carty’s conversion saw them come away with a slightly more respectable 25-7 score.

Shut down

This was an incredible performance from Wales! The nerve to go for a chip deep in the Irish 22 and take advantage of Rob Kearney’s wide positioning showed Anscombe’s confidence at 10 and he reacted well to his early shift to 15 following George North’s injury. Dan Biggar ran the game well following his early introduction and having Anscombe on the pitch as well gave them the extra playmaking ability to keep the Irish defence guessing. Coming into this game, Peter O’Mahony was in contention for my team of the tournament but he was invisible in this game, such was the quality of the Welsh support.

If anything, the defence was even more impressive. Though I would argue that the Irish attack was not at its best (more on that shortly), they were limited to just 2 chances of note, one of which was their try with the result already confirmed. A Johnny Sexton crosskick looked to have sent Jacob Stockdale away down the left wing, but Hadleigh Parkes quickly caught him and brought him down to end the attack. The choke tackle used to be an Irish speciality, but the Welsh made it their own this tournament and used it to great effect once again.

With the coaching staff set to leave following the World Cup, it looks like Wales could be hitting the form they will need to make a serious run in the tournament and send their coaches off on a high.

Over-reliance

During Ireland’s success over the last couple of years, some of the standout players for them have been CJ Stander and halfbacks Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton. This year, none of them have been close to the player we know they can be.

Unfortunately, Joe Schmidt seemed very stuck in his ways this tournament and continued to rely on these players despite their drop in form. I was critical a few rounds ago about how long the halfbacks were kept on against Italy given the quality on the bench and this happened once again against Wales, with neither being replaced until the final 10 minutes with the victory already well beyond them. And yet despite this John Cooney and Jack Carty appeared to get the team functioning a little better – granted the Welsh may have taken their foot off the pedal slightly knowing they had won – and controlled the team on their way to the only points of the game. Stander as well also struggled to get Ireland on the front foot, generating just 9 metres from 14 carries over the 80 minutes. In comparison, Jack Conan took over at number 8 following Sean O’Brien’s replacement and made the same number of metres from just 6 carries, looking much more dangerous in attack.

Ireland have not turned into a bad team overnight, but in this match and this year’s tournament in general they have been poor. If Joe Schmidt wants a chance of finishing his Ireland career by winning the World Cup, then he needs to start selecting players on form rather than relying on players who have been stars in the past but are now struggling.

Growing options

Many teams will likely be jealous of Wale’s options at fly half, with both Anscombe and Biggar having impressed throughout the tournament. To have such quality options available, the question has often been which of them should be starting and who should be on the bench.

While Anscombe arguably brings more options to the overall attack, there have been questions over his place kicking, which has tested a lot this tournament with Leigh Halfpenny unavailable. Despite Dan Biggar being generally regarded as the better kicker, Anscombe was allowed to keep kicking duties following Biggar’s early arrival to the field this weekend and proved the faith in him well justified as he kicked a conversion and 6 penalties for a 100% kick success rate in this game.

While this not only suggests that he can hold the 10 shirt ahead of Biggar – who is an amazing player to bring off the bench – it also suggests that there may not need to be such a reliance on Leigh Halfpenny moving forward, which could open up extra options in the back 3 as it would allow the regular back 3 of this tournament (George North and Josh Adams on the wings, Liam Williams at centre) to continue playing together and building their chemistry as a group. If Halfpenny and these 3 players can keep themselves free of injury between now and the end of the season, it will be interesting to see who makes it into the back 3 for Wales’ next game.

Eyes On: Italy v France – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Italy v France – 6 Nations 2019

The 2019 Six Nations reached its final weekend, beginning with a bottom of the table clash between Italy and France. Bonus points in the earlier rounds meant that it was impossible for Italy to avoid the Wooden Spoon but there was still plenty of pride to play for. Italy took an early lead through a pair of Tommaso Allan penalties, before Antoine Dupont scored a try and Romain Ntamack gave France a 6-10 halftime lead. Yoann Huget scored early in the second half and though Tito Tebaldi kept things close with a try of his own, France held on for the win and a late score from Damian Penaud confirmed a 14-25 victory for Les Bleus and consigned Italy to another year without a Six Nations victory.

