2022 Six Nations: Italy v England

2022 Six Nations: Italy v England

Round 2 of the 2022 Six Nations finished off on Sunday with England’s trip to Rome. Eddie Jones’ men were looking to get their campaign back on track after an opening day defeat against Scotland and would certainly have been hoping that the Italian U20’s 6-0 victory on Friday night was not a sign of things to come.

And while the Italians put some pressure on early, it was the visitors who scored first as Max Malins got around the outside of the defensive line and fed the ball back inside for the supporting Marcus Smith, who converted his own try. And the lead was doubled midway through the first half as England got quick ball off a lineout move and went through the phases for Jamie George to go over next to the posts. The Azzurri were being hurt hard by the penalty count, and England were happily taking advantage of the territory, but while England thought they had third try through Maro Itoje after Harry Randall found some space around the fringe of a lineout maul, the TMO found that Nick Isiekwe illegally obstructed in the formation of the maul., while their next attack minutes later saw Ellis Genge get white line fever and knock on as he tried to pick and go for the line. However the visitors did get a try right before the break. Stephen Varney attempted to clear up after a high ball from his opposite number Harry Randall, but his pass went wild and ended up in English hands, and after a clever run from Freddie Steward coming in off the left touchline, the ball was spread wide right to Jamie George, who just had the pace, power and wingspan to reach the corner, Smith converting for a 0-21 halftime lead.

Kyle Sinckler was introduced at the break and this helped the English begin to gain some dominance at the scrum and after a strong scrum in the Italian 22, Marcus Smith held Federico Mori just long enough to release Elliot Daly—onearly following a failed HIA for Jack Nowell—with a flat pass to send him over in the corner to secure the bonus point. What followed was a period of possession and territory for the Azzurri, but they could not find their way over for a try, though Tom Curry was very lucky to avoid a yellow card for cynically killing the ball during one of the Italians’ most successful attacks. However as the replacements came on, England found themselves kicking more and inviting the pressure but held on strong, and when Leonardo Marin fumbled a high ball from Marcus Smith just outside his 22, England quickly exploited it and Kyle Sinckler went over for the try. With just under 10 minutes left, Italy found themselves camped in the English 22 again but a fumble at the back of the scrum ended their attack and gave England just enough time for one more attack, which saw Henry Slade go over but lose possession of the ball as he tried to ground it under pressure from Tiziano Pasquali for a final score of 0-33.

Italy

Italy need to find the balance in the back row, as it’s costing them at the moment. Granted, were everyone available, it is highly likely that the starting trio of Jake Polledri, Seb Negri and captain Michele Lamaro would be the go-to unit. However with Polledri out and Sergio Parisse in the twilight of his career, the focus has been to go to the younger players. Unfortunately, they have struggled to have any real impact on the games.

With Negri on the bench this week, there was a clear lack of carrying from the back row, while Giovanni Pettinelli will have likely wished the ground swallowed him up after fumbling the ball at the base of a crum deep in the English 22. While the answers long term may be making their way up from the U20, in the short term I think that the best answer would be the experience an all-round playing ability of Braam Steyn, who at 29 should still be a part of this squad at least through the World Cup.

England

Make sure you’re sat down before you read this: England actually came out and played rugby this week. With Harry Randall given the 9 shirt, he brought his natural quick game into play, and the speed of ball made it so easy for the pack to batter the Italian defence while the backs had the space for creative players like Smith, Malins and Steward to show their quality.

However things were far from perfect. There were a number of errors from the players, who clearly weren’t used to playing at such a pace, while a better defence like most suspected World Cup quarterfinalists would have would also find themselves catching England isolated or behind the gain line more often. Moreso, the speed and attacking mentality disappeared the moment Harry Randall was removed, just before the hour.

And to sort this is a simple situation: keep playing this way. Ben Youngs has been a fantastic player, but now that he has equalled Json Leonard’s record of 114 England mens’ caps, his time as a starter (or perhaps even in the 23) needs to be at an end as England look to play a faster tempo of rugby week in week out. Only by doing this can they cut out the errors and then find a way to build on this attacking game to beat the best defences even if Manu Tuilagi isn’t present.

2022 Six Nations: France v Ireland

2022 Six Nations: France v Ireland

Round 2 of the 2022 Six Nations continued with Ireland’s trip to Paris to face France. With both teams winning comfortably in round 1, this looked like a potential early title decider.

The Irish came in without captain Jonathan Sexton, who was ruled out midway through the week, and soon found themselves down on the scoreboard as Antoine Dupont crossed for a try after less than 90 seconds, with Melvyn jaminet adding the conversion and a penalty soon after. After such a bad start, Ireland needed to get themselves into the game and did so in the best way from the restart, with Mack Hansen beating Jaminet to the ball and going over untouched, Carbery converting on his first Six Nations start. The game calmed down slightly after such a frantic start, but the game remained hugely physical and Les Bleus’ attack allowed Jaminet to stretch the lead with 3 more penalties for a 19-7 halftime lead.

Jaminet quickly added another penalty after the break, but when Andrew Porter won a penalty at the restart, Joey Carbery went to the corner and the Irish pack managed to dive Josh van der Flier over for a vital try, which Carbery converted, while Jamison Gibson-Park found and exploited a gap just minutes later for another 7 points. With the points margin having suddenly dropped from 15 points to 1, the French hit back and when they turned the Irish over on their own 5m line, Cyril Baille crashed over from short range. arbery cut the lead to 3 with a penalty as the game entered the final 10 minutes but with just minutes left a clever kick from Gaël Fickou put the French on the attack and though Jaminet was adjudged to have held the ball up over the line, an hand in the ruck from Caelan Doris allowed the fullback to kick the simplest of penalties and Les Bleus saw out the final minutes to keep their title hopes alive with a 30-24 victory, while Ireland were left to settle for a losing bonus point.

