2022 Summer Tests: Players To Watch

2022 Summer Tests: Players To Watch

As both Super Rugby Pacific and the Northern Hemisphere club rugby season come to an end, it’s time to switch our attention from club rugby to the international game as a number of the Northern Hemisphere nations go on tour:

  • England to Australia
  • Ireland to New Zealand (facing both the All Blacks and Maori All Blacks)
  • France to Japan
  • Wales to South Africa
  • Scotland to Argentina (while a Scotland “A” side will also face Chile in an uncapped match)
  • Italy to Portugal, Romania and Georgia

Now regular readers will have guessed what’s coming here, as I look at the majority of the teams above (in this case all the Six Nations and Rugby Championship teams) and pick a player from each team to watch out for during this tour. Often they will be someone relatively new to Test rugby, sometimes someone with a point to prove as they face the pressure of depth at their position, and sometimes a player who may have already made a name for themselves, but finds themselves now switching to a different position.

Of course these are just my picks, and there were certainly some other options that I could have gone with, so feel free to chuck who you would have selected in the comments!

Argentina

Starting off this list with someone who firmly falls into the third category I mentioned with Santiago Carreras. You may have noticed that I have began a series of my picks for the top 5 players in the world at each position and (SPOILERS) the Gloucester back will be appearing in one of those articles down the line. But it will not be the one about fly half, and that is where he has found himself playing in recent Tests. He certainly has the skillset to excel there, but he lacks the experience, having never started a professional club match at the position and not likely to anytime soon at Gloucester. With Michael Cheika having taken over leadership of the Pumas, will he stick with the Carreras experiment to take advantage of the depth Argentina have in the back 3, or will he look to play his best players in their best positions?

Australia

With 16 caps to his name already at the age of just 22, Angus Bell looks to be around for the long haul. A dynamic loosehead, he is becoming a much more solid scrummager and will be licking his lips at the thought of taking on the English tighthead crop with Kyle Sinckler missing. If he can cause some damage at the set piece, England could be in trouble.

England

There were so many ways to go with this pick and I was very tempted by returning players like Danny Care and Joe Cokanasiga or the inexperienced Joe Heyes, but instead I have gone for Care’s Harlequins teammate Joe Marchant. The centre has always had great attacking quality but had added a super reliable defence to his game, while he also has the ability to move out to the wing. He may have a fight to make the starting XV when everyone is available, but with both Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade missing this tour, Marchant has a chance to push for that starting spot. His familiarity with Marcus Smith will certainly help things in attack, while he will play a big role in helping shut down an exciting Australian back line.

France

As if France weren’t dangerous enough, they may have found another future star just in time for the World Cup in the form of Yoan Tanga. The 25-year-old Racing 92 back row really stood out to me with his consistent carrying in the tight for the Barbarians in their humiliation of England last weekend, which repeatedly drew in multiple tacklers to finally get him down. The French backline is dangerous when given space, and Tanga’s carrying will just give them even more to work with.

Ireland

Sticking with the pack here, I’m going for Leinster hooker Dan Sheehan. It feels like in an ideal world with everyone available, the Irish hookers in the matchday 23 will be Sheehan and Leinster teammate Rónan Kelleher, with the big question just being who starts. However with Kelleher out injured, Sheehan will surely be the clear first choice ahead of Rob Herring and Dave Heffernan and with the World Cup just a year away, he has a legitimate chance to secure the number 2 shirt.

Italy

I was initially going with Six Nations hero Ange Capuozzo here but a second glance at the scrum half position made me change my mind. With Stephen Varney left out after a poor Six Nations that ended with injury and limited minutes for Gloucester, Callum Braley’s retirement from international rugby leaves the Azzurri short of experience at scrum half this summer. Step forward Alessandro Garbisi! Paolo’s younger brother has shone with the U20s and has been racking up the minutes for Benetton in the URC. He may not be the finished product yet, but a summer facing 3 of the top 4 teams from the 2022 Rugby Europe Championship will be a great way for him to gain experience in the senior team.

New Zealand

What a difference a season makes. Last year, the All Blacks were seriously lacking centres, whereas now they seem almost spoiled for choice. And while part of this is down to the return of Josh Goodhue from injury and another year of experience for last year’s crop, they are also helped by the arrival of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck from rugby league. The centre played 20 times for New Zealand in the 13-man code alongside almost 200 appearances in the NRL, and has grown into the 12 position in his first season with the Blues. With a great range of skills, clever footwork and good strength, Tuivasa-Sheck has the chance to be the new Sonny Bill Williams.

South Africa

Evan Roos was going to get my pick here until I realised that André Esterhuizen only had 8 caps! The Quins centre is arguably one of the best inside centres in the world, but has the challenge of being in the sae national team squad as Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am, while South Africa’s recent favouring of a 6-2 split on the bench has led to them usually going for a more versatile player on the bench rather than a specialist centre. However his form has been incredible over recent seasons and he is fully deserving of a return to the national team and will be looking to put in some big performances against Wales to solidify his spot in the squad ahead of the World Cup.

Scotland

Another in a similar spot to Santi Carreras, Blair Kinghorn may not be as entrenched in the Scottish XI, but he was clearly in the reckoning for a spot in the back 3. However his skillset has recently been used more at fly half, and with Finn Russell given a summer off and Adam Hastings forced to pull out of the touring squad through injury, Kinghorn looks likely to wear the 10 shirt against the Pumas. With Scotland underperforming of late and resting some key players this summer, and facing an Argentina team looking to climb back up the rankings under a new head coach, the pressure will be on Kinghorn.

Wales

Finishing off this list with a potential debutant in Tommy Reffell. Many would argue that the Leicester flanker should have been capped well before this, but he now goes into the South Africa tour off the back of a strong performance in the Premiership final. Back row is an area where Wales have plenty of quality but don’t seem to give anyone a long enough chance to secure a spot. But with Reffell’s all-round ability in the loose and real danger at the breakdown, can he prove himself worthy of an extended run in Wayne Pivac’s 23?

2022 Six Nations: France v England

2022 Six Nations: France v England

And so we reach the finale of Super Saturday and the 2022 Six Nations, as England travelled to Paris to face France. The French knew that a win would secure the Grand Slam and as a climax to the tournament, the crowd were ready to do their part to make the occasion one to remember. And with the Paris crowd roaring on their support, it was Melvyn Jaminet who opened the scoring off the tee following a scrum penalty. France were looking the stronger team with Grégory Alldritt winning some big turnovers, and when Gabin Villière took advantage of Freddie Steward’s inexperience on the wing, the French pulled the England defence from side to side and sent Gaël Fickou over in the right corner. England pulled things back slightly with a penalty from Marcus Smith and were incredibly lucky to see Jack Nowell stay on the pitch after taking Jaminet out in the air, as TMO Marius Jonker shockingly felt that Nowell had been impeded in his chase. Luckily for France, Jaminet was able to continue, and he and Smith each added another penalty, before one last attack from France saw them break down the English right wing to get on the front foot, and after Romain Ntamack was stopped just short by the despairing tackle of Ellis Genge, François Cros managed to get the ball to the line, with Jaminet adding the conversion for an 18-6 lead at the break.

