Eyes On: Italy v Wales – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Italy v Wales – 6 Nations 2019

Wales came to the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday looking for a record-equalling 11 consecutive victories. After being handed victory by the French last week, Warren Gatland chose to make 10 changes to his squad and it may have backfired as Braam Steyn scored the only try of the first half compared to 4 penalties from Dan Biggar, for a 7-12 halftime score. Wales improved again in the second half with tries from Josh Adams and Owen Watkin, while Edoardo Padovani scored late to make the final 5 minutes interesting but the Italians could not push on for a losing bonus point and Thomas Young had a try disallowed at the death, resulting in a 15-26 final score.

 

Too many changes

It’s a familiar tale for Wales under Warren Gatland: a match against a weaker opposition that everybody expects to be an easy victory result in a raft of changes to the starting lineup. The starting team put in a poor performance and struggle to pull away, leading to a bevy of early substitutions as the usual starters are forced to come on to save the game.

I felt that last week’s halfback partnership of Tomos Williams and Gareth Anscombe should have started again this week to get used to playing together at international level, but instead Dan Biggar was brought back in with Aled Davies at 9. Biggar did well off the tee but struggled to create anything in open play, while his kicking out of hand was poor at times with kicks going out on the full and one cross-kick to Josh Adams deep in the Wales half won by Padovani to put Wales under unnecessary pressure. Davies looked largely out of his depth and his hesitation at the back of the ruck and maul led to a couple of big turnovers for Italy.

Young and Josh Navidi did everything they could to win ball back and give the Welsh a platform to attack from, but the back line looked disjointed, likely due to the lack of time playing together as a unit, which limited the effectiveness of a dangerous back 3 (Josh Adams, Jonah Holmes and Liam Williams).

I understand wanting to get experience for the next players up and testing the depth of your squad, but this close to the World Cup it feels like there are some key positions that are not yet sorted and it means that the players are not playing together regularly enough to build up a chemistry. Not only that, but with bonus points now being part of the Six Nations, Wales have potentially put their position in the table at risk by failing to come away with 4 tries against Italy, which is something that I can see most teams doing.

Signs of improvement

Italy may be on a disappointing run of results in the Six Nations, but there are clear signs of improvement under Conor O’Shea. With so many influential players having retired over recent years, the Irishman has not just been working to improve the national team, but the whole of Italian Rugby. Things are clearly starting to improve in the domestic game with Benetton currently sitting 2ⁿᵈ in their Pro14 conference and 3 wins for Zebre, the U20s are on the up and bringing through talent for the national team, who are playing a much more attractive and well-rounded brand of rugby than they used to.

In the first half especially, their defence held strong and it was only moments of indiscipline that allowed Wales to get on the scoresheet. They scored the same number of tries as Wales, made 5 clean breaks to Wales’ 4 and on the day had a much more effective lineout. In recent years, they have found themselves falling off at the end of matches, the last 15 minutes was probably their best period of the game against Scotland last week and they held their own once again this week, with Padovani finishing off a well-worked try near the end.

There are still areas where they can improve, such as their discipline, their control of the game via the halfbacks, the scrum and their general depth of talent, but this is a team that is clearly going in the right direction and O’Shea should be commended for this.

Options in the back row

Arguably Italy’s star player in this game was openside flanker Braam Steyn. The South African-born Benetton flanker’s 24 metres from 12 runs was the most by an Italian forward, his 20 tackles was the most by any man on the pitch (next was Thomas Young – 15), he was one of the main targets in the lineout, won a couple of turnovers… oh and scored the opening try!

Jake Polledri’s injury has been a shame as it is a big loss to the Italian back row, but the back row of Steyn, Seb Negri and captain Sergio Parisse have played well and led by example. When Polledri is back from injury, I would love to see Conor O’Shea find a way to get all 4 of them into the starting XV, potentially by moving Negri into the second row to free up a spot for Polledri on the flank.

Will O’Shea do this, or will he choose to keep one of them as a impact player off the bench?