France

This was a huge performance from France, and while their attacking quality let to some beautiful tries, it was the defence that proved crucial, especially in the first half. Ever since Shaun Edwards made the move across the channel, Les Bleus have looked a different beast without the ball.

While the Irish did find a couple of chinks in the second half, the first half was a truly dominant display. Not only were they physical and trying to dominate the point of contact, they were also incredibly smart with the way they treated the breakdown. They picked their moments to attack the breakdown when they felt they could win the turnover, and held off when it wasn’t on, allowing them to spread the full team across the pitch while Ireland found themselves having committed multiple players to a non-existent ruck to secure quick ball.

And when they were spread in defence, they came up with pace and closed down all opportunities for the Irish. Take away one bad restart, one poor maul defence and one poorly guarded ruck and that French line isn’t troubled. But Because of those efforts, we all know that Shaun Edwards will expect better, and that’s why the French will continue to improve.

Ireland

It’s crazy to think that this was Joey Carbery’s first Six Nations start, but this also highlighted the big issue with this Ireland team. They will not win the big games without Jonathan Sexton.

Sexton is arguably a fantastic talent, but the reliance on him has left Ireland in an awful position where nobody has been given enough of a chance to played the position with any regularity and impose themselves in the squad. And that means that when Sexton is suddenly not available, nobody is able to adequately replace him.

With the World Cup pools already decided, the best thing that Ireland could do is rest Sexton for the rest of the season and let pick a pair of 10s to get all the minutes and develop with the team. That way even if anything happens to Sexton, their chances of progressing in the World Cup are still at a decent level. Otherwise, an injury to Sexton right before the tournament could see Ireland go from potential champions to missing out on the knockouts.

2022 Six Nations: Wales v Scotland

2022 Six Nations: Wales v Scotland

Round 2 of the 2022 Six Nations kicked off today in Cardiff with Wales facing Scotland. Wayne Pivac’s men had made a number of changes following last week’s dismal loss in Dublin and got the opening points with a pair of penalties from Dan Biggar on his 100ᵗʰ Test, however Scotland were soon on the board themselves when Duhan van der Merwe was released down the wing into the Scottish 22. After a series of phases, Finn Russell wrapped around in midfield and spread the ball wide to Darcy Graham, whose clever footwork allowed him to beat Louis Rees-Zammit to the corner. Three Russell penalties to one from Biggar gave the Scots the lead, but a strong driving lineout from 5m out saw Tomas Francis go over to level the scores at 14-14, a scoreline which survived to the break.

In a tight second half, Russell and Biggar traded penalties, but after a second attempt from Biggar came back off the posts to be recovered by Wales, Alex Cuthbert was just denied a try in the corner by some solid defence. However, in the checking of the potential try, a deliberate knock-on was noticed from Finn Russell and the fly half was sent to the bin with just 13 minutes remaining. Wales went through the phases but could not get over the line in the early moments and Dan Biggar chose to take the drop goal for a 20-17 lead with 10 minutes remaining. Though it left Scotland with a chance, the Welsh defended hard and repelled all attacks, but had a nervous moment in the final seconds as a high shot from Taine Basham was checked by the TMO. However referee Nic Berry found the home crowd too loud to resist and let the young flanker away with just a penalty, and the 15 men on Wales managed to stop the Scots around halfway and won a penalty with the clock in the red to confirm their victory.

Wales

The Welsh lineout has been somewhat unreliable at the best of times in recent years. However with both Ken Owens and Alun Wyn Jones missing, this has looked even more of a risky area. Scotland certainly thought that they could get some fortune here judging by the selection of Sam Skinner at 6.

However the lineout did a fantastic job today, being near perfect in its ball retention, while even mauling Tomas Francis over from short range at a vital point in the match. Sometimes it can really hurt to lose players of such quality as Owens and Jones, but what it does is force the other players on the pitch to step up and fill the void. And while I still don’t know how Ryan Elias gets away with a hendred dummy throws at each lineout, he is starting to get some familiarity with players like Adam Beard and Will Rowlands, which is helping solidify a key area of the game.

The challenge now will be to continually hit these high levels in repeated Tests.

Scotland

While the Welsh defence and physicality was infinitely better this week, Scotland did not help themselves. With Sione Tuipulotu, Chris Harris and Duhan van der Merwe all starting, this was arguably one of the most physical back lines Scotland have played in years. And yet they were not used enough.

While there were some moments, such as the try, where they were utilised well—van Der Merwe breaking into the 22, an arc and offload from Harris getting them up to the 5m line and the physicality of the midfield allowing Russell to hit the Welsh with the wrap play— there was not enough of this through the game. Wales were clearly playing much more confidently and yet the Scots would just kick the ball back to them and let them play their game, allowing Dan Biggar to run the game, while too often van der Merwe was just left carrying into contact rather than being put into space, resulting in multiple turnovers.

In Finn Russell, they have one of the most gifted attacking 10s in rugby. If Scotland want to start winning regularly and challenging for the Six Nations, they need to start playing to their strengths.

2022 Six Nations: France v Italy

2022 Six Nations: France v Italy

After the Home Nations kicked off the 2022 Six Nations on Saturday, Paris played host to the final game of round 1 as France welcomed Italy.

