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.

Six Nations 2021: Ireland v France

Six Nations 2021: Ireland v France

Round 2 of the 2021 Six Nations came to an end in Dublin on Sunday as Ireland hosted France. Ireland were missing 4 experienced players from Round 1 through injury and suspension, but after both Billy Burns and Matthieu Jalibert missed early kicks at goal, Billy Burns broke the deadlock on 20 minutes with a penalty. A few minutes later, France found themselves temporarily down to 14 after Bernard Le Roux was caught tripping Keith Earls as they chased an Irish kick downfield. The Irish kicked the penalty to touch and thought they had taken an immediate advantage of the extra man as the spread the ball wide on first phase to James Lowe, who powered through Brice Dulin’s tackle to score in the corner, only for a TMO referral to find that his toe had brushed the touchline before he touched down. This let off appeared to galvanise the French, who immediately went on the attack and a series of offloads brought them into the Irish 22. With the Irish defence in disarray, the ball was spread wide to Charles Ollivon, who was able to outpace CJ Stander as he tried to get across to cover and score the opening try. Jalibert kicked the conversion and then a penalty with Le Roux back on the pitch to take a halftime lead of 3-10.

Les Bleus started the second half on the front foot and almost had another try straight away as Julien Marchand broke into the 22, only for Antoine Dupont’s attempted wide pass from the base of a ruck to be blocked by the face of dummy runner Paul Willemse. This attack cost Ireland Billy Burns, who went off for a HIA that he failed, while just a minute later, Cian Healy and captain Iain Henderson clashed heads and were required to leave the pitch for their own assessments. With so much leadership off the pitch, the French were able to get themselves into the 22 again, and when Jalibert reversed the play back to the right, his wide pass drew in James Lowe, who was stepped inside by Dulin, with the fullback drawing the final Irish tackler and popping the ball off to the looping Damian Penaud to extend the lead, Jalibert missing the conversion. The Irish desperately needed the next score and got it almost immediately, winning a penalty from the restart and kicking the ball up tot the French 22. Replacement hooker Ronan Kelleher’s first action of the game was to throw into the lineout, and the ball was stolen but not cleanly, bouncing in the 5m channel, and the Irish hooker reacted fastest to collect the ball and scamper in unchallenged. Ross Byrne kicked the conversion and added a penalty with 15 minutes remaining, but the Irish could not make any further breakthrough and after Jalibert struck the post with a late attempt at goal, the game fizzled away to a 13-15 win for Les Bleus.

Ireland

I can imagine that many people were nervous as to how Ireland would perform in this match with Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray, James Ryan and Peter O’Mahony all missing. I would argue that the team actually performed better without them on the whole.

With Jamison Gibson-Park and Billy Burns controlling the game, the pace of the Irish attack was so much better, which allowed the Irish pack and midfield to get into the French early on, while Burns’ high bombs were putting Brice Dulin under incredible pressure. Unfortunately, the quality appeared to be missing on the bench, with Craig Casey not even trusted to come on while experienced and talented 9s like Kieran Marmion, John Cooney and Luke McGrath were all ignore. Similarly, Ross Byrne once again looked a passenger (and not in a good way) after replacing Burns and I think that it cost them. We all know what Sexton and Murray can do. Now is the time to leave them out for the rest of the tournament and look at other options, with one of the aforementioned 9s coming in to compete with Gibson-Park for the staring job and Ian Madigan coming in to replace Ross Byrne, as his ability to cover both 10 and 12 would allow him to either replace Burns or come in at centre to give the midfield a different shape late on.

At lock, I understand that James Ryan is the darling of Irish rugby, but he has always seemed to be a good workrate but little more, while this weekend’s pairing of Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson brought that and more. Capable of turning out at lock or 6, the pair brought dynamism with their carries, were dangerous at the breakdown and were also tireless workers in the tighter parts of the game, while Henderson certainly led by example from first minute to last.

Finally in the back row, I have always found O’Mahony to be a penalty risk if a referee is doing their job right, and while I’m not sure Rhys Ruddock was the right pick at 6, I would argue that Will Connors had a great impact in defence when he was brought on later in the game, while Caelan Doris will also provide a great carrying option once back.

