2022 Summer Tests: Players To Watch

2022 Summer Tests: Players To Watch

As both Super Rugby Pacific and the Northern Hemisphere club rugby season come to an end, it’s time to switch our attention from club rugby to the international game as a number of the Northern Hemisphere nations go on tour:

  • England to Australia
  • Ireland to New Zealand (facing both the All Blacks and Maori All Blacks)
  • France to Japan
  • Wales to South Africa
  • Scotland to Argentina (while a Scotland “A” side will also face Chile in an uncapped match)
  • Italy to Portugal, Romania and Georgia

Now regular readers will have guessed what’s coming here, as I look at the majority of the teams above (in this case all the Six Nations and Rugby Championship teams) and pick a player from each team to watch out for during this tour. Often they will be someone relatively new to Test rugby, sometimes someone with a point to prove as they face the pressure of depth at their position, and sometimes a player who may have already made a name for themselves, but finds themselves now switching to a different position.

Of course these are just my picks, and there were certainly some other options that I could have gone with, so feel free to chuck who you would have selected in the comments!

Argentina

Starting off this list with someone who firmly falls into the third category I mentioned with Santiago Carreras. You may have noticed that I have began a series of my picks for the top 5 players in the world at each position and (SPOILERS) the Gloucester back will be appearing in one of those articles down the line. But it will not be the one about fly half, and that is where he has found himself playing in recent Tests. He certainly has the skillset to excel there, but he lacks the experience, having never started a professional club match at the position and not likely to anytime soon at Gloucester. With Michael Cheika having taken over leadership of the Pumas, will he stick with the Carreras experiment to take advantage of the depth Argentina have in the back 3, or will he look to play his best players in their best positions?

Australia

With 16 caps to his name already at the age of just 22, Angus Bell looks to be around for the long haul. A dynamic loosehead, he is becoming a much more solid scrummager and will be licking his lips at the thought of taking on the English tighthead crop with Kyle Sinckler missing. If he can cause some damage at the set piece, England could be in trouble.

England

There were so many ways to go with this pick and I was very tempted by returning players like Danny Care and Joe Cokanasiga or the inexperienced Joe Heyes, but instead I have gone for Care’s Harlequins teammate Joe Marchant. The centre has always had great attacking quality but had added a super reliable defence to his game, while he also has the ability to move out to the wing. He may have a fight to make the starting XV when everyone is available, but with both Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade missing this tour, Marchant has a chance to push for that starting spot. His familiarity with Marcus Smith will certainly help things in attack, while he will play a big role in helping shut down an exciting Australian back line.

France

As if France weren’t dangerous enough, they may have found another future star just in time for the World Cup in the form of Yoan Tanga. The 25-year-old Racing 92 back row really stood out to me with his consistent carrying in the tight for the Barbarians in their humiliation of England last weekend, which repeatedly drew in multiple tacklers to finally get him down. The French backline is dangerous when given space, and Tanga’s carrying will just give them even more to work with.

Ireland

Sticking with the pack here, I’m going for Leinster hooker Dan Sheehan. It feels like in an ideal world with everyone available, the Irish hookers in the matchday 23 will be Sheehan and Leinster teammate Rónan Kelleher, with the big question just being who starts. However with Kelleher out injured, Sheehan will surely be the clear first choice ahead of Rob Herring and Dave Heffernan and with the World Cup just a year away, he has a legitimate chance to secure the number 2 shirt.

Italy

I was initially going with Six Nations hero Ange Capuozzo here but a second glance at the scrum half position made me change my mind. With Stephen Varney left out after a poor Six Nations that ended with injury and limited minutes for Gloucester, Callum Braley’s retirement from international rugby leaves the Azzurri short of experience at scrum half this summer. Step forward Alessandro Garbisi! Paolo’s younger brother has shone with the U20s and has been racking up the minutes for Benetton in the URC. He may not be the finished product yet, but a summer facing 3 of the top 4 teams from the 2022 Rugby Europe Championship will be a great way for him to gain experience in the senior team.

