Six Nations 2019: Team of the Tournament

Six Nations 2019: Team of the Tournament

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So there’s my XV, who makes yours?

Eyes On: Italy v France – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Italy v France – 6 Nations 2019

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

Learning the hard way

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

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

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

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

The kids are alright

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

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

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

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

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

The French Wolverine

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

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

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

Eyes On: Ireland v France – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Ireland v France – 6 Nations 2019

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

Work to do

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

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

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

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

Back to the beginning

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

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

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

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

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

Inexperience shows

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

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

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

Eyes On: France v Scotland – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: France v Scotland – 6 Nations 2019

As we reached the middle week of the 2019 Six Nations, France made a number of changes again in the search for their first victory against a Scotland team forced to make changes in notable positions due to injuries. France put in a performance like their first half against Wales, with a Romain Ntamack try helping them to a 10-3 halftime lead. Tries from Yoann Huget and Gregory Aldritt confirmed the victory and after Ali Price scored a consolation try, Alldritt crossed again with the last play of the game to earn France the bonus point and a 25-10 victory.

Building options

As if Scotland hadn’t been struggling with injuries enough in this tournament, this match was a step too far. With half their pack already missing, Ryan Wilson became the latest casualty in the forwards, while Huw Jones was ruled out for the rest of the tournament and both Stuart Hogg (shoulder) and Finn Russell (concussion) were also unavailable for the trip to Paris. With the amount of players missing including some of their biggest stars and most influential players, I’m honestly not surprised that they struggled in this match.

Blair Kinghorn was the clear replacement for Hogg and continues to impress in the tournament to the stage where I think Gregor Townsend will find it hard to drop him from the XV when everybody is available, probably at the expense of either Sean Maitland or Tommy Seymour – in my opinion, Seymour is not looking at his best and has squandered a couple of opportunities this tournament by not being in the right position.

Jones’ injury made space for Nick Grigg and while I have not seen much before this match that stood out, I thought he was fantastic defensively against France with a range of tackles including a 1v1 low hit that stopped Mathieu Bastareaud in his tracks and a wonderful covering tackle on Antoine Dupont when he looked set to score. The Jones/Johnson/Jones combination looks dangerous in attack, but if anyone can break into that midfield at the moment it will be the more defensive Glasgow centre.

Peter Horne is a quality player, but I honestly do not understand Gregor Townsend’s decision to start him at fly half. While he has been a regular at international level in recent seasons, it has not usually been at 10, whereas Adam Hastings had appeared to have cemented himself as Finn Russell’s understudy. I imagine that Horne’s experience is what got him picked over Hastings, but I don’t think that his style of play suited the team as much as Hastings. I found Horne to play generally quite a safe game that rarely troubled the French, whereas once Hastings was introduced, there was much more variety in the Scottish play. If Hastings is considered ready to be Russell’s replacement, then he needs to be given the starting job in his absence.

On the right track

This was the best French performance so far in the championship – though admittedly that isn’t saying much after their first 2 games! Having kept a fairly settled pack, Jacques Brunel once again made a raft of changes in the backs, but this time appeared to find the combinations to really hurt a depleted Scotland side.

Antoine Dupont is a dangerous attacking threat but this match showed that he has also worked on his kicking game and I now see him and Baptiste Serin as the regular one-two punch at scrum half, while Morgan Parra and Maxime Machenaud give good depth at the position. Romain Ntamack looked assured at fly half and gave the team a good variety in attack, having the pace to go himself for his try while also putting in an inch-perfect chip to Gaël Fickou for a try that was unfortunately disallowed. The centre pairing between Fickou and Bastareaud looked well balanced and confident, with Bastareaud even catching the Scottish out with a delightful chip and chase. Meanwhile in the back 3, Damian Penaud looks more comfortable on the wing by the week (though admittedly he was targeted much less by the Scottish kicking game than against England), while Thomas Ramos was often in position to take the kicks and had the ability to launch some deadly counterattacks.

