2021 Autumn Tests: Week 3

2021 Autumn Tests: Week 3

Hello and welcome to my look at the third week of the Autumn Tests. With us now in World Rugby’s Test window, this weekend was jam packed with action. Jonathan Sexton celebrated his 100ᵗʰ Ireland cap by scoring one of Ireland’s 9 tries in their 60-5 demolition of Japan, New Zealand’s trip to Rome saw them win 9-47 against a passionate Italian team, England ran riot in a 69-3 win over a Tongan team who spent over 30 minutes of the game with just 13 men on the pitch, a late Malcolm Marx try earned South Africa an 18-23 victory over an injury-hit Welsh team, France held on to defeat a resurgent Argentina 29-20, while Ewan Ashman’s Scotland debut began with an earlier-than-expected arrival off the bench and ended with him scoring a crucial try in a 15-13 win over Australia.


Ireland

This performance was a huge statement from Ireland. Every single player on the pitch from 1-23 showed that they were comfortable with the ball in hand. The grunts in the pack expected to make the hard yards were also comfortable with space in front of them, and the rest of the team excel in space, with many also happy to take on a bit of contact. But more than just being happy to take the ball and run, every single one of them was comfortable enough to play the ball around with exceptional handling skills.

Granted they will face tougher tests than this Japan team, but it is clear that the skills are there from the players. And that means that they will be super dangerous in broken play, as if anyone makes a break, they have the skills to exploit it and not just keep the attack going, but get it to the players who can best take advantage. Not only this, but just the threat of every player being able to carry or pass if they get the ball means that the defence must stay alert to any possibility, as if a defender leaves his man to make a dominant double tackle, the ball carrier can ship it off to the now-undefended teammate, while a defender who tries to drift onto the next man too quickly will leave a gap for the ball carrier to run through.

The key now for Ireland is to make this a part of their regular gameplan, and not just a party trick they bring out when facing weaker opposition.

Japan

Japan are a very good team, but they looked very poor at the weekend. While part of this was likely due to a lack of time playing Test rugby since the World Cup, they also really struggled for a lack of physicality.

They are a very accurate and technical team, but they lack the physicality to stand up to the elite teams. While they try to play expansive rugby, too much of their intricate play is done behind the gain line, which puts them in trouble if the defence works as an organised unit. But even more worrying is their inability to cope with the driving maul, getting routinely pushed back 20+ metres during this match, which was also their undoing in the World Cup against the Springboks. Until they find a way to front up to the opposition and compete legally at the maul, they will always struggle to consistently compete against the top teams, who will just take ever penalty opportunity and kick to touch in the knowledge that they will then gain another 20 metres with the driving maul.

Italy

Forget the score, as it does not do this performance from the Azzurri any justice. They caused the All Blacks some serious problems, with New Zealand taking 28 minutes to even get on the scoreboard. The defence was aggressive, shutting down space and putting pressure on an inexperienced midfield who were not used to playing together, while players were causing the Kiwis an absolute nightmare at the breakdown and winning a number of turnovers and penalties. Granted they have some areas they need to improve—notably around the way they deal with the driving maul while effectively covering the fringes for a player peeling off—but if they can defend with this organisation regularly then their days of being on the wrong end of massive scorelines may be ending.

But it wasn’t just the defence that looked improved, as the attack looked far more capable too. Steven Varney has added an impressive kicking game to his dangerous running, Monty Ioane excelled and Matteo Minozzi continued to prove himself as one of the stars of the team. But not just that, they adapted their game to the opposition, by frequently testing the New Zealand back 3 under the high ball, with chasers either getting up to compete—which should have left to an opening try for the Azzurri if Karl Dickson had paid attention to the game and played advantage rather than immediately blowing for a penalty— or positioning themselves exactly where the Kiwi catcher would need to jump, putting them under real pressure.

It may still be early days under Kieran Crowley, but it feels like the team has built on the infrastructure that Conor O’Shea introduced and the youth that Franco Smith capped to take things to a new level—and this is all being done with Jake Polledri still out injured! I hope that things may finally be on the up for Italy.

New Zealand

This was a very scrappy performance from the All Blacks. Starting centres Braydon Ennor and Quinn Tupaea had a grand total of 10 caps between them (including the 2 being earned in this match) and with the pack being given a hard time at the breakdown and the Italian defence coming up hard in midfield, it significantly added to the pressure that the pair were under.

