Autumn Nations Cup 2020: England v France

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: England v France

With Saturday having seen 3ʳᵈ-8ᵗʰ decided, Sunday saw England hosting France at Twickenham to decide the overall winner of the 2020 Autumn Nations Cup. A player usage agreement with the Top 14 meant that France were using fringe players against what Eddie Jones would probably consider close to his ideal XV, and it was the home team who opened the scoring in front of 2000 fans with a penalty from Owen Farrell. Les Bleus weren’t just there to make up the numbers, though, and when Matthieu Jalibert broke through the England defence on the edge of their 22, he quickly spread it wide to put Brice Dulin over for the opening try, which Jalibert converted. Elliot Daly and Jalibert traded penalties, but England were gifted an opportunity at the end of the half as Dulin failed to recognise that he had been passed the ball by a player outside his 22, kicking the ball out on the full to give England a lineout deep in the French 22. England went through 12 phases camped on the French line – during which George Ford butchered an overlap to go for the line himself – before Ellis Genge knocked on as he tried to fight his was across from a pick-and-go. The French won the free kick at the resulting scrum and were able to put the ball into touch to end the half with a 6-13 lead.

The second half stared as the first ended, with Anthony Watson knocking on Owen Farrell’s cross kick in the air, but Farrell soon kicked a penalty to narrow the gap, before missing a couple of kicks in a row. Jalibert left the pitch early with an injury and was replaced by fellow youngster Louis Carbonel, and though he struggled to get the offence running as well with Jonathan Danty also off, his kicking from the tee was on point as he kicked to penalties to one more from Farrell to give Les Bleus a 7-point lead with just minutes left. It looked like the French would hold out for the unlikeliest of victories, but referee Andrew Brace and TMO Ben Whitehouse both failed to spot 2 clear knock-ons from the English in their last gasp attack, before Brace awarded England a penalty. George Ford kicked to the corner and the England pack managed to drive the ball infield for Luke Cowan-Dickie to go over with the clock in the red, Farrell kicking the conversion in the clutch to leave the scores level at 19-19 at full time.

And so the game entered sudden death extra time, and for a moment it looked as if it would be over almost immediately as England were awarded a penalty, but Owen Farrell’s kick hit the right post and flew across the face of the posts without going between them. France worked their way downfield but were unable to set up the drop goal, ending the first period still at 19-19. England started getting the decisions in the second period, though, which allowed them to control the territory. France were clearly tiring quicker and when Alivereti Raka was isolated following a clever kick to the corner, England were awarded another penalty and Farrell bisected the posts to complete the most undeserving of victories and be crowned the first ever Autumn Nations Cup Champions.

Kick to nowhere

You know what you’re getting with England these days: a solid defence, and the ball being kicked within a couple of phases of winning possession. And yet despite having a back line full of talented kickers of the ball – Ben Youngs, Owen Farrell, George Ford, Henry Slade and Elliot Daly – the kicking game was an absolute shambles in this game.

In Anthony Watson and Jonny May, England have 2 premier talents, with the pace and aerial ability to cause problems for their opponents, and yet they were barely given a chance to compete, while Brice Dulin and Matthieu Jalibert had a relatively easy job of dealing with most of their kicks.

George Ford is supposedly one of the premier attacking 10s in World Rugby – as the commentary repeatedly told us – and yet he did nothing of note in attack other than butcher a try just before half time, while his kicking was aimless, other than one quality kick to the corner to set up the game-tying try. Meanwhile, reliable kicker Owen Farrell may as well have flipped a coin before each kick to decide if it was going ever or not – he never seemed to get fully comfortable on the day, which almost proved costly.

If England are going to rely on defence and the kicking game rather than trying to play rugby, they need to be perfect in everything they do. This is a game that they should have lost, and they need to seriously improve if they want to even stand a chance against the French in the Six Nations.

La fiabilité

For so long, the cliché has been that you never know which French team will turn up from week to week. Well that can be well and truly forgotten right now. Under Fabien Galthié, the French team has been largely consistent in its selection – though don’t be surprised to see a few fringe players fighting for a spot after the last couple of performances – but the consistency has gone even beyond that.

With Shaun Edwards coaching the defence, the French have become so solid and reliable, while their discipline is also far better than it was beforehand. And even this week, with the fringe players on the pitch who have likely had less time in camp, that defensive solidity was clear to all to see.

And yet unlike some teams with strong defences, they also have the attacking skills to match it. Yes, they were a little lacking towards the end of the game, but Louis Carbonel will only improve as he gets more experience both for Toulon and France, and will also benefit from playing with a settled team that has more chemistry.

