North Island v South Island 2020

North Island v South Island 2020

I’ve been seriously missing Super Rugby Aotearoa these past few weeks, so on the eve of the All Blacks selection announcement, this match between the North Island and South Island – the first since a fundraiser in 2012 – was something I was looking forward to… and it didn’t really disappoint!

The North Island couldn’t have got a much better start to the match, as Reiko Ioane go on the end of a Beauden Barrett grubber kick to score the opening try after just 2 and a half minutes, with Damian McKenzie kicking the extras. It didn’t take long for the South Island to find an answer though, as a driving maul got them to the North Island try line and Nepo Laulala took the ball the final few inches, Jordie Barrett hitting the conversion and a penalty soon after to go ahead. Next came arguably the try of the match as the North Island attacked down the blind side 15m channel with some beautiful interplay from Reiko Ioane, Caleb Clarke, TJ Perenara and Damian McKenzie seeing the Chiefs fullback put North Island back ahead with the try and successful conversion. Jordie Barrett missed a penalty, but made amends just after the half hour mark, powering over int he corner after a slick pass out of the ruck from Codie Taylor, before hitting the conversion for a halftime lead of 14-17.

The North Island struck first again in the second half as replacement scrum half Aaron Smith followed up with an inside support line after the team made a break down the right through Damian McKenzie and Hoskins Sotutu, McKenzie converting again. 10 minutes later and North Island were on the attack again, but a pass from McKenzie went astray and while Caleb Clarke managed to keep the ball in play, he was unable to collect and South Island winger Will Jordan swooped in to steal the ball and take it to the house. while the South Island scored again just minutes later as Richie Mo’unga hit Tyrel Lomax on a perfect line with a beautiful flat pass, Barrett kicking both conversions to extend the lead. North Island refused to give up and narrowed the lead when Reiko Ioane slipped through the challenges of Shannon Frizell and Leicester Fainga’anuku to score under the posts, with McKenzie cutting the lead to 3 points. Then came the controversial moment on 71 minutes as Ash Dixon took an hard line off Aaron Smith to go under the posts. Referee Paul Williams awarded the try without consulting the TMO and the conversion was taken quickly, before replays could show that Dixon had been held up over the line. As the clock ticked past the 80 minutes, it looked like that decision may prove costly, but a series of penalties gave the South Island one more chance from a 5m lineout. With a penalty advantage given at the resultant maul, and with the North Island defence extremely narrow, replacement fly half Josh Ioane went for the cross-kick and Will Jordan rose above Mitch Hunt to take the ball above his head and score the winning try, Barrett adding the extras to confirm a 35-38 victory.

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Stand-out performers

While a couple of players may not have had the impact they would have hoped, there was no player in either 23 who came away from the match with a diminished reputation. Some definitely improved on theirs, though.

Jordie Barrett was arguably one of the best men on the pitch, frequently showing his skills in both attack and defence while going near-perfect off the tee. Will Jordan was quiet in the first half but grew into the game and picked his moments to have maximum impact with 2 crucial tries. To me, they are the top 2 options at fullback right now, and I would expect Jordie Barrett to get the All Blacks 15 shirt if Ian Foster picks on form as he creates the 10/15 playmaker axis, while Jordan will certainly be putting his hand up for a spot on the wing. Caleb Clarke put in a big performance that may be the only thing that stops Jordan taking one of the starting wing spots, with Foster unlikely to want 2 uncapped wingers along with a new fullback.

One person who won’t be in contention for a wing spot is Reiko Ioane, as he has shown that the experiment of moving him inside to outside centre has been a success. While we already knew of Ioane’s pace, this move has accentuated his defensive ability and his strength, while his slick handling skills in the 13 channel just make the team even more dangerous. Sticking with the Blues, Hoskins Sotutu was the star of Super Rugby Aotearoa until his injury, but looked immediately back to his best in this game with turnovers and some great attacking play.

The final mention has to go to Tom Christie. Openside flanker is a position where the All Blacks are never short of options, while there is a legacy to uphold after the reign of Richie McCaw. Tom Christie definitely wouldn’t have been the first name on people’s lips when discussing Ian Foster’s options there, but he had a fantastic season with the Crusaders and played a starring role in this game. As captain of the national team, if Sam Cane is fit then Christie’s best chance is probably a place on the bench, but don’t be surprised to see him actively fighting for the 7 shirt in the coming years.

Strength in depth

If nothing else, this match and the subsequent All Blacks squad announcement just highlighted the strength in depth available to New Zealand.

While all 8 back rowers to play in this match put in strong performances, Sam Cane was always going to make the All Blacks squad if fit, while Cullen Grace can be considered somewhat of a shock inclusion, having missed much of Super Rugby Aotearoa through injury. Beyond that, though, are players like Du’Plessis Kirifi, Luke Jacobsen and Lachlan Boshier who all missed out on both the All Blacks and this match!

In the halfbacks, it was a shame that Finlay Christie did not get more of a chance to show his quality in the match and I can’t help feel that on form he was very unlucky to miss out on international selection (cough… snap him up, Scotland… cough!). Finally, that the match 23s suggest Otere Black my be 6ᵗʰ choice at stand-off is another crazy sign of their depth, especially when you consider some of the other players who have retired from international rugby or are ineligible due to playing outside of New Zealand!

If New Zealand are to struggle at all int he coming seasons, it won’t be due to a lack of depth in the squad.

Wasted wonder

I’ve been on record as saying that I consider Richie Mo’unga to be the best fly half in the world at this moment in time. Unfortunately, following this match, I feel that his potential will not be reached while Ian Foster is in charge of the All Blacks.

Under Steve Hansen, Mo’unga was never given a fair shot to compete against the golden boy Beauden Barrett, and when Injury to Damian McKenzie forced Barrett to move to 15 and Mo’unga to come into the XV, he was basically used in a game manager role while Barrett was given the true reins to the attack – similar to how the Blues were set up with Barrett and Otere Black. This completely takes away from his game, as playing as the lead playmaker for the Crusaders has highlighted just how good he is, while having a second playmaker at 15 would be a great support for him.

