Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Wales v Italy

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Wales v Italy

Saturday’s 3ʳᵈ and final Autumn Nations Cup game came took us to Parc y Scarlets, where Wales hosted Italy in the fight for 5ᵗʰ place. Wayne Pivac had selected a team with a blend of youth and experience, and they got off to the better start as Taulupe Faletau put Justin Tipuric through a gap and the flanker fed Kieran Hardy to go over for his first Test try, which Callum Sheedy converted. 10 minutes later and another Welsh player was celebrating their first Test try, as Wales went through the phases and Sam Parry eventually pushed over from close range, Sheedy converting again. Italy finally started to get some possession in the Welsh half and Paolo Garbisi opened their account with a penalty. Just a few minutes later, Italy had a lineout on the Welsh 22, and when the maul came infield, Carlo Canna played a grubber in behind the defensive line and his centre partner Marco Zanon collected the ball to cross for his first Test try, which Garbisi duly converted. The Welsh were shook and on a warning for repeat infringements, which proved costly just before the end of the half, as a break from a ruck released Stephen Varney and the Gloucester halfback took the ball all the way to the Welsh 22. Josh Adams finally brought him down, but did not support his weight as he tried to force the turnover and found himself being sent to the sin bin, while Garbisi kicked the penalty to cut Wales’ lead to 14-13 at the break.

Despite the numerical disadvantage, it was Wales who had the better start to the second half, with Sheedy kicking a penalty to extend the lead, but Italy made use of the width of the pitch and the extra man to release Johan Meyer down the right wing, and the flanker sent Ioan Lloyd flying as crashed over for the go-ahead score. As the hour mark approached, Wales began to bring on the replacements, and they saw a marked improvement in the team’s performance. having been put through a gap by Taulupe Faletau in the first half, Justin Tipuric repaid the favour, and the number 8 released Gareth Davies, who outpaced the Italian defence to go over for the try, converted by Sheedy. The game was still in the balance, but Italy played too much in the midfield and were turned over with very few players left to defend out wide, which Wales took advantage of to get up to the Italian try line, before George North picked from the back of the ruck to go the final metres to score, Sheedy converting again. The result had already been decided but there was still time for Wales to add 1 more try, as Callum Sheedy’s delayed pass put the ball behind Federico Mori to Faletau, who put Tipuric over for the final try, which Sheedy converted for a final score of 38-18.

Breaking down

Wales have seriously been missing the breakdown talents of Josh Navidi, and it became apparent in this game. The team gave away a whopping 8 penalties in the first half for offences at the breakdown, with a couple of penalties coming on their own ball but most coming as they tried to win turnovers that weren’t on, either not releasing the tackled player, not coming through the gate or going off their feet. A few penalties is understandable, but the volume they were giving them away was embarrassing!

With all these penalties, it was a simple matter for Italy to claw themselves back into the match from 14-0 down. And much of this came from Wales’ inability to control the contact area. They will face much sterner tests than the Azzurri, and for this reason they need to be smarter at the breakdown. Josh Navidi’s return will be a massive help, as he is such a physical player and a great operator at the breakdown, but they cannot rely on him and a number of the other players in the squad, especially players in the pack, need to step up and do more if this team wants to improve anytime soon.

Defensive unity

Wales had clearly done their homework on the Italy defence as they found a weakness and ruthlessly exploited it. The Italians have added some real physicality to their defence, but too often they were not defending as a unit, but instead looking for the gang tackle on the ball carrier or jamming up on a potential receiver.

The Welsh attack took advantage of this to great effect, with a number of pops off to a runner on their shoulder right before contact catching out the defenders. Both hardy’s and Davies’ tries came from this, putting the runner through a hole to get through the defensive line, then playing it off to a support man.

Similarly, Tipuric’s try at the end came from Federico Mori jamming up on his own, which Sheedy had read. The delay on his pass took Mori completely out of the game and released Faletau, who again had support with him in the form of Tipuric to fully exploit the line break.

While their improved physicality is certainly helping them win more turnovers, the Azzurri need to work as a unit if they want to solidify their defence and keep the opposition’s score to a manageable level.

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Autumn Nations Cup 2020: France v Italy

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: France v Italy

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

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

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

Staking a claim

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

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

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

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

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

Finding the breakthrough

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

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

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

 

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Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Italy v Scotland

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Italy v Scotland

The first week of the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup continued on Saturday with Scotland’s trip to Florence to face Italy.