France

I dare you to find me a better player in World rugby right now than Antoine Dupont. The Toulouse scrum half is a walking highlights reel! Every match, you can almost guarantee that if a player makes a break, he will be there on their shoulder to keep the attack going, while he has the pace and footwork to exploit the tiniest of gaps – and even highlighted in this match that he has a decent fend despite being one of the smaller players on the pitch.

Even when he’s not able to be so attacking, he’s still showing a range of skills, with a cultured boot – and the calmness to not rush under pressure – while his defence is also an underrate part of his game. And the scary thing is that at 24, he may not have even quite reached his peak yet, while he has a legitimate chance of starring at both the 2023 and 2027 Rugby World Cups. In the meantime, let’s just sit back and enjoy the show.

Lions Watch

Only the Irish to focus on here, and captain Iain Henderson put in a great performance all over the park, and was unlucky to not steal an attempted short lineout and long throw by the French on the own 5m line. Meanwhile, Hugo Keenan looked assured once again at the back and appears to be making the Irish 15 shirt his own, but will have to go a long way to beat out Stuart Hogg.

It wasn’t such a good day for James Lowe, who is currently getting limited chances to run at the defence like he would like to, and his disallowed try in a week where a number of wings shone for the Home Nations will hurt.

Six Nations 2021: Italy v France

Six Nations 2021: Italy v France

It may feel like the 2020 Six Nations only just finished, but the 2021 edition kicked off today in Rome as Italy hosted Rome at the Stadio Olimpico.

The French came into the match one of the favourites to win the tournament, and they soon found themselves on the Italian try line, with Dylan Cretin managing to stretch out an arm to dot the ball down over the line under the posts after 6 minutes, Matthieu Jalibert adding the conversion. Jalibert soon added a penalty to the score before his opposing number Paolo Garbisi kicked three points of his own. Italy were missing a number of big names but playing positive rugby and put together a strong series of phases in the French 22, which came to a disappointing end as Michele Lamaro knocked on as he tried to run a crash ball line off a ruck. Italian indiscipline then proved costly as the resultant French scrum became a French lineout in midfield, and another unnecessary penalty gave the French a lineout in the Italian 22. The French set up the maul and as it stalled, Antoine Dupont recognised that Stephen Varney was not covering behind the defensive line, leading to him kicking into the sizeable in-goal area for Gaël Fickou to dot down. Dupont proved decisive again just minutes later as he hacked on an Italian pass that had gone to ground. The bounce beat Azzurri fullback Jacopo Trulla and favoured Gabin Villière, who offloaded to the supporting Dupont. The scrum half was stopped just short, but found Arthur Vincent for try number 3, while Jalibert continued his 100% record off the tee. Dupont did end the half with one blot on his record, however, as Stephen Varney came away from a ruck and snuck down a 5m blind side, selling dummies to both Cyril Baille and Dupont before feeding Monty Ioane to go over in the corner, however TMO Karl Dickson rightly adjudged that the final pass was forward, so the half ended with Les Bleus on top 3-24.

Les Bleus were soon back on the offensive after the break and while Jacopo Trulla managed to beat Teddy Thomas to Brice Dulin’s grubber into the in-goal, it only delayed the inevitable as Dulin and Villière countered an Italian kick just minutes later and Dulin beat everyone to Villière’s kick forward before riding Garbisi’s tackle to secure the bonus point. Just minutes later, the French were scoring again, with Thomas on the loop on first phase from a lineout, outpacing Brex with his outside arc and feeding back inside to Dupont for the try. With the next attack, Jalibert snuck through a gap between the Italian locks to feed the supporting Dupont, and the scrum half duly repaid his debt to Thomas by spreading it to the wing for a try of his own, with Jalibert maintaining his 100% record off the tee before being removed. With the result secured within an hour, a deluge of substitutions affected the flow of the game and the Italians found a reason to cheer as Maxime Mbanda turned the ball over and after a couple of phases, the ball came to Luca Sperandio, who chased his own chip and too it on the full to cross for an Italian try, converted by Garbisi. However, there was time for one more try as France earned a scrum 5m out from the Italian try line. The ball went blind and Brice Dulin bravely ignored the impending smash from Ioane and calmly flicked the ball through his hands to put Thomas over for his second try of the game. Louis Carbonel was unable to kick the conversion from out wide, but it didn’t matter in the long run as France ran out 10-50 winners.