As one of Steve Hansen’s assistants, I was already worried that his selection would be bad news for Mo’unga, and this game all-but confirmed it, as Foster’s assistants Brad Mooar and Greg Feek were in charge of the South Island team. What followed was a subdued match for Mo’unga – not helped by a HIA assessment midway through the first half – as fullback Jordie Barrett was frequently popping up at first receiver. Mo’unga certainly had his moments, with an early grubber through almost ending in a try but for a great defensive play from Hoskins Sotutu and then of course his inch-perfect pass to Tyrel Lomax, but if the All Blacks were to trust him with full control like Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson does, then they would be so much more dangerous.

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Lions Tour 2021: Predicting the Squad

Lions Tour 2021: Predicting the Squad

It’s hard to believe, today sees us reach the one year mark before the British & Irish Lions’ first match of their 2021 South Africa tour. This time next year (barring any delays given the current state of the world) the Lions will be taking on the Stormers in Cape Town as the first of 8 matches on their tour, culminating in a 3-Test series against the World Champions South Africa.

In honour of this day, I have decided to try predicting the players who will make up the Lions touring party. The last 2 touring parties have been just either side of the 40-man mark, but I have gone a little larger due to Warren Gatland’s decision in 2017 to add 6 extra players midway through the tour to help keep the Test team fresh. The “Geography 6” did not get a great reception when they were announced, which led to Gatland largely backtracking and keeping them as unused substitutes. With player welfare having become even more important over the last 4 years and the 5 games before the Tests being spread over just 15 days, I can see Gatland picking a larger squad this time around, so I have gone on the idea of a 46-man touring party, which would allow Gatland to put out 2 completely different matchday 23s without any overlap of players.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has not made selection easy for Warren Gatland, as it has left the Six Nations unfinished and also ruled out the Summer and Autumn Test windows, so 2021’s Six Nations will be huge, but players may also find that their form in club matches is given more consideration this time due to the lack of international rugby. So, who do I think will be travelling to South Africa?

Hooker

With 46 players going, I would expect 40 of them to be specialist hookers. Ken Owens is probably in prime position to start the Tests and I also wouldn’t be surprised to see him captain some of the early matches. Owens is such a reliable player and was an ever-present for Wales under Gatland. With such limited time together, that familiarity will be key for the Lions. Next up is Jamie George, who has had control of the England number 2 shirt for a couple of years now. While he doesn’t seem as flashy as in his earlier years, he is super reliable at the set piece and will tackle all day long. For the other 2 spots, things get very interesting. Rory Best’s retirement has left Ireland lacking experience at the position and the lack of matches between now and the squad announcement is likely to count against them. Scotland have seen the number 2 jersey split between Stuart McInally and Fraser Brown, so it is highly possible that they could take both remaining spots, but I think that the strong carrying of Luke Cowan-Dickie will earn him a spot in the party,leaving space for just one of the Scots. While McInally brings a more open attacking game, I’m not sure that’s what Gatland will be looking for on this tour, so I can see him picking Fraser Brown, who can also cover as a back row in an emergency.

Prop

When I started looking at props, I must admit that I was surprised just how many players immediately clicked into place, leaving me only a few slots to fill.

At tighthead, Kyle Sinckler has become one of the best in the world, with good hands t go with his incredible strength and refusal to take a backwards step. It’s fair to say that his early removal in the World Cup final was a huge loss for England. I expect Sinckler’s biggest rival for the 3 shirt in the Tests will be Tadhg Furlong, who is another that can make a positive impact in both the set piece and the loose. 3 years ago, Tomas Francis was one of the infamous “Geography 6” but this time around I expect him to be a part of the initial squad as he has become a force in the scrums and is arguably another 3 whose removal benefited the Springboks in the Rugby World Cup. And for the final spot, I can see Zander Fagerson getting the nod, as he has become a regular for Scotland and impressed in a scrum that was improving during the Six Nations.

Moving over to the other side of the front row, I think that the current lack of a nailed down starter for Wales will leave them without representation at this position. Joe Marler had such a positive impact off the bench during the Rugby World Cup final, that I expect him to get a call-up alongside England teammate Mako Vunipola, who is arguably one of the best all-round looseheads when on top form. Cian Healy is another of the top looseheads and will provide plenty of experience. By the time the tournament comes around he will be 33, so I can see the tour being his international swansong. As for the final spot, strong performances over the net year could see Ellis Genge squeeze in as a physical carrier against the Super Rugby and Invitational teams, but right now I think the more likely player is Rory Sutherland, who was having a strong Six Nations before the pandemic brought it to an early end.

Lock

When initially starting my selections, I set aside 6 spots for the second row, but by the end I increased that to 7, as I noticed that a number of the locks I was picking were also experienced at playing in the back row, and with the strength of the Springbok pack I can imagine Warren Gatland going for a large pack. First off is the likely pick for the captaincy: Alun Wyn Jones, who brings so much experience and leadership to the team, as well as very rarely having a bad game. Next up were the youngsters that have quickly become key members of their teams, Maro Itoje and James Ryan. It wouldn’t surprise me to see these 3 making up the lock contingent for the first Test, but if anyone was to put themselves in contention, I can see it being Iain Henderson, especially as he could also provide a super physical option at 6. At this point I should probably make clear that I have excluded Geroge Kruis due to his upcoming move to Japan that will bring an end to his England career. Completing the group of specialist locks, I have Jake Ball getting in due to his larger size helping to bring some balance in the scrums. And then we come to Courtney Lawes, who in recent years has spent almost as much time at 6 as lock (though I personally think he is somewhat wasted at 6 internationally) and bolter Tadhg Beirne, who as well as being a large unit capable of covering lock/back row, has great ability in the loose and will be a big threat at the breakdown.

Back row

It’s probably no surprise that taking an extra lock came at the expense of a back row spot due to the players able to cover both, leaving me with 7 spots to fill here.