In wet and slippery conditions, France played the territory game early on, allowing Melvyn Jaminet to mark his tournament debut with an early penalty. However when the French fullback fumbled a high ball under pressure, the Azzurri took advantage, hitting up hard to pull in the defence before kicking wide to debutant winger Tommaso Menoncello, who somehow just avoided landing in touch to dot down for the first try of the game. The French continued to dominate the territory however, and when an Italian lineout was spoiled off the top, Anthony Jelonch intercepted Stephen Varney’s pass back to Monty Ioane and had an easy run-in for the corner. As the half went on, Jaminet and Paolo Garbisi swapped penalties, but a late penalty gave Les Bleus one last chance before the half ended, and when the driving maul was illegally stopped, they spread the ball wide to put Gabin Villière over in the far corner, with Jaminet kicking the conversion for an 18-10 halftime lead.

The French were soon back on the attack after the break, and when Jonathan Danty’s crash through off a lineout was stopped just millimetres short, Julien Marchand thought he had successfully got the ball over for the try, only for the TMO referral to show that he was bound into the ruck so not legally able to pick and go. However just 5 minutes later the French were over for their third try, with Grégory Alldritt’s pick and go finding a gap in the Italian defence and his offload releasing Villière for another try, while Damian Penaud just failed to collect a crosskick that would have put him over on the hour. However the wing successfully broke down the win with 12 minutes remaining and after feeding Dupont inside, he continued his run to take the return pass and secure the bonus point for Fabien Galthié’s men in his COVID-enforced absence, and with the clock entering the red, Player of the Match Villière was given the ball in space to complete his hat trick, with Romain Ntamack kicking the conversion for a 37-10 victory.

France

Grégory Alldritt looks back to his best, and that should be a big worry for other nations.

While France are a great team with so much depth, they do seem to lack a real ball carrier in the back row when Alldritt is missing or not fully firing. Yes they have players who can make the hard yards and a group of very dynamic hookers, but there are very few like Alldritt who can carry in the tight but then also make the big metres when put in space.

However, he looked close to his best today and it helps make the team much more dangerous. You just need to look at Villière’s second try or the change that Penaud just failed to complete on the hour, where one strong carry into space put Les Bleus on the front foot, giving the skill players the time and space to take full advantage.

France may be missing a few players like Virimi Vakatawa and captain Charles Ollivon, but with Alldritt back on form, that will be a huge boon to their Championship hopes.

Italy

So often in the past we have seen Italy put up a dogged fight for 50-60 minutes, only to run out of steam and get ripped apart in the final quarter of the game. This week however, the Italians kept the competition going to the end.

This is a big moment for the Azzurri. At Test level, if you can’t compete for the full 80 minutes, it’s going to be very difficult to come away with a result. More that that though, it’s noticeable that this fitness retained despite spending pretty much all of the second half defending, which was also the case for much of the opening 40 minutes.

Were France perfect? No, but you’d have still to expect that in the past they’d have ran away for a 30-40 point margin of victory, yet instead had to fight until the death for a 27-point margin. If Italy can keep this up throughout the tournament, it will be a big step forward and could catch a team out.

Guinness Six Nations

2022 Six Nations: Scotland v England

2022 Six Nations: Scotland v England

With the latest edition of the Six Nations having got underway in Dublin, we weren’t made to wait long for the battle of the auld enemies as England made the trip to Murrayfield to face Scotland.

Eddie Jones’ men came in with some unfamiliar combinations, but they were the dominant team from the start, though it took 17 minutes before they could take advantage on the scoreboard, courtesy of a penalty from Marcus Smith. However the Scots appeared to be woken up by this, and after a quick throw caught England napping, Stuart Hogg put Darcy Graham through a gap and Ben White—on for his debut as a HIA replacement for Ali Price—popped up on his inside shoulder to put Gregor Townsend’s men in the lead, with Finn Russell adding the extras. As the half went on, England continued to dominate the territory game with strong carries and kicks to the corner, but a strong lineout drive saw the ball held up over the line and the only additions to the score before the break were a penalty apiece for the fly halves for a 10-6 halftime score.

It was more of the same early in the second half, with Smith adding another penalty, and as the English pack got a solid lineout drive going, the Harlequins fly half looped round to the large blind side to go over in the corner and give his team the lead, before kicking another penalty just after the hour before being replaced by George Ford. Scotland were soon on the attack though, and as Finn Russell put i a cross-kick to Darcy Graham, the wing was clearly impeded by a deliberate slap forward by Luke Cowan-Dickie and with no other cover anywhere near, referee Ben O’Keeffe awarded the penalty try to level the scores with 15 minutes remaining and sent the Exeter Chiefs hooker to the bin. As the clock ticked into the final 10 minutes, Finn Russell kicked the Scots ahead following a scrum penalty out wide, and when Darcy Graham won a turnover following 4 minutes of reset scrums, Scotland could finally boot the ball out to celebrate a 20-17 victory that would see them retain the Calcutta Cup for the first time since 1984.

Scotland

Scotland went for an interesting tactics with their kicks today, choosing to keep most of them infield rather than kicking the ball out. While it suggests that they are confident in their fitness that they can keep going at a high tempo, it’s also very dangerous play as it allows England the chance to either counterattack or kick the ball back to touch for a territorial advantage.

I can’t help but wonder if this was decision was made due to a nervousness about the English driving maul. They were certainly hurt by it on a couple of occasions during the match, so any chance to reduce the number of English lineouts makes sense, while on some occasions the kick chase was so good that it actually put the opposition under pressure as they tried to kick.