Eyes On: Scotland v Italy – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Scotland v Italy – 6 Nations 2019

Scotland kicked off their 2019 Six Nations campaign at Murrayfield with the visit of Conor O’Shea’s Italy. Though they dominated territory and possession, they could only manage a 12-3 lead going into halftime, courtesy of a brace from Blair Kinghorn. But they came alive in the second half and Kinghorn finished his hat-trick, while Stuart Hogg and Chris Harris also crossed the line. Italy put on a late surge and following a yellow card to Simon Berghan, they scored 17 points in the final 10 minutes to give the final score a respectable look at 33-20.

Best men on the pitch

What a match for Blair Kinghorn! The Edinburgh star had a fantastic match and was well deserving of his hat-trick – Scotland’s first in the Six Nations! The crazy thing considering how accomplished he looked on that left wing is that his preferred position is fullback. Of course, with Stuart Hogg available (he also had a stunning performance), the 15 shirt is firmly taken, but I really like that Gregor Townsend is willing to find a way to play the pair of them in the team together and get his best players onthe pitch at the same time.

He is by no means the first man to do this. Liam Williams has regularly played on the wing for Wales to accommodate Leigh Halfpenny and Ben Smith has spent a large chunk of his New Zealand career shifting between the 14 and 15 shirts depending on who else has been selected in the back line.

Will Conor O’Shea also look at this in the future? With last year’s breakout star Matteo Minozzi missing this year, Jayden Hayward has the chance to show what he can do in this team. While he was not as much of an attacking threat, he was very solid in defence and also put in a couple of big kicks. I felt that Michele Campagnaro did well but received limited ball out on the wing, while he also defended quite narrow at times, likely due to much of his international career coming at 13. I felt that the centre pairing had a limited impact in attack – though I will give them another chance as it sounded as if they have been suffering with illness – so it will be interesting to see if O’Shea tries to work both Hayward and Minozzi into the team when the latter is available again.

Impressive debut

This match saw Glasgow centre Sam Johnson handed his international debut and it’s safe to say that he didn’t look out of place in the team. He combined well with Finn Russell and the rest of the back line and was involved heavily in working a number of attacks that maybe didn’t always get the finish they deserved.

What I did notice though is that the man outside him, Huw Jones, had one of his quieter Six Nations matches (not helping my fantasy team) and I wonder if having more of an all-rounder at 12 – compared to the more defensive Alex Dunbar or the distributor Peter Horne – takes away from his own game.

Of course, this is just one game and Johnson will come up against much tougher challenges than Italy, so it will be interesting to see how the midfield performs for the rest of the tournament.

Another man down

While Gregor Townsend won’t be happy with Italy’s late fightback, I think what will worry him more will have been the injury to Sam Skinner. The Exeter forward covers lock and flanker but limped off after just 15 minutes, having rolled his ankle.

With both the Gray brothers currently missing from the second row and the back row having to make do without Hamish Watson, John Barclay, Magnus Bradbury, David Denton, Matt Fagerson and Blade Thomson, the last thing Scotland can afford now is any more injuries in this area if they want a chance of winning the tournament.

2019 Six Nations: 6 to Watch

2019 Six Nations: 6 to Watch

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

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

England: Tom Curry

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

France: Demba Bamba

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

Ireland: Tadhg Beirne

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

Italy: Seb Negri

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

Scotland: Adam Hastings

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

Wales: Gareth Anscombe

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

Eyes On: 2018 Autumn Internationals – Week 2

Eyes On: 2018 Autumn Internationals – Week 2

After last weekend’s early start for a number of teams, the Autumn Internationals kicked off in full force this weekend. The match between England and New Zealand that people wanted years ago finally took place and, despite England’s struggles in 2018, the match went right down to the final minutes. Wales finally ended years of hurt with a low-scoring win over Australia, while the USA got their first win over Samoa to continue their record of going unbeaten in Test matches in 2018, though that will likely come to an end soon as they face Ireland in a few weeks.