New Zealand

What a difference a season makes. Last year, the All Blacks were seriously lacking centres, whereas now they seem almost spoiled for choice. And while part of this is down to the return of Josh Goodhue from injury and another year of experience for last year’s crop, they are also helped by the arrival of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck from rugby league. The centre played 20 times for New Zealand in the 13-man code alongside almost 200 appearances in the NRL, and has grown into the 12 position in his first season with the Blues. With a great range of skills, clever footwork and good strength, Tuivasa-Sheck has the chance to be the new Sonny Bill Williams.

South Africa

Evan Roos was going to get my pick here until I realised that André Esterhuizen only had 8 caps! The Quins centre is arguably one of the best inside centres in the world, but has the challenge of being in the sae national team squad as Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am, while South Africa’s recent favouring of a 6-2 split on the bench has led to them usually going for a more versatile player on the bench rather than a specialist centre. However his form has been incredible over recent seasons and he is fully deserving of a return to the national team and will be looking to put in some big performances against Wales to solidify his spot in the squad ahead of the World Cup.

Scotland

Another in a similar spot to Santi Carreras, Blair Kinghorn may not be as entrenched in the Scottish XI, but he was clearly in the reckoning for a spot in the back 3. However his skillset has recently been used more at fly half, and with Finn Russell given a summer off and Adam Hastings forced to pull out of the touring squad through injury, Kinghorn looks likely to wear the 10 shirt against the Pumas. With Scotland underperforming of late and resting some key players this summer, and facing an Argentina team looking to climb back up the rankings under a new head coach, the pressure will be on Kinghorn.

Wales

Finishing off this list with a potential debutant in Tommy Reffell. Many would argue that the Leicester flanker should have been capped well before this, but he now goes into the South Africa tour off the back of a strong performance in the Premiership final. Back row is an area where Wales have plenty of quality but don’t seem to give anyone a long enough chance to secure a spot. But with Reffell’s all-round ability in the loose and real danger at the breakdown, can he prove himself worthy of an extended run in Wayne Pivac’s 23?

2022 Six Nations: Wales v Italy

2022 Six Nations: Wales v Italy

It feels like only a couple of weeks ago that the 2022 Six Nations was kicking off, and yet we already find ourselves at Super Saturday, the final day of the tournament. This year’s super Saturday kicked off in Cardiff, as Wales faced Italy. Avoiding the Wooden Spoon was mathematically impossible for the Azzurri, but they finally opened the scoring after 13 minutes through a Paolo Garbisi penalty after he was tackled off the ball, while Edoardo Padovani soon added a penalty of his own. An error off the restart gave the Welsh a period of possession in the Italian 22 which they repeatedly failed to exploit, but they finally took advantage of an Italian knock-on to break from deep in their half and stretched the defence to breaking point, allowing Owen Watkin to go over for the try, with Dan Biggar converting to put his side ahead on the occasion of his 100ᵗʰ cap. The lead lasted just a matter of minutes though as the Garbisi/Padovani pairing added 2 more penalties just after the half hour mark. As the clock ticked into the red, a strong Italian scrum in the right hand corner earned a penalty advantage and when Johnny McNicholl failed to hold Garbisi’s cross-kick in the air, Owen Watkin just beat Callum Braley to dot down the loose ball, and the Italian decision to go for a lineout with the penalty saw them held out, though they would still go into the break with a 7-12 lead.