England started the second half on the front foot, and after Joe Marchant broke through in the middle, some quick but calm handling from Courtney Lawes and Jamie George allowed Marcus Smith to put Freddie Steward over in the corner. However the French began to bring on the replacements and up the tempo in attack, which resulted in Aldritt carrying around the fringe and offloading to his captain Dupont to score on the hour. Down by 12 points, the English continued attacking but the closest they could get was with 10 minutes left as Alex Dombrandt was held up after crashing over from close range, and they held on to secure the 25-13 win and a Six Nations Grand Slam.

France

3 seasons of rugby have led to this. With Fabien Galthié taking over leadership of the team following the World Cup, the decision was made to basically drop everyone and start again with a team made up largely of young and inexperienced players. The idea was that by rebooting immediately after the World Cup they could start picking the players who they would expect to be playing in the 2023 World Cup, allowing what will likely be the vast majority of the future World Cup squad to spend 4 years playing together and growing not just as individuals but as a unit.

In starting this so early, it has led to a core team that has spent the last 3 seasons playing together, and allowed new faces like Melvyn Jaminet or returning faces like Jonathan Danty to come into a settled system that could then gratefully benefit from whatever this new player could introduce to the team, with the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup (where each French player was only allowed to feature in 2 matches, resulting in a 2ⁿᵈ/3ʳᵈ string team narrowly losing to England’s 1ˢᵗ team in the final) and the Summer Test series in Australia giving Les Bleus a chance to test their depth and see who was ready to step up into the main squad.

And so, with the World Cup a year and a half away, this team has built into a unit that has capably beaten the All Blacks and now won a Six Nations Grand Slam. With World Champions South Africa coming to Paris in November, that will be the next sign as to how ready they are to compete for the World Cup, but even then they will still have the best part of a year to grow and improve. I called it soon after France named their first squad under Galthié that France were my favourites to win RWC2023. Right now, everything is going to plan.

England

England went for a very interesting tactic in dealing with the French kicking, repeatedly dropping Ellis Genge back along with the usual kick coverage, with the intention to play the ball off to him and give him a 20+ metre run-up into contact.

I’ve seen dynamic carrying props used in a similar way before, with the Melbourne Rebels often fielding long goal-line drop-outs during Super Rugby AU and having Pone Fa’amausili or Cabous Eloff get a 20+ metre run-up charging back at the defensive line with ball in hand, much like we see off a rugby league kickoff.

So it’s nothing new to see a forward drop back to do this off open play kicks, but the issue here is the selection of Ellis Genge. While he is definitely a destructive ball carrier, he already had a big enough (no pun intended) challenge in the scrums facing Uini Atonio—a challenge which was proving too big for him—so should have been keeping his fitness for that. If Eddie Jones was so desperate to have a dynamic carrier doing this, why was he not starting Alex Dombrandt somewhere in the back row?

2022 Six Nations: Wales v France

2022 Six Nations: Wales v France

The penultimate round of the 2022 Six Nations kicked off with a rare Friday night fixture as Wales hosted France. Both Melvyn Jaminet and Dan Biggar were able to land early penalties in a scrappy start, but when Jaminet and Gabin Villière countered a kick from Liam Williams, les Bleus got on the front foot and soon created the space to put Anthony Jelonch over for the opening try. The French continued to be frustrated by the Welsh defence though, and as the home team grew into the game, a pair of penalties from Biggar narrowed the French lead to a point, while a last minute drop goal attempts from Melvyn Jaminet dropped short for a 9-10 halftime score.

Jaminet kicked an early penalty after the break, but a Welsh penalty soon had them with a lineout 5 metres out from the French line, only for Ryan Elias to become isolated and held up over the line. It was the Welsh who has the next chance just after the hour as Dan Biggar found Taulupe Faletau on he wing with a deft cross-kick, only for Jonathan Davies to fumble the number 8’s pass back inside with the line at his mercy. As the French ill-discipline continued, Wales continued to enjoy the territorial advantage without being able to get over the line and when Peato Mauvaka stole the ball with the clock in the red, the game came to an end with a 9-13 result that keeps hopes of a French Grand Slam alive.

Wales

It was yet another new back row combination for Wales in this tournament, as Josh Navidi returned to Test rugby, with Seb Davies being promoted to join him and Faletau. But what an impact they had. Navidi and Faletau did what they always did, but it was Davies who had a huge impact on the match.

One of those huge physical specimens at 6 who has a surprising amount of ball skills, his introduction gave the Welsh a physical answer to the power of the French pack, but where he really proved important was at the lineout.

The French have used the lineout to set up a number of their tries through the tournament, but with Davies joining locks Adam Beard and Will Rowlands as lineout jumpers, the Welsh were able to limit French options at the set piece and cause Cameron Woki a nightmare in picking the right option resulting in a number of opportunities being ruined as the usually-reliable lineout struggled to function.

Such was the performance from Davies, it was a shock to see him replaced by Ross Moriarty, especially so early in the second half. And it was clear to see that the French appreciated the reduced pressure as a crucial late lineout saw them call for a ball to the tail from Peato Mauvaka. Could things have gone different had Davies been kept on for the full 80 minutes?

France

The old cliché is that you never know what France will turn up, but under Fabien Galthié they have generally been much more reliable. However, tonight’s performance was especially odd.

While the lineout struggles certainly didn’t help the French attack, it also felt somewhat tame, with far too much kicking that was often very poor—either kicks down the middle that the Welsh kicked back with interest or high balls that the Welsh won with ease.

It was almost as if the team was allowing Wales to have the ball and daring them to attack, trusting in the quality of Shaun Edwards’ defensive coaching, but this almost cost them as they gave away far too many penalties, while better handling from Jonathan Davies would surely have seen him go over for the go-ahead try just after the hour.

When the French did attack like we expect, they scored within a handful of phases, while they also managed to look dangerous in a spell of Harlem Globetrotters rugby that saw them offloading in contact with regularity and getting in behind. Had they done more of this, the Welsh defence looked like they would be in serious trouble.

Now, with only England between them and the Gran Slam, expect a week of questions as to which France turns up next week.

2022 Six Nations: Scotland v France

2022 Six Nations: Scotland v France

After taking a week off, the Six Nations Championship returned for round 3, starting with France’s trip to Edinburgh. Les Bleus were the only team still capable of winning the Grand Slam this year, and soon found themselves ahead at Murrayfield as Antoine Dupont’s break was followed up by a series of strong runs from the pack and ended with Paul Willemse crashing over from close range. The Scots soon hit back with a penalty from Finn Russell, but the French immediately answered by spreading the ball all the way to the left off a lineout and then sweepin back right, with Damian Penaud and Cyril Baille both keeping the ball alive as they were bundled into touch, allowing Yoram Moefana to cross for the try. The Scots finally began to get some control on the game and Baille was perhaps lucky to not give away a penalty try for a high tackle on Ali Price as he was held up on the line, but the Scots kept up the pressure with a quick tap and soon saw Rory Darge go over for a try on his first Test start. As halftime approached, the game felt like it was on the edge of a knife, and when Duhan van der Merwe broke away in midfield with support, it looked like the Scots would go into the break with the lead. However while Chris Harris’ support line was bettered only by his wide pass to Stuart Hogg, the Scottish captain had forgotten his catching hands and saw the chance disappear, a moment that would come back to haunt them even more just moments later as Gaël Fickou arced over in the corner, with Jaminet converting to turn what could have been a 17-12 lead for the Scots into a 10-19 lead for France.

