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.


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The RWC2019 Debrief: France

The RWC2019 Debrief: France

Welcome to the RWC2019 Debriefs. The World Cup is now over and a new 4 year cycle begins, but the first stage of any cycle should be looking back at how things went – what went wrong and what went right – before looking on to how things go for the next cycle to ensure qualification to RWC2023 (if they haven’t automatically qualified) and to make sure they enter that tournament in peak form.

I will be going through these debriefs alphabetically, so today I will be casting my eye over France.

RWC2019 Qualification

France qualified automatically by qualifying for the knockouts of the 2015 tournament, losing to New Zealand in the quarterfinals

2019 Form

Les Bleus finished 4th in the Six Nations this year with victories over Scotland and Italy, while they lost at home to Wales and away to England and Ireland. In their 3 warm-up games, home advantage was key as they beat Scotland and Italy, but lost at Murrayfield.

The Debrief

  • Pool Stages (2nd in Pool C)
    • France 23-21 Argentina
    • France 33-9 USA
    • France 23-21 Tonga
    • England C-C France
  • Quarterfinal
    • Wales 20-19 France

This World Cup performance was positively French in every clichéd way possible. It is usually said that you never know what French team will turn up for each game, but in this tournament you could replace “game” with “half”. Against Argentina, they led 20-3 at half time, only to require a late long-range penalty miss to hold onto the win. It was the reverse against the USA, as they struggled to a 12-6 halftime lead before pulling away late on. They may argue that they were the losers from Typhoon Hagibis causing heir match against England to be cancelled, but it’s hard to argue they would have won to take the top spot in the pool.

Building towards the tournament, I did question France’s discipline in matches and that often proved an issue in the pool stages, with that being a big factor in Argentina’s resurgence and the team being relatively fortunate to not lose a man to the bin for persistent offending.

Those disciplinary issues remained in their quarterfinal as a match that they had been on top of fell away from them following Sébastien Vahaamahina unbelievable brain fart, elbowing Aaron Wainwright in the head when France had possession in a great position. Until then, France had been by far the better team in the game, with a big defensive effort (that continued once down to 14 men) and some great attacking from broken play, while Camille Lopez struggled to cause the Welsh issues in the same way Romain Ntamack had prior to his injury.

Looking Ahead

As I pointed out coming into the tournament, France are in a very strong position looking ahead to the 2023 tournament. The core of this squad is made of young, exciting talent with options in every position. Ntamack may not even be the regular fly half for Toulouse, but he appears to be making the 10 shirt his own for Les Bleus, with other young talents also coming through at the position, while players like Camille Chat, Demba Bamba, Emerick Setiano, Gregory Alldritt and Damian Penaud will have gained so much from this experience and future stars like Jordan Joseph will soon be making their way into the senior ranks.

The big thing for France now is coaching. Too often we see the team rebelling against their coaches and there were rumours of Jacques Brunel falling out with captain Guilhem Guirado and some other senior players. They need to make sure that whoever takes the lead is strong enough to hold control, but also willing to work with everyone else so that the entire squad is working as a unit. The word is that Shaun Edwards will be joining the coaching set-up as defence coach, which is a scary thought as he has done such a great job of making the Wales defence so solid and disciplined. If he can repeat the process with France, watch out!

RWC2019: Players to Watch – Pool C

RWC2019: Players to Watch – Pool C

We are mere days away from the start of the Rugby World Cup and we now know the players who will be on show. With the 31-man squads finalised, it’s time to start taking a look at the squads and looking at who will stand out during this tournament. In 2015, Nehe Milner-Skudder made his all Blacks debut in August, before going on to be a star of the tournament and make the tournament dream team, along with Japanese fullback Ayumu Goromaru, who definitely wasn’t known to the masses before the tournament.

With so many people who aren’t die-hard rugby fans set to watch the tournament, or many whose knowledge is maybe limited to their own nation’s players, I decided to do something similar to my Players to Watch in the Six Nations article, and expand that to each team of the World Cup. While I try to watch as much rugby as I can around the world, you’ll see that even I have blank spots as I select some players that may be bigger names in their teams, but they still may be lesser-known names to the wider public.


Journey to RWC2019 series:


Today, we’re moving onto Pool C

England

As someone who can’t go a day without talking English/Premiership rugby, it wasn’t easy for me to figure out who would be the lesser-known players in the England squad. I eventually settled on Joe Cokanasiga, who at 21 years old and with just 2 seasons of Premiership Rugby under his belt is still relatively unknown. While many of the England back 3 are fast, agile but not overly physical players, Cokanasiga relishes in the physical game while also having the speed to trouble defences. Assuming the defenders manage to successfully tackle him, they then have to hope he doesn’t get the offload away. With tries against Japan and Australia in the 2018 November Tests, expect to see him adding to that list during the tournament.