Going into the second half and it was the Azzurri who had the first attacks of note, with a timely jackal from Josh Navidi saving them after Italy broke around the fringes with their forwards and a great cover tackler denying Monty Ioane in the corner. Wales finally got some possession, though and after a penalty at the scrum set them up with a 5m lineout, Dewi Lake managed to force himself over, with Biggar again adding the extras to put his side ahead. Things then went crazy as Ange Capuozzo and Monty Ioane chose to counter a kick into their in-goal under pressure, and ended in Danilo Fischetti leading a chase of Michele Lamaro’s kick to earn a penalty for sealing off beneath the posts, which Garbisi duly dispatched to restore the Italian lead. Wales made a umber of substitutions on the hour—including removing Alun Wyn Jones on his return to injury for his 150ᵗʰ cap, and moving Dan Biggar to fullback to allow for Calum Sheedy’s introduction in place of McNicholl—but they were lucky not to find themselves falling even further behind as Padovani’s next penalty drifted to the right of the posts. However the fresh players took their chance as Wales took advantage of a turnover on halfway to put together some phases of quick ball, and when Josh Adams cut back inside he found a gap between 2 tiring forwards to score the third try of the game. With just ten minutes remaining the Welsh appeared to gain so much confidence, and Wyn Jones soon thought he secured the result by crashing over from close range, only for the officials to decide that he was held up over the line by Braam Steyn, who was himself celebrating his 50ᵗʰ cap. With the clock ticking down it looked like another case of “so near but so far” for brave Italy, but with 2 minutes left, Ange Capuozzo found a gap in the kick chase and broke down the right wing, feeding the supporting Padovani to score beneath the posts and allow Garbisi to kick the simplest of conversions as the clock went red, securing a 21-22 victory, their first win on Welsh soil and first Six Nations win since they defeated Scotland in 2015.

While they may have finished the game with 3 tries, this was a poor attacking performance from Wales. Despite quality throughout the team, there did not seem to be much inspiration, and that has been an issue throughout the tournament, regardless of the personnel that Wayne Pivac has selected.

The backs stand too flat and are rushing the ball out to the wings in the hope that they can get around the outside, but either the rushed passes are inaccurate, or the ball is getting to the wings, only for them to find that the defence has drifted across with them. Meanwhile, the forwards are taking the ball standing still too often, which today allowed Italy to dictate the contact too often and put themselves in a position to slow the ball down or force a turnover.

With the World Cup just a year and a half away, this is a crucial moment for the WRU. Do they look to move on from Wayne Pivac, giving his replacement the Summer and Autumn Tests and 2023 Six Nations? Or do they keep faith in the man who coached the Scarlets to Pro12 glory in the 2016/17 season and hope things improve?

Italy

It’s something that I’ve been saying has been coming for a while, but despite Wales having looked shaky all tournament, even I didn’t see the win coming for Italy today. But this is a huge moment for Italian rugby.

While they may have been outscored by 3 tries to 1, the performance from Italy all around the park was huge, and on another day Ioane scores in the corner and they score off the cross kick or following maul just before half time. But while it’s been a long time since their last Six Nations victory, it has been a time of growth from the bottom up. And what shows this most is the quality of player missing today.

Legendary captain Sergio Parisse is gone, but in Michele Lamaro they have a new talisman to lead them through the next 10 years. Jake Polledri—arguably one of the few players who could be considered World Class—is still injured, while his fellow back row Seb Negri has also missed the last couple of games. And yet this has allowed Toa Halafihi a run of games in the number 8 shirt and he has grown into the role. In the backs, the absence of Tommy Allan and Carlo Canna has led to the introduction of Leonardo Marin, while Matteo Minozzi’s absence has led to a run of strong performances by players in the 14 shirt, and now the emergence of Toulouse-bound Ange Capuozzo. And as this all goes on, the U18s and U20s continue to not just be competitive, but win their fair share of games. And that quality will just continue to find its way into the senior squad over the coming years, allowing them to end up with a squad that has quality not just from 1-23, but throughout the wider squad and beyond.

This summer will see the Azzurri face off against USA, Canada and an Argentina team that has just seen head coach Mario Ledesma replaced by Michael Cheika. The timing could not be better for Italy to bounce on and put together a run of wins and potentially beat another Tier 1 nation.