However, while it took away one weapon, it gave England the chance to run the ball back and was a big factor in Scotland barely playing any rugby in the opening hour, whereas kicking to touch would have allowed them moments to regroup and even try to steal ball at the lineout.

Next week, against a Wales team with dangerous counterattackers in the back 3 but questions over the lineout, don’t be shocked to see the Scots putting more of their kicks out to touch.

England

England dominated this game, yet once again what should have been an easy victory turned into a disappointing defeat due to Eddie Jones’ tactics.

While the pack played incredibly well—solid in the set piece and carrying tirelessly with strength—the back line lacked any semblance of shape in attack, which is no real surprise considering it included no specialist 12s or wings and three 13s. But more than just the bad shape was the continued tactic of kicking for territory rather than playing heads-up rugby.

Marcus Smith is a fantastic talent, but this tactic hobbles him, while it also puts pressure on the defence to be solid, which it struggled to be in this match. If they played real heads-up rugby, this game would have been over by the hour, instead, England spent most of the match behind courtesy of just a few moments of attacking quality from a team who should have been down and out.

Guinness Six Nations

2022 Six Nations: Ireland v Wales

2022 Six Nations: Ireland v Wales

The latest edition of the Six Nations Championship got underway in Dublin with Ireland taking on defending champions Wales.

Wales came in with a host of players missing through injury and soon found themselves defending in their own 22 against an Irish onslaught, which eventually ended in debutant Mack Hansen floating a lovely ball out to Bundee Aki to score in the corner. The Irish were by far the stronger team, but struggled to turn this early superiority into points, with Jonathan Sexton following up a difficult but successful conversion with 2 missed penalties from far easier positions before finally adding 3 points off the tee to pass Owen Farrell for the third-most points in Six Nations history (behind just Jonny Wilkinson and Ronan O’Gara). As the half went on though, some errors from the home team allowed the Welsh to start growing into the game and with a 10-0 halftime score, the fixture looked far from over.

Unfortunately for the Welsh, the second half started much like the first, with the Irish going through the phases in the Welsh 22, and after a poor ball was played out to Andrew Conway—who was forced to step in to take it—the Munster wing’s clever stop-go gave him the chance to angle to the corner flag, and through he was tackled he just managed to stretch to the line. Things soon got even worse for the defending champions as Josh Adams was sent to the bin for a shoulder barge off the ball on Sexton, and the men in green wasted no time in sending Conway over for a second try, before Garry Ringrose went over on the counterattack at the very end of the sin bin period. With the game over as a competition, the question became “will Wales score a point?”. And they finally did with 5 minutes left as Taine Basham intercepted Tadgh Beirne’s offload (one blot on a otherwise brilliant performance for the former Scarlet) to cross under the posts for a 29-7 bonus point win for Andy Farrell’s men.

Ireland

While Ireland certainly carried on where they left off and were clearly the stronger team, they will certainly look back at this match and know that they can be better.

Granted conditions were typically British (wet and windy), but the men in green found a number of attacks coming to an early end due to handling errors. Meanwhile a couple of strong attacking positions were ruined by poor setting of the maul deep in the Welsh 22, including one which saw Caelan Doris pinged for obstruction. And then of course we have that offload from Beirne which in hindsight was never on and cost the team a deserved clean sheet.

Of course this is just week 1, and that means that we will likely just see improvements from the Irish as he tournament goes on. If they can cut out the errors, they will be turning into a real force in Test rugby again and be putting themselves in with a good shout of challenging for the Championship despite having to play away to rivals France and England.

Wales

Sometimes you look at the team sheet and can already see that it’s going to be a difficult game. That was the case when I looked at this Welsh line-up. Of course with the number of injuries Wales had, it was always going to be difficult, but the moment I saw Josh Adams named at 13, I could not see beyond an Irish victory.

13 is arguably one of the most important positions in professional rugby. You need to be a real all-rounder: pacy, good stamina, able to kick and pass very well, a reliable tackler, a great communicator and highly organised both in attack and defence. And while Josh Adams is many of these, he is not experienced at the position, especially at Test level.

While he may have coped had Wales been the dominant attacking team, they were instead struggling to cross the gain line in attack, while defensively, Adams was targeted by the Irish, who repeatedly challenged either his inside or outside shoulder and repeatedly found themselves getting over the gain line. Though it’s no excuse, I’m sure there was a large degree of frustration involved in Adams’ awful shoulder charge on Sexton, which arguably killed the game off as the Welsh not only lost a decent field position but also shipped 12 points while he was of the pitch.

While Adams at 13 was far from the only issue that needs addressing following such a poor performance, it is an easy one to fix. If Wales want to win against Scotland next week, they need to play Adams where he plays best and bring in a specialist centre to shore up the midfield.

Guinness Six Nations

Six Nations 2022: 6 to Watch

Six Nations 2022: 6 to Watch

We are now less than 2 weeks away from the 2022 edition of the Six Nations. 5 rounds of rugby spread over 7 weeks as the Home Nations, the French and the Italians battle to be regarded the best team in the Northern Hemisphere.

And so with the initial squads announced—and a number of replacements already made due to injuries, bans and COVID—it’s time for my annual look at each squad and selection of a player to keep your eyeson. So who makes the list this season?

England

You can certainly argue that his performances should have seen him earn more that just 1 cap off the bench against Tonga by now, but this could be Mark Atkinson‘s chance to show what he can do on the international stage. Atkinson is the only specialist 12 in the squad, and with Owen Farrell injured he would be the obvious option to join Marcus Smith and Henry Slade in midfield. Atkinson would provide the physical presence at 12 that Marcus Smith is used to from playing with André Esterhuizen at Harlequins, but also has a wonderful offload and a range of passes and kicks to exploit any situation.