Personally, I feel that Taulupe Faletau could find that the pandemic leaves him with too little time to prove himself back to top form, so I can see him missing out here in favour of Billy Vunipola and CJ Stander, who can also cover openside flanker and will be keen to shine in the Test squad to show the Springboks just what they missed out on. They are the only specialist 8s I have going, with Ross Moriarty finding himself too far down the list with so many options at back row, however Josh Navidi has experience playing the position at international level and has the strength to hold his own against larger players. Navidi can be used at 8 due to the inclusion of fellow opensides Justin Tipuric and Hamish Watson, who both bring a lot to the attacking game in open play as well, while Sam Underhill can come in to fill the role of reliable tackler that Gatland used to see filled by Dan Lydiate, while he can also pick his moments to attack the breakdown. With so many other similar options, Jamie Ritchie and Tom Curry both see them missing out this time around in favour of Aaron Shingler, who provides a lineout option and more ballast at 6 to nullify the size of the South African packs.

Scrum half

Moving into the backs and scrum half was probably the hardest position for me to fill, just because I think that a lot of the current starters have serious questions about them. Wales are in the early days of trying to figure out their depth chart at 9 under Wayne Pivac, but Gareth Davies was so successful under Gatland that I’m confident he will go, while Rhys Webb was another Gatland favourite until his move to France made him ineligible.

For the other 2 spots at the position, I considered the Scottish pair of Ali Price and George Horne but don’t think Price has done enough to stand out from the crowd, while I see Horne being considered too small and not enough of a game manager to make the party this time around. Tomos Williams has been largely impressive for Wales, but I also see him missing out as I can’t see Gatland picking 75% of the scrum halves from the same nation. So that brings us on to England and Ireland, who wee both going through the Six Nations with players who were in the 9 shirts through the strength of their name and history rather than their recent performances. If we’re looking at the form performer before the pandemic, that was clearly John Cooney, and I think that he will get the recognition from Warren Gatland if he can continue the performances once rugby returns, especially as he also provides an option off the tee. This leaves a race between Conor Murray and Ben Youngs, and I think that based on current form, Ben Youngs has the slight edge, while he also has the running game to complement his tactical kicking that Murray lacks.

Fly half

So at fly half, I felt comfortable that Gatland would look to go for 3 specialists, with the potential for a couple of selections elsewhere in the back line also being able to cover the position in an emergency.

So immediately this throws up the question of where to class someone who will clearly make the squad: Owen Farrell. Farrell is perfectly capable of playing both fly half or centre, so could very easily be classed as a centre, allowing for another specialist fly half to be called up to the squad. However, for reasons that I will discuss shortly, I see him being looked at more as a fly half. Dan Biggar also makes the list as he continues to put in great performances that may not lead to super flashy attacking play, but effective, pragmatic play. Both Farrell and Biggar were picked alongside Jonathan Sexton in New Zealand, but I can see the trio being broken this time as Sexton’s poor form will see him left out in favour of Finn Russell, who probably won’t make the Test 23 but will prove a great attacking talent for the midweek games.

Now, on the off-chance that Farrell does make the squad but is considered more as a centre, I still don’t see Sexton getting picked barring a massive upturn in form, which leaves that final spot to be fought between Gareth Anscombe, Adam Hastings and George Ford. For me, Hastings loses out due to his lack of experience leading a team at this point, so it then comes down to the fitness of Gareth Anscombe. It’s worth remembering that he was set to be the starter for Wales at the Rugby World Cup before his injury against England, so if he can prove himself fully fit and back to top form, then I think his ability to also cover 15 will earn him the spot over George Ford, while any questions over Anscombe’s readiness will see Ford get the nod.

Centre

Owen Farrell being classed as a centre means that there are 5 spots to fill at the position in this squad. Now, when picking his centres, I think that Warren Gatland will take a moment to consider the opposition they are likely to face and choose to go for a highly physical set of midfielders to combat the Springboks.

As arguably one of the best 13s in the world, Jonathan Davies seems certain to make the squad provided he is fit, while I also think that Manu Tuilagi will be guaranteed a spot if fit. Hadleigh Parkes’ move to Japan has made it unlikely that he will be selected. The Scottish midfield seems somewhat unsettled at the moment, which I think will hinder them getting any representation at the position. For Ireland, I think that the physicality of Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw, combined with their experience playing together, will see the pair selected.

Now, these 4 players will do a good job bringing physical parity to the match, but there’s not much in the way of playmaking ability. This could be answered by utilising Farrell alongside one of them, but I can instead be the form of Henry Slade being rewarded with a spot in the touring party, as he has the extra playmaking ability from his time as a fly half earlier in his career, while he has also demonstrated surprisingly impressive physicality over recent years to make the England 13 shirt his own.

Back 3

And so we come to the back 3 and if you were counting, you’ll know that I’ve left 8 spots free to cover this area.

Stuart Hogg is the first person named here as an obvious selection at fullback and will be hoping to get his shot in the Tests after being forced to leave the tour of New Zealand early. Also joining him will be fullbacks Liam Williams and Anthony Watson, who will also be able to play on the wing if Gatland desires. Jonny May and Josh Adams have been 2 of the form wingers in the Six Nations in recent years so will be hoping to secure the wing spots for the Tests. And that leaves 3 spots for players who I think can have hugely positive impacts on the tour but will need some incredible fortune to make the Test squad as things stand. Darcy Graham has looked highly impressive for Scotland and will benefit from the experience of being on this tour with a view to competing for a Test spot on the next tour. Andrew Conway has taken over from Jacob Stockdale as the top Irish winger at the moment, while Stockdale will actually miss out on the final spot to bolter James Lowe, who becomes eligible through residency later this year and has averaged a try every 1.7 games though his time with the Chiefs and Leinster.


So, that’s my prediction. Who do you think Gatland will take with him?

Multiple Allegiance XV

Multiple Allegiance XV

The lack of rugby (and sport in general) during the COVID-19 pandemic is driving me insane, so in a need for a rugby fix, I have started putting together a couple of “Pick an XV” articles. I was throwing about ideas with my god friend and occasional contributor Gez a few nights ago and he made a great suggestion: creating a starting XV of players who would have been eligible to play for multiple nations.

Per World Rugby regulation 8, a Player may only play for the senior fifteen-aside National Representative Team, the next senior fifteen-a-side National Representative Team and the senior National Representative Sevens Team of the Union of the country in which:

  1. he was born; or
  2. one parent or grandparent was born; or
  3. he has completed thirty six consecutive months of Residence immediately preceding the time of playing. 

The 3-year residency rule is set to extend to 5 years from the end of 2020.