Of course, they improved as the game went on and the Italians tired, but this really highlighted an issue that the All Blacks currently have at centre. A team who once had Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith and Sonny Bill Williams fighting for 2 spots in the XV is now seriously lacking. Ngani Laumape has left the country and now wants to play for Tonga after being continually overlooked, Anton Lienert-Brown brings experience but never seems to have the same impact when starting as he does off the bench and Jack Goodhue has been out since April with an ACL injury, so you can never guarantee how quickly he will get back to his best.

While they clearly still have options beyond that, they are severely lacking experience. Rieko Ioane my be closing on 50 caps but the majority have been earned on the wing, where he is still being used far too often by Ian Foster. 22-year-old Tupaea has 6 caps and just a few years of Super Rugby under his belt. David Havili may have experience, but has only recently transitioned to centre from the back 3, while 4-cap Ennor also originally came on the Super Rugby scene as a winger a few seasons back.

With the World Cup less than 2 weeks away, Ian Foster has a lot of questions in his midfield, and a limited number of games to find an answer.

England

England will certainly face much sterner tests, but on the performances in this match, a number of the youngsters should be starting the next match against Australia to gain some experience against Tier 1 international opposition. While George Furbank looked good at 10 against Tonga, the Australia game should be time for Marcus Smith to take over the reins of this team, while Freddie Steward looked much more secure at 15 than Elliot Daly ever did, with his height, ability in the air and all-round skillset reminding me of Jordie Barrett. Meanwhile on the wing, Adam Radwan has the kind of pace that will scare anyone, but needs to play against a team that will Test him defensively before he can truly be judged at this level, while Alex Mitchell deserves a chance to show what he can do as the starting 9 or England will have no experience at the position if Ben Youngs suddenly isn’t available right before the World Cup. Meanwhile in the pack, it’s time for Eddie Jones to stop pretending that Courtney Lawes is the best 6 in English rugby and move him back to lock, before moving Tom Curry to the flank where he belongs and playing an actual 8 in Alex Dombrandt, who put in a solid (and perhaps too unselfish) performance off the bench.

I understand the need to win every match in the Six Nations, but these Autumn Tests are a chance to experiment with the squad and give some youth/fringe players a chance. The ball is in Eddie Jones’ court, how many of these kids will get the chance they deserve?

Tonga

With how little time Tonga get to spend together as a team, they are already going to be struggling enough to defend, as it takes time to develop a trust and understanding with the players around them, allowing them to defend as a unit rather than a bunch of individuals. But they then go and make their job impossible when they spend so much of the match a man down. Between the yellow cards for Walter Fifita and Solomone Kata and the red card for Viliami Fine, Tonga spent 32 of the 80 minutes with a numerical disadvantage. When you’re playing that much of the game a man down, you’re never going to be able to defend properly. The discipline needs to be better!

While Fifita’s yellow may have been unfortunate, as he clearly tipped the ball up to try and recollect, going for a one-handed intercept these days will end badly nine times out of ten, while Kata can have no arguments as he struggled to get off the ground and took Jonny May out in the air. But Fine’s actions were moronic. The high tackle was bad enough but excusable as mistakes happen, but to then go in on Marcus Smith on the floor—even if he clearly made contact rather than with his elbow, as described by the ever-unreliable Ben Whitehouse—is disgusting and has no place in the sport.

It often feels like the Pacific Island teams get a bad rep for indiscipline, but its sadly incidents like this from Fine that cause this perception to remain, and it just does the team more harm as officials are then leaning towards expecting them to be doing something illegal if there is a chance. Tonga need to clean up their game fast to give themselves a better chance of competing in games.

Wales

3 years ago, the promising career of Ellis Jenkins looked like it could be reaching a premature end as he suffered an horrific knee injury in the final seconds of Wales match against the Springboks. At the weekend, he finally made his return to Test rugby against none other than South Africa, and in my mind was unfortunate not to come away with the Player of the Match award.

The Cardiff Rugby flanker has always been an impressively talented jackal, but looked at his best against the Boks once again. Jenkins was a key part of the Welsh defensive effort in a desperate rearguard that reminded me of their RWC2015 match against Australia. In his own 22 alone, he managed a turnover at a breakdown, an interception and a strip. Alongside these crucial interventions, he completed all 7 of his tackles, completed 10 passes and carried 4 times for 19 metres.

But even more than that, he even took over the captaincy of the team in the latter stages and dealt with referee Paul Williams so impressively. At 28 years old, he is in his prime and is at the point where he can and should be a key part of this squad.