Learning the hard way

Injuries to Michele Campagnaro and Tommaso Castello led to Conor O’Shea handing a debut at 13 to 21-year-old Marco Zanon. The Benetton centre has come through the international ranks via the U20s and Emerging Italy team, however did not make his first Pro14 start until September.

That inexperience in professional rugby showed in this match. On one of his first touches of the ball, he tried to arc his run around the French defence but was unable to get to the outside and found himself being bundled into touch too easily. With the score at 6-10 he had the chance to put Italy ahead as he ran onto Allan’s grubber through, only for the ball to bounce off the post and evade his grasp. While the bounce of a rugby ball is always hard to predict, I think many more experienced players would have recognised the chance of the ball hitting the post and – knowing the space they had – slowed their run so that they could react to the ball coming off the post.

Unfortunately for Zanon, that was not the moment people will remember looking back as with the score at 14-20 with just 6 minutes left, Italy worked the ball out to him on the overlap about 7 metres out. While he made it to the line, as he went to ground he allowed Damian Penaud to dislodge the ball and force a knock-on over the line. While it was a great effort from Penaud, it was made easier for him as Zanon dived for the line with the ball in his right hand rather than switching it to his left hand to protect it.

He is not the first and he won’t be the last person to mess up with the game on the line, but this was a game that Italy could and possibly should have won but for his errors. Hopefully he will be able to put this setback behind him and learn from this match.

The kids are alright

France may have had their good and bad moments during this tournament, but one plus point for them has been the development of some of their younger talents.

Demba Bamba was a player I picked as one to watch this tournament. Despite not celebrating his 21st birthday until the day after this match and not even playing in the Top 14 – he currently plays for Brive in Pro D2 but will be playing for Lyon next season – he did not look out of place on the senior international scene. He may have conceded a couple of penalties but this will improve with time, while he is already showing himself as a comfortable ball carrier.

Romain Ntamack has really grown into the tournament. Against Italy, he varied the attacking game well to keep the Italian defence guessing, while also controlling the game and knowing when to take a drop goal to keep the score ticking over. More importantly though, he also took on the role of goal kicker for this match and performed will, despite not even being the first choice kicker at his club. He will certainly have harder tests than against Italy, but this will be a great confidence boost for him and it is a sign that he is growing well into his role with the team.

Damian Penaud is developing into yet another great player on the wing for France. While it probably helped that he was not tested by the Italian kicking game in the same was as against England or Ireland, he looked very assured on the wing and seemed to be getting used to the position. He made a great covering tackle on Marco Zanon and was smart enough to target the ball rather than the player, dislodging it to save a vital try. In attack, his 98 metres made were the more than any other player on the pitch and it was his break that set up Antoine Dupont for his try, while his try in the final minutes secured the victory.

Dupont may not have had the perfect game as he occasionally struggled with forwards getting in his way at the breakdown, but this control of his pack is something that will develop as he continues to play with them… assuming the coaches don’t continue to overhaul the team every other match. He was one of the most exciting 9s in the tournament this year when given some space and his support line off Penaud that led to his try was typical of is playing style and I am sure we will see him getting over the try line plenty more times over the coming years.

The French Wolverine

While many of the younger players impressed in this match, one of the more experienced players also caught my eye. Maxime Médard has been in and out of the national team for years, but in this game I thought he really showed his quality.

Thomas Ramos has made the attack more exciting but has not been the safest defensively or in kick coverage, which is not what you want when you have attack-only Yoann Huget in the back three as well. Médard however was a calming influence at the back, tidying things up and generally making the right decision, while picking his moment to attack to create chaos, such as when he drew in Angelo Esposito and released Penaud with a simple pass to set up Dupont’s try.

With so many young players in the French back line at the moment, the coaches need to continue selecting Médard to increase their chances of success in Japan.

Eyes On: Ireland v France – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Ireland v France – 6 Nations 2019

Ireland finished off the 4th round of Six Nations action with a match at home against France. For the first time this season, the French avoided making changes to the XV that put Scotland to the sword, but the performance would have left you thinking they had changed the entire squad. The French failed to get on the board in the first half, whereas tries from Rory Best, Johnny Sexton (who also contributed 2 conversions) and Jack Conan gave the Irish a 19-0 halftime lead. A Keith Earls try and Sexton conversion increased the lead to 26, before late tries from Yoann Huget and Camille Chat and 2 conversions from Baptiste Serin left the scoreline flattering Les Bleus with a final score of 26-14.