France

While Antoine Dupont deserves a mention, I’ve picked Damian Penaud here for Les Bleus. Capable of playing centre but often used on the wing for the national team, Penaud has 2 tries from 11 Test matches, including 2 in this year’s Six Nations. He really appeared to come into his own down the stretch for Clermont however, and I expect him to be even better now with more experience under his belt… assuming the rest of the team perform.

Argentina

Argentina are spoiled for choice in the outside backs, but one player who looked to have all-but secured his spot in the XV before injury was winger Bautista Delguy. At just 22 years old, the winger already has 5 tries from 11 caps, including 3 from 5 Rugby Championship appearances. Argentina will create chances but don’t always have the composure to finish them. Delguy on the wing gives them that.

USA

Having won the Pro12 with Connacht and spent 3 seasons with Sale, AJ MacGinty still goes relatively under the radar, but my pick here instead goes to Joe Taufete’e. The Worcester hooker has found himself stuck behind Jack Singleton in recent seasons, but has shown his quality for the Eagles with 20 tries from 22 appearances, making him the tight 5 player with the most international tries. With experience of his English opponents and a strong runner with ball in hand, Taufete’e is one of the players leading USA rugby into a new era.

Tonga

At 31 years old, Sione Kalamafoni is a well-established player, but despite plenty of years in the Premiership with Gloucester and Leicester, is someone who goes relatively under the radar. Kalamafoni has vital experience to help Tonga in a tough pool, while he will tackle all… day… long. On top of that, he also has a good turn of pace in the loose that will catch the opposition out if they leave him too much space.

Who are you looking out for during the tournament?


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Will you be picking any of these players in your squad?

Eyes On: France v Italy – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: France v Italy – RWC2019 Warm-ups

After matches against Scotland home and away, France continued their World Cup preparations on Friday night with a warm-up match against Italy. France made a number of changes but took an early lead through Yoann Huget. Italy scored through Mattia Bellini, with Tommaso Allan’s conversion putting the Azzuri ahead. A penalty try and a score for Camille Chat gave Les Bleus a 19-7 halftime lead and they ran away with it in the second half with tries from Antoine Dupont, Arthur Iturria, Wenceslas Lauret and Thomas Ramos giving them the 47-19 victory, with Bellini getting a second and Jake Polledri scoring an unconventional try as a commiseration.

France

Les Bleus came out the blocks hard in this game. The defensive line was flying up to minimise the time Italy had on the ball, the breakdown was often a battleground as players looked to slow the ball down or turn it over and the team were doing everything they could to win the ball back at the lineout.

While it clearly rattled the Italians early on, they soon grew into the game, helped in no part by the fact that France were being repeatedly penalised. France were coming too far across or playing the man at the lineout, they were playing the ball on the floor at the breakdown and they were frequently shooting up too soon and getting caught offside. So poor was their discipline, Louis Picamoles was sin binned in the 18th minute and Rabah Slimani 4 minutes later, both due to an accrual of penalties by the whole team.

Following Slimani’s card, the team appeared to back off a bit and reduced their penalty count significantly, though they still found themselves pushing things a little too far in the lineout. And it was at this point that they started having more success, as they stopped gifting Italy possession and territory.

Against Argentina and England, France will need to get the balance right between putting pressure on their opponents and not giving away too many penalties.

Italy

Italy were their own worst enemies in this match. A couple of their tries came from poor defensive mistakes, such as Michele Campagnaro shooting out the line to create a dogleg for the opening try and Bellini being stepped far too easily by Antoine Dupont for his try. In attack, they made far too many basic handling errors, bringing many of their promising attacks to an end. A good break by Matteo Minozzi ended when his offload back inside was straight to the hands of Gaël Fickou, leading to the France penalty try, while a couple of great opportunities from 5m lineouts were ruined by handling errors. Even Jake Polledri’s try appeared to be an accident – I struggle to imagine that’s how he planned for it to go!

If they play like this against New Zealand and South Africa, we could be seeing some very one-sided games. If they continue to play like this against Namibia and Canada, 3ʳᵈ place and automatic qualifying for RWC2023 may not look as comfortable as it should do.


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Eyes On: Scotland v France – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: Scotland v France – RWC2019 Warm-ups

After last weekend’s mauling in Nice, Scotland were back at Murrayfield facing off against France once again in their warm-up towards the World Cup. Last week, France scored their opening try within 2 minutes and it happened again on Saturday as Damian Penaud intercepted Peter Horne to dot down under the posts. Penaud scored again before Sean Maitland crossed just before half time to make the score 10-14. Les Bleus failed to add to their score after the break, while Chris Harris burst over for the winning try and Greig Laidlaw kicked the conversion for a 17-14 final score.