A player who has been capped for one nation can become eligible for another nation by completing a period of 3 years without selection for the original nation, then playing in an Olympic event (rugby 7s Olympic Games/Olympic qualifying events) for the new nation.

For this, I am only picking from players who are currently playing the game. I am also going on knowledge that is out there, so there may very much be a player who was eligible for multiple countries due to family links, but due to committing early to his country of birth and residence, those links have not come out.

Who would make your XV?

1: Mako Vunipola:- Where else to start but England and Lions prop Mako Vunipola. He may have become one of the best looseheads in World Rugby and become a key component of the England pack, but he qualified for England on residency, having been born in New Zealand to Tongan parents. His father Feʻao Vunipola represented Tonga at the 1995 and 1999 Rugby World Cups.

2: Joe Taufete’e:- I was initially going to select former France captain Guilhem Guirado, who is of Catalan descent so was eligible for Spain, but as he is no longer playing internationally, I chose to call a late audible and select 2019 World Rugby Player of the Year nominee Joe Taufete’e. The hooker is of Samoan descent and was born in American Samoa, but moved to California aged 5. He has gone on to represent the USA at 2 World Cups so far and has scored more tries than any other tight five player in international rugby history (20 in 27 games).

3: W.P. Nel:- As you can probably tell by the name Willem Petrus Nel, the tighthead is South African by birth but moved to Scotland in the summer of 2012 to join Edinburgh. He made his Scotland debut in 2015 after completing a 3-year residency period and went on to become a key part of the squad, though injuries have denied him the chance to earn as many caps as he should have.

4: Paul Willemse:- Much like Nel, the surname probably gives it away, but Willemse was born in Pretoria before moving to Namibia in his youth and then later back to South Africa. He represented Namibia U18 and South Africa U20, but moved to France in 2014. Having completed the residency period and obtaining French nationality, he made his debut for Les Bleus in the 2019 Six Nations. While he struggled to hold down a spot in the squad under Jacques Brunel, he has quickly become a key figure in Fabien Galthié’s new-look, resurgent French team.

5: George Kruis:- A key component for Saracens and England, George Kruis is a lineout general who is arguably underrated in the loose. The lock has 45 England caps and 3 caps for the British and Irish Lions, but could have instead chosen to represent the Netherlands as his father is Dutch.

6: CJ Stander:- Christiaan Johan Stander becomes the third South African to move abroad on this list, having represented the Baby Boks at U18 and U20 level. After being considered too small to play back row for the Springboks, he was left with the choice of trying to convert to hooker or moving abroad. Stander joined Munster in June 2012 and qualified for Ireland through residency the day after the RWC2015 final. Able to play at 8 or 6, I feel that he is more consistently strong at blindside, where he can carry hard, tackle hard and cause a nuisance at the breakdown. He’ll be hoping to make the British and Irish Lions squad next year to show SARU just how big a mistake they made.

7: David Pocock:- One of my favourite players of the modern game, Pocock is one of the best opensides to play in the last decade. Australia have had the joy of being able to pair him with Michael Hooper, but Pocock was also eligible to play for Zimbabwe, having been born in Gweru but fleeing the country during the unrest created by the government’s land seizure and redistribution campaign.

8: Grégory Alldritt:- Number 8 was such a hard position to pick due to the sheer number of top quality options – especially when you consider both of the flankers I picked also cover 8! If this was 4 years ago, I would have picked Italian captain Sergio Parisse, who was born in Argentina. Tongan-born Welsh back row Taulupe Faletau was an option but injuries have severely hampered his career in recent years. Billy Vunipola was going to be my pick here but considering I already have his brother Mako in the squad, I called an audible and selected Alldritt, who was starring in the Six Nations for Les Bleus but would have qualified for Ireland through his grandparents.

9: Ali Price:- Scrum half was probably the hardest position to pick in terms of limited options, but I settled eventually on Scotland’s current starter. Price’s Scottish eligibility is through his mother, but he was born in King’s Lynn and was educated in Cambridgeshire. He moved from Bedford to Glasgow Warriors in 2013 as part of their Elite Development Programme. He has formed a good one-two punch with Greig Laidlaw in recent years but his former captain’s international retirement has now seen Price take on the lead role ahead of his Glasgow understudy George Horne.

10: Gareth Anscombe:- When New Zealand defeated England in the 2011 IRB Junior World Championship, they had future All Blacks fly halves Lima Sopoaga and Beauden Barrett starting at 12 and 15 respectively. At fly half that day was Gareth Anscombe. In 2014, Anscombe moved to the Cardiff Blues and he made his Wales debut in August 2015, courtesy of his Cardiff-born mother. Though it took a few years to solidify his place in the squad, it looked as if he had earned the number 10 shirt for the World Cup until a knee injury put him out for the season.

11: Marika Koroibete:- Koroibete has been one of the best, most consistent players for Australia in recent years and was a great pick-up for the Wallabies, but this was due to him qualifying on residency. He is in fact a dual-code international, having represented Fiji, the country of his birth, in rugby league.

12: Bundee Aki:- There were a few ways that I could have gone with this selection. New Zealand-born Hadleigh Parkes qualified for Wales on residency, while Fijian-born Samu Kerevi has become the man for Australia. They both just missed out in place of Bundee Aki, who qualified for Ireland on residency, but was born in New Zealand and is of Samoan descent.

13: Manu Tuilagi:- France’s Fijian superstar Virimi Vakatawa was very close to making the list, but loses out to Manu Tuilagi. Born in Samoa in 1991, Tuilagi moved to Cardiff in 2004 and then onto Leicester. The youngest of 7 children (5 of whom have represented Samoa), Manu chose to play for England as this was where he had grown up and played all of his rugby.

14: Sevu Reece:- A newer name on the scene but one to remember, Sevu Reece topped the try scoring charts for the 2019 Super Rugby Season before going on to play for the All Blacks at RWC2019. He was born in Fiji and grew up there, moving to New Zealand in 2014.