Italy

With so many big names missing – including Jake Polledri, Matteo Minozzi, Braam Steyn and Michele Campagnaro – this was never going to be an easy match for the Azzurri. But rather than do as most do whenever the Six Nations comes around and highlight the score and the negatives of the Italian performance, I am instead going to look at the positive of how they have improved from last tournament.

Frequently in 2020, I found myself lamenting the lack of variation in the Italian attack, with everything either being a 1-off pass to the pack or spreading the ball wide without earning it. However, with exciting stand-off Paolo Garbisi and recognised centres in Marco Zanon and Argentine-born debutant Juan Ignacio Brex, Italy looked much more dangerous and varied in midfield, with all 3 making breaks, while there was also much more variety to how the forwards were getting the ball, with crash balls off both 9 and 10 as well as forwards tipping the ball on or playing it to the backs.

And it was clear that this variety was having an impact, with Italy looking dangerous when able to put the phases together and forcing breaks both out wide and in midfield. There is still room for improvement though, as the players making the break were often lacking the support to fully take advantage of the situation, while the attack also appeared to be stymied by the introduction of Carlo Canna for the injured Zanon early in the second half. With such a young team playing great attacking rugby without their stars, that elusive win may not come in this tournament, but I don’t think that it is far away.

France

There wasn’t much to criticize Les Bleus about in this game, but one thing could be their kicking game. While many of the kicks were competitive, there was also a strikingly large number that found themselves sailing and bouncing into the sizeable in-goals and even over the dead ball line. It could have been even worse at many stadia as the Stadio Olimpico in-goals almost doubled the length of the pitch, so even more scrums could have been given away in dangerous areas had they been playing on another pitch.

Maybe it was a tactic to kick deep and force the Azzurri to play from deep, maybe it was unfamiliarity with the ball – the balls have shown some horrifically unpredictable bounces over these first 2 games – or maybe it was a bit too much exuberance from the youngsters, but the French need to remember that their players can already kick the living **** out of the ball and may want to work on taking a little length off their kicks during training this week, otherwise a more dangerous team could take advantage of the free possession and territory.

Guinness Six Nations

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: England v France

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: England v France

With Saturday having seen 3ʳᵈ-8ᵗʰ decided, Sunday saw England hosting France at Twickenham to decide the overall winner of the 2020 Autumn Nations Cup. A player usage agreement with the Top 14 meant that France were using fringe players against what Eddie Jones would probably consider close to his ideal XV, and it was the home team who opened the scoring in front of 2000 fans with a penalty from Owen Farrell. Les Bleus weren’t just there to make up the numbers, though, and when Matthieu Jalibert broke through the England defence on the edge of their 22, he quickly spread it wide to put Brice Dulin over for the opening try, which Jalibert converted. Elliot Daly and Jalibert traded penalties, but England were gifted an opportunity at the end of the half as Dulin failed to recognise that he had been passed the ball by a player outside his 22, kicking the ball out on the full to give England a lineout deep in the French 22. England went through 12 phases camped on the French line – during which George Ford butchered an overlap to go for the line himself – before Ellis Genge knocked on as he tried to fight his was across from a pick-and-go. The French won the free kick at the resulting scrum and were able to put the ball into touch to end the half with a 6-13 lead.

The second half stared as the first ended, with Anthony Watson knocking on Owen Farrell’s cross kick in the air, but Farrell soon kicked a penalty to narrow the gap, before missing a couple of kicks in a row. Jalibert left the pitch early with an injury and was replaced by fellow youngster Louis Carbonel, and though he struggled to get the offence running as well with Jonathan Danty also off, his kicking from the tee was on point as he kicked to penalties to one more from Farrell to give Les Bleus a 7-point lead with just minutes left. It looked like the French would hold out for the unlikeliest of victories, but referee Andrew Brace and TMO Ben Whitehouse both failed to spot 2 clear knock-ons from the English in their last gasp attack, before Brace awarded England a penalty. George Ford kicked to the corner and the England pack managed to drive the ball infield for Luke Cowan-Dickie to go over with the clock in the red, Farrell kicking the conversion in the clutch to leave the scores level at 19-19 at full time.