The Italians continued to put faith in youth and it paid off early on as they started the stronger team, taking a 6-0 lead in the opening quarter through the boot of Paolo Garbisi. Scotland grew into the game and got a spell of possession in the Italian 22, which Duhan van der Merwe ended by crashing through the defence with a beautiful out to in line for the opening try of the game, converted by Duncan Weir. The Italians hit straight back, however, and when Garbisi set Marco Zanon clear down the left wing, the backs kept the ball moving and put Matteo Minozzi over in the corner for an 11-7 lead at halftime.

The second half started like the first, with Garbisi kicking a penalty, before a good passing move put Duncan Weir over in the corner, only for the try to be ruled out for a forward pass. The Scots soon had another try though, as Hamish Watson’s offload 5m from the line was tipped by an offside Jake Polledri into the hands of Zander Fagerson, who took advantage of everyone else on the pitch stopping (expecting a penalty) to lollop over the line, with Weir kicking the conversion to tie up the score. The Azzurri made some changes in the back line which upped the tempo, and put the pressure on the Scots, earning a penalty that Garbisi kicked to put them back ahead. However the Scots had a couple of decisions go their way from the restart, which left them in the Italian 22, and with Jake Polledri down inured, Scott Cummings managed to force his way over for a try converted by Weir. This try and the injury really seemed to sap the Italian spirit and Scotland took advantage, driving over a maul from close range to earn a bonus point 4ᵗʰ try through replacement hooker George Turner, which Weir converted to put the icing on a 17-28 victory that flattered the Scots.

Building again

For so long, Italy’s success came off the back of a dominant pack, that was somewhat let down by sub-par backs. In more recent years, the backs have improved, but those irreplaceable gladiators in the pack – Lo Cicero, Bortolami, Castrogiovanni, Parisse, Zanni, Bergamasco et al – were past their prime an retiring, with their replacements not ready to take their place. But in this game, we g a hint that the current crop are ready to compete at the top level and make those who came before them proud.

I wrote about the team’s desire against England and that was evident again this week, but it was joined by an incredible physicality. Led by Jake Polledri, Seb Negri, Niccolò Cannone and Danilo Fischetti – who was a menace on the day in the scrums and breakdowns – the whole pack rallied to ensure that if the first man failed to bring the Scot down, the second man definitely did. And that just encouraged the backs, with Marco Zanon and replacement centre Federico Mori making a positive and noticeable impact on the game.

The Scots were unable to get into a rhythm and the physicality was causing them to step beyond the bounds of legality more than usual to cope with them. Unfortunately, at a key point of the game after about an hour, with Italy growing in momentum, a couple of Scottish infringements deep in Italian territory were missed by the officials, leading to them getting possession in the Italy 22, and as George Turner powered off a maul, Jake Polledri hyperextended his knee making the challenge, leaving the Azzuri’s defensive line a man down, helping Cummings score as the Gloucester back row was stretchered off. It was clear that this negatively impacted the team as it took the life out of them, but make no mistake – if this Italian team can continue to put in the effort like this and build off the performance, that win is coming very soon.

Back in the fold

Scotland’s Super Saturday win over Wales came at a cost, with both Finn Russell and Adam Hastings being lost to injury. This led to a return to the squad for Duncan Weir, who has been in the form of his life since his move to Worcester.

4 years on from his last Test start, the fly half put in a great performance, getting the backline going and varying the play despite the Italian’s best efforts to keep the Scots on the back foot, while making sure they played in the right areas of the pitch to cause Italy problems and take advantage of any slip-ups. Oh, and 8 points with the boot certainly helped too. And much of this was done despite him suffering an eye injury in the second half that must have been hampering his vision!

If Weir can keep up these performances, he will have certainly earned the chance to remain a part of the Scotland squad once Hastings and Russell return.

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Six Nations 2020: Italy v England

Six Nations 2020: Italy v England

The long-delayed Super Saturday to end the 2020 Six Nations continued at the Stadio Olimpico as Italy hosted England. The Azzurri’s 6ᵗʰ place finish was already confirmed, while the visitors knew that they needed to win – and win big – to potentially win the tournament.