This does not mean that the French performance was perfect, however. Ramos did not have the best of days off the tee, which makes me wonder if Serin or Lopez will find themselves back in the starting XV next week. Meanwhile Yoann Huget continued to show an inability – or perhaps lack of desire – to get back and cover the backfield in the kicking game. Huget is a talented attacker, but I think that when everybody is fit and available, a winger like Teddy Thomas or Rémy Grosso can provide similar danger in attack but more security in defence.

TM-Oh no!

With the final play of the game, Gregory Aldritt earned France the bonus point for scoring 4 tries, but they also had a whopping 4 tries disallowed through referrals to the TMO during the game, but should they have all been disallowed?

  • Damian Penaud was the first to have a try ruled out in the corner after the TMO ruled that Antoine Dupont had knocked on when picking the ball out of the ruck to pass to him. The replay was shown a number of times and I’m still to be convinced that Dupont played the ball as to me it looks like the man clearing out knocks it forward with his leg. The TMO is there to overturn the try if there is clear and obvious evidence that the try should not stand; considering how many times the replay had to be viewed and the fact that there is still a question over the knock on, I can’t see how that can be considered clear and obvious.
  • The next to have a try chalked off was Gaël Fickou, who collected a lovely Ntamack chip in the Scottish 22 and went over for the try. The try was disallowed as replays proved that Wenceslas Lauret had knocked on earlier in the play. The knock on was clear, however the play continued and there were 2 rucks before Fickou went over for the try. The TMO protocols state that a TMO review can only go back up to 2 phases, so while the right decision was technically made, the TMO should not have been reviewing an incident this far back.
  • Fickou then had a second try ruled out after he reached through a ruck on the Scottish try line to dot down the ball which was being presented in the in-goal area. On review, the try was not given as it was decided that the ball had been grounded in-goal by the Scottish as they presented it back. I can understand why the decision was made as technically a ruck cannot be formed beyond the try line, however the hand position of the player presenting the ball makes me question if there was really any downward pressure before Fickou’s intervention.
  • Not long before France’s fourth try was awarded, they found themselves falling foul of another TMO referral as Gregory Aldritt was considered to have performed a double movement in the act of scoring a try. While the replacement back row was clearly stopped short, he did not appear to make any further movement towards the line and appeared to be pushed over by the support man. The TMO could be heard saying that the player was pushed over the line but then decides that Aldritt has made a double-movement, which goes against his previous statement.

Now I watch more rugby than most would consider healthy and while I would not consider myself an expert in the laws of the game, I would say that I have a good understanding. So for me to have found questions about 4 disallowed tries that on another day could have proved crucial to the result, it must be wondered if some of the laws and protocols need simplifying to make the job of the officials – and the experience of the fans – better.

Eyes On: England v France – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: England v France – 6 Nations 2019

England returned to Twickenham looking to back up last week’s victory in Ireland with victory in Le Crunch against a French team who fell apart in the second half against Wales. If anyone was wondering before kickoff which French team would turn up and if England could continue to play like last week then they didn’t have to wait long, as Jonny May went over for a try within 2 minutes. The Leicester winger crossed for 2 more before the half hour mark and Henry Slade earned England the bonus point before half time, a Morgan Parra penalty and Damian Penaud try on the counter the only answer the French could muster. They couldn’t even manage a point in the second half while England extended their lead via Owen Farrell and a penalty try, to finish 44-8.

Amazing England

England’s performances so far this Six Nations are a light-year away from last year’s tournament. This time last year – or even potentially in the Summer and Autumn Tests – there were question marks over who would be the starter in a number of positions, especially the backs. Now, it is likely only injuries and players returning from injury that will alter that starting pack, while in the backs the lack of chance being given to Dan Robson suggests that Ben Youngs (who is finding his form again) will be the starting 9, the midfield combination of Farrell, Tuilagi and Slade look like they have been playing together far longer than 2 matches and Jonny May and Elliot Daly look nailed on in the back 3 with Chris Ashton and Jack Nowell likely fighting for the 14 shirt. Suddenly this team looks settled and firing on all cylinders and they look like they could be pushing for a World Cup semifinal again.