France

Another player who only made his Test debut in late 2021, Thibaud Flament is my pick for Les Bleus. With experienced players like Paul Willemse, Bernard Le Roux and Romain Taofifénua in the squad, the Toulouse lock is far from guaranteed gametime, but is one of the latest in the new generation of French talent coming through. While many of the French locks are powerhouses, Flament is a highly dynamic player, which makes him a weapon in the team’s already exciting attack and has already earned him a Test try in just 3 caps.

Ireland

Another player who may finally get a chance due to injuries ahead of him is Ulster’s Robert Baloucoune. The wing has been a regular for Ulster for years and even spent a little time on the 7s circuit, but at 24 is just now reaching his prime. With James Lowe and Jacob Stockdale both currently injured, this could be his chance to push for minutes during the tournament, though there’s still no guarantee given the quality of options available in the back 3 and his own recent return from injury. If he get his chance though, just watch him tear up the pitch with his impressive blend of pace and power.

Italy

It’s not often the national team captain comes up on this list, but at just 23 years old and with 10 caps to his name, Michele Lamaro is anything but widely known to international audiences. A regular starter in the last campaign, Lamaro seemed to struggle at 8, but looked much more impressive when moved to flanker in the Autumn. Jake Polledri is still a long-term injury and cannot be replaced, but Lamaro brings a lot around the breakdown and a level of leadership that belies his youth. With his club Benetton now becoming successful, could he help lead a similar turnaround for the Azzurri?

Scotland

I’ve said for a while that what Scotland have missed is that physicality to help them regularly get over the gain line on early phases to create the space to exploit. Well Glasgow centre Sione Tuipulotu is a powerhouse who provides just that. More commonly used as an outside centre, he may struggle to feature in the 13 shirt too often due to the form of British & Irish Lion Chris Harris, who I would consider one of the very best 13s in the world at the moment, but if Gregor Townsend can get him working at 12, or utilise him off the bench, he’s going to be a real handful.

Wales

While there are questions over how much the first 5 names on this list will be playing, it will be he ultimate shock if Adam Beard is not a regular in the Welsh XV. Though he has struggled to hold down a spot in the Welsh second row over recent seasons, he showed his quality during the British & Irish Lions Tour to South Africa. Now with Alun Wyn Jones and Ken Owens both missing, Beard has to step up and not just become a leader in the pack, but sort out a lineout that has been an issue in recent seasons.

Who would your picks be?


Throughout the tournament, I will be running a predictions pool on Superbru, and you are invited to join! 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. It’s purely for fun, so no entry fee and no prize… except bragging rights!

You can find my pool here or by downloading the Superbru app and searching for the pool with the code densgird

Guinness Six Nations

Six Nations 2021: Team of the Tournament

Six Nations 2021: Team of the Tournament

rugby six nations 2021 wales champions

Of course, there is only one way for me to cap off the competition: picking my Team of the Tournament. As always, I’d love to hear who you would pick, but without further ado, my Team of the 2020 Tri Nations is:

1) Cyril Baille: The general consensus used to be that a prop doesn’t reach their prime until their 30s, and while John Afoa may still be a great example of this, Cryril Baille is showing that this prime may now be coming earlier. The Toulouse loosehead is already a dominant scrummager, but the way that he gets involved around the park takes his performances to another level, with strong carries and reliable handling skills.

2) Julien Marchand: After years of being a superb back-up to Guilhem Guirado, it felt like this was finally the time for Camille Chat to dominate the French number 2 jersey. Instead, he finds himself now behind Julien Marchand, as one of the most dangerous hooker pairings in World Rugby. The Toulouse hooker is solid at the set piece and showed against Scotland how he could combine with Baille to dominate a tighthead, while throughout the tournament he showed his threat with ball in hand, combining with Antoine Dupont to make significant ground around the fringes.

3) Kyle Sinckler: Sinckler gets the spot here off the back of some strong displays, but the tighthead spot certainly wasn’t full of players clamouring for selection, while the fight for the starting spot between Tadhg Furlong and Andrew Porter proved costly for the Irish pair. Sinckler is a strong scrummager and physical defender, and hopefully a more attacking mentality for the English going forward can utilise him here too.

4) Iain Henderson: If you read my thoughts on the Irish second row last week, then you probably won’t be too surprised by my selections here. Henderson combines the physicality and set piece organisation of a lock with the engine and breakdown threat of a back row while also bringing plenty of leadership from his time captaining Ulster.

5) Tadhg Beirne: I was a massive fan of Beirne when he was at Scarlets due to his qualities, and now with a regular run of games in the Ireland XV he is showing that ability to the world. Equally capable of playing at lock or in the back row, I feel that he is still better suited as a lock as it opens up another spot in the back row for more tactical flexibility. After multiple Man of the Match awards in this year’s tournament, expect to see him as a regular in the Irish XV for the rest of this cycle.

6) Seb Negri: It was a tournament to forget for the Azzurri, but Seb Negri makes the list here by continuing to give a physical edge to the Italian attack despite the loss of Jake Polledri. The flanker continually gave 100% for the team and regularly looked one of their better players. Hopefully that effort will soon start translating into wins.

7) Hamish Watson: Anyone who says Watson is too lightweight to face the Springboks as part of the British and Irish Lions needs to watch him play more closely. The openside may not be the biggest guy on the park, but carries with such strength and determination you will often see him throwing players off and breaking the gain line when given the ball. Meanwhile in defence, he is a reliable tackler, and when you get him latched over the ball as a jackal, you’re not moving him until he completes the turnover or wins the penalty.