2022 Six Nations: Italy v Scotland

2022 Six Nations: Italy v Scotland

The penultimate Saturday of the 2022 Six Nations kicked off with Scotland’s trip to Italy. The Italian’s las win in the competition came at Scotland’s expense, and the Azzurri took an early lead through a penalty from Paolo Garbisi. However it was the Scots who got the opening try on 17 minutes after a loose Italian kick allowed them to counter; George Turner broke down the right wing and as his supporting men kept the ball alive, Finn Russell was able to spread the ball wide to send Sam Johnson over in the left corner. Italy soon found themselves on the attack, but Ali Price intercepted Callum Braley’s pass just 5 metres from the Scottish line and broker away with Kyle Steyn, and as the wing ran out of space he chipped back inside for the supporting Chris Harris to finish. The Italians were not deterred by such a blow though, and after Garbisi missed a penalty, a sweeping move to the right saw Pierre Bruno dominate contact with Stuart Hogg and offload back inside to Callum Braley for the try, with Garbisi’s touchline conversion bringing them back within 2 points. However an Ali Price break put the Scots into the Italian 22, and after a head injury forced a stoppage, the Scottish back ran some clever lines to send Harris crashing over for his second, with Russell kicking the conversion for a 10-19 halftime lead.

The game remained close after the break, but the Scotland attack appeared to be growing in confidence, and when an inside pass from Finn Russell put Darcy Graham through just inside the opposition 22, the wing stepped his way over to secure the bonus point. As the hour approached, Italy made a number of changes, but this arguably interrupted their play and as Garbisi missed another penalty, a comeback was looking unlikely. That “unlikely” became “almost certainly not” as Man of the Match Ali Price broke the line on the hour and mad plenty of ground before sending captain Stuart Hogg over in the corner, while Monty Ioane was beaten by the bounce of the ball just minutes later as he ran onto a grubber kick with the line at his mercy. However Italy kept on the pressure and forced another try through Ange Capuozzo, just 22 minutes into his debut off the bench. This score appeared to invigorate them and with 7 minutes left were perhaps unlucky not to get a penalty try as their maul was collapsed just short of the line, but they refused to give up and with the clock 2 minutes into the red, Capuozzo stepped over for another try and a 22-33 final score.

Italy

One player who doesn’t get talked about anywhere near enough in this Italian squad is Monty Ioane. While the 14 shirt has been somewhat a revolving door of players, Ioane has deservedly made the 11 shirt his own.

A strong and willing carrier, he rarely gets the chance to find himself with the ball and clear air in front of him, but he continually still makes metres, with a great combination of strength and footwork to beat defenders and break tackles. Meanwhile in the kicking game he runs his heart out and competes well, while also popping up in the midfield to provide an option to get a move going by taking an inside pass through a gap or to chase a cheeky chip (as we saw from Braley today) if the kick defence is too deep.

At 27 years old, he is in his prime and will benefit as Italy continue to improve as a team, as it will create the space out wide for him to exploit rather than forcing him to make the space himself, and as this next generation of stars comes through from the U18s and U20s, he will be an experienced mentor to take his replacements to even higher levels.

Scotland

This was a big match for Scotland. After a big start to the tournament with victory over England, things have gone downhill and they took a shellacking 2 weeks ago. With stars Jamie Ritchie and Duhan van der Merwe missing, there was always a risk of the Italians becoming a banana skin today.

But the Scots got things right today, going back to their kicking game and relying on the quality of their defence to limit the Italian opportunities, and then taking advantage of any poor Italian kick chases or gaps in the Italian defence with the quality of attackers like Ali Price, Finn Russell, Darcy Graham and Stuart Hogg going the length of the field in just seconds.

2 weeks ago, Scotland threw out their gameplan as soo as they found themselves behind… and lost. This week, they stuck with it, and if they continue to do so, they will be a challenge for many teams.

2022 Six Nations: Ireland v Italy

2022 Six Nations: Ireland v Italy

Round 3 of the 2022 edition of the Six Nations came to an end with a trip to Dublin to see Ireland host Italy. The Irish made a handful of changes with a match against England in the near future, but were soon ahead as an inside pass put Caelan Doris through a hole and his offload found hooker Dan Sheehan, who fed Joey Carbery for the opening try in less than 4 minutes. Italy were soon on the scoreboard after Edoardo Padovani blasted over a penalty from halfway, but found themselves playing a man after less than a quarter of the match down when Epalahame Faiva—on early after an injury to starting hooker Gianmarco Lucchesi—was red carded for a high tackle on Sheehan. A quirk of the rugby laws (that is absolutely bonkers and would be changed immediately if any of the big nations fell afoul of it) means that with nobody else in the Italian 23 able to play hooker, scrums would go uncontested (which must always be 8v8) but the Italians would be down to 13 (taking 2 men off but bringing on 1 replacement front row), and the Irish took advantage of the extra space for Jamison Gibson-Park to score, while fullback James Lowry went over on the half hour from the first phase after a scrum and Peter O’Mahony secured the bonus point just before half time. The Italians kept on fighting though, and Paolo Garbisi kicked a penalty to end the half down 24-6.