If I was Wayne Pivac going forward and everyone was available for selection, I would be looking at this match’s back row (Jenkins, Wainwright and Basham) along with Josh Navidi and Justin Tipuric as my core back row options. Taulupe Faletau’s impending return to Wales could see him get back to his best, which would also bring him into the unit, while Ross Moriarty would also provide another more experienced option in case of injuries, as could James Davies or Cardiff-bound Thomas Young or younger future stars like Leicester’s Tommy Reffell.

South Africa

South Africa may not have been able to slow things down as much as they would have liked at the weekend, but they still showed that they are a real threat regardless. This pack dominated the Welsh, destroying them in what few scrums there were, while the lineout drives also had great success, leading to a number of penalties and Malcolm Marx’s late try.

But the most incredible thing is the strength they have in depth. If the Springboks were to take all their players (for this hypothetical, let’s say that everyone is fit at the same time) and create 3 packs purely just starting players, no replacements) using their depth chart, I firmly believe that the “B” pack would be able to give most Tier 1 nations—and the “A” pack—and while the “C” pack may have only limited Test experience, it would likely still have the quality to compete with and beat many Tier 2 nations.

France

France tried something different and truly exciting to imagine at the weekend, by moving Romain Ntamack from 10 to 12 with Matthieu Jalibert at fly half. Sadly, such an exciting idea did not work as well in execution. The reason? Having a midfield of Jalibert, Ntamack and defensive lynchpin Gaël Fickou left the back line with very little in the way of physicality. Meanwhile outside them, Damian Penaud runs hard but is not a true crash ball runner, while Gabin Villière and Melvyn Jaminet are definitely not being picked for their physicality.

Without a more physical centre (Danty, Vincent or Vakatawa) or a wing who will also come into midfield, Les Bleus lack the strike runner to draw in defenders and create the space for the other players to exploit. Granted magicians like Dupont and Jalibert will still manage to find and create chances, but a more physical presence will make this easier.

Argentina

I love Santiago Cordero, but this experiment of using him at 10 for the Pumas needs to end. Unlike George Furbank, who was given the 10 shirt against Tonga late in the week, Cordero has never started a top flight domestic match at 10 but now finds himself playing there against Tier 1 opposition. I don’t doubt his talent, but he does not have the experience of playing the position at such a high level, and it is no surprise that his best moments generally seem to come in moments of broken play when he is acting more like an outside back.

It was no surprise to me that when Nicolás Sánchez entered the match Argentina suddenly looked much more structured in attack, while even his kicking game was more dangerous and pulled the team up the field, as well as directly leading to Mateo Carreras’ late try.

Carreras will get very few minutes at 10 at Gloucester. Adam Hastings has been brought in to lead the back line at that position and while Lloyd Evans is questionable as a second choice, there is a bright young English fly half just behind him in local lad George Barton, who has just turned 21, while Billy Twelvetrees is also an option covering the position in emergencies. If Carreras wants to play fly half, then he will need to leave Kingsholm, but it is unlikely that he will find many clubs where he would be able to step in as the starting 10 that Argentina needs. Rather, he should be moved back to the back 3 where he shines for the Pumas and a specialist fly half brought in to gain international experience.

Scotland

This win was a huge statement for the Scottish front row. While Scotland defended well across the pitch, the front row had a key job to do at scrum time by trying to stop the Wallabies gaining a platform at the scrum to launch their attacks off. Against the front row options Australia had in this match, that is no mean feat, even if Taniela Tupou’s impact on anything other that Scott Johnson’s head was minimal. But the Scots did it, causing nightmares at the scrum, while debutant Ewan Ashman, on much earlier than expected following an early injury to George Turner looked completely at home on the international stage, including a finish in the corner that wings would be proud of!

The scrum is vital in international rugby, both as a chance to win penalties and also as a platform to launch attacks from. If the Scottish front row can continue to play like this, it will put them in a great position to challenge for their first Six Nations tournament victory.

Australia

The Wallabies are missing some vital names in their back line for this Test series. Quade Cooper and Samu Kerevi’s decisions to not come on tour and instead return to preseason with their club teams in Japan have robbed Australia of the men who appeared to turn the team’s fortunes around during the Rugby Championship.

While I feel that the return of James O’Connor will cover for Cooper’s absence, Kerevi is an entirely different matter. The centre was playing at a level that was surely bringing him into contention for World Rugby Player of the Year, but more than that, I don’t think that they have a direct replacement. While I have previously talked about Hunter Paisami as the clear replacement for Kerevi at 12, he is not a like-for-like replacement, with his physicality much more focused towards defence, while Kerevi was more offensively focused with defence coming as he gained experience. What makes this loss of Kerevi even more pronounced is the absence of Marika Koroibete from the touring party, as he chose to remain in Australia following the birth of his child, which leaves the back line with limited physical options.