Things couldn’t have started much better for England, with Owen Farrell breaking through in midfield and feeding Ben Youngs to pen the scoring on his 100ᵗʰ cap, Farrell adding the conversion and a further 3 points from a penalty soon after. The men in white struggled to build on this though, and were made to pay when a handling error allowed Jake Polledri to go over in the corner. England survived a 10-minute period without Jonny Hill following a high tackle, but after Polledri was sent to the bin for coming in at the side of a maul, England failed to capitalise on the extra an at the catch and drive – getting turned over short of the line – and almost conceded themselves right before halftime as they failed to deal with a kick down the right wing, with both George Furbank and Federico Mori missing the ball and Jonny May cleaning up to end the half 5-10.

With Polledri still in the bin for the opening minutes of the second half, the Italian defence found themselves stretched and allowed Ben Youngs to snipe off the side of a ruck to go over for his second try of the game. With Italy back to a full complement, they looked like they had the desire but not the personnel, an England drove over from a lineout, Jamie George dotting down for the try, and while England never really shone, Tom Curry and Henry Slade both scored in the corner to secure the bonus point with a 5-34 victory. This victory put England top of the table, and with France beating Ireland later in the evening, they were crowned Six Nations Champions.

Who wants it?

England may have been the one going for the Six Nations title, but there was only 1 team that looked like they had the desire to win this game: Italy. The Azzurri were fired up for this match and taking it as a personal affront any time they were beaten as a pack, while celebrating vociferously with every turnover and penalty they won.

Were England just struggling as this was their first match together? Or were they just taking Italy for granted? Either way, I need to see more desire from England.

In too deep

While Italy may have had the desire, they came away with only 5 points from this game, and the only times they really looked like scoring were the try – which came off an England error – and a chance just before halftime as Mori chased a kick downfield.

To me, one of the big reasons that they created so little was how deep their back line was playing. When the ball was going through the forwards off 9, they were holding parity against the England defence and making metres, but as soon as the ball went to the backs, they were dropping almost 10 metres with each pass, but not doing anything to trouble the England defence. This would lead to them being tackled well behind the gain line and struggling to keep possession as most of their men were in front of the ball.

If Italy want to start having some success, they need to start by getting fly half Paolo Garbisi playing closer to the line. Only by doing this will the Azzurri be able to start bringing in midfield runners to cause defences trouble and create space on the outside.

In the footsteps of a legend

For so long, Italy have rallied around their star man and captain Sergio Parisse. While he may now be gone, another superstar has emerged from his shadow in the shape of Gloucester’s Jake Polledri.

Capable of playing across the back row, he has recently been used at 8 by the Azzurri, which I think suits him best, as he has the power game to create a platform coming off the base of the scrum, while also the pace to exploit any space he is given – both of which he showed in scoring his try in this game. On top of that, he is also a threat at the breakdown, capable of playing at 7.

And at 24 years old and playing for Gloucester, it means that he is playing against many of the best players in the world on a weekly basis. I may have some bias having watched him regularly these past few years, but I feel comfortable picking him amongst the top 5 number 8s in the world currently playing, and that is just the kind of player Italy needs right now.

Guinness Six Nations

Six Nations 2020: Ireland v Italy

Six Nations 2020: Ireland v Italy

Almost 8 months after the 2020 Six Nations came to an early end due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the competition resumed today with Ireland’s Round 4 match against Italy.

The Italians were the clear underdogs going into the game but had the brighter start as Seb Negri burs through the defence and into the 22 before passing to Marcello Violi. The scrum half was brought down just short of the line, but a cynical penalty from his opposite number Conor Murray saw the Munsterman sent to the sin bin, while debutant fly half Paolo Garbisi bisected the posts with the penalty. The Irish soon hit back though and a series of phases on the Italian line saw CJ Stander cross for the opening try despite them still being a man down, Jonathan Sexton nailing the converson and a penalty soon after. Like last night’s match between Scotland and Georgia, the game soon settled into a tense affair for the rest of the opening half hour, until Leinster wing Hugo Keenan was sent over in the corner for a try on debut. It looked like he had another just moments later after being set up by a great counterattacking run from fullback Jacob Stockdale, but the try was ruled out for an obstruction by James Ryan that allowed Stockdale to break through the defensive line. The Italians used the resultant penalty to set themselves in the Irish 22, but after Caelan Dorris won a turnover at the breakdown, the Irish countered and Keenan won the chase of Conor Murray’s kick for his second try of the game, Sexton kicking the extras for a 24-3 halftime score.