If there was any question as to how the momentum had shifted in the final moments of the first half, it took just 2 minutes for the French to score their 4ᵗʰ try and secure the bonus point, as Damian Penaud broke down the wing and chipped forward, and though he was outpaced by both Hogg and van der Merwe, all three were beaten by a wicked bounce of the ball which fell into the hands of Jonathan Danty to go over on his return from injury. The Scots continued to have plenty of possession, but were having to attack from deep, and when Darge had the ball ripped in a maul, the ball was spread to Penaud to go over out wide, and the wing scored his second with just minutes left as Romain Ntamack foundhi in acres of space with a clever cross-kick. The game was over as a competition, but when replacement Blair Kinghorn fielded a kick and found a gap in the French defence, he burst through and fed van der Merwe for a try that at least salvaged a little pride for the home side, with a final score of 17-36.

Scotland

While this was anything but a good day for the Scots, one massive positive they can take from the game was the performance of Rory Darge. With Jamie Ritchie and Matt Fagerson both out injured and Hamish Watson also ruled out with COVID, Darge found himself given the 7 shirt having made his debut off the bench in round 2.

And what a performance the young back row put in! For a player to make 1 or 2 turnovers at the breakdown in a Test is usually an achievement, Darge seemed to be the one consistently getting a hand in at the crucial moment, bringing a number of promising French attacks to an early end. And while he did not have quite the physicality of Watson in attack, he certainly did his fair share of carrying with 14 carries (a team high) for 39 yards.

While it is still early days, Darge looks like a natural at Test level, and this is great news for Scotland as they look to develop depth in their back row. For a while now it has been Watson, Ritchie and one other in the back row, but Fagerson and Magnus Bradbury have both grown into capable Test players. With Darge now entering the fray, they have 5 great options to pick from when everyone is available, with Bath’s Josh Bayliss and Saracens’ Andy Christie also looking like they could become regulars in the wider squad over the coming years—good news for everyone except Nick Haining, who will surely struggle to keep his spot when other options are available after another performance that showed he is not suited to this level.

France

This was a stellar performance from Les Bleus. Though the Scots had the greater possession and ran for more metres, there was only ever one winner in doubt.

Barring a few breaks, the French defence comfortably dealt with everything the Scots threw at them, while the pack dominated at the set piece and helped create quick ball in attack. And with the quality of ball carrying throughout the squad, the team were able to consistently manipulate the Scottish defence—who were given an even harder task with the loss of Chris Harris at halftime—to score in just a handful of phases.

But they didn’t even just do this in one way. They utilised a break by then having their forwards charge onto the ball at pace to keep up the momentum for Willemse’s try, while for multiple tries they forced the defence to overcommit to the farwing by spreading it from the right touchline all the way to the left wing in one phase, only to then put it through the hands and work the numbers spreading the ball right back to the right wing where the Scots ran out of numbers.

Back in 2020 I predicted that France would win the 2023 Rugby World Cup. While the Springboks still look deadly, these performances from France continue to convince me that I made the right choice.

2022 Six Nations: France v Ireland

2022 Six Nations: France v Ireland

Round 2 of the 2022 Six Nations continued with Ireland’s trip to Paris to face France. With both teams winning comfortably in round 1, this looked like a potential early title decider.

The Irish came in without captain Jonathan Sexton, who was ruled out midway through the week, and soon found themselves down on the scoreboard as Antoine Dupont crossed for a try after less than 90 seconds, with Melvyn jaminet adding the conversion and a penalty soon after. After such a bad start, Ireland needed to get themselves into the game and did so in the best way from the restart, with Mack Hansen beating Jaminet to the ball and going over untouched, Carbery converting on his first Six Nations start. The game calmed down slightly after such a frantic start, but the game remained hugely physical and Les Bleus’ attack allowed Jaminet to stretch the lead with 3 more penalties for a 19-7 halftime lead.

Jaminet quickly added another penalty after the break, but when Andrew Porter won a penalty at the restart, Joey Carbery went to the corner and the Irish pack managed to dive Josh van der Flier over for a vital try, which Carbery converted, while Jamison Gibson-Park found and exploited a gap just minutes later for another 7 points. With the points margin having suddenly dropped from 15 points to 1, the French hit back and when they turned the Irish over on their own 5m line, Cyril Baille crashed over from short range. arbery cut the lead to 3 with a penalty as the game entered the final 10 minutes but with just minutes left a clever kick from Gaël Fickou put the French on the attack and though Jaminet was adjudged to have held the ball up over the line, an hand in the ruck from Caelan Doris allowed the fullback to kick the simplest of penalties and Les Bleus saw out the final minutes to keep their title hopes alive with a 30-24 victory, while Ireland were left to settle for a losing bonus point.

France

This was a huge performance from France, and while their attacking quality let to some beautiful tries, it was the defence that proved crucial, especially in the first half. Ever since Shaun Edwards made the move across the channel, Les Bleus have looked a different beast without the ball.

While the Irish did find a couple of chinks in the second half, the first half was a truly dominant display. Not only were they physical and trying to dominate the point of contact, they were also incredibly smart with the way they treated the breakdown. They picked their moments to attack the breakdown when they felt they could win the turnover, and held off when it wasn’t on, allowing them to spread the full team across the pitch while Ireland found themselves having committed multiple players to a non-existent ruck to secure quick ball.

And when they were spread in defence, they came up with pace and closed down all opportunities for the Irish. Take away one bad restart, one poor maul defence and one poorly guarded ruck and that French line isn’t troubled. But Because of those efforts, we all know that Shaun Edwards will expect better, and that’s why the French will continue to improve.

Ireland

It’s crazy to think that this was Joey Carbery’s first Six Nations start, but this also highlighted the big issue with this Ireland team. They will not win the big games without Jonathan Sexton.

Sexton is arguably a fantastic talent, but the reliance on him has left Ireland in an awful position where nobody has been given enough of a chance to played the position with any regularity and impose themselves in the squad. And that means that when Sexton is suddenly not available, nobody is able to adequately replace him.

With the World Cup pools already decided, the best thing that Ireland could do is rest Sexton for the rest of the season and let pick a pair of 10s to get all the minutes and develop with the team. That way even if anything happens to Sexton, their chances of progressing in the World Cup are still at a decent level. Otherwise, an injury to Sexton right before the tournament could see Ireland go from potential champions to missing out on the knockouts.