From the early stages of the 2020 Six Nations, I felt confident that France would be my favourites to win the 2023 Rugby World Cup. The more I see of them, the more confident I feel of that prediction.

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Autumn Nations Cup 2020: France v Italy

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: France v Italy

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

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

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

Staking a claim

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

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

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

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

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

Finding the breakthrough

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

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

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

 

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Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Scotland v France

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Scotland v France

Sunday saw round 2 of the Autumn Nations Cup come to an end at Murrayfield as Scotland hosted France. The French were finally kicking off their campaign following the cancellation of their match with Fiji and they got off to the quicker start as Thomas Ramos landed an early penalty. Les Bleus thought for a moment that they had the opening try after 9 minutes as Virimi Vakatawa and Blair Kinghorn both dived on a kick through, but replays showed that the centre did not have control of the ball and France had to settle for another Ramos penalty. The Scots finally built into the game and 2 penalties from Duncan Weir drew things level, but Matthieu Jalibert hit back with a drop goal. As the tussle for supremacy continued, Ramos added another penalty and Weir added one of his own, before a gargantuan scrum earned the French a penalty at the end of the half. Instead of going for the 3 pints, they went to the corner, and after going through the phases, Vakatawa crossed the line but was held up, keeping the halftime score level at 0-0.

Following the break it as another scrum that saw the breakthrough, but this time it was the movement of the backs off first phase, as Gaël Fickou’s inside pass set Vincent Rattez free and the winger fed Vakatawa to cross for the opening try, which Ramos converted. Scotland hit back with another penalty soon after, but could find no breakthrough, and Ramos added another penalty on the hour to make it a 7-point game. Ramos had the chance to seal the win with another late penalty but missed the target, leaving Scotland with the chance to snatch a draw. They got a chance as Wayne Barnes awarded them a penalty in midfield with the clock in the red, and the Scots looked to the big boot f Stuart Hogg to put them as close to the corner as possible. Unfortunately the captain put a little too much on the kick and the ball sailed into the dead ball area, allowing France to clear and celebrate a 15-22 win that will leave them as favourites to top the pool.

Formidable front row

As if the talent in the French back line wasn’t scary enough, this match really highlighted the quality of the pack, and especially the front row. In Jean-Baptiste Gros, Camille Chat and Demba Bamba, Les Bleus were putting out what would be considered their second-choice front row (judging by recent matches), and yet they were still dominant, highlighted by a monster scrum just before halftime that saw them demolish the Scottish pack and earn a penalty. Then when the usual starters came on in Cyril Baille, Julien Marchand and Mohamed Haouas came on, it was just more of the same.

In Marchand and Chat, France have 2 hookers who would waltz into most national teams and could conceivably both be considered in the top 5 in the world, with their strong carrying and their expert jackaling just adding to their reliability at the set piece. And in the 4 props you have expert scrummagers and some dynamic carriers.

And the scariest thing of all: the oldest of them is Baille at 27 years old! Most of these players are only just about coming into their prime or have still not reached it, and as such they are only likely to get better as the team builds towards a home World Cup.

Be very afraid…

Target acquired

Under Shaun Edwards, the French defence has become a nightmare to deal with. With such a physical unit and players so dangerous at the breakdown, Scotland knew that going head-to-head with them would end disastrously, so looked to a more territorial game.

However when you watch the kicks they were putting in, they were still looking for a way to fight the French with the kicks, often putting the high balls towards Thomas Ramos and Vincent Rattez, who are smaller and less able to compete in the air. You can also see that they were looking to target these players with their own selections in the back 3, with a 6’4 monster in Duhan van der Merwe and 2 fullbacks in Hogg and Blair Kinghorn, while Sean Maitland off the bench also covers both wing and 15.

By being able to pepper the smaller members of the French back 3 with high balls and have a high ball specialist or a bigger player competing against them in the air, Scotland were giving themselves a good chance of winning the ball further up the field and getting in behind the French line. Assuming England and France face off at the end of the tournament, it will be interesting to see if England do similar, utilising Jonny May and Anthony Watson.

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Six Nations 2020: France v Ireland

Six Nations 2020: France v Ireland

The longest Six Nations finally reached its conclusion in Paris on Saturday evening as France hosted Ireland in the Championship decider. Following England’s bonus point win in Italy, both teams knew that they had the chance of winning the tournament, but that England could also still win the tournament depending on the result.