15: Charles Piutau:- The fullback played at U20 level for both Tonga and New Zealand before committing to the All Blacks (though brother Siale went on to captain Tonga). Piutau made 17 appearances for the All Blacks but missed out on selection for RWC2015 and has since been ineligible due to playing outside New Zealand, playing starring roles for Wasps, Ulster and Bristol. How great would it have been to see him representing Tonga over the past decade? Aged 28, there is still time for him to play for Tonga, as he has gone long enough since being capped by New Zealand that playing an Olympic Qualifying event for Tonga’s 7s team would make him eligible for the 15-a-side team.

Six Nations 2020: Team of the (Partial) Tournament

Six Nations 2020: Team of the (Partial) Tournament

… Well that was an interesting weekend! The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was keenly felt for rugby fans as Super Saturday went by without a single match being played. At this point in the calendar, the tournament should be over, but there are now 4 matches still to be played and 4 teams with the potential to win the tournament.

Right now, things are up in the air about when the tournament will be completed, so I have taken the decision to proceed with my annual Tournament XV selection, only taking into account the matches that have been played to this point. If and when the tournament is completed, I will look to put out an XV for the whole tournament.

This certainly makes selection more difficult, as due to Ireland v Italy being postponed during Round 4, those teams have played a game less than the other 4. Who would make your XV?

1: Joe Marler:- While his decision to interact with Alun Wyn Jones’ junk was ill-advised, Marler has had an otherwise impressive Six Nations. In the absence of Mako Vunipola, Marler has done a fine job of creating a solid set piece for the team to play off, while making 7 dominant tackles (the most of any prop).

2: Ken Owens:- No hooker has played more minutes in this season’s tournament than Ken Owens and as such, he leads his fellow hookers Julien Marchand and Jamie George in tackles, metres made and carries.

3: Kyle Sinckler:- Kyle Sinckler is slowly establishing himself as one of the best tightheads in World Rugby, and as such has played all but 20 minutes of this tournament so far. As well as helping England put together a super strong scrum, he has made more tackles (49) or passes (17) than any other tighthead.

4: Maro Itoje:- Though he may be one of the most penalised players in this year’s tournament, Maro Itoje makes the list off the back of his defensive prowess. The Saracens lock has made more tackles (74) than anyone else in the tournament and his 20 dominant tackles is 7 more than his closest competitor Bernard le Roux. He also finds himself joint-second in turnovers won with 4, 1 less than CJ Stander. Itoje has also been an important figure at the lineout with 11 lineouts won and 2 lineout steals (joint-second among locks).

5: James Ryan:- Joining Itoje at lock is Jame Ryan, creating what could arguably be the Test pairing for the British and Irish Lions. The Irishman is top among locks for lineouts won (15) and has also been a key factor in both Ireland’s attack and defence, racking up 145 metres off 38 carries, 43 tackles, 10 dominant tackles and a turnover despite having only played 3 matches so far.

6: Jake Polledri:- Jamie Ritchie has been a nightmare for the opposition but narrowly loses out to Jake Polledri. The only player I highlighted as one to watch before the tournament who has consistently started, Jake Polledri is making himself indispensable in the Italian squad. The Gloucester flanker is joint-second for turnovers despite having only played in 3 games, while his 186 metres made puts him third among all forwards.

7: Charles Ollivon:- Hamish Watson and Justin Tipuric deserve some recognition, but Ollivon gets the nod here. The new French captain has done a wonderful job leading his team through the tournament but has also been a big part of their success. He tops the try-scoring charts with 4 touchdowns and has assisted a further 4 tries. Only Bernard le Roux has made more tackles for France than Ollivon’s 55 (tied with Grégory Alldritt), while Ollivon’s 25 lineouts won is the most of any player.

8: Grégory Alldritt:- Alldritt has been one of the stars of the tournament this year and therefore one of the easiest picks to make. As well as having scored a try, the French number 8’s 353 metres made is almost double that of the nearest forward (Hamish Watson) and the second-most of all players. Right now, he would be my pick for Player of the Tournament.

9: Antoine Dupont:- One of the best Northern Hemisphere scum halves, Dupont has been on fire in this tournament. His late transmission from pass to kick for Damian Penaud’s try (one of his 3 assists) was one of the moments of the tournament, while his 158 metres made, 8 offloads and 32 tackles blows his competition out of the water.

10: Romain Ntamack:- While credit needs to be given to Adam Hastings for stepping into the starring role at short notice after Finn Russell’s disagreement with Gregor Townsend, Romain Ntamack gets my pick here due to the way that he has so calmly played the game as required to win France’s first 3 games. He is not yet perfect, but is such a young player, he will only get better over the coming years.

11: Jonny May:- Matteo Minozzi and Gaël Fickou can consider themselves unlucky here, but Jonny May gets the spot as he has become such a key part of the England kicking game, while his 2 tries from nowhere against France showed his pure talent as well as putting an undeserved shine on a poor England performance.

12: Hadleigh Parkes:- You know what you’re going to get with Hadleigh Parkes: a solid, dependable 12 who will carry hard (290 metres from 50 carries) and defend to his last breath. He has had to get used to a new midfield partner and new defensive system, but has continued to be a super reliable cog for Wales.

13: Manu Tuilagi:- Nick Tompkins deserves some recognition for his attacking prowess as he continues to grow into international rugby, but Manu Tuilagi got the pick here. With playmakers at 10 and 12, Tuilagi becomes a key physical component of the England back line, which was seriously missed after his early injury against France. His hard running has caused issues for defences, while on the flip side his strong defence has helped to limit the opposition’s attacks.

14: Mattia Bellini:- Perhaps a surprise pick given Italy’s lack of tries, but Bellini has been in impressive form during this tournament, averaging just over 10 metres per carry (292 metres from 29 carries). Against Scotland especially, Bellini was able to show just how dangerous he could be when given space with some smooth footwork and hips that would make Shakira proud.

15: Anthony Bouthier:- Made his mark on his debut against England with a kick from his own 5m line that finally found touch 10m from the England try line and his just gone from strength to strength. He has looked at home in the 15 shirt, answering any questions asked of him while asking his own with the boot, while he took his chance well to score against Wales.