8) CJ Stander: Taulupe Faletau looked much better this season than he has in a couple of years and is unfortunate to just miss out here to Stander. The South African looked more mobile this year when carrying while still having a great impact around the park. Caelan Doris will be a great player for Ireland once back from injury, but Stander will be tough to replace.

9) Antoine Dupont: Is there a better scrum half in the world right now? Dupont seems able to do everything. He has pace, guile and elusiveness, while he always seems to pop up in the right spot to carry on (or finish off) attacks. Not only that, but unlike many young attacking 9s, he also has the cultured boot and tactical kicking game to put the team in the right areas on the pitch.

10) Matthieu Jalibert: Jalibert was my pick following the Autumn Nations Cup and just keeps hold of the spot here, ahead of Jonathan Sexton. He came into the tournament as aa starter courtesy of Romain Ntamack’s injury, but he quality of his play was such that he must surely be running his rival close now. Had he not suffered a head injury in the first half against Wales, I can’t help wonder if the Six Nations trophy would have gone to Les Bleus.

11) Duhan van der Merwe: He may not be the most reliable defensively, but the Edinburgh wing had a huge impact on matches when Scotland were going forwards. He has that strength to run over people out on the wing or even to crash through in midfield, but he also has the speed and athleticism to exploit any space given to him. I’ll be shocked if Warren Gatland doesn’t take him to South Africa after breaking Brian O’Driscoll’s record for defenders beaten in this year’s tournament.

12) Robbie Henshaw: My vote for player of the tournament. It doesn’t matter who you put around him or whether you play him at 12 or 13, you know that Henshaw will put in 100% effort from first whistle to last. Not only that, but he has such a broad range of skills that he can excel in defence, crashing up the middle or spreading the ball wide.

13) George North: I’ve been questioning how long North’s international career could continue with the quality of players now available to Wales on the wing, but a move to outside centre looks like it may have just extended his international career by a couple of years, and he even beats out Chris Harris for the spot in this XV. North has a great blend of pace and physicality that come in handy at a position where you will see such a variety of attacking play, but he has also adapted well to arguably the hardest position on the pitch to defend, while Wales look to be moving him around well in attack to create match-up nightmares or draw in defenders to release players like…

14) Louis Rees-Zammit: The Gloucester flier has the kind of pace that a former prop like me could only ever dream of… and he knows how to use it to get to the try line. Capable of also slotting in at 15 if required, he is capable under the high ball, and is not the defensive liability you may expect from many young attacking wingers.

15) Stuart Hogg: The Scottish captain is on fine form and will surely be wearing the 15 shirt in the first Lions Test. Hogg has the all-round game to act as a second playmaker, with a howitzer of a right boot to put his team in the right areas of the pitch. And you can always guarantee that the Exeter fullback will give 100% to the cause and wear his heart on his sleeve.

Guinness Six Nations

Six Nations 2021: France v Scotland

Six Nations 2021: France v Scotland

The 2021 Six Nations came to a slightly later end than usual – though still much earlier than the 2020 edition – on Friday night with France hosting Scotland in Paris. This match was originally part of Round 3, but a COVID outbreak in the French squad saw the match delayed. Unfortunately for the Scots, this led to the match being played outside of the international window, and the greed of Premiership Rugby meant that Scotland were only allowed to pick a maximum 5 England-based players.

The French may have denied Wales the Grand Slam in dramatic fashion on Super Saturday, but they knew coming into Friday’s match that they had a sizeable mountain to climb in order to win the title: a bonus point win, with a points difference of at least 21 (or 20 if they could score 6 tries) and with the rain pouring down, the mountain was already beginning to look like Everest. So, all things considered, it was a bit of a shock to see France settle for the 3 points after 9 minutes when given a choice of 2 penalties 5m out from the Scottish line. The decision looked even more suspect on the 15 minute mark as George Turner was stopped just short of the line following a Scottish lineout from 5m out. Hamish Watson was similarly stopped just short, Duhan van der Merwe forced his way over for the opening try, though Welsh fans must have been considering themselves lucky as replays showed that a clear double movement had been missed. Finn Russell added the conversion before trading penalties with Romain Ntamack, and after 30 minutes the French were still looking for their first try. It finally came though with 5 minutes left in the half, as a period of France pressure led to a raft Scottish penalties, and from a scrum in the Scottish 22, Antoine Dupont looped the pass out to Damian Penaud, who evaded the clutches of van der Merwe and drew the covering defence before popping inside to Brice Dulin. Ntamack converted to give Les Bleus a 13-10 lead, and they were back on the attack in the final minutes of the half, which led to Stuart Hogg being sent to the sin bin as a result of Scotland’s high penalty count. France went to the corner and it looked like they were about to get try number 2 right before the break, only for Julien Marchand’s throw to be stolen by the Scots to end the half.