It was France who got the better start, as Gaël Fickou’s fancy footwork saw him break down the left touchline and feed the supporting Antoine Dupont for the opening try, converted by Romain Ntamack. The Irish began attacking and Hugo Keenan almost scored in the corner, but was illegally denied by Anthony Bouthier, who received a yellow card. The French defence frustrated Ireland for much of the 10 minutes though, until Cian Healy crashed over from short range on his 100ᵗʰ cap. Seton added a penalty, and the it was time for Ireland to lose a man to the bin as Calean Doris conceded a penalty try by tripping François Cros as he chased a kick into the in-goal. The fly halves traded penalties and the French witheld one last Irish attack on the stroke of halftime to hold a 17-13 lead at the break.

As in the first half, it was the French who struck first after the restart, with Dupont collecting Fickou’s ship down the wing and playing the ball inside to Ntamack, who went on to add 2 penalties. Robbie Henshaw gave the Irish hope with a solo effort to score in the corner, which Sexton converted, but with 10 minutes left, Ntamack collected his own chip over the defence and fed Virimi Vakatawa to secure the victory, though Jacob Stockdale scored a consolation try at the death for a final score of 35-27.

Defeat consigned the Irish to 3ʳᵈ, while France’s margin of victory was not enough to leapfrog England and they had to settle for the runner-up spot.

At risk

Jacob Stockdale’s place in the Irish XV is seriously under risk. The Ulster wing burst onto the scene but has struggled of late, and looks highly unlikely to win the 11 shirt back any time soon, such has been the form of Hugo Keenan.

Stockdale’s attacking threat was minimal in this game, but he also showed that his hands aren’t reliable enough, getting lucky with one knock on in his 22 that was missed by the officials but then quickly gifting the French an opportunity with another fumble, which resulted in the penalty try.

The Irish have a highly talented wing not even in the squad at the moment in the form of James Lowe, and if he were brought into the XV then Andrew Conway could move to fullback to create a dangerous back 3.

I don’t expect Andy Farrell to make changes straight away, as the continued selection of Murray and Sexton has already shown that he is faithful to the players he has worked with in recent years, but Stockdale needs to repay that faith quickly.

Thrown away

When Ireland look back at this game, they will rue their performance at the lineout. A potent weapon back in the days of Donncha O’Callaghan and Paul O’Connell, the set piece faltered at some key moments in this match, especially when they got into good positions. And then on some occasions when the lineout was OK, they could not get the maul going after and found themselves getting turned over deep in the French 22.

The Irish pack is full of quality, but is going through a reset at hooker and still settling on its second row pairing. They need to get this settled soon in order to have time to build the trust and cohesion that all the best teams have.

Until then, Ireland will have to find other ways to defeat their rivals.

Room to improve

It’s a good job for France that Ireland’s lineout play wasn’t up to par because they gifted the Irish too many opportunities with poor discipline.

In total, the French gave away 14 penalties during the match and were lucky that Anthony Bouthier’s yellow card was (correctly, in my opinion) adjudged as just a penalty rather than a penalty try.

A number of the penalties were coming at the breakdown and you can be sure that Shaun Edwards will be working hard to improve their discipline here, as the poor discipline was undoing all their great defensive work.

Right now, the French look formidable. If they can sort out their discipline, they will look near-unbeatable.

Guinness Six Nations

France v Wales

France v Wales

With the 2020 Six Nations set to finally conclude next week and the Autumn Nations Cup begin straight after, France and Wales met at the Stade de France for a highly entertaining warm-up match.

Les Bleus may have won the Six Nations fixture back in February, but they were soon behind as some lovely passing from Justin Tipuric helped put Leigh Halfpenny over in the corner, Biggar landing the conversion and a penalty soon after. The French soon got going though, and after Romain Ntamack and Antoine Dupont broke to bring possession all the way to the Welsh try line, prop Cyril Baille crashed over from close range. France were growing into the game and after another penalty from Biggar, an offload from Virimi Vakatawa released Teddy Thomas down the right wing and he played the ball back inside to send Antoine Dupont over for the try, with Ntamack adding the conversion to put the French ahead. Their lead was soon increased as Gaël Fickou put Vakatawa through a hole and Dupont was again found supporting on an inside line for a second try in quick succession, Ntamack nailing the kick to make it 21-13 at the break.

The second half started close, with both kickers adding 3 points to their team’s score, while the closest either team came to a try in the 3ʳᵈ quarter was as French number 8 Grégory Alldritt ran a beautiful out-to-in line to breakthrough the Welsh goal-line defence, only to fail to keep hold of the pass. The French struck soon after the hour mark, though, as Josh Adams – who had moved to fullback following Halfpenny’s departure – failed to collect a high ball from Dupont, which the scrum half then collected before breaking through a gap in the Welsh defence and feeding his captain Charles Ollivon for another try. The Welsh kept coming, though Biggar (who had been struggling with an injury since the tenth minute) missed a couple of kicks at goal, but after Ntamack failed to clean up a kick through by Nick Tompkins, George North collected and fed Tompkins to bring the Welsh up to the French goal line, with Nicky Smith forcing himself over a few phases later. Any chance of a Welsh comeback was soon ended however, as Teddy Thomas chased and collected his own chip to go over in the corner, with Ntamack kicking the conversion to secure a 38-21 victory.