Can Paisami adapt his game to bring a more offensive side? Or will the Wallabies need to adapt their selections in the pack to include a couple more dynamic carriers in the starting XV, such as Tupou (once he recovers from concussion) and Pete Samu?

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Six Nations 2021: Scotland v Italy

Six Nations 2021: Scotland v Italy

Super Saturday kicked off with a strange feeling in Murrayfield as Scotland prepared to play their penultimate match in the 2021 Six Nations against Italy. The Scots were coming in off the back of a disappointing loss to Ireland, but soon found themselves falling behind to a try from Luca Bigi, who powered over from short range after the Scottish pack collapsed the Italian lineout drive, Paolo Garbisi kicking the conversion from the touchline. Poor Italian discipline soon gave the Scots a chance to repay the favour in kind, and David Cherry rode the power of his pack to go over for his first Test try. Stuart Hogg missed the conversion but the Scots soon had the lead, with Huw Jones breaking from his own 22 off the restart and bringing the ball up to the Italian 22, and when the ball came to the left, the Scots worked an overlap to release Duhan van der Merwe, who brought the ball under the posts to score and allow his captain an easy conversion. Garbisi cut the lead with a penalty, but Italy then shot themselves in the foot once again, with Federic Mori getting sent to the bin on his first Test start for a no-arms challenge on Sam Johnson. The Scots kicked the resulting penalty to touch, and after a series of phases in the Italian 22, Sean Maitland scythed through a gap in midfield. He was stopped just short of the line but offloaded to Huw Jones, who was tackled immediately, but an offload off the floor allowed Darcy Graham to go over for the try, Hogg again missing off the tee. Italy defended strongly but once again found themselves conceding a second try while down a man, with van der Merwe breaking down the left wing and holding himself up long enough in the tackle to offload to a supporting Stuart Hogg, who released the flying Huw Jones with a lovely switch to send the centre over for the bonus point try – the fastest against Italy in this year’s competition, clocked at 28 minutes – which Hogg converted for a 24-10 halftime lead.

The Scots were in no mood to sit back and rest after the break, with David Cherry being quickly sent over for another try from a driving maul just minutes after the restart and things got even worse for the Azzurri on 53 minutes as Seb Negri was adjudged to have deliberately slapped the ball down right after 2 other penalty offences from teammates, leading to him being sent to the bin. Once again, Scotland took advantage of the extra man by calling for the scrum, and after Sam Johnson took the crash ball ball up to the try line, Scott Steele sniped off the breakdown and twisted his was over for his first Test try. The Azzurri’s defence stood firm despite the numerical disadvantage and it looked like they would see out the rest of the period unscathed, until Monty Ioane was sent to the bin with 1 minute left on Negri’s removal for a tip tackle on Stuart Hogg. Though they couldn’t take advantage of the 2-man difference, Scotland were camped inside the Italian 22, and when Stuart Hogg released van der Merwe with a pass between his legs, the winger looked certain t score, only for the covering Marco Zanon to dislodge the ball on the line. This only delayed the Scots for a few minutes though, as Scotland won a penalty in the corner and went for the quick tap, and after a couple of phases, Sam Johnson came on a beautiful out-to-in line to crash over for another try. Entering the final minutes, the Azzurri found themselves in the Scotland 22, but the ball was turned over and a show-and-go from replacement halfback Ali Price saw him break away to the halfway line, where he found van der Merwe on the charge and set him free for his second try of the game. As the clock went into the red, Italy had one final chance to finish on a high with a lineout 5m from the Scottish line, but the Scots got up to steal the ball and kick the ball out to finish with a 52-10 victory, their biggest margin of victory over the Azzurri.

With Finn Russell still going through concussion protocols and Adam Hastings banned for this match, we knew that we would be seeing someone different at fly half for this match. That said, it was still a shock to see Stuart Hogg being selected to wear the 10 shirt.

While Hogg had a good game, it was a big risk to put him in considering any concussion would rule him out of Friday’s finale against France while even more importantly in the short term, it was taking him away from a position where he had been excelling and putting him into an area with less space.

