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: 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

Eyes on: Aviva Premiership – Northampton v Gloucester

Eyes on: Aviva Premiership – Northampton v Gloucester

Northampton Saints got their first Premiership win since September at the weekend when Gloucester visited Franklin’s Gardens. Gloucester – in the top 4 and revitalised this season under Johan Ackermann – rested a couple of key players and never quite got hold of the game, but still went into half time 8-14 up, before John Afoa’s try extended the lead in the 53rd minute. Nick Groom scored within minutes, however and Saints grew into the game, eventually getting a last minute penalty try as their line-out drive was brought to ground illegally to win the game 22-19.

This will be looking at the game from a Gloucester perspective. Sorry Saints fans, but I’ve not been following Northampton’s season that much and I didn’t feel there was much really worth noting other than Luther Burrell’s injury and another poor performance (and early substitution) for Dylan Hartley.

 

Improving, but not the finished article

If someone had told me over the summer that Gloucester would be sitting in the top 4 at this stage of the season, I’d never have believed them. I had faith that Ackermann would have an impact, but thought it would take some time to see considering his late arrival after the Lions’ run to the Super Rugby final. However after an up-and-down start to the season, the cherry and whites went on a run of great results towards the end of 2017, despite not yet having put out their ideal XV courtesy of a number of injuries – British and Irish Lion Ross Moriarty has only played 62 minutes in the Anglo-Welsh Cup!

Ackermann used this game to rest some players who have been playing a lot of rugby recently, allowing some players like Ben Morgan to make their way back from time out.

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Gloucester were turned over going for a bonus point try and also lost a few line-outs against the throw in the final quarter

The impact of some of these selections could be seen on the performance – the back line did not appear to have the same chemistry with both Billy Burns and Billy Twelvetrees missing – but the performance on the whole was still good enough for the team to win. However this team are clearly not completely past the errors of previous systems and once again surrendered a promising lead in the latter quarter of the game, losing to a late try. This was probably not helped by a stomach bug that hit the team the night before (though credit to Ackermann not using this as an excuse) but it was an all-too-familiar sight for Gloucester fans.

The line-out which had functioned so well in the first half (including a 20m driving maul for a penalty try) fell apart after James Hanson was removed and allowed Northampton to get the territory to cause problems. A kickable late penalty was turned down in favour of a kick to the corner, but the maul was poorly controlled and turned over by Northampton. Nick Groom’s try also came from Gloucester not dealing with the restart following John Afoa’s try, while Owen Williams missed a couple of kicks at goal.

A couple of late decisions from Ian Tempest certainly didn’t help Gloucester – Jason Woodward’s fumble of a high ball clearly went backwards and I’m still to see an angle that convinces me Henry Trinder was offside for the penalty that led to Northampton’s winner – but I agree with Ackermann’s assessment that Gloucester’s indiscipline and mistakes lost them the game rather than Northampton winning it.

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Polledri was probably lucky to avoid a card for an incident with Campese Ma’afu

Rising star

What a signing Jake Polledri has been for Gloucester this season! Last year, the young flanker was playing in National League 1 (the 3rd tier of English rugby) with Hartpury RFC, this year he has been tearing things up in the top flight. He has such strength, he always seems to make at least a couple of metres with every touch of the ball and it generally takes a couple of men to bring him down, creating space for others. He is still not the finished article, but has clearly taken advantage of Moriarty’s injury issues and become a vital cog in the back row alongside Ruan Ackermann and Lewis Ludlow.

He may have been a bit lucky to avoid stricter punishment for his reaction to Campese Ma’afu holding him beyond the ruck, but he will learn from experiences like this and be a better player for it. With his form at the moment, you have to imagine Conor O’Shea has a close eye on him and I wouldn’t be overly surprised to see him involved in the Italian squad for the 6 Nations.

Expanding your skills

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Gloucester remain in the top 4 but will consider this a missed opportunity to push for a playoff spot – From http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport

Ben Vellacott is a fantastic young scrum half and I can’t speak highly enough of him and the impact he has had on the senior team. A former Scotland U20s player, he qualifies for England on residency and is believed to have caught the eyes on the England selectors. He brings such quick ball to the game and is always a danger at the back of a ruck or looking for a quick-tap penalty.

The one big area he needs to work on is his kicking game. In the first half against Saints, Willi Heinz was doing a great job of kicking Gloucester into the right areas of the field, but as Gloucester came under pressure in the final quarter, this territorial game was missing as this is not a strength of Vellacott’s game at the moment. While I love the impact that Vellacott can have on a game, there will be times when what is needed is a calm head and a mind-set of playing for territory. I’m not saying he needs to have a kicking game to rival Conor Murray or Richard Wigglesworth, but if he can learn from Heinz and expand that aspect of the game, he could arguably develop into one of the best 9s in the Premiership.