French flair

If the Irish were watching this match in preparation for next weekend’s Six Nations fixture, I can imagine they got a little nervous.

This may be one of the best French teams I can remember watching, and there is the potential that they will only get better over the next few years as the younger players gain experience and more players from the recently successful U20s team make the step up to the seniors. Right now, all the politics that always seems to plague French squads appears to be gone, and the pressure is off the team, leading to incredible performances.

Antoine Dupont is securing himself as one of the best scrum halves in the world, while Virimi Vakatawa is almost unplayable when on form, with an incredible blend of strength, pace and footwork, and a killer offload when all that fails! Teddy Thomas’ abilities have never been in question and Romain Ntamack looks experienced beyond his 21 years and 17 caps. And then in the pack, you are getting a great blend of sheer physical power and more technical prowess.

In this game, the French attack was pummelling away at the Welsh defensive line throughout, but as they grew into the game, they started to find and manipulate the gaps, especially around wherever Vakatawa could be found, while Dupont always seemed to be in just the right place whenever a teammate broke through.

Assuming the French can stay away from all the infighting and politics that seems to always destroy them, I would make France my favourites for the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

Risky business

When Gareth Anscombe first started showing signs of discomfort during Wales’ World Cup warm-up match against England, I felt that he should be removed immediately to avoid the risk that a small niggle could potentially become something worse. The doctors chose to let him continue, but he went off a little later with his World Cup dream over and an ACL injury that he is still to return from. Obviously, I can’t say that keeping him on the pitch made things worse, but in a “warm-up” or “friendly” ahead of a tournament, the last thing I want to do is risk one of my key players if they are carrying a knock.

So imagine my surprise when Dan Biggar started struggling with an injury to his leg just 10 minutes in, but continued to play until the 73ʳᵈ minute. Now, credit to Biggar that he is a warrior who doesn’t want to go off and let his team down, but there were a number of moments throughout the match where he was either clearly limping or not looking fully comfortable, and I can’t help feeling that this injury helped contribute to his uncharacteristically poor 57% success rate off the tee. I also noticed that he didn’t seem to be as much of a figure in the kick chase as usual, a big loss considering just how impressive he is in the air.

What makes the decision to keep him on even more perplexing is that they had a replacement fly half on the bench in the form of Rhys Patchell, who could have very easily taken over the running of the team at any point, but was instead wasted on a 7-minute cameo with the victory already out of Wales’ reach.

It will be interesting to see how Wayne Pivac acts in the future of any key players take a knock.

The beginning of the end?

While it is wonderful to see Taulupe Faletau back in the Welsh line-up, I couldn’t help question before the match if he was still able to hold a spot in the starting XV, let along the wider squad. 80 minutes later and I still don’t feel any more confident.

The Bath number 8 was arguably one of the best in the world at his position and at 29 should still have a handful of good years in him, but he has missed so much time over recent years with a number of injuries and looks a shadow of the player he used to.

He used to be a real threat with ball in hand in wide areas, but in this game only carried 4 times for a tiny 9 metres. Defensively, he was still reliable with a 100% tackle success rate but that was only from 9 tackles, far off the total of Justin Tipuric, who you would much rather have getting over the ball after the tackle rather than making the tackle himself. The only other bit to Faletau’s game was his cleaning up, which he did to some degree with the scrum coming under heavy pressure.

But is tackling and cleaning up really enough from a Tier 1 starting number 8 these days? The Welsh need physical carriers in the pack to help them get on the front foot and make up for the loss of Haleigh Parkes at 12 and as such, I think that the team would benefit far more from Ross Moriarty or Josh Navidi (who should be nailed on as a starter) rather than Faletau. There is only so long that a player can be picked on past performances. To me, it is time for Faletau to earn his place back in the squad.

Six Nations 2020: Scotland v France

Six Nations 2020: Scotland v France

The final match of Round 4 saw Scotland hosting France. The French were the only team still capable of winning the Grand Slam and after a tight half hour, they took the lead through returning winger Damian Penaud. Just a few minutes later however, a large scuffle between the 2 teams saw Mohamed Haouas given a red card for throwing a punch at Jamie Ritchie. Scotland quickly took advantage of the extra man with a try for Sean Maitland either side of half time. Stuart McInally added a third as the French began to tire, but they fought back to score through captain Charles Ollivon, resulting in a final score of 28-17 to Scotland, which takes the Six Nations to next week and beyond due to Italy’s Round 4 & 5 fixtures being postponed.