2022 Six Nations: France v Italy

2022 Six Nations: France v Italy

After the Home Nations kicked off the 2022 Six Nations on Saturday, Paris played host to the final game of round 1 as France welcomed Italy.

In wet and slippery conditions, France played the territory game early on, allowing Melvyn Jaminet to mark his tournament debut with an early penalty. However when the French fullback fumbled a high ball under pressure, the Azzurri took advantage, hitting up hard to pull in the defence before kicking wide to debutant winger Tommaso Menoncello, who somehow just avoided landing in touch to dot down for the first try of the game. The French continued to dominate the territory however, and when an Italian lineout was spoiled off the top, Anthony Jelonch intercepted Stephen Varney’s pass back to Monty Ioane and had an easy run-in for the corner. As the half went on, Jaminet and Paolo Garbisi swapped penalties, but a late penalty gave Les Bleus one last chance before the half ended, and when the driving maul was illegally stopped, they spread the ball wide to put Gabin Villière over in the far corner, with Jaminet kicking the conversion for an 18-10 halftime lead.

The French were soon back on the attack after the break, and when Jonathan Danty’s crash through off a lineout was stopped just millimetres short, Julien Marchand thought he had successfully got the ball over for the try, only for the TMO referral to show that he was bound into the ruck so not legally able to pick and go. However just 5 minutes later the French were over for their third try, with Grégory Alldritt’s pick and go finding a gap in the Italian defence and his offload releasing Villière for another try, while Damian Penaud just failed to collect a crosskick that would have put him over on the hour. However the wing successfully broke down the win with 12 minutes remaining and after feeding Dupont inside, he continued his run to take the return pass and secure the bonus point for Fabien Galthié’s men in his COVID-enforced absence, and with the clock entering the red, Player of the Match Villière was given the ball in space to complete his hat trick, with Romain Ntamack kicking the conversion for a 37-10 victory.

France

Grégory Alldritt looks back to his best, and that should be a big worry for other nations.

While France are a great team with so much depth, they do seem to lack a real ball carrier in the back row when Alldritt is missing or not fully firing. Yes they have players who can make the hard yards and a group of very dynamic hookers, but there are very few like Alldritt who can carry in the tight but then also make the big metres when put in space.

However, he looked close to his best today and it helps make the team much more dangerous. You just need to look at Villière’s second try or the change that Penaud just failed to complete on the hour, where one strong carry into space put Les Bleus on the front foot, giving the skill players the time and space to take full advantage.

France may be missing a few players like Virimi Vakatawa and captain Charles Ollivon, but with Alldritt back on form, that will be a huge boon to their Championship hopes.

Italy

So often in the past we have seen Italy put up a dogged fight for 50-60 minutes, only to run out of steam and get ripped apart in the final quarter of the game. This week however, the Italians kept the competition going to the end.

This is a big moment for the Azzurri. At Test level, if you can’t compete for the full 80 minutes, it’s going to be very difficult to come away with a result. More that that though, it’s noticeable that this fitness retained despite spending pretty much all of the second half defending, which was also the case for much of the opening 40 minutes.

Were France perfect? No, but you’d have still to expect that in the past they’d have ran away for a 30-40 point margin of victory, yet instead had to fight until the death for a 27-point margin. If Italy can keep this up throughout the tournament, it will be a big step forward and could catch a team out.

Guinness Six Nations

2021 Autumn Tests: Week 3

2021 Autumn Tests: Week 3

Hello and welcome to my look at the third week of the Autumn Tests. With us now in World Rugby’s Test window, this weekend was jam packed with action. Jonathan Sexton celebrated his 100ᵗʰ Ireland cap by scoring one of Ireland’s 9 tries in their 60-5 demolition of Japan, New Zealand’s trip to Rome saw them win 9-47 against a passionate Italian team, England ran riot in a 69-3 win over a Tongan team who spent over 30 minutes of the game with just 13 men on the pitch, a late Malcolm Marx try earned South Africa an 18-23 victory over an injury-hit Welsh team, France held on to defeat a resurgent Argentina 29-20, while Ewan Ashman’s Scotland debut began with an earlier-than-expected arrival off the bench and ended with him scoring a crucial try in a 15-13 win over Australia.


Ireland

This performance was a huge statement from Ireland. Every single player on the pitch from 1-23 showed that they were comfortable with the ball in hand. The grunts in the pack expected to make the hard yards were also comfortable with space in front of them, and the rest of the team excel in space, with many also happy to take on a bit of contact. But more than just being happy to take the ball and run, every single one of them was comfortable enough to play the ball around with exceptional handling skills.

Granted they will face tougher tests than this Japan team, but it is clear that the skills are there from the players. And that means that they will be super dangerous in broken play, as if anyone makes a break, they have the skills to exploit it and not just keep the attack going, but get it to the players who can best take advantage. Not only this, but just the threat of every player being able to carry or pass if they get the ball means that the defence must stay alert to any possibility, as if a defender leaves his man to make a dominant double tackle, the ball carrier can ship it off to the now-undefended teammate, while a defender who tries to drift onto the next man too quickly will leave a gap for the ball carrier to run through.

The key now for Ireland is to make this a part of their regular gameplan, and not just a party trick they bring out when facing weaker opposition.

Japan

Japan are a very good team, but they looked very poor at the weekend. While part of this was likely due to a lack of time playing Test rugby since the World Cup, they also really struggled for a lack of physicality.

They are a very accurate and technical team, but they lack the physicality to stand up to the elite teams. While they try to play expansive rugby, too much of their intricate play is done behind the gain line, which puts them in trouble if the defence works as an organised unit. But even more worrying is their inability to cope with the driving maul, getting routinely pushed back 20+ metres during this match, which was also their undoing in the World Cup against the Springboks. Until they find a way to front up to the opposition and compete legally at the maul, they will always struggle to consistently compete against the top teams, who will just take ever penalty opportunity and kick to touch in the knowledge that they will then gain another 20 metres with the driving maul.

Italy

Forget the score, as it does not do this performance from the Azzurri any justice. They caused the All Blacks some serious problems, with New Zealand taking 28 minutes to even get on the scoreboard. The defence was aggressive, shutting down space and putting pressure on an inexperienced midfield who were not used to playing together, while players were causing the Kiwis an absolute nightmare at the breakdown and winning a number of turnovers and penalties. Granted they have some areas they need to improve—notably around the way they deal with the driving maul while effectively covering the fringes for a player peeling off—but if they can defend with this organisation regularly then their days of being on the wrong end of massive scorelines may be ending.

But it wasn’t just the defence that looked improved, as the attack looked far more capable too. Steven Varney has added an impressive kicking game to his dangerous running, Monty Ioane excelled and Matteo Minozzi continued to prove himself as one of the stars of the team. But not just that, they adapted their game to the opposition, by frequently testing the New Zealand back 3 under the high ball, with chasers either getting up to compete—which should have left to an opening try for the Azzurri if Karl Dickson had paid attention to the game and played advantage rather than immediately blowing for a penalty— or positioning themselves exactly where the Kiwi catcher would need to jump, putting them under real pressure.