The Week 2 results were:

  • Brazil 3-35 Maori All Blacks
  • France 26-29 South Africa
  • Ireland 28-17 Argentina
  • USA 30-29 Samoa
  • Wales 9-6 Australia
  • England 15-16 New Zealand
  • French Barbarians 38-49 Tonga
  • Scotland 54-17 Fiji
  • Italy 28-17 Georgia

England

The first 35 minutes against New Zealand was probably the best I have seen England play all season. Players were tackling as if their lives depended on it and if someone missed a tackle, there was someone else there to put the carrier down. The rucks were being hit with a desire to get the ball back on the English side and the backs were pinning the All Blacks back with their tactical kicking. And that maul for Dylan Hartley’s try was like porn for a former prop like me!

Unfortunately, the team could not keep it up for the full 80 minutes and they struggled to have the same impact in the second half. While it could be said that England were handed the match against South Africa by Malcolm Marx’s throwing, this time it was England throwing he game away in the second half as Jamie George managed to connect on only 5 of his 10 throws, with a number of them being pilfered by Brodie Retallick. While the throws were by no means perfect as they did not seem to be hitting the golden “double top” (top of the throw, top of the jump), I do not want to put the blame fully on George as the lineouts were continually called to Maro Itoje (I got the feeling he was the one calling the lineout but am not certain) despite Retallick covering him at the set piece.

If England are to win the tight games, they need to make sure their set piece is flawless on their own ball.

New Zealand

Damian McKenzie was wonderful on Saturday. While I don’t rate him as an international fly half, he is a fantastic attacking fullback. Despite his small stature, he popped straight back up after numerous big hits from Sam Underhill and the rest of the England back row, while his footwork, vision, pace and ability to pick an attacking line played such a big part in New Zealand’s resurgence. He may not be the best yet under the high ball, but this is an area of his game that he can develop. If he’s given the number 15 shirt on a regular basis over the next year, he could be one of the best at his position in the World Cup.


Wales

Alan Wyn Jones was a lucky man on Saturday, as he probably should have seen a red card for leading with a forearm into Bernard Foley. While the incident didn’t look much, leading with the forearm is considered a red card offence. Alafoti Fa’osiliva received a red card for when playing for Worcester against Gloucester a few years ago and just the night before this match, USA’s Megan Rom was shown red for the same offence, which I would argue was even softer as she appeared to initially attempt to hand the player off in the shoulder – something Jones didn’t. Meanwhile in the Pro14, both Uzair Cassiem and Kieron Fonotia have both been banned this season for similar offences. All we ask for in the rugby community is consistency, and going by previous examples, the Ospreys lock should have been taking an early bath, but not even a penalty was given.

Australia

Jones wasn’t the only player who probably got lucky not to be penalised in this game, as Samu Kerevi also escaped punishment for a collision with Leigh Halfpenny that saw the fullback ft with concussion. This to me is a really difficult one and even after a couple of days thinking about it and discussing with a few friends, I still can’t decide what the outcome should have been.

Kerevi does leave the ground in an attempt to charge down the kick, which is the only reason I can imagine Ben O’Keeffe was willing to call it a “rugby incident” and play on – similar to Andrew Conway’s attempted charge down of Gareth Steenson’s conversion in the Champions Cup. However, it did not look like a wholly committed attempt to block the kick and he did end up leading into Halfpenny with his shoulder as opposed to an arm. Later that night, Faf de Klerk had a penalty given against him for a late hit on Camille Lopez that looked like a much more committed attempt to block the kick and a considerably less nasty looking contact with the kicker. What makes this incident even worse is that Kerevi’s shoulder appears to make contact with Halfpenny’s head, which is backed up by his concussion as his head does not bash against the floor as he drops. In this current climate, it is a shock that there was not even a penalty given for something that was at best reckless and at worst dangerous. Like with the Jones incident, all we ask for is consistency, there does not appear to have been much this weekend.


USA

They still have some way to go to take on the Tier 1 nations, but this USA team is one that’s on the up. Despite missing 2 of their stars in AJ MacGinty and Samu Manoa, and having captain Blaine Scully leave the field early, the Eagles impressed with some wonderful play from back rows Cam Dolan and Hanco Germishuys and powerful running form Joe Taufete’e and Paul Lasike. These two guys kept the Eagles on the front foot throughout the game and the Worcester hooker even continued his scoring run form the Summer Tests. Lasike, though really impressed me. The former NFL fullback, now playing in the Premiership for Harlequins consistently made ground when given the ball, but was not a one-trick pony (or shire horse given his size) and also worked the Samoa defence well by drawing them in expecting the crash ball but then playing the ball off to the men now in space outside him. If they continue to grow as a team over the coming years and more players like Psalm Wooching choose rugby over a career in the NFL, then the sky could be the limit for them.