It took the Irish attack a while to get going after the break, but finally they got a series of phases of front foot ball and pulled the defense narrow, allowing Gibson-Park to throw a wide pass to James Lowe to cross out wide. With the game over as a competition, the replacements were coming on earlier than usual, and Jonathan Sexton marked his 55ᵗʰ minute introduction by immediately attacking a gap and offloading to Lowry for his second of the day. The Irish continued to struggle to pull away in quite the fashion one would expect, but when Ryan Baird charged down Alessandro Fusco’s box kick, there were no blue shirts in behind to stop him gathering the loose ball and going over for the try. But with just minutes remaining Braam Steyn was carded for a deliberate knock on that saw the Italians down to 12, and the Irish took advantage by going for the scrum and using the 3-man advantage in the back line to put Lowe over for a second try. There was time for another attack which saw Josh van der Flier held up over the line, but with time remaining for the goal line drop-out and a 3-man advantage, the Irish managed to send Kieron Treadwell over for one final try, with Sexton kicking the conversion for a 57-6 victory.

Ireland

Ireland may have earned the bonus point by half time and come away with a comfortable victory, but they should be disappointed with this. With a 2-man advantage for an hour (including 5 minutes at the end with a 3-man advantage), they should have been winning by so much more.

While there were some huge individual performances in the Italian defence, with 2 men less and 3 props on the pitch, there was always going to be space, but Ireland did not do the work to find or create it, and far too often they ended up playing into the Italian pack and getting turned over, forcing the pass once a half-break was made rather than recycling to go again with quick ball, or getting white line fever and going alone when the pass was the better option.

Perhaps even more worrying was that Andy Farrell saw the need to bring Sexton on before the hour with a lead of just 23 points. While there were a couple of unfamiliar combinations out there, I can’t help feel that a team like France or even Ian Foster’s New Zealand would have found a way to turn this into a cricket score with such a numerical advantage.

Italy

A phrase I hear in rugby too often is that red cards ruin games. That is not true at all, but unfortunately this game was ruined as a result of the red card to Hame Faiva. Now I want to make clear first of all that the officials were all spot-on in the decision and did a great job of talking everything through with the teams. Unfortunately, it was a rarely-seen law from World Rugby that saw Italy further punished.

rugby uncontested scrums referee document

As Wayne Barnes details in this video, referees are provided with the above guidelines for when a scrum goes uncontested. Lucchesi’s early injury (he went off cradling his arm after just 5 minutes) is unfortunate as hooker is a specialist position and it is rare that you will have more than 2 trained hookers in a matchday 23. And that means that if anything happens to Hame Faiva in the remaining 75 minutes, Italy will be unable to field a trained hooker.

So when Faiva then went high and gave the referee no choice but to red card him, that is when everything went tits up. With uncontested scrums coming, Italy always had to sacrifice someone for a prop in order to keep the front row unit full of 3 specialist front rows, but per the table above, they also had to lose a second player for the rest of the match. And here is the problem.

The reason for this law makes sense, as the Italian scrum should be penalised for their hooker getting sent off, while this stops a team struggling in the scrum from pretending their last available front row is injured in order to go to uncontested scrums. But does this require 2 players to effectively be sent off? Being forced to field 3 props already harms a defence when you consider that most hookers these days are like an extra back row and super mobile. By the team already having to take a player off for the replacement front row and the numerical advantage in the back line, is this not already creating enough of an advantage for the opposition team? Or perhaps is it time to look at something I have suggested previously about having larger matchday squads (say 30 for example, with 5 or 6 specialist front rows on the bench) but still the same number of replacements allowed per match (or less), which would allow more flexibility so that games are not decided by a team having to play someone out of position…

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 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

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.