In years gone by, I could have understood this decision as Hogg would often be the third on the depth chart in the Scottish camp, but now, he must surely be fifth at best, with Duncan Weir and Jaco van der Walt giving Gregor Townsend the great situation of having 4 legitimate specialist 10s in contention to play, before we reach players like Hogg, who can fit in there. To me, this was the perfect opportunity for Townsend to play van der Walt from the start and give him the full 80 minutes against a struggling defence, to get him more experienced at the international level, perhaps with Hogg providing support from the fullback position if Townsend thought it necessary.

When it comes to the big matches, you are going to want to put out your best available team, and with Russell and Hastings missing, putting Hogg at 10 is not going to be as good for the team as playing him at 15 with a specialist at 10. Hopefully, van der Walt gets the chance to show what he can do in the near future.

Italy

Every week during the Six Nations, I find myself having to defend Italy and their inclusion in a Tier 1 tournament, but now it’s getting really hard to do so.

This tournament started with some shades of positivity as the youth was brought in, but as time went on, that positivity drained away as the Azzurri failed to keep 15 men on the pitch while their discipline disappeared altogether. And it’s not just the discipline. Throughout the tournament, restarts were put out on the full, kicks in open play were aimless, penalties to touch either stayed in play or went out to touch in goal, players were pinged for advancing in front of the kicker.

Yes, some key players were missing, while inexperienced players were played in some key positions, but the attacking promise would last for a while, then the team would concede a couple of easy tries and everything would fall apart, with the second half being spent largely in the Italian half, with the Azzurri never looking threatening.

When you look at the players, there is quality there, but the team performances are not living up to their promise, and a record losing margin against Scotland has consigned the team to their worst Six Nations in terms of tries and points conceded.

Something needs to change, and for me, that comes at the head coach position. There needs to be leadership from the top, but Franco Smith seems to be struggling to get the team playing even more than he has struggled with his mask throughout the tournament. He has moved the team in the right direction since replacing Conor O’Shea, but his is a tenure full of losses. Conor O’Shea had to rebuild the framework of Italian rugby, Franco Smith introduced the youngsters to Test rugby, and now it is time to bring in a new coach to give this team a clean slate and take this team to the next level and become to Italy what Milton Haig was to Georgia and Eddie Jones was to Japan.

Lions Watch

Similar to last week, this was such an abject performance from Italy, it makes it harder to form a proper opinion on players, but Duhan van der Merwe put in a great response to last week’s quiet game, with today’s performance highlighting both his pace and power. He offers something different to other Home Nations wings and reminds me of George North on the tour to Australia 8 years ago. Meanwhile, a Man of the Match performance from Hamish Watson will certainly help his case with so much depth available in the back row.

Six Nations 2021: Italy v Ireland

Six Nations 2021: Italy v Ireland

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

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

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

Italy

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

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

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

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

Ireland

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

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

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

Lions Watch

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

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

Six Nations 2021: England v Italy

Six Nations 2021: England v Italy

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

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

England

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

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

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

Italy

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

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

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

Lions Watch

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

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

Six Nations 2021: Italy v France

Six Nations 2021: Italy v France

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

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

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

Italy

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

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

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

France

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

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

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Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Wales v Italy

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Wales v Italy

Saturday’s 3ʳᵈ and final Autumn Nations Cup game came took us to Parc y Scarlets, where Wales hosted Italy in the fight for 5ᵗʰ place. Wayne Pivac had selected a team with a blend of youth and experience, and they got off to the better start as Taulupe Faletau put Justin Tipuric through a gap and the flanker fed Kieran Hardy to go over for his first Test try, which Callum Sheedy converted. 10 minutes later and another Welsh player was celebrating their first Test try, as Wales went through the phases and Sam Parry eventually pushed over from close range, Sheedy converting again. Italy finally started to get some possession in the Welsh half and Paolo Garbisi opened their account with a penalty. Just a few minutes later, Italy had a lineout on the Welsh 22, and when the maul came infield, Carlo Canna played a grubber in behind the defensive line and his centre partner Marco Zanon collected the ball to cross for his first Test try, which Garbisi duly converted. The Welsh were shook and on a warning for repeat infringements, which proved costly just before the end of the half, as a break from a ruck released Stephen Varney and the Gloucester halfback took the ball all the way to the Welsh 22. Josh Adams finally brought him down, but did not support his weight as he tried to force the turnover and found himself being sent to the sin bin, while Garbisi kicked the penalty to cut Wales’ lead to 14-13 at the break.