It may still be early days under Kieran Crowley, but it feels like the team has built on the infrastructure that Conor O’Shea introduced and the youth that Franco Smith capped to take things to a new level—and this is all being done with Jake Polledri still out injured! I hope that things may finally be on the up for Italy.

New Zealand

This was a very scrappy performance from the All Blacks. Starting centres Braydon Ennor and Quinn Tupaea had a grand total of 10 caps between them (including the 2 being earned in this match) and with the pack being given a hard time at the breakdown and the Italian defence coming up hard in midfield, it significantly added to the pressure that the pair were under.

Of course, they improved as the game went on and the Italians tired, but this really highlighted an issue that the All Blacks currently have at centre. A team who once had Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith and Sonny Bill Williams fighting for 2 spots in the XV is now seriously lacking. Ngani Laumape has left the country and now wants to play for Tonga after being continually overlooked, Anton Lienert-Brown brings experience but never seems to have the same impact when starting as he does off the bench and Jack Goodhue has been out since April with an ACL injury, so you can never guarantee how quickly he will get back to his best.

While they clearly still have options beyond that, they are severely lacking experience. Rieko Ioane my be closing on 50 caps but the majority have been earned on the wing, where he is still being used far too often by Ian Foster. 22-year-old Tupaea has 6 caps and just a few years of Super Rugby under his belt. David Havili may have experience, but has only recently transitioned to centre from the back 3, while 4-cap Ennor also originally came on the Super Rugby scene as a winger a few seasons back.

With the World Cup less than 2 weeks away, Ian Foster has a lot of questions in his midfield, and a limited number of games to find an answer.

England

England will certainly face much sterner tests, but on the performances in this match, a number of the youngsters should be starting the next match against Australia to gain some experience against Tier 1 international opposition. While George Furbank looked good at 10 against Tonga, the Australia game should be time for Marcus Smith to take over the reins of this team, while Freddie Steward looked much more secure at 15 than Elliot Daly ever did, with his height, ability in the air and all-round skillset reminding me of Jordie Barrett. Meanwhile on the wing, Adam Radwan has the kind of pace that will scare anyone, but needs to play against a team that will Test him defensively before he can truly be judged at this level, while Alex Mitchell deserves a chance to show what he can do as the starting 9 or England will have no experience at the position if Ben Youngs suddenly isn’t available right before the World Cup. Meanwhile in the pack, it’s time for Eddie Jones to stop pretending that Courtney Lawes is the best 6 in English rugby and move him back to lock, before moving Tom Curry to the flank where he belongs and playing an actual 8 in Alex Dombrandt, who put in a solid (and perhaps too unselfish) performance off the bench.

I understand the need to win every match in the Six Nations, but these Autumn Tests are a chance to experiment with the squad and give some youth/fringe players a chance. The ball is in Eddie Jones’ court, how many of these kids will get the chance they deserve?

Tonga

With how little time Tonga get to spend together as a team, they are already going to be struggling enough to defend, as it takes time to develop a trust and understanding with the players around them, allowing them to defend as a unit rather than a bunch of individuals. But they then go and make their job impossible when they spend so much of the match a man down. Between the yellow cards for Walter Fifita and Solomone Kata and the red card for Viliami Fine, Tonga spent 32 of the 80 minutes with a numerical disadvantage. When you’re playing that much of the game a man down, you’re never going to be able to defend properly. The discipline needs to be better!

While Fifita’s yellow may have been unfortunate, as he clearly tipped the ball up to try and recollect, going for a one-handed intercept these days will end badly nine times out of ten, while Kata can have no arguments as he struggled to get off the ground and took Jonny May out in the air. But Fine’s actions were moronic. The high tackle was bad enough but excusable as mistakes happen, but to then go in on Marcus Smith on the floor—even if he clearly made contact rather than with his elbow, as described by the ever-unreliable Ben Whitehouse—is disgusting and has no place in the sport.

It often feels like the Pacific Island teams get a bad rep for indiscipline, but its sadly incidents like this from Fine that cause this perception to remain, and it just does the team more harm as officials are then leaning towards expecting them to be doing something illegal if there is a chance. Tonga need to clean up their game fast to give themselves a better chance of competing in games.

Wales

3 years ago, the promising career of Ellis Jenkins looked like it could be reaching a premature end as he suffered an horrific knee injury in the final seconds of Wales match against the Springboks. At the weekend, he finally made his return to Test rugby against none other than South Africa, and in my mind was unfortunate not to come away with the Player of the Match award.

The Cardiff Rugby flanker has always been an impressively talented jackal, but looked at his best against the Boks once again. Jenkins was a key part of the Welsh defensive effort in a desperate rearguard that reminded me of their RWC2015 match against Australia. In his own 22 alone, he managed a turnover at a breakdown, an interception and a strip. Alongside these crucial interventions, he completed all 7 of his tackles, completed 10 passes and carried 4 times for 19 metres.

But even more than that, he even took over the captaincy of the team in the latter stages and dealt with referee Paul Williams so impressively. At 28 years old, he is in his prime and is at the point where he can and should be a key part of this squad.

If I was Wayne Pivac going forward and everyone was available for selection, I would be looking at this match’s back row (Jenkins, Wainwright and Basham) along with Josh Navidi and Justin Tipuric as my core back row options. Taulupe Faletau’s impending return to Wales could see him get back to his best, which would also bring him into the unit, while Ross Moriarty would also provide another more experienced option in case of injuries, as could James Davies or Cardiff-bound Thomas Young or younger future stars like Leicester’s Tommy Reffell.

South Africa

South Africa may not have been able to slow things down as much as they would have liked at the weekend, but they still showed that they are a real threat regardless. This pack dominated the Welsh, destroying them in what few scrums there were, while the lineout drives also had great success, leading to a number of penalties and Malcolm Marx’s late try.

But the most incredible thing is the strength they have in depth. If the Springboks were to take all their players (for this hypothetical, let’s say that everyone is fit at the same time) and create 3 packs purely just starting players, no replacements) using their depth chart, I firmly believe that the “B” pack would be able to give most Tier 1 nations—and the “A” pack—and while the “C” pack may have only limited Test experience, it would likely still have the quality to compete with and beat many Tier 2 nations.

France

France tried something different and truly exciting to imagine at the weekend, by moving Romain Ntamack from 10 to 12 with Matthieu Jalibert at fly half. Sadly, such an exciting idea did not work as well in execution. The reason? Having a midfield of Jalibert, Ntamack and defensive lynchpin Gaël Fickou left the back line with very little in the way of physicality. Meanwhile outside them, Damian Penaud runs hard but is not a true crash ball runner, while Gabin Villière and Melvyn Jaminet are definitely not being picked for their physicality.

Without a more physical centre (Danty, Vincent or Vakatawa) or a wing who will also come into midfield, Les Bleus lack the strike runner to draw in defenders and create the space for the other players to exploit. Granted magicians like Dupont and Jalibert will still manage to find and create chances, but a more physical presence will make this easier.