The French onslaught continued against the 14 men of Scotland after the break, and n 46 minutes they made the breakthrough, with Virimi Vakatawa offloading to Damian Penaud, who chipped Russell and beat Ali Price to the ball, successfully dotting down despite a tackle off the ball from the Scottish halfback. With Scotland back to 15 men, Russell kicked a penalty and the French continued to probe for an opening but struggled to find it, with one notable attack going from the French try line to the Scottish 22 in a matter of moments, only for Dupont’s chip to be cleaner up by Russell. This moment appeared to be a turning point in the momentum, as France began to lose their discipline and the Scots took advantage to put on some pressure of their own, and they found the breakthrough on the hour with a lineout 5 metres out. Dave Cherry found his jumper and the ball was switched to the back of the line, but Swan Rebbadj managed to get a hand in to rip the ball loose before the maul could be fully formed. Cherry, who had only been on the pitch for about 90 seconds, was coming round to join the maul and reacted quicker than anyone, picking up the loose ball and going over for the try to level the scores, with Russell converting to give the Scots the lead. France quickly hit back and after a strong carry from Grégory Alldritt brought play up to the Scottish try line, Dupont sent Rebbadj over for the try, with Ntamack missing the conversion from out wide to leave Les Bleus with a 3-point lead. The clock was ticking down but Welsh fans would know that 15 minutes was more than enough time to score 18 unanswered points, and they must have got even more nervous with 10 minutes left as Finn Russell was shown a red card for leading with a forearm into the neck of Brice Dulin. However, the chance of a late run took a real shot when replacement scrum half was sent to the bin as Wayne Barnes lost patience with French indiscipline. As the clock ticked down it looked like the game would end in a narrow French victory, but when France won the ball back as the clock went red, Brice Dulin tried to launch an attack rather than settle for the 3-point win, leading to Scotland winning a penalty. And after 5 minutes of pressure in the French 22, Adam Hastings spread the ball wide to van der Merwe, who stepped inside to avoid a tackle and went over for the winning try, Hastings kicking the conversion to secure a 23-27 victory, the first Scottish win away to France since 1999.

The result confirmed Wales as 2021 Six Nations Champions, while a losing bonus point saw France hold onto 2ⁿᵈ and the Scots finished 4ᵗʰ.

France have a fantastic squad with some enviable depth, helped a little by the willingness to bring in younger players and also the player use agreement with the Top 14 during the Autumn Nations Cup that led to them blooding a number of players. However, in the big games you want your big players, and I think that – as well as the COVID outbreak causing issues – the French were undone by bringing Romain Ntamack and Virimi Vakatawa back in right after they recovered from injury, rather than waiting to ensure they were back to match fitness.

Both players are fantastic talents, but they have been a shadow of themselves in recent rounds and not looked up to the pace of international rugby. Granted, Matthieu Jalibert would have probably got the starting spot for consistency had he not been ruled out due to the short turnaround, but there would have still been options in Louis Carbonel, or even moving Dupont out to 10 and bringing Serin in at 9, while having Fickou in the centre with Arthur Vincent and having Teddy Thomas on the wing would have probably been a better set-up given the weather conditions.

Of course, this is still an inexperienced French team, with a head coach in Fabien Galthié who now only has 15 Test matches under his belt as head coach. They will improve in this area with experience, and I still feel comfortable in making them my favourites for the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

Scotland

Conditions in the first half can could only be described as horrible, with the rain pouring down. While France probably tried to play too much in the poor weather – perhaps understandable given the requirements to win the tournament – the Scots got their tactics right in the bad weather, which went a long way to winning the match.

With Chris Harris having become such a reliable figure in defence and flankers Hamish Watson and Jamie Ritchie in fine form, the Scots were happy to put boot to ball, either kicking to the corners and forcing Les Bleus to play from deep – one notable kick from Finn Russell holding up just short of the French try line and forcing the French to play the ball under pressure, leading to Jamie Ritchie tackling Brice Dulin and winning the turnover penalty in the 22 between the sticks. And when they weren’t kicking deep, they were kicking to compete, putting extra pressure on Brice Dulin – who struggled last weekend under the high ball – to field a slippery ball.

We know all about Finn Russell’s ability as an attacking 10. While his red card may not have helped him, the rest of his performance will have been a timely reminder to Warren Gatland that he can be the starting 10 of the Lions.

Lions Watch

After another great performance around the breakdown, that back row duo of Hamish Watson and Jamie Ritchie must be heavily in Warren Gatland’s thoughts.

On the other end of things, Zander Fagerson had a tough time in the scrum against Julien Marchand and Cyril Baille, while if Duhan van der Merwe misses out, it will be due to his frailties in defence being deemed not enough to make up for his abilities going forwards.

Six Nations 2021: France v Wales

Six Nations 2021: France v Wales

Because 2 matches just aren’t enough for one day, Super Saturday finished off with Wales’ trip to Paris to face France in a Grand Slam decider. Usually the finale of the competition, France’s mid-tournament COVID outbreak meant that Les Bleus would have 1 more match to play, on Friday evening against Scotland, but knew that the rearranged fixture would be irrelevant should they lose, draw or win with less than 4 tries and allowing Wales a bonus point – as either of these 3 scenarios would make it mathematically impossible for Wales to be caught in the standings.

Everything was pointing towards an open attacking game and it certainly didn’t disappoint, as France were on the attack immediately, with Cyril Baille being held up over the line. This only delayed the inevitable though, and Les Bleus took the lead a minute later as Romain Taofifenua managed to dot down for the opening try. Wales were soon putting on the pressure themselves though, and when Lois Rees-Zammit popped up unexpectedly at first receiver from a scrum in the French 22, he released Gareth Davies, who was adjudged to have been held up by the narrowest of margins. Wales kept the possession though and went through the phases camped on the French line, until Dan Biggar found the gap and hit it at pace with a beautiful out-to-in line, before kicking the conversion to level the scores. The stalemate lasted just minutes however, as a clever chip from Brice Dulin was collected by Matthieu Jalibert, who fed Antoine Dupnt to score under the posts. Once again though, the Welsh found an answer with their next attack, as Josh Navidi managed to force himself over. After 4 tries and 2 players held up in the opening quarter, things finally settled down a little – potentially helped by Jalibert’s early removal due to a head injury – and Biggar and replacement fly half Romain Ntamack each added 3 points off the tee to send the teams in at the break with the scores level at 17-17.