Against France, England continued the in your face defence that troubled Ireland, with Courtney Lawes managing to knock even Mathieu Bastareaud backwards, while the England attack added a new facet to its game this week by a pinpoint kicking game. Time after time they turned the French defensive live and sent the back 3 scrambling across the pitch with a cleverly placed kick, with 2 of May’s tries, Farrell’s try and the penalty try all coming directly from the kick chase, while it was a kick behind that put England on the French try line for Henry Slade’s try. They found a weakness in the French game and fully exploited it for the victory.

The worry for other teams must be that this team does not even yet appear to be at its dangerous best. Eddie Jones commented that they left 15-20 points on the field and I think that is a fair assessment as there were a few times in the second half that they appeared to force things too early rather than work an opportunity by going through the phases. They will also be disappointed by how easily Yoann Huget was able to break through out wide for Penaud’s try, but with 2 weeks now until they take on Wales (the only other team still capable of the Grand Slam) I’m sure they will be confident in their ability to take another step forward.

Headless cockerels

This France team has so many talented players, yet they have failed to do anything of real note in the last 3 halves of rugby now. If the second half capitulation against Wales (complete with the story that Sébastien Vahaamahina had been made captain following their substitutions) did not make the running of the teams already look like a shambles, then this week certainly did.

Wholesale changes were made with only a few due to injury, while both of France’s starting wingers were technically centres, so it is no real surprise England found it easy to catch them out of position in the kicking game. The French centres have such a range of playing styles (consider the difference between Bastareaud and last week’s starter Romain Ntamack), France cannot continue to play the same tactics from one week to another with completely different personnel. Morgan Parra was probably one of France’s best players in the opening 40 as he went to-to-toe with Ben Youngs in the tactical kicking game but he was replaced early in the second half by Antoine Dupont who arguably opened up gaps with his sniping around the fringes but did not have the ability to control the game and put France in the right areas of the pitch. Not only that but the French were throwing on their subs so early in the second half in an attempt to do something vaguely good, the whole thing smacked of desperation.

The French have a habit of getting things together just in time for the World Cup ready to put a strong run together, but honestly right now the thought of them even making it out of their pool seems laughable considering they will likely need to beat at least one of Argentina or England in order to do so.

Change is needed. Not just with the man in charge but the entire mentality. Half the squad cannot be changed each week or no chemistry will build up. If France can get consistency in their selection, they will be a real danger. Until then, they should consider 4th in the tournament a success.

Cool it down

Kyle Sinckler has firmly taken hold of the number 3 shirt for England, but he has to be careful. He has developed well as a scrummager and is a wrecking ball with deceptively good handling skills in the loose, but he does have to watch out for his temper.

Last week he did a great job of getting under Peter O’Mahony’s skin and rattling the Irishman, but this week he got himself in trouble after an incident where he appeared to try and rip the scrum cap off Arthur Iturria’s head. Sinckler appeared to be arguing that Iturria was the instigator with an action not seen on the replay, but regardless of this, Sinckler has developed somewhat of a reputation as a hot-headed player. Obviously I don’t want him to take away from his style of play, but he just needs to be careful to not get himself in trouble with the referee as a penalty (or worse, a card) at the wrong time could prove crucial in a match.

Eyes On: France v Wales – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: France v Wales – 6 Nations 2019

The 2019 Six Nations kicked off in spectacular fashion on Friday night as Wales took a trip to Paris to take on the French. The Welsh came into the game on a run of 9 consecutive wins but did not adapt to the conditions in the first half and were thoroughly outplayed by a much better French team, who led 16-0 at half time. A try for Tomos Williams 6 minutes into the second half sparked a French collapse and George North capitalised on 2 mistakes to score twice and give the Welsh a 19-24 victory.

Typically French

It’s become cliché to say that you never know which France team will show up from week to week. They took it one step further last night by doing a 180⁰ turn in their performance at half time!

In the first half, Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez were playing the conditions to perfection by kicking for territory and daring the Welsh to play the ball away, while Louis Picamoles trucking the ball forward and Arthur Iturria throwing some lovely offloads, while the back 3 looked to capitalise on any loose kicks from Wales.