 

Scotland

This is a very weird time for Scotland. Many of us have got used to seeing the Scots scoring tries for fun but struggling to keep the opposition’s score down. Right now, they’re not scoring anywhere near as much, but they’re also starting to look better in defence. Obviously this game is a little hard to judge due to the red card leaving the French a man down for over half the game, but the Scottish defence was tenacious throughout and really put the French under pressure, causing a number of handling errors that would bring attacks to an end.

It feels like Scotland are finally starting to get the balance right between physical players and skilful attackers, and though they may not be scoring the tries right now, they’re keeping themselves in games, which is a great spot to build from.

France

So much went wrong for France in this game. Substitute hooker Camille Chat had to pull out injured during the warm-up, François Cros got an early yellow card, star fly half Romain Ntamack went off for a HIA just 7 minutes in and never returned, and finally Mohamed Haouas’ moment of madness left France playing over half the game a man down. Granted some of this was avoidable, but that is a lot to go against a team… and yet they still held on to keep things close. Not only that, but they refused to stop playing and kept on going throughout, with a stunning late attack leading to Ollivon’s try.

So many people started talking about the return of the “old France” after the punch – another of those tired narratives the media go to in order to try sounding smart and actually look stupid – but if this was the old France, then they would have capitulated! It is a testament to the coaches and players just how far this team has come already and I expect them to bounce back next week against Ireland.


My standout players

It feels like he gets a weekly mention, but Hamish Watson again proved himself a nightmare for the opposition, with a couple of key turnovers, while Sean Maitland took his chances like a true poacher and I felt that he was unfortunate to be removed when on a hat-trick.

While this was far from the best match Antione Dupont has played for Les Bleus, he still had some moments of incredible skill and controlled the game well alongside Matthieu Jalibert, who reacted well to his early introduction and showed the coaches that they don’t need to worry if Romain Ntamack is unable to make it through return to play protocols this week.

Six Nations 2020: Wales v France

Six Nations 2020: Wales v France

We reached the halfway point of the 2020 Six Nations on Saturday with France’s trip to Wales. France’s young guns came into this match with 2 victories under their belt and took an early lead as Wales’ failure to deal with a high ball led to Anthony Bouthier’s early try, while Paul Willemse crashed over from short range, Dan Biggar’s boot keeping Wales just in touch, with a 9-17 halftime score. Romain Ntamack added a try and a further 5 points off the tee, and though Dan Biggar replied with a try and conversion of his own, France managed to hold on in the final minutes and Camille Chat earned a penalty at the breakdown with the clock in the red to secure a 23-27 victory and keep their Grand Slam hopes alive.

Wales

Wayne Pivac had great success with the Scarlets playing an expansive gameplan, but it’s not quite clicked yet for Wales. In this match, the attack looked very poor. Despite fantastic attacking talents like Gareth Davies, Nick Tompkins, Johnny McNicholl and Josh Adams in the backs, the attack often looked panicky trying to deal with France’s blitz defence.

If Wales set up the breakdown, then France were often able to reset and blitz again, pushing the Welsh back, but the team cohesiveness was not there to keep the ball moving out of the tackle with the sheer number of offloads the team was trying to throw. To me, this came back to an issue that I think Wales have been finding of late: they do not have enough physical ball carriers. They certainly have players like Alun Wyn Jones and Ken Owens, who will carry all day, but they are not going to push the gain line back in a way that for example the Irish pack of CJ Stander, Tadhg Furlong, Cian Healy and James Ryan will, which makes it hard for Wales to get on the front foot.

Right now, George North has become a shadow of the player he used to be and this latest concussion could be accelerating the end of his international career. Hadleigh Parkes is currently one of the only players regularly making metres in the tighter areas. Personally, I think that Ross Moriarty is being used in too much of a defensive role and a couple of late carries were a good reminder of how destructive he can be when allowed to carry in attack, while I also think that Taulupe Faletau is yet to reach anything near his best following his injury nightmares and so I think another stronger carrier like Aaron Wainwright would help this team create the platform that they are currently missing.

I will be interesting to see if any changes are made ahead of Round 4.

France

Last week I mentioned how Wales really seem to be missing Shaun Edwards, this week we got to see just how much France are benefiting from having him.

The French team are full of physical players through the pack and midfield, which combined with an organised blitz defence to continually push Wales back towards their own line, making a whopping 177 tackles over the 80 minutes. They are not yet the finished article as they are giving away more penalties than you would expect from a Shaun Edwards defence and maybe aren’t hitting the tackle completion percentages Edwards woudl want (they finished on 87%), but even when they were down to 14 men (on 2 occasions!) they defended admirably and rarely looked in real trouble.