The Azzurri tightened things up at the start of the second half and began to get more possession, but still struggled to make anything of it, but when Ireland got the ball back, Sexton found his miss pass intercepted by Edoardo Padovani, who dotted down under the posts. The Irish soon hit back, with a driving maul resulting in a try on debut for flanker Will Connors, while Sexton crashed over for another try just minutes later to ensure the win was guaranteed with 15 minutes remaining. The Irish knew that they were set to go top of the table with this result, but with a trip to France still to come, it was important to score every point they could, and after turning over the ball deep in the Italian half, they spread the ball while to put Bundee Aki over in the corner, before scoring their 7ᵗʰ try entering the final minute as a rolling maul propelled Dave Heffernan over the line. Replacement fly half Ross Byrne chose to take a quick conversion to force the restart in the hopes of 1 more try, but this ended up proving costly as the Irish knocked on the high ball and after a number of phases in midfield, Garbisi broke through a gap and made it over for a consolation try, kicking the conversion for a final score of 50-17.

Looking to the future

One look at today’s Italy line-up – or the wider squad as a whole – will tell you that Franco Smith is already looking ahead to RWC2023 by selecting a younger and less experienced squad who will be coming into their prime com the World Cup. Fullback Jayden Hayward was the only player in the 23 in his 30s (with Leonardo Ghiraldini the only other one in the wider squad), while 7 of the 23 involved were 24 or younger, including 20-year-old fly half Garbisi. I also wouldn’t have been surprised to see 19-year-old scrum half Stephen Varney involved in the game following some scintillating displays for Gloucester since the restart, only for him to suffer a positive COVID-19 test.

There is the short-term risk that this lack of experience may make it harder for Italy to win games, but these players are coming in off some success with the U20s and improving performances from the Pro14 franchises, so this freshness may actually turn out to be exactly what the team needs right now. If nothing else though, they will be an experienced unit come 2023 and the World Cup.

Crash ball Canna

Carlo Canna is a talented fly half and playmaker. What he is not is an obvious pick to be a crash ball 12, and yet that is how he sees himself being used by Franco Smith. Fair play to Canna, he puts in the effort in this role, but (as you would expect) it is with limited success. This leads to Italy having to play with a deep line in order to try to make it to the outside, but when they are then caught in midfield, they are in danger due to most of their players now being ahead of the ball.

Italy have some wonderful ball carriers, especially in the forwards, and yet it is so rare to see them getting a chance to run at the defence outside 1or 2 men from the breakdown, where the defence is still tightly grouped so a line-break is unlikely. You just need to see Jake Polledri running riot for Gloucester or Seb Negri’s break in the opening minutes of this game to see just how dangerous this team can be if they are playing the right way.

Franco Smith needs to make a decision what he wants at 12. If he wants a second playmaker to help take the pressure off Garbisi, then he needs to have the forwards getting the ball in wider positions and have the blindside winger and Luca Morisi attacking the line more often. And if he wants his 12 to be a North to South runner, then he needs to change the personnel he is selecting.

Back row balance

Ireland went for a very different looking back row for this match, but it looked highly effective and I would not be surprised to see them go for something similar again.

While CJ Stander remained at 8, he was given some carrying support by playing Caelan Doris at 6. What is great about this pairing is that they are both different styles of carrier, with Stander making the hard yards from a high number of carries (74m from 21 carries – just over 3.5 metres per carry) while Doris is more of an effective carrier in open play (6 carriers for 33m – 5.5 metres per carry).

More than that, though, the selectin of Will Connors at 7 seemed to suggest that Andy Farrell knew he had plenty of turnover specialists throughout the team, so instead brought in a player who, much like Dan Lydiate used to do for Wales, would just tackle all day long, allowing players like Stander, Doris, Cian Healy and Tadhg Beirne to get in over the ball and make the turnover.

There will of course be tougher tests than Italy, but I think that Ireland should test this balance again in their upcoming matches.

Guinness Six Nations

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.

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: Wales v Italy

Six Nations 2020: Wales v Italy

The 2020 Six Nations kicked off on Saturday in Cardiff with a match between Wales and Italy. Both teams were early in the process of moving on from the Rugby World Cup with new men at the helm in Wayne Pivac and interim head coach Franco Smith respectively.