Samoa

I really don’t understand the tactical decisions made in this game. Despite an experienced 10 in Tusi Pisi and players outside like Ahsee Tuala, JJ Taulagi, Alapati Leiua and Ray Lee-Lo, the Samoan strategy seems to have been to kick first. While it is great to see them playing a more structured style (something that has not always been seen with the Pacific Island teams), I really don’t think it played to their strengths. I have no problem with a tactical kicking game, but this should have been more interspersed with crash balls and spreading the ball wide to keep the defence on their toes. For so long, Samoa appeared to be the best and most well-rounded of the Pacific Islands, but now they are slipping down the World Rankings, which is a massive shame to see. They need to sort out their tactics soon if they want to start winning again on a regular basis.


Italy

Italy are a team on the up once again. Conor O’Shea has been improving Italian rugby as a whole and it is starting to show. They have some experienced internationals in captain Sergio Parisse (rested for this match), Leonardo Ghiraldini and Alessandro Zanni (who has converted from flanker to lock), but they also now have a generation of quality young players coming through. Michele Campagnaro has been on the scene for an number of years but is only 25, while Jake Polledri and Seb Negri have taken the back row to a new level and consistently give the team front-foot ball. Add in the currently injured Matteo Minozzi, who was a star in the 6 Nations, and the signs are positive for the national team. The important thing is to give O’Shea the time as this is not a short-term plan, but instead a long-term reboot of Italian rugby to keep them competitive.

Georgia

Talk for a number of years has focused on whether Georgia should replace Italy in the 6 Nations. While I do agree that they are at a stage where they are too good for their current competition, this game showed that they still have a way to go to compete in the 6 Nations. After this match, I had a look at both the Georgian and Italian squads for the Autumn Internationals to see how they compared in their top flight experience. The entire Italian squad play in top 3 European leagues, with Parisse and Ghiraldini in the Top 14, Campagnaro and Polledri in the Premiership and the remainder of the squad playing for Benetton or Zebre in the Pro14. In contrast, the Lelos have 1 player in Super Rugby, 1 in the Premiership and 9 in the Top 14. Beyond that, the team has 1 player in the Championship (English second tier), 2 in the Professional Rugby League (Russian top flight), 7 in Rugby Pro D2 (French second tier) and the remainder of the players (all backs) are playing in the Georgian top tier. To make the next step, the Lelos need to be able to pick a squad full of players who are in the top European leagues and therefore playing weekly against other internationals. Now I’m not suggesting an exodus from Georgia, but instead a Georgian franchise in the Pro14. They may not have immediate success, but if they can start to bring through the next generation then they could begin to reach the next level much as Italy are currently improving again.


Scotland

The Scots may have ran away with the match in the end, but the match remained tight for the best part of an hour. Part of that was due to Scotland missing chances. Fraser Brown may have scored towards the end of the first quarter following a series of pick-and-go drives from the pack, but the try should have been scored a number of phases earlier when Peter Horne drew the last defender and had a chance to put Tommy Seymour over in the corner but instead chose to dummy the pass and appeared lucky to avoid a knock-on decision as he was tackled just short. Later in the game, Horne made a break through the middle and again held onto the ball rather than play it back inside to Greig Laidlaw who had a chance to keep the move going. Horne is a good player, but as someone in as a second distributor, he missed the chance to distribute the ball too many times and will need to improve to hold his spot in a competitive midfield.