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: England v Wales

Six Nations 2020: England v Wales

With coronavirus fears causing Ireland’s game against Italy to be postponed, Round 4 of the Six Nations eventually kicked off at Twickenham with England’s match against Wales. Anthony Watson gave England an early lead, which was added to by Elliot Daly and the boot of Owen Farrell, the boots of Leigh Halfpenny and Dan Biggar keeping Wales just in it for a 20-9 halftime score. Wales hit back immediately after the break with a try from Justin Tipuric, but a try for Manu Tuilagi helped England pull away, before the centre’s late red card and a yellow for Ellis Genge gave Wales a 2-man advantage, which allowed them to have the final say through tries for Dan Biggar and Tipuric again to come away with a losing bonus point, the 33-30 final score earning England the Triple Crown.

 

England

England may go down as the victors, but they came so close to shooting themselves in the foot with their poor discipline. A game between these two nations is always going to be a tetchy affair, but there were moments that England took things too far. Captain Owen Farrell saw him penalised on his own line for an unnecessary shove that sparked a brawl and was potentially lucky to not be penalised again shortly later for shoving over Dan Biggar while chasing a kick, while Joe Marler may find himself in hot water for trying to get to know Alun Wyn Jones a little too well during one scuffle. Then with less than 10 minutes left, Ellis Genge was yellow carded for persistent offending from the team and Manu Tuilagi was given a red card for a high shot on George North, which almost cost England the game as Wales scored 14 points in the final 5 minutes. Had they had another 5 minutes, I can’t help but feel that their numerical advantage would have seen them come away with the win.

10 penalties is too many for a team to give away if they want to win a game, England need to buck up their ideas if they want to improve their chances of success in the big games.

Wales

When I asked my friend Gez (a Wales fan who has contributed on some previous posts) what he thought of Wales’ performance, I got the following reply:

So we can score against 13 and can’t defend wide, narrow or against hard runners, that’s what we’ve learned here

While I fully agree that the defensive set-up needs looking at as it is allowing teams to get around them too easily, I think that Wales’ current situation needs remembering. They have just had a change in coaches so will take a moment to adapt to a new playing style, but came into this match missing a number of players who have played key roles in the team recently: Gareth Anscombe, Jonathan Davies, Tomas Francis, Josh Adams and Rhys Patchell. They also had Josh Navidi, Liam Williams, Taulupe Faletau and Dan Biggar (who I question if he as really even 95% fit) playing having recently returned from injury and had Jake Ball and Dillon Lewis go off injured during the game and Alun Wyn Jones, George North and Aaron Shingler finish the game in varying degrees of fitness. Further to that, there were other players like Owen Lane and Willis Haloholo out injured, who could have positively impacted the team.

Given that injury list, it is hard to look into Wales performance too much right now. Yes, big improvements are needed quickly if Wales want to start winning more, but it is important to not make any snap reactions now. Having a key partnership like hadleigh Parkes and Jonathan Davies return (or even have Halaholo covering for one of these players) with a fully fit Josh Navidi in the back row will immediately make the middle of the park feel ore secure against big runners like a Manu Tuilagi, giving a better platform to build the defence off. If the issues persist with a team much closer to the ideal XV, then change will be needed.


My standout players

Manu Tuilagi‘s game may have ended on a negative, but his hard carrying helped put England on the front foot, while Anthony Watson looked great on his return from injury. Ben Youngs also put in one of his best performances in recent years, controlling the game and exploiting a number of gaps around the breakdown.

It was harder to pick out for Wales in a largely disappointing performance, but Josh Navidi clearly had a positive impact on his return from injury and lasted the full 80 minutes, while his return also appeared to free up Justin Tipuric to have more impact in the loose. Finally, a mention for Dan Biggar, who completed the full 80 minutes despite not appearing to be fully fit after his injury last weekend and did everything he could to keep Wales in the game, though it did feel like somewhat of a kick in the teeth to keep Jarrod Evans on the bench.

The Game I Love is in a Bad State

The Game I Love is in a Bad State

Talking with one of my mates at work the other week, we both found ourselves feeling a bit of a disconnect in our interest for Premiership Rugby this season, despite competing against each other in fantasy rugby. I thought about that a bit over the next few days and realised that it’s not just the Premiership, I’m feeling some degree of apathy to rugby in general. Obviously not enough to stop me wanting to write about it, but enough that I’m finding myself less interested in watching everything I can over recent months.

But what’s causing this? Is it that I have reached rugby saturation due to the World Cup filling most of the usual break? Considering I’ve been known to watch 8 or 9 matches in a weekend and want to watch more, I don’t think it’s that. Is it Gloucester’s struggles this season? Well I’m used to that. Is it the frustration of watching players in the form of their life being ignored by Eddie Jones for players who don’t know the position? Potentially a little bit, but my apathy goes beyond England and the Premiership. Is it the absolute shambles of Sarries finally being found guilty of systematic cheating for years and the punishment that still doesn’t feel like it’s been dealt with right? Again, I think it’s had an impact, but my feelings go well beyond the Premiership.

Then watching the games the last few weeks, it hit me: I’m sick of watching every game get ruined by poor officiating. Now before I go any further, I want to make it clear that I have incredible respect for the officials and this is not an attack at them, more a point that officiating has reached a terrible level and things need to change soon in order to save the sport that I love.

What do I mean when I talk about the poor officiating? I’m not railing about seatbelt tackles being the softest of penalties, because I understand why the rules are how they are. It’s not even the prospective changes to the laws coming in, though I’m strongly against some of them. It’s the fact that officials are routinely ignoring even blatant offences, which is having a negative impact on the competitiveness of a game.

Let’s look at some examples. CJ Stander avoided punishment for taking the law into his own hands against England by striking Owen Farrell with an open hand multiple times after Farrell tried holding him in a ruck. Generally, retaliation will see the penalty reversed, while Law 9.12: “A player must not strike an opponent with the hand, arm or fist, including the elbow, shoulder, head or knee(s)” suggests that Stander was lucky to stay on the pitch, meanwhile Dragons’ Lloyd Fairbrother and Glasgow’s Oli Kebble were both yellow carded on the same weekend for a similar flare-up. Clear cases here of different referees treating the game different and not sticking to the laws of the game. And sometime’s it’s the same referee’s interpretation changing. In Round 2 of the Six Nations, Romain Ntamack’s try against Italy came off the back of Romain Taofifenua winning a penalty at the breakdown, despite Gaël Fickou making no attempt to roll after making the tackle, something that the referee had been quick to pick up earlier in the game. The breakdown is the wild west, with jackals winning penalties despite not supporting their weight and illegal cleanouts coming in form all directions except through the gate. Players are suffering serious injuries due to this, but Ben Ryan’s calls to start refereeing the breakdown correctly fall on deaf ears – cos we all know a 50-20 kick will benefit the game more than effectively-refereed breakdowns (note the sarcasm!).