Wales came in with a number of players missing through injury, leading to George North making a rare appearance at outside centre, but they made the better start and found themselves taking an early lead with 3 penalties from the boot of Dan Biggar (my thoughts are with everyone who picked Leigh Halfpenny as their fantasy kicker this weekend) before adding 2 tries through Josh Adams. Italy fought hard but the closest they could come to scoring was at the end of the half when their 5m catch and drive lineout was dealt with. In the second half, it was all Wales, as the men in red added a further 2 tries through debutant Nick Tompkins and George North, before Josh Adams finished off his hat-trick with the final play of the game to complete a 42-0 victory.

Wales

This may have ended up a comfortable victory for Wales, but there will certainly be some things that they look at ahead of next week. The Italian scrum has not looked great in recent years, so to see it look so strong in this game makes me feel that it is in part due to Wales’ weakness in this area, something that hurt them in the latter half of last season.

Wyn Jones has looked strong at loosehead of late, moving ahead of Rob Evans and Nicky Smith, but he had a torrid time against Andrea Lovotti. Meanwhile on the other side of the scrum, things look a lot bleaker when Tomas Francis is unavailable. I think that it’s time for Sale’s WillGriff John to be given a shot in the national team.

Similarly, there were some issues for Wales at the lineout. Ken Owens is a fantastic servant for Wales but overthrew one lineout and had another throw pinged for not being straight. There was also another moment when Wales gave away a free kick for not setting up properly.

Between the scrums and the lineouts, this is an area of the game that Wales need to try and tighten up. They may have got away with it against Italy, but issues on your own set piece in a tight game are going to put you in a very difficult position.

Italy

As someone who frequently argues that Italy deserve a spot in top tier competition, watching them play can be a chore at times.

Going into this match, I was interested to see how Italy would fare with a dual-playmaker system of Tommaso Allan at 10 and Carlo Canna at 12. While they certainly got the ball moving more than in some recent matches and made almost 400m with the ball, their attack still looked horribly stifled and to be honest, I don’t think the system worked for them.

Though they had 2 playmakers, there was very little being done in the Italian attacking line to create space and break the defensive line in midfield. When you watch many teams, there will be players running crash balls or dummy runners, however watching Italy, it often felt like this was missing and that Italy were just playing the ball along the line, meaning that the defence was able to drift on them. The back rowers and forward runners did some good work but it was usually limited to just one pass out from the ruck. In players like Jake Polledri, Seb Negri, Braam Steyn and Niccolo Cannone, Italy have a great set of ball carriers who they need to take advantage of in midfield. A player like Polledri could cause some real trouble if he can break through the defensive line in the centre of the pitch, while the players needed to defend against him as a dummy runner would create space for Luca Morisi, Mattia Bellini and Matteo Minozzi.

Personally, I would like to see Jayden Hayward promoted to the XV in place of Carlo Canna, as I think that his ability as a fullback still gives him some playmaking ability, but also adds a bit more physicality to help give the midfield more of a presence.


My standout players

Wayne Pivac finds himself in a great place when it comes to selecting scrum halves. Gareth Davies has been a star at the position of late and Rhys Webb is a former British & Irish Lion who will get even better once he is playing regular rugby again. But after his performance this weekend, I think that Pivac should stick with Tomos Williams for the next match. He controlled the game well in his hour on the pitch, but was also a livewire in the loose, and was one unfortunate bounce away from crossing the whitewash himself.

Josh Adams was the top try scorer at the Rugby World Cup and his hat-trick has put him in a great place to take that same award in this tournament. He may not have had many chances to stretch his legs, but he took his opportunities and is becoming a permanent fixture in the starting XV.

Finally, I want to take a moment to look at Nick Tompkins. As an England fan, I was gutted to see England ignore him and so happy to see his quality noticed by the Wales coaches. He came off the bench for a brief cameo in the first half and in that time managed to win a turnover and unleash Leigh Halfpenny (to set up Josh Adams’ opener) with a pass that looked simple but would not be as easy to execute in the moment. Coming back on later in the game, he proved that the strong start was not a fluke as he immediately looked like someone with 20+ caps to his name, slotting in comfortably at both 12 & 13 and deservedly scoring on his debut. While George North performed admirably at 13, I think the back line looked better with Topkins involved and would love to see him promoted to the starting XV next week.