This defence will just get better over the next couple of seasons as the players gain more international experience and get to spend more time with Edwards. This is a team on their way to being world-beaters.


My standout players

For Wales, the back row pairing of Ross Moriarty and Justin Tipuric put in strong defensive performances while also making some dangerous carries in attack, while Hadleigh Parkes once again Carried hard in midfield to try creating a platform for the team.

For France, Antoine Dupont and Man of the Match Romain Ntamack controlled the game almost perfectly, while Gaël Fickou actually appeared more involved from his left wing position than he had at centre the last few weeks. Meanwhile, fullback Anthony Bouthier answered the questions that the Welsh kicking game asked of him, while asking questions of his own and scoring an important early try.

Six Nations 2020: France v Italy

Six Nations 2020: France v Italy

The 2ⁿᵈ round of the 2020 Six Nations came to an end in Paris as Italy took on France. Les Bleus took an early lead through the boot of Romain Ntamack before Teddy Thomas and Charles Ollivon crossed to give them a handy advantage. Italy grew into the game and Matteo Minozzi crossed to make it a contest, before Grégory Alldritt’s try just before half time. The second half was a much closer affair. Ntamack crossed to secure a bonus point for France, before a series of French penalties led to a try for Federico Zani.

Italy frequently found themselves (wrongly) on the wrong side of the officials’ decisions as the game went on, with referee Andrew Brace ignoring/missing (honestly it happened so often in the match, I’m not certain!) a number of French offences that allowed them to push the Italians right back, and a late try from substitute Baptiste Serin secured the game for Italy, despite a late try from Mattia Bellini, the game ending 35-22.

France

Romain Ntamack is a fantastic young player and is doing a good job of leading the French back line despite not always being considered the starting fly half for Toulouse yet. However, he is not yet perfect and in a closer game, his goal kicking could prove to be an issue.

Granted, this match was not the ideal conditions for a goal kicker, but Ntamack ended the game with just 3/7 successful kicks, missing a couple that an international kicker would be expected to nail. Even one of those successful kicks needed a double-doink off both posts to ensure it went through! When the game became a tight affair in the second half, it looked like those missed kicks could potentially prove costly, and it seemed to hit his confidence a little, causing further errors in his game as the team dropped off. Luckily for France it didn’t prove costly this weekend, but it is certainly possible that one of their remaining matches could come down to goal kicking. Ntamack is not the first choice kicker at Toulouse, so will this lead to a change for France in Round 3?

There are certainly options. Thomas Ramos could come in at 15, but he currently seems down the pecking order. Baptiste Serin is an adept kicker, but has the issue of competing for the 9 jersey with Antione Dupont, who is arguably one of the best scrum halves in the world right now. Another option would be to bring in Matthieu Jalibert or Louis Carbonel at fly half. While they could drop Ntamack from the bench in this final case, I also think that they could look to move him to 12, as Gaël Fickou has had a limited impact so far, so a change to a dual-playmaker system could help unleash a back line that includes (when they are all fit) Damian Penaud, Virimi Vakatawa and Teddy Thomas.

Italy

Sometimes, I really don’t know what Italy are trying to do. Early in the game, the Azzurri seriously struggled to make any ground as they were unable to get around the French blitz defence. The blitz was also making Tommaso Allan stand very deep when looking to kick the ball clear. This meant that it was even harder for him to make ground with the pressure coming on him. and yet it took forever for Callum Braley to start taking charge and box kicking himself in dangerous situations.

Similarly, Carlo Canna is the last person I would think of if I heard the phrase “crash ball centre” but he was frequently used as such in this game – honestly I’m surprised that he lasted the full 80 minutes in one piece! And once again, the game began with Italy sending one-out forward runners into the heart of the French defence. I was worried that this game could become a bloodbath.

Then in the 24ᵗʰ minute, things began to change. Jake Polledri took the ball on the blind side, but instead of crashing forward, he turned and played the ball out to Allan, catching out the blitzing French and leading to Minozzi’s try. Then as the game went on, Italy seemed to be supporting their runners with more intent, quick ball was produced and the forwards used this to make even more ground, adding in offloads out of the tackle and off the floor.

Unfortunately, the officials were either incapable or unwilling to referee the 2 teams equally and a number of promising attacks were unfairly ended by the French, to the point that I feel the Italians can consider themselves hard done by to come away with nothing from the game.

After seeing such positive results, hopefully we will see more of this more varied game from Italy in 2 weeks.


My standout players

It’s no real surprise to see Antoine Dupont and Matteo Minozzi featuring in this section as they are absolute live-wires on a weekly basis.