Of course, it’s not just the referee in the middle, they have an AR on each touchline and a TMO to help them make the right decisions, but so much still gets missed. James Ryan appears to have somehow avoided a citing for the most ridiculous of cleanouts against England, where he basically torpedoed himself into England players twice in one breakdown, very clearly going against Law 15.12: “Players must endeavour to remain on their feet throughout the ruck.” In Gloucester’s recent loss to Exeter, the TMO rightly picked up a clear neck roll by Franco Mostert, which ended a promising Gloucester attack, but a later attack by Exeter was allowed to continue, with an equally clear neck roll from one of their players ignored. Gerbrandt Grobler found himself being called for a knock on as he stretched for the try line, but it was clear that the fumble was caused by an impact from Sam Simmonds, who had tucked his arm into his body and caused contact with his shoulder. It was a clear penalty try right under the referee’s nose, but was completely ignored not just by him, but also the TMO, despite it being obvious on replays.

Decisions like these change games. Going back to that game between Italy and France, the TMO called in at one point for a missed knock-on my Matteo Minozzi, but a later knock-on from a French tackler that resulted in Italy going from attacking in the French 22 to cleaning up the ball int heir own 22 was ignored, while in the same weekend, Kyle Sinckler’s blatant and cynical strip of the ball after a tackle had been completed 5m out from the England line (almost certainly a yellow card) was also ignored by all the officials and the TMO – an event that completely changed the momentum of the game as Scotland had been pressuring the England defence until that point. I also recently saw the most ridiculous of decisions as referee and TMO combined to yellow card Cheetahs centre Benhard Janse van Rensburg for a “dangerous challenge” on Leinster’s Fergus McFadden that anyone with half a brain could see was just a rugby incident. Finally in England’s U20s Six Nations loss to Ireland, a clear neck roll on England fly half George Barton was ignored in the build-up to Ireland’s final try, while an earlier England knock-on at a maul was changed to an Ireland knock-on by the TMO, despite the replays clearly showing that the Irish player had illegally swam up the side of the maul.

As much as I want my teams to win, I’m a fan of the sport first and foremost and I hate to see so many games being affected by iffy officiating.

How does all of this happen? I can only put it down to narratives being in the minds of the officials. There is a constant narrative that Italy are not good enough to deserve a place in the Six Nations, so if there’s a close (or even vaguely close-ish call) it will go against the Italians. Of course the French tackler didn’t knock the ball on, these Italians don’t know how to throw a pass. Likewise there is the narrative this season that Gloucester are struggling at the scrum, so an offence at the first scrum by Val Rapava Ruskin results in an Exeter penalty, while the following scrums for most of the match saw Fraser Balmain dominating Ben Moon (who was illegally angling in), but the scrums were just getting reset. Once officials have a narrative in their head, it is hard for them to look past that.

So why doesn’t this get called out more? Because the media also buys into these narratives. All the talk during Italy’s Six Nations losses is how they continue to lose every match in the tournament and Georgia continue to dominate in the Rugby Europe Championship, never about how Italian Rugby has been rebuilt under Conor O’Shea to start bringing the talent into the national team, who handily beat Georgia last time they faced off. When even the media is buying into the narratives, how is a casual fan of the sport meant to really see what is going on.

Right now, we have a chance to stop this. To put the focus back on the 4 officials working together to effectively police the game and clean it up. It may lead to a period of penalty-ridden games, but players and coaches will have to adapt to the laws which are already in place or we will begin to see interest wane as the sport just becomes a mess.

Six Nations 2020: England v Ireland

Six Nations 2020: England v Ireland

Round 3 of the 2020 Six Nations came to an end in Twickenham with the visit of Ireland. Andy Farrell’s men came in off the back of a great performance against Wales, but soon found themselves behind after they failed to deal with a Ben Youngs grubber, gifting George Ford a try. Issues with England’s kicking game continued and led to a try for Elliot Daly, while in attack, they rarely looked dangerous, going in 17-0 down at half time. Things evened out a little in the second half, with Robbie Henshaw soon crashing over for a try, but England’s pack and backs bundled Luke Cown-Dickie over the line from 5 metres out to secure the win. A late try for Andre Porter giving the score a bit more respectability, with John Cooney kicking the conversion to bring an end to the game, England emerging 24-12 winners to become the only team still capable of winning the Triple Crown.

England

Does Eddie Jones actually understand what a number 8 does? With Billy Vunipola missing the tournament through injury, many – myself included – were shocked at the lack of a specialist number 8 in the squad for the tournament, especially given the form of Alex Dombrandt and Sam Simmonds. With Ben Earl in incredible form for Sarries and having experience across the back row, I assumed that he was being given the shot at 8, but that chance has instead gone to Tom Curry, who has started all 3 games at the position.

Now fair play to Curry, he has looked better at the position by the week, but he is still not a specialist number 8 and it is clearly limiting the team’s options, as England have barely used the number 8 pick-up option over the first 3 rounds of the tournament, especially in an attacking sense. With England putting themselves in a comfortable position at the hour mark, it was surely time to let Ben Earl show what he could do at the position. Instead, he as kept on the bench for almost another 10 minutes and the number 8 role went to… Charlie Ewels! Certainly he added some heft to the back of the scrum, but again his inclusion at the position is limiting the effectiveness of the England scrum.

Right now, I can’t even begin to imagine how demoralising it must be for Earl and even more so for Simmonds, Dombrandt and Zach Mercer to see that the national team’s head coach will prioritise players with no/limited experience at the position even at club level over players who are putting in starring performances at the position week in, week out.

How many more players will we see thrown in at number 8 ahead of a specialist? Hopefully none, but this is Eddie Jones we’re talking about. If he is to try one more though, I’ll keep my fingers crossed for Ellis Genge – just imagine the destruction he would cause picking up from the base of a scrum!