Fiji

It will come as no surprise when I say that Fiji play some beautiful rugby. Add to that a improving structure to their play and they are really beginning to turn heads in international rugby. Unfortunately they still have a way to go to regularly compete against the Tier 1 teams and a big part of that comes down to discipline. The Fijians conceded 12 penalties in this match, which is too many against a Tier 1 nation, and lost both Tevita Cavubati and Leone Nakarawa sin binned, with the 10 minute periods overlapping to leave the team with only 13 men for about 5 minutes. Against a team as dangerous in attack as Scotland, it is hard enough to defend with 15 men on the pitch; it becomes pretty much impossible when 2 men down. Even worse, it will make it harder for the other players to keep going for the full match as they need to work harder during the sin bin periods to cover the extra space. The have a talented team but will not win regularly if they can’t keep the penalty count down.


France

35 minutes in with the score at 9-9, Teddy Thomas broke out from his own 22 down the right wing. Getting up towards the South African 22, he had only Willie le Roux to stop him but numerous teammates in support to put over for the try. Instead, the winger chose to keep the ball and was well tackled by the South African 15. Luckily for France, they scored a few minutes later after the Springboks failed to clear their lines, but it is criminal to not finish that chance by being selfish.

After finishing the first half on a high with Guirado’s try, France continued to build the momentum with a try for Matthieu Bastareaud just 95 seconds into the second half. However they then shot themselves in the foot at the restart and lost all momentum as Sébastien Vahaamahina attempted to catch the restart over his shoulder while moving towards his own line, but fumbled, allowing S’busiso Nkosi to go over for possibly the easiest try he will ever score. This was a stupid mistake from a player who should have known better. One of the first things I remember being taught about catching a high ball is that if you are moving towards your own line and have a teammate coming forwards able to take it, they should leave it for the player coming onto the ball, yet this was not done by Vahaamahina despite Camille Lopez being in position to take the ball. As well as letting the Springboks back into the game on the scoreboard, this also shifted the momentum firmly in the direction of the away team.

Despite all this, with just 1 minute remaining on the clock, the French found themselves with the lead and a scrum inside the South African 22. There was no way they could lose from there… but they did. With half a minute remaining, they gave away a penalty at the breakdown and when the Springboks put a bit too much length on the kick, Damian Penaud caught the ball in play, but then stepped into touch just before the 80 minutes was up, giving the Boks one last chance in the French half. From here, a series of French penalties gave South Africa the chance to win the game by driving over a lineout from close range.

Typical France. This is a game they should have won but they managed to throw it away with stupid mistakes.

South Africa

This was not a good match for the South African backs. Faf de Klerk’s kicking game was nowhere near the level of his recent appearances, while conversely the back line struggled to adapt to France’s kicking game as they heavily varied their kicks from chips to cross-kicks (Penaud was mere inches from collecting one for an early try) to high bombs like the one that led to Bastareaud’s try. In attack, the back line seemed nowhere near as effective as against England, while on one of the few times they did beat the French defence, Cheslin Kolbe did not protect the ball well enough as he went over the try line, leading to a try being disallowed – which should have cost them the game if not for the French errors. There has been a clear improvement in the Springboks since Rassie Erasmus took over, but they still have some way to go to be more consistent.


Ireland

Ireland did not look at their usual level against the Pumas. Jordan Larmour surely knows that he will be put under some pressure with the high ball, but at this point there is a clear difference in how well Ireland deal with the opponent’s kicking game when he is at 15 compared to Rob Kearney, who is arguably one of the best in the world under the high ball. But it wasn’t just Larmour who struggled, as Jacob Stockdale also fumbled a number of high balls and the team also failed to deal with a couple of restarts. Heading into the coming match against the All Blacks, Ireland will have to do much better in this area if they are to beat the World Champions.

Argentina

In recent seasons, the best part of the Argentinian team has been their back 3. Bautista Delguy has been fantastic since coming on the scene and in my opinion should have been nominated for World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year 2018 and along with Ramiro Moyano and Emiliano Boffelli they have formed one of the most exciting and dangerous back 3s in World Rugby, yet they didn’t get much ball in this game other than when they were collecting Irish kicks and I think this limited the Pumas’ effectiveness during this game. I can’t help but wonder if the reticence to spread the ball was a worry as to Ireland’s effectiveness at the breakdown, so it will be interesting to see if their tactics will be any different this weekend against France, especially considering how good Bastareaud can be at the breakdown.