Argentina

I love Santiago Cordero, but this experiment of using him at 10 for the Pumas needs to end. Unlike George Furbank, who was given the 10 shirt against Tonga late in the week, Cordero has never started a top flight domestic match at 10 but now finds himself playing there against Tier 1 opposition. I don’t doubt his talent, but he does not have the experience of playing the position at such a high level, and it is no surprise that his best moments generally seem to come in moments of broken play when he is acting more like an outside back.

It was no surprise to me that when Nicolás Sánchez entered the match Argentina suddenly looked much more structured in attack, while even his kicking game was more dangerous and pulled the team up the field, as well as directly leading to Mateo Carreras’ late try.

Carreras will get very few minutes at 10 at Gloucester. Adam Hastings has been brought in to lead the back line at that position and while Lloyd Evans is questionable as a second choice, there is a bright young English fly half just behind him in local lad George Barton, who has just turned 21, while Billy Twelvetrees is also an option covering the position in emergencies. If Carreras wants to play fly half, then he will need to leave Kingsholm, but it is unlikely that he will find many clubs where he would be able to step in as the starting 10 that Argentina needs. Rather, he should be moved back to the back 3 where he shines for the Pumas and a specialist fly half brought in to gain international experience.

Scotland

This win was a huge statement for the Scottish front row. While Scotland defended well across the pitch, the front row had a key job to do at scrum time by trying to stop the Wallabies gaining a platform at the scrum to launch their attacks off. Against the front row options Australia had in this match, that is no mean feat, even if Taniela Tupou’s impact on anything other that Scott Johnson’s head was minimal. But the Scots did it, causing nightmares at the scrum, while debutant Ewan Ashman, on much earlier than expected following an early injury to George Turner looked completely at home on the international stage, including a finish in the corner that wings would be proud of!

The scrum is vital in international rugby, both as a chance to win penalties and also as a platform to launch attacks from. If the Scottish front row can continue to play like this, it will put them in a great position to challenge for their first Six Nations tournament victory.

Australia

The Wallabies are missing some vital names in their back line for this Test series. Quade Cooper and Samu Kerevi’s decisions to not come on tour and instead return to preseason with their club teams in Japan have robbed Australia of the men who appeared to turn the team’s fortunes around during the Rugby Championship.

While I feel that the return of James O’Connor will cover for Cooper’s absence, Kerevi is an entirely different matter. The centre was playing at a level that was surely bringing him into contention for World Rugby Player of the Year, but more than that, I don’t think that they have a direct replacement. While I have previously talked about Hunter Paisami as the clear replacement for Kerevi at 12, he is not a like-for-like replacement, with his physicality much more focused towards defence, while Kerevi was more offensively focused with defence coming as he gained experience. What makes this loss of Kerevi even more pronounced is the absence of Marika Koroibete from the touring party, as he chose to remain in Australia following the birth of his child, which leaves the back line with limited physical options.

Can Paisami adapt his game to bring a more offensive side? Or will the Wallabies need to adapt their selections in the pack to include a couple more dynamic carriers in the starting XV, such as Tupou (once he recovers from concussion) and Pete Samu?

rugby autumn nations series logo

Six Nations 2021: France v Scotland

Six Nations 2021: France v Scotland

The 2021 Six Nations came to a slightly later end than usual – though still much earlier than the 2020 edition – on Friday night with France hosting Scotland in Paris. This match was originally part of Round 3, but a COVID outbreak in the French squad saw the match delayed. Unfortunately for the Scots, this led to the match being played outside of the international window, and the greed of Premiership Rugby meant that Scotland were only allowed to pick a maximum 5 England-based players.

The French may have denied Wales the Grand Slam in dramatic fashion on Super Saturday, but they knew coming into Friday’s match that they had a sizeable mountain to climb in order to win the title: a bonus point win, with a points difference of at least 21 (or 20 if they could score 6 tries) and with the rain pouring down, the mountain was already beginning to look like Everest. So, all things considered, it was a bit of a shock to see France settle for the 3 points after 9 minutes when given a choice of 2 penalties 5m out from the Scottish line. The decision looked even more suspect on the 15 minute mark as George Turner was stopped just short of the line following a Scottish lineout from 5m out. Hamish Watson was similarly stopped just short, Duhan van der Merwe forced his way over for the opening try, though Welsh fans must have been considering themselves lucky as replays showed that a clear double movement had been missed. Finn Russell added the conversion before trading penalties with Romain Ntamack, and after 30 minutes the French were still looking for their first try. It finally came though with 5 minutes left in the half, as a period of France pressure led to a raft Scottish penalties, and from a scrum in the Scottish 22, Antoine Dupont looped the pass out to Damian Penaud, who evaded the clutches of van der Merwe and drew the covering defence before popping inside to Brice Dulin. Ntamack converted to give Les Bleus a 13-10 lead, and they were back on the attack in the final minutes of the half, which led to Stuart Hogg being sent to the sin bin as a result of Scotland’s high penalty count. France went to the corner and it looked like they were about to get try number 2 right before the break, only for Julien Marchand’s throw to be stolen by the Scots to end the half.

The French onslaught continued against the 14 men of Scotland after the break, and n 46 minutes they made the breakthrough, with Virimi Vakatawa offloading to Damian Penaud, who chipped Russell and beat Ali Price to the ball, successfully dotting down despite a tackle off the ball from the Scottish halfback. With Scotland back to 15 men, Russell kicked a penalty and the French continued to probe for an opening but struggled to find it, with one notable attack going from the French try line to the Scottish 22 in a matter of moments, only for Dupont’s chip to be cleaner up by Russell. This moment appeared to be a turning point in the momentum, as France began to lose their discipline and the Scots took advantage to put on some pressure of their own, and they found the breakthrough on the hour with a lineout 5 metres out. Dave Cherry found his jumper and the ball was switched to the back of the line, but Swan Rebbadj managed to get a hand in to rip the ball loose before the maul could be fully formed. Cherry, who had only been on the pitch for about 90 seconds, was coming round to join the maul and reacted quicker than anyone, picking up the loose ball and going over for the try to level the scores, with Russell converting to give the Scots the lead. France quickly hit back and after a strong carry from Grégory Alldritt brought play up to the Scottish try line, Dupont sent Rebbadj over for the try, with Ntamack missing the conversion from out wide to leave Les Bleus with a 3-point lead. The clock was ticking down but Welsh fans would know that 15 minutes was more than enough time to score 18 unanswered points, and they must have got even more nervous with 10 minutes left as Finn Russell was shown a red card for leading with a forearm into the neck of Brice Dulin. However, the chance of a late run took a real shot when replacement scrum half was sent to the bin as Wayne Barnes lost patience with French indiscipline. As the clock ticked down it looked like the game would end in a narrow French victory, but when France won the ball back as the clock went red, Brice Dulin tried to launch an attack rather than settle for the 3-point win, leading to Scotland winning a penalty. And after 5 minutes of pressure in the French 22, Adam Hastings spread the ball wide to van der Merwe, who stepped inside to avoid a tackle and went over for the winning try, Hastings kicking the conversion to secure a 23-27 victory, the first Scottish win away to France since 1999.