Ireland

When the game is collapsing around you and everything is going wrong, you turn to your stars and leadership group on the field. But what if they are the ones causing the problem? What were they bringing to the team in this match?

  • Conor Murray looked horribly off form. His famed kicking game was woefully wayward and gifting England possession in good areas, while he could not up the pace enough to catch out the England defensive line
  • Jonathan Sexton looked anything but a former World Rugby Player of the Year. His inability to deal with a grubber into the dead ball area gifted George Ford a try, his kicking at goal was so horribly shanked to the left I was left wondering if he was seeing double and his control of the back line was best summed up with him slipping on his butt when missing a boot
  • CJ Stander’s biggest impacts in the game were the ones he made with his right hand on Owen Farrell. Yes there was provocation from Farrell, but Stander was lucky not to be penalised
  • Cian Healy (whose impact was limited by an early injury) and Tadhg Furlong were overpowered by the English pack
  • James Ryan was more noticeable for his torpedoing into breakdowns and his picking fights than he was for any actual rugby

That just isn’t good enough from a set of key players. I have been arguing that John Cooney should have been the starting scrum half all tournament, and he clearly improved the team dynamic after he came on, upping the pace to help them get behind the defence, while he as also nailed his only attempted kick at goal, a much more difficult one than one of Sexton’s missed kicks. Likewise, Caelan Doris added something late on with his carrying, making more metres per carry than anyone else in the Irish pack.

This has to be the moment when Andy Farrell moves on from some of Joe Schmidt’s stalwarts and brings in the new blood that can help the team moving forward. Will he make the swaps, or will he continue to show faith with the tried and tested players?


My standout players

As I mentioned above, John Cooney‘s introduction certainly improved the Irish performance during the second half, which should now begin his time in the 9 shirt, while Bundee Aki but in a strong defensive performance, making 10 tackles and causing issues at the breakdown, while carrying hard to try and create a platform.

For England, Manu Tuilagi‘s big hits and bigger carries set England up to dominate the game, while Man of the Match Courtney Lawes appeared to carry harder than usual, looking more at home in the 6 shirt. Similar to Gaël Fickou yesterday, I think that Jonathan Joseph put in a strong performance out of position on the left wing, with some good sniping runs in attack, while he also benefited from not really being tested by the Irish kicking game. For the last 2 picks, I’d still prefer an actual back row and winger to play the positions, but their performances today deserved recognition.

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: Italy v Scotland

Six Nations 2020: Italy v Scotland

The Six Nations returned after a week off with our first trip to Rome in 2020. Scotland and Italy have generally shared the Wooden Spoon between them most years since the tournament took its current form, and the first 2 rounds made that likely to be the case again this year.

In a tight affair, Stuart Hogg put Scotland ahead with a wonderful solo attack on 23 minutes for the only points of the first half. The game continued in much the same way in the second half: Scotland and Italy both fighting hard for possession and territory with limited success in each other’s 22, though Chris Harris did manage to power himself over for a try 7 minutes after halftime. Then in the dying minute, a final attack from Italy was turned over and Adam Hastings was able to sneak away down the blind side to score and convert a try for an eventual 0-17 victory.

Italy

It’s never nice to see a player give the shepherd’s crook early in a game, but sometimes a player’s performance will be so bad, there is no way they can be kept on the pitch. Sadly, that was the case today for young Italian tighthead Giosuè Zilocchi. He may be great in the loose, but the Zebre prop put in one of the worst scrummaging performances I have seen in professional rugby. Every scrum saw him set up with his legs so far back that his body was almost perfectly aligned from head to toe – not a good scrummaging position at all as it left him unable to keep the scrum up the moment it began to move on his side. By the time that he had been replaced at the half-hour mark, he had already given away 3 penalties.

I can understand why the coaching staff want him involved, as he showed his abilities in the loose when an injury to his replacement Marco Riccioni forced him back on for the final 25 minutes (which were thankfully light on scrums), but with the scrum such a vital part of the game, play like that made him a liability.

This performance from Zilocchi has left me with some big questions. Has he been scrummaging like this in training or did this suddenly happen in the match? If this has happened out of nowhere in the match, why has this happened? If this has been happening in training, why was he selected if the coaches had not been able to get him scrummaging properly? The coaching team have had limited time with the squad, but this was something that would be obvious to an observer.

Hopefully Zilocchi can improve his technique over the coming fortnight.

Scotland

What has happened to this Scotland side? Even though they have struggled to win games at times over the last few years, one of their big positives has been the tries they score. Now they are seriously struggling to cross the line. Their 3 tries in this game were their first in the tournament… and even 2 of these were from counterattacks rather than structured attacking play – Stuart Hogg exploiting a mismatch when running back a kick and Adam Hastings sneaking away down the blind side following a turnover.

I’ve talked about how Scotland needed to get more of a balance to the squad between hard runners and flair players – which they now have – and supporting better around the park, but despite this, they could still barely break down the Italian defence. For me, some big changes need making over these final 2 rounds: Rory Hutchinson needs to be given a starting spot and Darcy Graham needs to return to the wing if he is fit.

Ideally as well would be the return of Finn Russell, but it doesn’t look like that will be happening while Gregor Townsend remains in charge. Right now, that could sound the death knell for Townsend’s time as head coach.


My standout players

Such was the disappointment in Scotland’s performance, the only players who really stood out to me for them were flankers Hamish Watson (who was named Man of the Match) and Jamie Ritchie, who made the breakdown a nightmare for the Italians with a number of turnovers, while they also played key roles in one of Scotland’s more promising attacks.

For Italy, the back three of Matteo Minozzi, Jayden Hayward and Mattia Bellini were limited in their chances to attack, but took them well when they arose, looking far more exciting than their opposite numbers. Bellini especially showed a set of hips that Shakira would be proud of on one first half break. Jake Polledri continued to stand out with his strong carrying and tireless tackling as well as a couple of big turnovers, while replacement back row Giovanni Licata also contributed well tot he defensive effort and made some big carries late in the game, so much so that I would love to see him start in the back row with Polledri and Braam Steyn in Round 4.