However in the second half, the Welsh started to control the ball better and Tomos Williams’ try from Josh Adams’ break appeared to fluster them. Iturria disappeared from the game, Picamoles was marshalled better by the Welsh defence and handling errors began to creep into the French game – most notably Yoann Huget’s fumble on his own line to gift North his first try. What really surprised me is how soon France started making wholesale changes, most notably the removal of Guilhem Guirado – who may not have been having the best match of his career but is still such an important leader for the team – at a time when they needed leaders to settle things down.

It looked like they may have got back into things when at 19-17 with just 9 minutes left, Gaël Fickou beat Adams to a high ball just outside the Welsh 22, but from the resulting breakdown everything went wrong for France. 2 forwards got in the way of Baptiste Serin’s pass to Lopez, causing him to throw a looped pass that the fly half needed to take above his head. Lopez – knowing there was space on the outside – chose to throw a pass to Sébastien Vahaamahina but threw a pass that the second row had to jump to take above his head – an awful pass considering the lock is over 2 metres tall and there was no reason to put the pass high. After 2 such poor passes put the French on the back foot, Vahaamahina should have just driven forward and allowed his team to reset, but instead he tried to throw an audacious wide pass to Huget – missing out both Maxime Médard and Romain Ntamack – that was easily picked off by North and ran back for the winning try.

There is no way that a team should be throwing away a 16-point halftime lead at home and coupled with their loss to Fiji in the Autumn Tests, there is certainly a cause to be worried about the fragility of the French team when put under pressure, despite the obvious promise their first half performance showed.

Discipline almost costly

If not for the French mistakes, Wales’ lack of discipline would have cost them the match. There were so many silly little penalties that you would not expect a team of this experience to be giving away. From Justin Tipuric competing too hard at the lineout and pulling his man down to Ross Moriarty diving on the ball from an offside position after Gareth Davies knocked on at a scrum, in a game that they were struggling to control, these infringements were just giving he French extra chances. There was also a period following Liam Williams’ disallowed try where Wales gave away a series of silly penalties that allowed the French to make their way down the length of the pitch without any real pressure.

It was not even just the discipline in terms of penalties that was lacking at times in this game (particularly the first half) as they made errors that a team as well coached as they are should not be making. George North bit in to tackle Arthur Iturria when Gareth Anscombe was already making the tackle and this allowed the flanker to offload to Huget, who now had the space to run in for France’s second try. Then with just 30 seconds left in the half, Wales won a free kick in their 22. Rather than hold onto the ball for a couple of phases then kicking the ball out of play, they chose to kick downfield to the French, giving them the chance of 1 last attack before halftime and leading to a drop goal that could have proved crucial later in the game.

I hope that these errors do not count against some of these players as I think Wales had the right players involved for the game and I think Anscombe and Williams deserve an extended run in the starting line-up, but Wales need to ensure that they start matches faster and keep their discipline better if they want to win the tournament.

Bigger but not better

The French scrum showed on Friday night that, contrary to what some people may say, size isn’t everything. With behemoths like Uini Atonio, Vahaamahina and Paul Willemse starting, the French boasted one of the heaviest packs in the history of international rugby, considerably heavier than their Welsh opponents. Yet despite this, the Welsh scrum was the one winning penalties and free kicks for much of the match.

While size and strength obviously helps in a scrum, technique is also very important and I feel that this is an area where the French struggle without Rabah Slimani. The French began having more luck with the scrum later in the game, but whether this was down to their better scrummagers being on the bench or the Welsh replacements not being able to match what their starters had been able to do.

With England’s generally strong scrum next up, it will be interesting to see how the French pack fairs at Twickenham, especially if Atonio is missing as it appeared to be a hamstring issue that saw him be replaced early in the second half.

Top performance

George North may have been given the Man of the Match award, but to me the standout player in the game was his teammate Josh Navidi. The flanker did make a couple of mistakes, with a knock on ending an attack in the first half and one moment where he was out of position leading to a penalty for Dan Biggar holding on, but he put in a huge performance beyond that and had a real impact on the game. He ran hard with the ball and made good ground on a couple of occasions to put Wales on the front foot, including the build-up to Liam Williams’ disallowed try. But most notable was his defence. His strength in the tackle was stopping even Louis Picamoles in his tracks and forcing handling errors, while he also did a great job of holding players off the ground to create mauls and turnover ball.