Jake Polledri was a big par of Italy’s success, with a whopping 25 tackles and also 11 carries, many of which helped put Italy on the front foot.

Finally, Carlo Canna deserves some recognition for his variety of play, helping Allan control the back line and spreading the ball to the wings, but also doing a good job of crashing the ball up the middle to keep the French defence guessing, though I imagine he’ll be feeling it tomorrow!

Six Nations 2020: France v England

Six Nations 2020: France v England

The first round of the 2020 Six Nations came to a close in Paris with France taking on England on Sunday. Les Bleus came into the tournament with a new coaching team (including Shaun Edwards, William Servat and head coach Fabien Galthié) and a heavily changed squad full of young, inexperienced players, whereas Eddie Jones’ attempts to pick almost the same 23 as he did in the World Cup Final were hampered by injuries to both Vunipolas and Anthony Watson.

Another name was soon added to the English injury list as Manu Tuilagi was replaced by Jonathan Joseph after just 15 minutes, by which point a try for Vincent Rattez – who had been promoted from the bench after a late injury to Damian Penaud – had put the French ahead. New France captain Charles Ollivon crossed for 2 tries, before Jonny May restored some English pride with 2 tries out of nowhere, allowing Owen Farrell to kick a penalty with the clock expired to earn a bonus point, the game ending in a 24-17 victory for the home team.

France

Jefferson Poirot and Demba Bamba are 2 fantastic props in open play. Bamba is a wrecking ball who will carry and tackle hard, while Poirot managed to earn 2 penalties with his poaching at the breakdown. While these are both fantastic qualities, the first job of a prop is at scrum time… and here, they struggled. With Cyril Baille and Mohammed Haouas starting, the scrums were relatively even, but after the swaps were made in the 49ᵗʰ minute, the England scrum became dominant and was pushing the French back with ease.

Bamba is still a very young prop with limited top flight experience, so I only expect him to improve over the coming years as he gets to spend more time working with elite scrummaging coaches, but in the meantime the coaches must be careful not to leave him too exposed in the set piece. The scrum did appear to shore itself up somewhat with the change at hooker from Julien Marchand to Peato Mauvaka. Assuming that Camille Chat takes the starting spot back when he is fit, it will be interesting to see if Marchand or Mauvaka is selected as his replacement.

England

“Test match rugby requires experience and France have decided not to take experience in, they’ve gone with youth. And they might be wrong, they might right. We don’t know but it’s going to test those young players because they will have never have played against a brutal physicality and intensity that we are going to play with on Sunday.

This is not domestic rugby. You don’t get that intensity in domestic rugby. That’s why you call it Test rugby. You don’t get that in Under-20s competitions. So at stages they’re going to be looking at each other wanting to know where the answers are going to come from. There are not too many of them who have experienced that before. They don’t have the experienced players to call on to say “what do you do?” and that’s going to be our intent.

We played with that brutal physicality for the last four years and we just want to get better at it.”

Eddie Jones, 2019

Those were the words of Eddie Jones in the week preceding this match. Perhaps if he had spent more time ensuring he had picked the best possible squad rather than throwing verbal grenades at the French, England may have actually turned up. Instead, most of the players looked like their heads were still in Japan, or looking ahead to Championship rugby next season.

From the moment the wider squad was selected, I was nervous at the lack of specialised number 8 in this squad. What this match showed me is that Tom Curry is not the answer at this level, as he never looked comfortable at the base of the scrum. I have never really been comfortable with the use of Maro Itoje or Courtney Lawes as a starting international 6, and this performance from Lawes did nothing to change that as the back row never felt balanced. Meanwhile Ben Youngs continued to show that he is not good enough to be the starting scrum half for England at this point (Willi Heinz upped the tempo massively with his introduction and made considerably less errors) and Elliot Daly looked so woefully off form that the question shouldn’t be if he is a 15, but instead if he has a place in this 23!

Performances over recent seasons have shown the importance of a couple of big ball carriers to this squad, so it’s no surprise to see that England’s attack disappeared the moment that Manu Tuilagi went off injured. The squad was left with nobody who could carry for the hard metres, while Alex Dombrandt was putting his feet up after a 2-try performance for Harlequins in the Premiership Rugby Cup semifinal earlier that afternoon. Regardless of Manu Tuilagi’s status for next weekend (but especially if he is unavailable), Eddie Jones needs to look at bringing in some big ball carriers for next week. Though neither was in the wider squad, I think this week showed the need to bring in either Sam Simmonds or Alex Dombrandt to play at 8, while Ellis Genge and Luke Cowan-Dickie should also be looking to start in order to provide more carrying options. Heck, even throwing in Ollie Thorley woul provide a more physical option in the back line.