Six Nations 2020: 6 to Watch

Six Nations 2020: 6 to Watch

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

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

England

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

France

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

Ireland

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

Italy

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

Scotland

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

Wales

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


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

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

The RWC2019 Debrief: Italy

The RWC2019 Debrief: Italy

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 Italy.

RWC2019 Qualification

Italy automatically qualified for this year’s tournament by finishing 3rd in Pool D during the 2015 tournament.

2019 Form

The Azzurri failed to win any matches on their way to finishing bottom of the Six Nations table. They lost again to Ireland, France and England in their warm-up matches, but managed a comprehensive 85-15 victory over Russia. Though the results weren’t going their way, there were some signs of improvement throughout he squad, while back rowers Braam Steyn and Seb Negri had very good seasons to cement their place in the back row. Sadly, Leonardo Ghiraldini suffered a serious injury that eventually saw him miss out on making an appearance at the World Cup.

The Debrief

  • Pool Stages (3rd in Pool B)
    • Italy 47-22 Namibia
    • Italy 48-7 Canada
    • South Africa 49-3 Italy
    • New Zealand C-C Italy

Coming into a pool that contained 2 of the tournament favourites and 2 clearly weaker teams, it would have been a shock for Italy to finish anywhere other than 3rd, though they had the perfect schedule of games to build into the tournament.

Against Namibia, they had a clear dominance in the scrum and arguably should have won by a much more flattering scoreline, except for a raft of handling errors that killed a number of chances. Against Canada, they were a bit more clinical and tore the Canadians apart, with the back row trio of Seb Negri, Jake Polledri and Braam Steyn running hard and strong to give the backs a platform. Building into the tournament after missing most of the preceding season through injury, Matteo Minozzi looked like a superstar for Italy with good smart defending and a varied attack.

Finally taking on a greater test, things quickly went horribly wrong as they could not keep their props on the field. Simone Ferrari was off injured after just 2 minutes and his replacement, Marco Riccioni didn’t even make it to the 20 minute mark before injury ruled him  out too. Then just after halftime, starting loosehead Andrea Lovotti got himself sent off for spearing Duane Vermeulen in a clearout – an offence that sole remaining prop Nicola Quaglio was lucky to also not be dismissed for. While Steyn continued to be a star in this game, the extra man made the difference as South Africa added 5 tries to the 2 scored before the red card.

Qualification to the knockouts was still mathematically possible (though highly unlikely) if they could beat New Zealand, but their tournament came to a premature end as Typhoon Hagibis caused disruption to the tournament and led to the match being cancelled.

Looking Ahead

Well first things first, Italy need to find someone to replace head coach Conor O’Shea, who left the post after the World Cup. While results on the whole didn’t go the Azzurri’s way during his tenure (9 wins from 40 Tests), O’Shea’s job was so much more important than that, working on Italian Rugby as a whole. Under his watch, the Italian Pro14 franchises have improved so much, the U20s are on the rise and a new generation of superstars have started to emerge, led by Negri, Polledri and Minozzi. This work must continue in order for Italian rugby to continue to grow so that they can jump to the next level.

As with many nations, these next few years will see some transition in the playing group, with Ghiraldini and Alessandro Zanni unlikely to feature for the Azzurri again and Sergio Parisse likely bowing out in the Six Nations. Even if these players do continue to play for a while longer, their time in the starting XV is surely done. Parisse is a superstar, but the trio of Negri, Polledri and Steyn have already developed a fantastic balance and it feels that the team performs better when the trio are all on the pitch. In the back line, there is plenty of quality coming through, while the vast majority of the backs are young enough to have at least 1 more World Cup in them. What they do still need to find, in my opinion, is a top level fly half. Tommaso Allan has definitely improved over the last couple of seasons, but I still don’t think he has the quality to utilise the quality of the players outside him in the way needed to get more regular victories.

The tight five has been a weak point for Italy in the last few seasons, but it looks like there is quality coming through there who will grow into great players over the coming years, with Federico Ruzza, David Sisi and Simone Ferrari likely leaders in the engine room over the coming years.

The important thing right now is to continue getting regular rugby against Tier 1 nations. There has been so much talk amongst fans and pundits of how Georgia should enter the Six Nations at Italy’s expense, but that is not fair to a team that is clearly on the up. If the improvements of the last few years can continue and they can continue to regularly play against top-level opposition, then this is a team that could surprise people in 2023.