Despite the numerical disadvantage, it was Wales who had the better start to the second half, with Sheedy kicking a penalty to extend the lead, but Italy made use of the width of the pitch and the extra man to release Johan Meyer down the right wing, and the flanker sent Ioan Lloyd flying as crashed over for the go-ahead score. As the hour mark approached, Wales began to bring on the replacements, and they saw a marked improvement in the team’s performance. having been put through a gap by Taulupe Faletau in the first half, Justin Tipuric repaid the favour, and the number 8 released Gareth Davies, who outpaced the Italian defence to go over for the try, converted by Sheedy. The game was still in the balance, but Italy played too much in the midfield and were turned over with very few players left to defend out wide, which Wales took advantage of to get up to the Italian try line, before George North picked from the back of the ruck to go the final metres to score, Sheedy converting again. The result had already been decided but there was still time for Wales to add 1 more try, as Callum Sheedy’s delayed pass put the ball behind Federico Mori to Faletau, who put Tipuric over for the final try, which Sheedy converted for a final score of 38-18.

Breaking down

Wales have seriously been missing the breakdown talents of Josh Navidi, and it became apparent in this game. The team gave away a whopping 8 penalties in the first half for offences at the breakdown, with a couple of penalties coming on their own ball but most coming as they tried to win turnovers that weren’t on, either not releasing the tackled player, not coming through the gate or going off their feet. A few penalties is understandable, but the volume they were giving them away was embarrassing!

With all these penalties, it was a simple matter for Italy to claw themselves back into the match from 14-0 down. And much of this came from Wales’ inability to control the contact area. They will face much sterner tests than the Azzurri, and for this reason they need to be smarter at the breakdown. Josh Navidi’s return will be a massive help, as he is such a physical player and a great operator at the breakdown, but they cannot rely on him and a number of the other players in the squad, especially players in the pack, need to step up and do more if this team wants to improve anytime soon.

Defensive unity

Wales had clearly done their homework on the Italy defence as they found a weakness and ruthlessly exploited it. The Italians have added some real physicality to their defence, but too often they were not defending as a unit, but instead looking for the gang tackle on the ball carrier or jamming up on a potential receiver.

The Welsh attack took advantage of this to great effect, with a number of pops off to a runner on their shoulder right before contact catching out the defenders. Both hardy’s and Davies’ tries came from this, putting the runner through a hole to get through the defensive line, then playing it off to a support man.

Similarly, Tipuric’s try at the end came from Federico Mori jamming up on his own, which Sheedy had read. The delay on his pass took Mori completely out of the game and released Faletau, who again had support with him in the form of Tipuric to fully exploit the line break.

While their improved physicality is certainly helping them win more turnovers, the Azzurri need to work as a unit if they want to solidify their defence and keep the opposition’s score to a manageable level.

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Autumn Nations Cup 2020: France v Italy

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: France v Italy

With England’s place in the Autumn Nations Cup final confirmed, eyes turned to Paris to see who they would be facing as France took on Italy. Having defeated Scotland last weekend, Les Bleus knew that a win over Italy would see them top the pool, but Top 14 player usage rules meant that they were playing with a largely inexperienced 23, which would increase Italy’s hopes of a first win against a Tier 1 nation since 2016.

France got off to a good start with Matthieu Jalibert kicking a penalty just 3 minutes into the game, but this was followed by a 20-minute period of tight rugby with plenty of kicks for territory. The Italians found the breakthrough, as Marco Zanon charged through the line and fed Paolo Garbisi, who offloaded to Carlo Canna to cross for the opening try, though Garbisi missed the conversion. It looked like the Azzurri may hold the lead into halftime, but a late 5m lineout for the French gave them a platform and centre Jonathan Danty crashed over from short range, with Jalibert converting for a 10-5 halftime lead.

Things went downhill for the Italians after the break, with Jacopo Trulla sent to the bin for a deliberate knock on. The French used the man advantage to kill the game off, with tries from Gabin Villière, Baptiste Serin and Teddy Thomas, with Jalibert adding 2 conversions. The Italians kept fightingfor some pride in the final quarter but could not find the breakthrough and France added one more try at the death through Sekou Macalou, with replacement Louis Carbonel kicking the conversion for a final score of 36-5.

Staking a claim

Due to an agreement with the Top 14, players were limited in the number of matches they could play in during this tournament, which led to an almost completely different 23 playing this week, comprised mainly of highly inexperienced players and a handful of former internationals like Uini Atonio and Brice Dulin. While the lack of chemistry certainly caused some issues in this match, there were a number of players who stood out an will hope that their performances may bring them closer to the first choice squad.

Matthieu Jalibert already seems to be the go-to replacement for Romain Ntamack and though it is clear that he needs more experience at this level, he controlled the game well and will benefit from more playing time with the regulars.