The result confirmed Wales as 2021 Six Nations Champions, while a losing bonus point saw France hold onto 2ⁿᵈ and the Scots finished 4ᵗʰ.

France have a fantastic squad with some enviable depth, helped a little by the willingness to bring in younger players and also the player use agreement with the Top 14 during the Autumn Nations Cup that led to them blooding a number of players. However, in the big games you want your big players, and I think that – as well as the COVID outbreak causing issues – the French were undone by bringing Romain Ntamack and Virimi Vakatawa back in right after they recovered from injury, rather than waiting to ensure they were back to match fitness.

Both players are fantastic talents, but they have been a shadow of themselves in recent rounds and not looked up to the pace of international rugby. Granted, Matthieu Jalibert would have probably got the starting spot for consistency had he not been ruled out due to the short turnaround, but there would have still been options in Louis Carbonel, or even moving Dupont out to 10 and bringing Serin in at 9, while having Fickou in the centre with Arthur Vincent and having Teddy Thomas on the wing would have probably been a better set-up given the weather conditions.

Of course, this is still an inexperienced French team, with a head coach in Fabien Galthié who now only has 15 Test matches under his belt as head coach. They will improve in this area with experience, and I still feel comfortable in making them my favourites for the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

Scotland

Conditions in the first half can could only be described as horrible, with the rain pouring down. While France probably tried to play too much in the poor weather – perhaps understandable given the requirements to win the tournament – the Scots got their tactics right in the bad weather, which went a long way to winning the match.

With Chris Harris having become such a reliable figure in defence and flankers Hamish Watson and Jamie Ritchie in fine form, the Scots were happy to put boot to ball, either kicking to the corners and forcing Les Bleus to play from deep – one notable kick from Finn Russell holding up just short of the French try line and forcing the French to play the ball under pressure, leading to Jamie Ritchie tackling Brice Dulin and winning the turnover penalty in the 22 between the sticks. And when they weren’t kicking deep, they were kicking to compete, putting extra pressure on Brice Dulin – who struggled last weekend under the high ball – to field a slippery ball.

We know all about Finn Russell’s ability as an attacking 10. While his red card may not have helped him, the rest of his performance will have been a timely reminder to Warren Gatland that he can be the starting 10 of the Lions.

Lions Watch

After another great performance around the breakdown, that back row duo of Hamish Watson and Jamie Ritchie must be heavily in Warren Gatland’s thoughts.

On the other end of things, Zander Fagerson had a tough time in the scrum against Julien Marchand and Cyril Baille, while if Duhan van der Merwe misses out, it will be due to his frailties in defence being deemed not enough to make up for his abilities going forwards.

Six Nations 2021: France v Wales

Six Nations 2021: France v Wales

Because 2 matches just aren’t enough for one day, Super Saturday finished off with Wales’ trip to Paris to face France in a Grand Slam decider. Usually the finale of the competition, France’s mid-tournament COVID outbreak meant that Les Bleus would have 1 more match to play, on Friday evening against Scotland, but knew that the rearranged fixture would be irrelevant should they lose, draw or win with less than 4 tries and allowing Wales a bonus point – as either of these 3 scenarios would make it mathematically impossible for Wales to be caught in the standings.

Everything was pointing towards an open attacking game and it certainly didn’t disappoint, as France were on the attack immediately, with Cyril Baille being held up over the line. This only delayed the inevitable though, and Les Bleus took the lead a minute later as Romain Taofifenua managed to dot down for the opening try. Wales were soon putting on the pressure themselves though, and when Lois Rees-Zammit popped up unexpectedly at first receiver from a scrum in the French 22, he released Gareth Davies, who was adjudged to have been held up by the narrowest of margins. Wales kept the possession though and went through the phases camped on the French line, until Dan Biggar found the gap and hit it at pace with a beautiful out-to-in line, before kicking the conversion to level the scores. The stalemate lasted just minutes however, as a clever chip from Brice Dulin was collected by Matthieu Jalibert, who fed Antoine Dupnt to score under the posts. Once again though, the Welsh found an answer with their next attack, as Josh Navidi managed to force himself over. After 4 tries and 2 players held up in the opening quarter, things finally settled down a little – potentially helped by Jalibert’s early removal due to a head injury – and Biggar and replacement fly half Romain Ntamack each added 3 points off the tee to send the teams in at the break with the scores level at 17-17.

Biggar soon extended the lead after the break with another penalty, and it felt like the Welsh were in the ascendency in the early stages of the second half. Just a few minutes later, they made the breakthrough, with Justin Tipuric putting in a clever grubber kick out wide. Josh Adams was first to the ball and kicked it infield, where Tomos Williams went to ground to secure it and offload to Adams, who following a TMO referral was adjudged to have got the ball down in-goal. Ntamack cut the lead with a penalty, but the Welsh were straight back on the attack with a devastating driving maul that was collapsed just short of the French line. With advantage being played, the ball was fired to Rees-Zammit who dived for the corner, but a referral to TMO Wayne Barnes showed that the ball was grounded on the touch-in-goal line, so they were forced to settle for 3 points off the tee and a yellow card to French prop Mohamed Haouas for bringing down the maul. 10 points down with just 20 minutes left, the French suddenly seemed galvanised at the thought of their tournament being ended early, and Julien Marchand was held up over the line after peeling off a maul. Then, as the game entered the final 15 minutes, everything went crazy. Having gone through a series of phases in the Welsh 22, the French finally found a way over the line, but the try was disallowed after a lengthy, but expertly handled referral to TMO Wayne Barnes by referee Luke Pearce. The referral found that Paul Willemse had committed an act of foul play with a neck roll on Wyn Jones, which would overrule not just the try put also a penalty advantage that was likely to see Alun Wyn Jones sent to the bin, but further looks found that Willemse was also guilty of making contact with the eye area, leading to the lock being shown a red card and Wales clearing their lines. The French were soon back on the attack though, and after Charles Ollivon was held up over the line, Taulupe Faletau was sent to the bin with less than 10 minutes left. He was soo joined by Liam Williams, who stupidly went off his feet to slap the ball out of Dupont’s hands at a ruck near halfway. The French made it into the 22 and with just 4 minutes left, captain Charles Ollivon managed to get over for a try, which Ntamack converted to bring them within 3 points. Wales tried to see out the final minutes in possession, but that is a long time to keep things tight and they gave away a penalty on halfway with less than 2 minutes left for sealing off. A draw would still hand Wales the title, so France kicked up to the 22 and went through the phases looking for a breakthrough, which they found with 81 minutes on the clock as they used their one man advantage to work an overlap and send Brice Dulin over on the left to break Welsh hearts and secure a 32-30 victory.

While the “Jam Slam” may be off the table, Wales arguably remain in the driving seat for the title, as tie-breaker rules mean that France will need to beat come off a short week to beat Scotland with at least 4 tries and a points difference of at least 21.

