The 6 Nations finally kicked off in shocking fashion on Saturday in exciting fashion as Wales and Scotland both tried to emulate the style of their most competitive teams of the moment (the Scarlets & Glasgow). While it worked for Wales, an error-strewn performance from the Scots saw them come crashing back down to earth after a fantastic Autumn series. In France, controversy was the word of the day with a few questionable calls from medical ‘professionals’ but karma proved a bitch for Les Bleus as Johnny Sexton nailed a 45m drop goal on the final play to earn the Irish the win. On Sunday a relatively inexperienced Italian team recovered from 2 early Anthony Watson tries to stick close to England until late in the game when 3 tries in the last 12 minutes gave the scoreline a more one-sided feel.
Wales 34-7 Scotland
This Welsh performance was probably the most beautiful I have seen them play in years! With so many players out injured, Josh Adams was the only non-Scarlet in the starting back line, while half of the initial pack also play for the Pro12 champions. This Scarlets presence was clear in the way they played with open attacking rugby rather than the Warrenball tactics we have become used to. Leigh Halfpenny has been much maligned in recent years as not bringing enough to the attack, but contributed 2 tries as well as 14 points with the boot, while Stef Evans – who did not have the best of Autumns with Wales – finished wonderfully to earn the bonus point and would have scored a contender for try of the tournament much earlier in the game had the offload from Alun Wyn Jones been better. The midfield trio of Patchell, Parkes and Williams looked incredible both in attack and defence, while Adams looked at home on the wing in his Test debut. In the back row, Josh Navidi and man of the match Aaron Shingler were spectacular and outplayed their opposite numbers. A cynical part of me can’t help but wonder how much of the different style is due to Gatland & Howley compared to the Scarlets contingent playing their natural game and the rest of the team joining in. I will be very interested to see what happens when the usual starters are available again: how many of them will get straight back in the team and whether the style of play shifts back to what we have become used to seeing.
Scotland’s inaccuracy was their undoing at the Principality Stadium. The intent to play good attacking rugby was there but too often the ball was going to floor. While the main focus of the talk on Scotland’s injuries was towards the front row, they were also missing defensive linchpin Alex Dunbar, while other regulars at centre over recent years Mark Bennett, Duncan Taylor and Matt Scott were all unavailable or not selected having recently recovered from injuries. Huw Jones’ centre partner for this match Chris Harris had only 21 minutes of international rugby against Samoa under his belt and the lack of chemistry showed, while Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg failed to have much of a positive influence on the game. Meanwhile, captain John Barclay was outplayed by his Welsh rivals and failed to adapt to the way the ruck was being refereed and was penalised multiple times for clearly putting his hands on the floor beyond the ball and bringing himself back. A player of his experience should know that it is illegal and change what he’s doing the moment the referee pings him.
France 13-15 Ireland
Remind me never to go to a French doctor. In France’s last 6 Nations game, they abused the Head Injury Assessment (HIA) protocols to get a competitive advantage in the scrums, leading to them scoring the winning try. After all the furore from fans, there was no way they would try that again in their very next match in the competition, right? Right? Wrong! Debutante Matthieu Jalibert went down just before half time following a collising of knees with Bundee Aki. It was clear that the physio attending to him was giving all his attention to the fly half’s knee, yet when he limped off it was announced that his removal had gone down as a HIA, meaning that as long as he passed that (there was nothing in the replays to suggest he took a knock to the head) he would be able to return to the pitch. It looked like a less-than-sneaky attempt to give Jalibert a chance to walk off the knock and continue. And then with just minutes left in the game and the score at 13-12, it got even worse! Replacement scrum half Antoine Dupont came away from the back of a French scrum but suddenly went down without any contact. Again the physio’s looked at the knee while the call comes to Nigel Owens that the match doctor has called a HIA. Had Dupont been going off injured, then France would have seen out the game without a specialist scrum half, yet the call for a HIA allowed Maxime Machenaud to come back on. Listening over the ref’s mike I got the feeling that Owens didn’t believe what he was being told but he had no choice. This is disgusting cheating from the French 3 times in their last 2 games! The investigation after the 2017 incident found the French at fault but things were very much swept under the carpet, there is no way that can happen again. As I am writing this I have read that Dupont is out with a torn ACL while Jalibert is also out for about a month with a knee injury. Nothing to suggest either of them is suffering from concussion or any other head injury. If France are found guilty of such abuse of a system in place for player welfare they should be thrown out of the tournament! At least that way we can get Georgia into the tournament.
It will be interesting to see how other teams fare against the French, but on the whole I was not impressed by Ireland’s performance. Despite having 68% possession and territory, they did not manage a single clean break according to ESPN’s stats. The French gave away so many penalties and yet they were not clinical enough and clearly preferred to take 3 points rather than go in search of a try. In my tournament preview I said that I don’t think there will be a Grand Slam this year, in which case bonus points could prove crucial. If Ireland continue to rely on the boot of Johnny Sexton rather than getting tries, I can see them falling short against someone and losing the title due to a lack of bonus points.
Italy 15-46 England
Considering how inexperienced many of the squad were and the quality of players missing, I was impressed by how well Italy stuck in the game against England following Watson’s early brace. Tommaso Boni at 13 was especially impressive and I would be interested to see if he could play beside Michele Campagnaro when he recovers from injury. What is great to see is that like the Italian Pro14 teams, the national team is improving, but they are not yet the finished article. Former Hartpury flanker Seb Negri made ground but very few others did on a regular basis and again I feel adding Jake Polledri to the 23 would make them more dangerous. They also need to find a way to improve in the front row. With props like Andrea Lo Cicero and Martin Castrogiovanni, the Italian scrum used to be one of the most feared in the tournament but in recent years it has become an area that teams can attack to win penalties. The Italians need to improve here to get the backs more front-foot ball and better field position.
No offence to Anthony Watson, but I do not agree with the decision to award him man of the match. Other than his 2 tries – the first of which especially was a relatively simple run in – he did very little else to impact the game. Sam Simmonds, on the other hand scored a brace of his own and provided the assist for Jack Nowell with a perfectly executed draw and pass. He finished the game with 75 metres off 13 carries. Per ESPN’s stats, he also finished top of all players in the game for clean breaks (3), defenders beaten (6) and tackles made (22 – 7 more than his closest competitor Chris Robshaw). His pace provides something different at 8 to Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes and even when one of them is back, I think he is doing enough to suggest that he deserves a spot on one of the flanks.
Fantasy rugby images are from the ESPN Fantasy Rugby website: http://fantasyrugby.espn.co.uk
6 Nations table and Round 2 fixtures are from the 6 Nations website: www.sixnationsrugby.com