Will Jones make the necessary changes? I won’t hold my breath.


My standout players

About the only player who came away from this game with an enhanced reputation for England was Jonny May, whose 2 tries from nowhere allowed England to come away with a much more respectable scoreline than they deserved.

For France, scrum half Antoine Dupont controlled the game well (bar one moment at the end where the stadium clock was inaccurate), put in a huge tackle on Willi Heinz when England had a chance to score and also tore the defence apart with one great break, which led directly to Ollivon’s second try.

Captain Charles Ollivon also deserves praise as he led the team from the front, winning a number of lineouts and also carrying for more metres than anyone else on the pitch on his way to scoring 2 tries.

Six Nations 2020: 6 to Watch

Six Nations 2020: 6 to Watch

It’s that time of year again: the Six Nations is just one week away! This season will see 4 of the 6 nations going into the tournament with new head coaches as everybody looks to move on from the 2019 Rugby World Cup and begin a 4-year build towards glory in France in 2023.

It has become a custom of mine to look at each nation’s squad ahead of the tournament to pick out one player per team that is not widely known on the international scene, but that you should keep an eye on this season. Do you think I missed someone? Let me know in the comments.

England

England come into the tournament with 8 uncapped players in their squad, but I think the one most likely to have an impact on this Six Nations is Ben Earl. The 22-year-old covers the entire back row and with no specialist number 8 in the squad, I think that he has a very good chance of making the shirt his own throughout the tournament. He has been developing well at Sarries for a couple of seasons, but this has truly been his breakout season and after 8 rounds of Premiership Rugby action, he is the top try scorer (6) and joint 2ⁿᵈ (but top among just forwards) for clean breaks (12). While combining him with Tom Curry and Sam Underhill may leave a back row with limited international experience, it is one that should never be taken lightly.

France

So this is a bit of a difficult one as France have selected a whopping 19 uncapped players, but due to Top 14 rugby not being available to watch in the UK currently, I have had limited opportunity to see these players in action. Matthieu Jalibert and Louis Carbonel create a great trio of young fly halves along with Romain Ntamack. For this pick, I have gone with Camille Chat, who is a little more experienced with 26 caps to his name, but has often been second fiddle to former captain Guilhem Guirado. Already and experience international but now given the chance to come out of his shadow, Chat has a chance to show his quality and become the man at hooker for the next 2 World Cup cycles.

Ireland

If Andy Farrell wants to be taken seriously as Ireland’s new head coach, then Conor Murray’s tenure as Ireland’s starting scrum half will be coming to an end, with John Cooney taking over the number 9 shirt. The Ulster halfback is one of the form players in Europe at the moment, with 5 tries and a super-reliable boot leaving him the top point scorer from the Champions Cup pool stages. Murray and Johnny Sexton are not getting any younger and it feel like this could be the moment that Cooney establishes himself as the man for this World Cup cycle.

Italy

So regular readers will know my love for Jake Polledri and after good performances in the World Cup, this will be the moment that he truly breaks out into an international superstar. The Gloucester back row can play at flanker or number 8 and will be a fantastic replacement for the departing Sergio Parisse. Polledri is deceptively strong and hard to put down – it is vary rare that he will go backwards in contact – but he also has good pace to exploit any gap that opens in front of him and will cause problems at the break down too.

Scotland

Judging by his form in 2019 and the early weeks of 2020, Gregor Townsend must seriously be regretting leaving Rory Hutchinson out of his World Cup squad. The Northampton centre is capable of slotting in at either 12 or 13 and brings and incredible attacking talent to the team. He has the potential to have the same positive impact that Huw Jones had when he first came into the Scotland squad and should be one of the players they build around over the coming years.

Wales

I really wanted to pick Louis Rees-Zammit here and also want to give an honourable mention to Nick Tompkins, but there is a player who I have loved watching for a couple of years and is now eligible for Wales: Johnny McNicholl. The Scarlets star is an exceptional attacking talent either at wing or fullback, finishing in the top 5 for tries scored in the Pro14 for the last 2 seasons – despite Scarlet’s struggles last season! Already 29, he will not be around long term, but I expect him to quickly establish himself as a key part of the Wales squad for the next 4 years.


While watching the Six Nations is always fun anyway, one thing that has really improved it for me the last couple of seasons has been doing fantasy rugby with my friends, and I’m opening the opportunity for you to join in too!

I am running a fantasy rugby league on The Rugby Magazine’s website, and you are all welcome to join. There is no buy-in and no prize, this is just for fun. You can join the league here and use the Unique Token b6c1e40d48e6