Perhaps the scariest thing about France’s performances in this year’s competition is that they have been looking super dangerous with arguably their second choice at fly half. Romain Ntamack had secured the starting spot, but was ruled out for much of the tournament with injury, returning to the bench for the 2 most recent games. With Matthieu Jalibert suffering a head injury midway through the first half, Ntamack got his chance to get some minutes under his belt.

But did that almost cost France in this game? After some time out, Ntamack certainly didn’t seem fully up to speed, with it taking until the hour mark before he managed to get much going on attack as he got back into the flow of international rugby and playing with this backline, whereas Jalibert had been looking super dangerous. Unfortunately for France, the turnaround will be too quick for Jalibert to be involved, so Ntamack will have to get back up to speed quickly.

If he can get up to speed in this shortened week, then Scotland should be worried, as he has shown his attacking quality plenty when at full fitness, while he is also probably a more robust defender than Jalibert, which could prove crucial when every point counts. If he is still not back to his usual level though, a 21-point points difference and the necessity of scoring 4 tries could prove too much for Les Bleus.

Wales

While we joke about how a win would have given Wales the “Jam Slam” due to the luck that went their way, it must be acknowledged that Wales improved so much during the tournament. as well as developing some degree of depth at positions like centre, they have seen players returning from injury and also former key players like Taulupe Faletau returning to form, while newer faces like Kieran Hardy, Callum Sheedy and Louis Rees-Zammit have brought a new dimension to the team.

While they are still somewhat lacking in physicality, they are finding ways to compensate for this, with players popping up in unexpected positions and running smart lines at pace to give them momentum and help them get over the gain line. Watching Wales on Saturday evening, I really started to see the similarities to Wayne Pivac’s Pro12-winning Scarlets team, who were similarly lacking in physicality.

This is not to say that they don’t have physicality, with George North’s move inside proving a remarkable success so far and surely extending his international career by a number of years, and rather than just expecting him to run into other big men, they are moving players like him and Louis Rees-Zammit around the pitch to get maximum advantage from them.

Will this be enough to beat everyone? No. I worry for the team at lock and hooker without Alun Wyn Jones and Ken Owens, while there appears to be a big drop-off behind the starting back row. Similarly, there will be teams that you will need a more physical approach to beat. But right now, this is a team going in the right direction and looking like they can be competitive again.

Lions Watch

He always puts in quality performances that often go under the radar, but his grubber to set up Josh Adams’ try was a welcome reminder of Justin Tipuric‘s broad skillset, while George North and Louis Rees-Zammit showed just how dangerous they can be if used right.

However, Gareth Davies may have to hope that Warren Gatland remembers how well he suited Gatland’s play as he was removed early in the second half, while Liam Williams‘ moronic yellow card could leave questions over his temperament with plenty of players in the back 3 putting their hands up for selection.

Six Nations 2021: England v France

Six Nations 2021: England v France

After a COVID outbreak caused their Round 3 match against Scotland to be delayed, France returned to Six Nations action in Le Crunch at Twickenham. England were coming in off a chastening loss to Wales and things did not look good as it took them only 80 seconds to concede the opening try, Teddy Thomas beating Anthony Watson out wide and chipping over Max Malins, with Antoine Dupont winning the race to the bouncing ball at Matthieu Jalibert adding the conversion. England quickly hit back but their first attack of substance resulted in them being held up over the line, however they were on the board just a few minutes later as Henry Slade slipped through a gap to reach the French 5m line and George Ford followed up on the next phase with a flat pass that sent Anthony Watson over in the corner. Owen Farrell was successful with the conversion and followed up with 2 penalties, with Jalibert adding one of his own. The French were looking dangerous every time they entered the England half and showed how clinical they could be n the half hour mark. With a lineout just outside the England 22, Les Bleus deliberately overthrew the pack, with the midfield running straight crash ball lines to hold the English defence, allowing Dupont to loop behind with the ball and spread to Jalibert, who took advantage of the English being caught narrow and released Damian Penaud to go over in the far corner, Jalibert converting. Each team had one more attack of note before the break, with Brice Dulin just beating Owen Farrell to Henry Slade’s kick to the corner, while Tom Curry won a crucial turnover penalty on his own try line following a French break down the left wing, and the half came to a 13-17 end.

The second half became a much tighter affair. Farrell and Jalibert traded penalties, but with the clock ticking down, England still found themselves behind. That all changed with just 4 minutes left though, as England won a lineout in the French 22. The drive was brought down illegally short of the line, but England kept calm and continued to probe around the fringes, and after a couple of phases Maro Itoje found his way over the line, with TMO Joy Neville confirming that he had grounded the ball. Farrell kicked the conversion, but there was still time for one more French attack. Les Bleus were making ground but inaccuracy cost them as Dupont knocked on at the back of a ruck, and the final whistle went to confirm England as 23-20 victors.

England

This was arguably the best England performance since they took down New Zealand in the semis of the 2019 Rugby World Cup. There was attacking intent throughout the team, Billy Vunipola was carrying better than he had all tournament, Tom Curry was carrying hard and frequently and even Ben Youngs was rolling back the years – bar a few errors. Meanwhile, the penalty count was significantly lower despite facing a much more dangerous attack than they have been in recent weeks.

The question now becomes why we only get to see performances like this once every couple of seasons. You don’t see New Zealand trying to play anti-rugby for 9/10 matches and then just switching it on for the odd game, they go out to play rugby and win every game. We know that this England team has the capability to play like this, and that is what makes us even more frustrated when we see performances like the opening 3 weeks of this tournament.

These are the performances that we should be seeing on the regular from England. If the players can’t put in that kind of performance regularly, then it’s time to give the next man up a shot. And if the coaches can’t get England to playing this kind of rugby regularly, then it is time for them to move on and let someone capable take over.

France

Getting to watch Les Bleus currently is a treat. The French have historically had that mentality of being willing and able to play from anywhere, but that disappeared somewhat over the last 10 years. Now that Fabien Galthié has the helm though, that attacking mentality has returned, combined with a staunch defence and improved discipline, courtesy of Shaun Edwards.

Unfortunately in this match, that French willingness to attack from anywhere probably proved costly, as the French frequently tried to play out from their own 22 in the first half but ran into trouble against a solid English defence. Antoine Dupont saw himself charged down as the team were a little too casual trying to kick clear following a lineout off the top, while Farrell’s 2 penalties midway through the opening half came from breakdown penalties after France tried to run from deep. In the second half, the team became more pragmatic, but unfortunately the damage had been done by that point.

Of course, this is a very young French team, and they will learn from this experience. Don’t be surprised to see a more pragmatic approach from Les Bleus inside their own third next time they play a solid defence.

Lions Watch

With the quality of players available in the back row, big performances are vital and Tom Curry put in a huge one on Saturday, being much more noticeable and influential in attack to go with his defensive effort. Similarly, Kyle Sinckler put in another massive performance at the set piece against a strong French scrum.

However, Sinckler’s front row partner Mako Vunipola did not have such a great time at the scrums, while a great performance from Luke Cowan-Dickie left Jamie George with just a 9 minute cameo that will likely see him dropping down the pecking order.