To me, he would walk into the starting line-up of most 6 Nations teams, but if everyone was fit for Wales there is no guarantee he will start, such is the strength in depth in the Welsh back row!

2019 Six Nations: 6 to Watch

2019 Six Nations: 6 to Watch

We are just weeks away from the 6 Nations kicking off for another year. With the World Cup starting in October, the tournament will take on extra significance as not only will players be trying to win the tournament but they will also be trying to prove to their coaches that they should be on the plane to Japan later this year.

With the squads now released for the opening rounds, I’ve taken a look at each team and selected a player to watch. These are generally players who have either only amassed a few caps or not been an obvious name to those who only watch international rugby. How will these players do this tournament and how many of them will we see at the World Cup?

England: Tom Curry

The injury to Sam Underhill has opened the door for Sale flanker Tom Curry to likely take the 7 shirt for the tournament. At 20 years old, Curry has been capped 5 times since making his debut on the 2017 tour to Argentina. England have struggled to find a real “jackal” at flanker for a number of years but Curry is a real danger at the breakdown and if the support men are not close enough then expect him to add another turnover to his tally.

France: Demba Bamba

It’s not very often these days that we see a player in the 6 Nations who is not playing in one of the top 3 domestic European leagues (Premiership, Pro 14, Top 14). That will be the case though if 20-year-old prop Demba Bamba comes off the bench. Currently playing in Pro D2 for Brive, Bamba was one of the stars of the French U20s and made his debut for the senior international team against Fiji in November. It’s often said that a prop doesn’t reach his best days until much later in his career, this 6 Nations will give us the chance to see the early days of what could end up being a great career… assuming the team around him turns up this season.

Ireland: Tadhg Beirne

One of the older players on this list, Beirne is a hell of a player who I have really enjoyed watching for the Scarlets and now Munster over recent seasons. Having moved back to Irelend, Beirne made his international debut in the Autumn Tests. With James Ryan, Devin Toner and Iain Henderson all more experienced in the Irish second row there is no guarantee that Beirne will get massive game time (so I feel even more sorry for Ultan Dillane who is also in the squad) but when he is on the pitch his threat at the breakdown and his ability in the loose will show why I picked him in my Uncapped XV last year.

Italy: Seb Negri

Negri has been in and around the Italian squad for a couple of year now, having earned 12 caps since his debut in June 2016 and was a regular in the Italian XV during last season’s 6 Nations. Part of the Hartpury squad that won promotion to the Championship, the Zimbabwean-born flanker is a strong runner that will help the team got on the front foot. Parisse may be nearing the end of his career, but Negri is one of the new generation of stars coming through for Conor O’Shea and Italy.

Scotland: Adam Hastings

The son of Gavin and nephew of Scott, Hastings has the rugby pedigree. I was not overly impressed with the fly half at Bath but he has flourished since moving to Glasgow. He is likely second to Finn Russell on the depth chart but they did start together in November with Russell moving to 12 and Gregor Townsend may try this again during the tournament. A very exiting player, the 22-year-old’s chemistry with a number of his Glasgow teammates could see him be the breakout star of this year’s tournament.

Wales: Gareth Anscombe

With 20 caps to his name, 27-year-old Gareth Anscombe is probably the most well-known player on this list to the casual fan. Outside of the back row – which has been hit by injuries – I can’t see there being too many inexperienced players in the Wales XV, however Anscombe has only recently started to look like the starter at 10. Anscombe started the final of the 2011 Junior World Championship at fly half for New Zealand, with Beauden Barrett and Lima Sopoaga at 15 and 12 respectively, which shows the quality he has. He has a good enough kicking game to control the match but also has that attacking ability that takes Wales to a new level. Even if Dan Biggar starts at 10, with Leigh Halfpenny still to recover from concussion symptoms after Samu Kerevi’s late hit in the Autumn Tests, there is always a chance that Anscombe could line up at 15.