 

Scotland

Ireland were not the only ones who struggled at the lineout on Saturday. George Turner is a great talent, but he was having a nightmare with his throwing in this match. While part of this can be down to French pressure and unfamiliar combinations in the Scotland squad, there were also some individual mistakes such as the quick throw to Ryan Wilson at the front, where he had placed himself too far over to the French side and threw directly to Wilson, making the skewed throw incredibly obvious.

The lineout is such a vital piece of professional rugby, Scotland will be hoping Fraser Brown returns from injury soon to give more options at hooker. That way, Scotland can rely on the experienced pair of Brown and Stuart McInally in the big games and take Turner as a 3ʳᵈ option to use in the easier pool matches.

France

The oft-said cliché about the France national team is that you never know which team will turn up on the day. While they were far from perfect on Saturday, there was enough on show to suggest that – if they can put such clichés behind them and remain consistent – they have the makings of a great squad to not just compete in Japan, but also work through the next 4 year cycle with a view to RWC2023.

Damian Penaud is one of the form wingers in international rugby at the moment, and at 22 years old will be around for a long time. Other starters on Saturday include, Antoine Dupont (22), Alivereti Raka (24), Thomas Ramos (24), Félix Lambey (25), Arthur Iturria (25), Grégory Alldritt (22), while Gaël Fickou (25) was also meant to start before having to pull out through injury. On the bench, it feels like Camille Chat has been around forever, but he is only 23, and he was joined by fellow youngsters Cyril Baille (25), Emerick Setiano (23), Yacouba Camara (25), Baptiste Serin (25) and Romain Ntamack (20). Straight away, we can see a great young core to base the squad around for the next 4+ years, while there were also plenty of players in the squad who are slightly older but would still only be in their early 30s come the next tournament.

This year’s tournament may be too early for them, but with the right organisation, they could be a great shout for RWC2023.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

Centre Chris Harris may have to delay his Gloucester debut as he has likely moved himself up the pecking order for Scotland with a good all-round performance that was capped off with a try. Gordon Reid also put in a very strong performance in the scrum and his experience will likely see him make it onto the plane to Japan.

After having much of last season wrote off due to concussion issues, seeing Blade Thomson leave the pitch early with a head injury will have been concerning and I think has left him with too few opportunities to earn a spot on the plane. Likewise, Tommy Seymour will be worried for his place in a deep back 3 after an injury saw him replaced early.


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Eyes On: France v Scotland – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: France v Scotland – RWC2019 Warm-ups

France and Scotland kicked off their warm-ups for RWC2019 in Nice on Saturday evening with a match that quickly became a one-sided affair. Newly-capped winger Alivereti Raka crossed within 2 minutes to open the scoring, with Maxime Médard and Grégory Alldritt also crossing the line before halftime. All Scotland could muster in response was an Adam Hastings penalty, while they were held scoreless after the break as Médard scored a second and Antoine Dupont crossed on the hour to finish off a 32-3 victory.

France

As everyone else was naming their training squads this summer, France took the odd step of naming their 31-man World Cup squad straight away (hence why they won’t feature in the Winners & Losers section later), along with a 6-man reserve list. Having watched this match, I think it may have benefited them.

The cliché is that you never know what French team will show up on the day, but they have this crazy ability to often click when the World Cup begins and find themselves in the latter stages. Watching Saturday evening, it felt like they have clicked early. While Scotland players were still trying to put their best foot forward in this match to try and make Gregor Townsend pick them for the tournament, these players know that they are going to Japan and have been able to spend the time building chemistry. Considering this is their first match of the season, they looked in incredible for and if they are only going to grow from here, then England and Argentina need to beware!

Scotland

In my look back at Wales’ win over England, I mentioned how England needed a physical presence in the midfield. Scotland needs a physical presence, period.

Against France, they had some good moments in attack when they were able to get around or through the defence, but this did not happen often enough, due to the lack of physical options to put them on the front foot. The Scottish back line is heavily skilled but they are known as playmakers rather than physical crash ball runners. While England were able to still utilise Billy Vunipola, Scotland had nobody in the pack that could play the equivalent role. With the lack of options in the back line, they need to find the physical presence in the pack, which will likely guarantee Hamish Watson a starting spot and earn Magnus Bradbury a place in the World Cup squad.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

Sticking with the above point, if Magnus Bradbury is to make the squad, it is likely to be at the expense of Josh Strauss, who missed 4 tackles in a largely anonymous performance. Duncan Taylor made a welcome return to international rugby after a couple of seasons ruined by injury, however I don’t feel that he was able to impose himself on the match enough to break into a position group that has plenty of strong options.

On a more positive side, John Barclay made a welcome return tot he back row and though it was far from his best game, he missed just 1 tackle on the night and carried more times than Strauss. Rory Hutchinson also continued his rise after a great season for Northampton with 6 carries for 45 metres and 1 defender beaten in the half hour on the pitch – though I previously ruled him out due to a lack of experience, this performance and the early cutting of Nick Grigg makes me thing he could be a bolter for the squad.


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