Jonathan Danty had a great match in midfield, utilising his physicality in both attack and defence, and capping it off with a try. While Gaël Fickou provides a great ball-playing option at 12, Danty provides a more physical option that could provide a different dimension to the back line.

Brice Dulin was a great talent when he first came on the scene for Les Bleus and looked very much back to his best with his silky running and reliable boot in the kicking game, including a high bomb that could again add an extra dimension to the back line.

Finally, in the pack, Sekou Macalou put in a fine defensive performance, soaking up ball carriers and winning the turnovers, while his late try was a just reward for his efforts on the day. His one issue is that he finds himself competing with captain Charles Ollivon for the 7 shirt, but he would be a dangerous addition off the bench.

Finding the breakthrough

Italy find themselves in an interesting position. Paolo Garbisi looks better with every cap, and while Carlo Canna provides a second playmaking option at 12, he is often utilised as a crash ball instead, doing it with gusto but to little effect. In this match, Marco Zanon really showed his quality with a number of line breaks, including 3 in the build-up to Canna’s try. It looks like he is close to cementing his place as one of the starting centres, but is Canna the right option beside him?

I think it is time that Canna is moved to the bench to allow Garbisi to run the backline, with Matteo Minozzi providing a secondary playmaker option at 15. This would then allow a second specialist centre to pair with Zanon, either the experienced Luca Morisi or the young but impressive Federico Mori, to create a dangerous centre pairing that will force defences to narrow up in midfield and provide more space out wide for the wings to exploit.

Will it work? There’s no guarantee. But with talismanic back row carrier Jake Polledri out for some time, the Azzurri need to find a breakthrough somewhere.

 

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Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Italy v Scotland

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Italy v Scotland

The first week of the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup continued on Saturday with Scotland’s trip to Florence to face Italy.

The Italians continued to put faith in youth and it paid off early on as they started the stronger team, taking a 6-0 lead in the opening quarter through the boot of Paolo Garbisi. Scotland grew into the game and got a spell of possession in the Italian 22, which Duhan van der Merwe ended by crashing through the defence with a beautiful out to in line for the opening try of the game, converted by Duncan Weir. The Italians hit straight back, however, and when Garbisi set Marco Zanon clear down the left wing, the backs kept the ball moving and put Matteo Minozzi over in the corner for an 11-7 lead at halftime.

The second half started like the first, with Garbisi kicking a penalty, before a good passing move put Duncan Weir over in the corner, only for the try to be ruled out for a forward pass. The Scots soon had another try though, as Hamish Watson’s offload 5m from the line was tipped by an offside Jake Polledri into the hands of Zander Fagerson, who took advantage of everyone else on the pitch stopping (expecting a penalty) to lollop over the line, with Weir kicking the conversion to tie up the score. The Azzurri made some changes in the back line which upped the tempo, and put the pressure on the Scots, earning a penalty that Garbisi kicked to put them back ahead. However the Scots had a couple of decisions go their way from the restart, which left them in the Italian 22, and with Jake Polledri down inured, Scott Cummings managed to force his way over for a try converted by Weir. This try and the injury really seemed to sap the Italian spirit and Scotland took advantage, driving over a maul from close range to earn a bonus point 4ᵗʰ try through replacement hooker George Turner, which Weir converted to put the icing on a 17-28 victory that flattered the Scots.

Building again

For so long, Italy’s success came off the back of a dominant pack, that was somewhat let down by sub-par backs. In more recent years, the backs have improved, but those irreplaceable gladiators in the pack – Lo Cicero, Bortolami, Castrogiovanni, Parisse, Zanni, Bergamasco et al – were past their prime an retiring, with their replacements not ready to take their place. But in this game, we g a hint that the current crop are ready to compete at the top level and make those who came before them proud.

I wrote about the team’s desire against England and that was evident again this week, but it was joined by an incredible physicality. Led by Jake Polledri, Seb Negri, Niccolò Cannone and Danilo Fischetti – who was a menace on the day in the scrums and breakdowns – the whole pack rallied to ensure that if the first man failed to bring the Scot down, the second man definitely did. And that just encouraged the backs, with Marco Zanon and replacement centre Federico Mori making a positive and noticeable impact on the game.