Biggar soon extended the lead after the break with another penalty, and it felt like the Welsh were in the ascendency in the early stages of the second half. Just a few minutes later, they made the breakthrough, with Justin Tipuric putting in a clever grubber kick out wide. Josh Adams was first to the ball and kicked it infield, where Tomos Williams went to ground to secure it and offload to Adams, who following a TMO referral was adjudged to have got the ball down in-goal. Ntamack cut the lead with a penalty, but the Welsh were straight back on the attack with a devastating driving maul that was collapsed just short of the French line. With advantage being played, the ball was fired to Rees-Zammit who dived for the corner, but a referral to TMO Wayne Barnes showed that the ball was grounded on the touch-in-goal line, so they were forced to settle for 3 points off the tee and a yellow card to French prop Mohamed Haouas for bringing down the maul. 10 points down with just 20 minutes left, the French suddenly seemed galvanised at the thought of their tournament being ended early, and Julien Marchand was held up over the line after peeling off a maul. Then, as the game entered the final 15 minutes, everything went crazy. Having gone through a series of phases in the Welsh 22, the French finally found a way over the line, but the try was disallowed after a lengthy, but expertly handled referral to TMO Wayne Barnes by referee Luke Pearce. The referral found that Paul Willemse had committed an act of foul play with a neck roll on Wyn Jones, which would overrule not just the try put also a penalty advantage that was likely to see Alun Wyn Jones sent to the bin, but further looks found that Willemse was also guilty of making contact with the eye area, leading to the lock being shown a red card and Wales clearing their lines. The French were soon back on the attack though, and after Charles Ollivon was held up over the line, Taulupe Faletau was sent to the bin with less than 10 minutes left. He was soo joined by Liam Williams, who stupidly went off his feet to slap the ball out of Dupont’s hands at a ruck near halfway. The French made it into the 22 and with just 4 minutes left, captain Charles Ollivon managed to get over for a try, which Ntamack converted to bring them within 3 points. Wales tried to see out the final minutes in possession, but that is a long time to keep things tight and they gave away a penalty on halfway with less than 2 minutes left for sealing off. A draw would still hand Wales the title, so France kicked up to the 22 and went through the phases looking for a breakthrough, which they found with 81 minutes on the clock as they used their one man advantage to work an overlap and send Brice Dulin over on the left to break Welsh hearts and secure a 32-30 victory.

While the “Jam Slam” may be off the table, Wales arguably remain in the driving seat for the title, as tie-breaker rules mean that France will need to beat come off a short week to beat Scotland with at least 4 tries and a points difference of at least 21.

Perhaps the scariest thing about France’s performances in this year’s competition is that they have been looking super dangerous with arguably their second choice at fly half. Romain Ntamack had secured the starting spot, but was ruled out for much of the tournament with injury, returning to the bench for the 2 most recent games. With Matthieu Jalibert suffering a head injury midway through the first half, Ntamack got his chance to get some minutes under his belt.

But did that almost cost France in this game? After some time out, Ntamack certainly didn’t seem fully up to speed, with it taking until the hour mark before he managed to get much going on attack as he got back into the flow of international rugby and playing with this backline, whereas Jalibert had been looking super dangerous. Unfortunately for France, the turnaround will be too quick for Jalibert to be involved, so Ntamack will have to get back up to speed quickly.

If he can get up to speed in this shortened week, then Scotland should be worried, as he has shown his attacking quality plenty when at full fitness, while he is also probably a more robust defender than Jalibert, which could prove crucial when every point counts. If he is still not back to his usual level though, a 21-point points difference and the necessity of scoring 4 tries could prove too much for Les Bleus.

Wales

While we joke about how a win would have given Wales the “Jam Slam” due to the luck that went their way, it must be acknowledged that Wales improved so much during the tournament. as well as developing some degree of depth at positions like centre, they have seen players returning from injury and also former key players like Taulupe Faletau returning to form, while newer faces like Kieran Hardy, Callum Sheedy and Louis Rees-Zammit have brought a new dimension to the team.

While they are still somewhat lacking in physicality, they are finding ways to compensate for this, with players popping up in unexpected positions and running smart lines at pace to give them momentum and help them get over the gain line. Watching Wales on Saturday evening, I really started to see the similarities to Wayne Pivac’s Pro12-winning Scarlets team, who were similarly lacking in physicality.

This is not to say that they don’t have physicality, with George North’s move inside proving a remarkable success so far and surely extending his international career by a number of years, and rather than just expecting him to run into other big men, they are moving players like him and Louis Rees-Zammit around the pitch to get maximum advantage from them.

Will this be enough to beat everyone? No. I worry for the team at lock and hooker without Alun Wyn Jones and Ken Owens, while there appears to be a big drop-off behind the starting back row. Similarly, there will be teams that you will need a more physical approach to beat. But right now, this is a team going in the right direction and looking like they can be competitive again.

Lions Watch

He always puts in quality performances that often go under the radar, but his grubber to set up Josh Adams’ try was a welcome reminder of Justin Tipuric‘s broad skillset, while George North and Louis Rees-Zammit showed just how dangerous they can be if used right.

However, Gareth Davies may have to hope that Warren Gatland remembers how well he suited Gatland’s play as he was removed early in the second half, while Liam Williams‘ moronic yellow card could leave questions over his temperament with plenty of players in the back 3 putting their hands up for selection.