Work to do

Ireland may have come away with the bonus point victory in this game, but I think that this was more courtesy of poor French defence than anything special from the home team. Despite having 65% of the possession and 72% territory in the game, the Irish wasted a number of opportunities with poor handling errors. Potential tries from Cian Healy and Garry Ringrose were chalked off for knock-ons and a number of other great chances came to a premature end though poor handling. Had they been a bit more precise, then they could have had doubled their score.

Granted, there has been some rotation in the pack and centres due to a combination of injuries and resting players – including Rob Kearney’s late removal, leading to Jordan Larmour’s first start in the championship – will have hurt the team’s chemistry, however these players are still all regulars in the squad so you would expect better. I was happy to see Jack Carty and John Cooney get a solid 20+ minutes this week after barely being used against Italy and thought that Carty especially impressed with a couple of pinpoint kicks that kept the French deep in their own half.

The Irish will also be bitterly disappointed with conceding 14 points in the dying minutes as even when all the substitutions started they were in complete control and it was just a couple of defensive errors and penalties that cost them the chance of holding the French scoreless.

Coming into the tournament, many will have considered the Irish as the Northern Hemisphere team most likely to win the World Cup. On their recent performances that is looking less likely, but a big performance and victory in Cardiff at the weekend could change that outlook massively and still potentially win them the Six Nations.

Back to the beginning

Compare this French performance to the one against Scotland 2 weeks ago and you would never think that you were watching the same French team. While last week the French dominated the game, this week they struggled to even make an impact on it!

Despite having a recognised fullback in Thomas Ramos, it took less than a minute for the kick coverage to fail completely, with a kick form Jordan Larmour putting Ireland in position for what became Rory Best’s try. Ramos was also completely out-jumped when competing for a high ball in his own 22, which led to Ringrose’s disallowed try.

In defence, they found themselves manipulated by the Irish attack far too easily – most notably Yoann Huget biting on completely the wrong man, leading to him blocking off Fickou and leaving Sexton all the space in the world to take the ball on the loop and go over for a try – and can honestly consider themselves lucky to have not conceded more tries.

In attack they barely created anything, making just 138 metres in the entire game, a big difference from the 520 made against Scotland 2 weeks earlier! Louis Picamoles has been a big part of the French forward effort to create a platform, but in this game he was limited to just 2 metres from 2 carries – in fact all the forwards in the XV and on the bench combined for just 64 metres, half of which belonged to just 2 players!

While they just have enough points to avoid the Wooden Spoon regardless of the result at Italy, there is a distinct possibility that another performance like this could help Italy earn their first Six Nations victory since they won at Murrayfeld in February 2015. If the French are going to be so inconsistent in their performances, then they need to move on from Jacques Brunel, so that the next generation of players coming through like Antoine Dupont, Demba Bamba and Romain Ntamack can be in a team that actually has chances of success.

Inexperience shows

Last week I was very complimentary of the way Antoine Dupont played, however without the forward platform this week he struggled to perform anywhere near as well.

His running threat was gone – he made a total of 2 metres from 10 carries and was tackled in the in-goal by James Ryan on one occasion – but nowhere was his drop in performance more noticeable than when he was preparing to box kick. The kicking game is a more recent weapon in the 22-year-old’s arsenal and with his pack struggling to put him on the front foot, he was taking far too long at the back of the ruck and was caught out on a couple of occasions, most notably when Cian Healy almost scored a try as Dupont failed to notice that the ball had rolled onto the try-line, meaning that Ireland could come round and play it despite it still being in the ruck.

The kicking game is often one of the later things to develop in a young scrum half due to the experience needed to control the game effectively, so I am not overly worried for Dupont’s future prospects. However it looks like he will need a pack that can gain parity at least currently, so I feel that for now it would be beneficial to start Baptiste Serin in games where the pack may not be as strong, with Dupont there to come off the bench and take advantage of the gaps made as the opposition tires.