The Scots were unable to get into a rhythm and the physicality was causing them to step beyond the bounds of legality more than usual to cope with them. Unfortunately, at a key point of the game after about an hour, with Italy growing in momentum, a couple of Scottish infringements deep in Italian territory were missed by the officials, leading to them getting possession in the Italy 22, and as George Turner powered off a maul, Jake Polledri hyperextended his knee making the challenge, leaving the Azzuri’s defensive line a man down, helping Cummings score as the Gloucester back row was stretchered off. It was clear that this negatively impacted the team as it took the life out of them, but make no mistake – if this Italian team can continue to put in the effort like this and build off the performance, that win is coming very soon.

Back in the fold

Scotland’s Super Saturday win over Wales came at a cost, with both Finn Russell and Adam Hastings being lost to injury. This led to a return to the squad for Duncan Weir, who has been in the form of his life since his move to Worcester.

4 years on from his last Test start, the fly half put in a great performance, getting the backline going and varying the play despite the Italian’s best efforts to keep the Scots on the back foot, while making sure they played in the right areas of the pitch to cause Italy problems and take advantage of any slip-ups. Oh, and 8 points with the boot certainly helped too. And much of this was done despite him suffering an eye injury in the second half that must have been hampering his vision!

If Weir can keep up these performances, he will have certainly earned the chance to remain a part of the Scotland squad once Hastings and Russell return.

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Six Nations 2020: Italy v England

Six Nations 2020: Italy v England

The long-delayed Super Saturday to end the 2020 Six Nations continued at the Stadio Olimpico as Italy hosted England. The Azzurri’s 6ᵗʰ place finish was already confirmed, while the visitors knew that they needed to win – and win big – to potentially win the tournament.

Things couldn’t have started much better for England, with Owen Farrell breaking through in midfield and feeding Ben Youngs to pen the scoring on his 100ᵗʰ cap, Farrell adding the conversion and a further 3 points from a penalty soon after. The men in white struggled to build on this though, and were made to pay when a handling error allowed Jake Polledri to go over in the corner. England survived a 10-minute period without Jonny Hill following a high tackle, but after Polledri was sent to the bin for coming in at the side of a maul, England failed to capitalise on the extra an at the catch and drive – getting turned over short of the line – and almost conceded themselves right before halftime as they failed to deal with a kick down the right wing, with both George Furbank and Federico Mori missing the ball and Jonny May cleaning up to end the half 5-10.

With Polledri still in the bin for the opening minutes of the second half, the Italian defence found themselves stretched and allowed Ben Youngs to snipe off the side of a ruck to go over for his second try of the game. With Italy back to a full complement, they looked like they had the desire but not the personnel, an England drove over from a lineout, Jamie George dotting down for the try, and while England never really shone, Tom Curry and Henry Slade both scored in the corner to secure the bonus point with a 5-34 victory. This victory put England top of the table, and with France beating Ireland later in the evening, they were crowned Six Nations Champions.

Who wants it?

England may have been the one going for the Six Nations title, but there was only 1 team that looked like they had the desire to win this game: Italy. The Azzurri were fired up for this match and taking it as a personal affront any time they were beaten as a pack, while celebrating vociferously with every turnover and penalty they won.

Were England just struggling as this was their first match together? Or were they just taking Italy for granted? Either way, I need to see more desire from England.

In too deep

While Italy may have had the desire, they came away with only 5 points from this game, and the only times they really looked like scoring were the try – which came off an England error – and a chance just before halftime as Mori chased a kick downfield.

To me, one of the big reasons that they created so little was how deep their back line was playing. When the ball was going through the forwards off 9, they were holding parity against the England defence and making metres, but as soon as the ball went to the backs, they were dropping almost 10 metres with each pass, but not doing anything to trouble the England defence. This would lead to them being tackled well behind the gain line and struggling to keep possession as most of their men were in front of the ball.

If Italy want to start having some success, they need to start by getting fly half Paolo Garbisi playing closer to the line. Only by doing this will the Azzurri be able to start bringing in midfield runners to cause defences trouble and create space on the outside.

In the footsteps of a legend

For so long, Italy have rallied around their star man and captain Sergio Parisse. While he may now be gone, another superstar has emerged from his shadow in the shape of Gloucester’s Jake Polledri.

Capable of playing across the back row, he has recently been used at 8 by the Azzurri, which I think suits him best, as he has the power game to create a platform coming off the base of the scrum, while also the pace to exploit any space he is given – both of which he showed in scoring his try in this game. On top of that, he is also a threat at the breakdown, capable of playing at 7.

And at 24 years old and playing for Gloucester, it means that he is playing against many of the best players in the world on a weekly basis. I may have some bias having watched him regularly these past few years, but I feel comfortable picking him amongst the top 5 number 8s in the world currently playing, and that is just the kind of player Italy needs right now.

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