And so the game entered sudden death extra time, and for a moment it looked as if it would be over almost immediately as England were awarded a penalty, but Owen Farrell’s kick hit the right post and flew across the face of the posts without going between them. France worked their way downfield but were unable to set up the drop goal, ending the first period still at 19-19. England started getting the decisions in the second period, though, which allowed them to control the territory. France were clearly tiring quicker and when Alivereti Raka was isolated following a clever kick to the corner, England were awarded another penalty and Farrell bisected the posts to complete the most undeserving of victories and be crowned the first ever Autumn Nations Cup Champions.

Kick to nowhere

You know what you’re getting with England these days: a solid defence, and the ball being kicked within a couple of phases of winning possession. And yet despite having a back line full of talented kickers of the ball – Ben Youngs, Owen Farrell, George Ford, Henry Slade and Elliot Daly – the kicking game was an absolute shambles in this game.

In Anthony Watson and Jonny May, England have 2 premier talents, with the pace and aerial ability to cause problems for their opponents, and yet they were barely given a chance to compete, while Brice Dulin and Matthieu Jalibert had a relatively easy job of dealing with most of their kicks.

George Ford is supposedly one of the premier attacking 10s in World Rugby – as the commentary repeatedly told us – and yet he did nothing of note in attack other than butcher a try just before half time, while his kicking was aimless, other than one quality kick to the corner to set up the game-tying try. Meanwhile, reliable kicker Owen Farrell may as well have flipped a coin before each kick to decide if it was going ever or not – he never seemed to get fully comfortable on the day, which almost proved costly.

If England are going to rely on defence and the kicking game rather than trying to play rugby, they need to be perfect in everything they do. This is a game that they should have lost, and they need to seriously improve if they want to even stand a chance against the French in the Six Nations.

La fiabilité

For so long, the cliché has been that you never know which French team will turn up from week to week. Well that can be well and truly forgotten right now. Under Fabien Galthié, the French team has been largely consistent in its selection – though don’t be surprised to see a few fringe players fighting for a spot after the last couple of performances – but the consistency has gone even beyond that.

With Shaun Edwards coaching the defence, the French have become so solid and reliable, while their discipline is also far better than it was beforehand. And even this week, with the fringe players on the pitch who have likely had less time in camp, that defensive solidity was clear to all to see.

And yet unlike some teams with strong defences, they also have the attacking skills to match it. Yes, they were a little lacking towards the end of the game, but Louis Carbonel will only improve as he gets more experience both for Toulon and France, and will also benefit from playing with a settled team that has more chemistry.

From the early stages of the 2020 Six Nations, I felt confident that France would be my favourites to win the 2023 Rugby World Cup. The more I see of them, the more confident I feel of that prediction.

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Autumn Nations Cup 2020: France v Italy

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: France v Italy

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

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

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

Staking a claim

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

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

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

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

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

Finding the breakthrough

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

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

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

 

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Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Scotland v France

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Scotland v France

Sunday saw round 2 of the Autumn Nations Cup come to an end at Murrayfield as Scotland hosted France. The French were finally kicking off their campaign following the cancellation of their match with Fiji and they got off to the quicker start as Thomas Ramos landed an early penalty. Les Bleus thought for a moment that they had the opening try after 9 minutes as Virimi Vakatawa and Blair Kinghorn both dived on a kick through, but replays showed that the centre did not have control of the ball and France had to settle for another Ramos penalty. The Scots finally built into the game and 2 penalties from Duncan Weir drew things level, but Matthieu Jalibert hit back with a drop goal. As the tussle for supremacy continued, Ramos added another penalty and Weir added one of his own, before a gargantuan scrum earned the French a penalty at the end of the half. Instead of going for the 3 pints, they went to the corner, and after going through the phases, Vakatawa crossed the line but was held up, keeping the halftime score level at 0-0.

Following the break it as another scrum that saw the breakthrough, but this time it was the movement of the backs off first phase, as Gaël Fickou’s inside pass set Vincent Rattez free and the winger fed Vakatawa to cross for the opening try, which Ramos converted. Scotland hit back with another penalty soon after, but could find no breakthrough, and Ramos added another penalty on the hour to make it a 7-point game. Ramos had the chance to seal the win with another late penalty but missed the target, leaving Scotland with the chance to snatch a draw. They got a chance as Wayne Barnes awarded them a penalty in midfield with the clock in the red, and the Scots looked to the big boot f Stuart Hogg to put them as close to the corner as possible. Unfortunately the captain put a little too much on the kick and the ball sailed into the dead ball area, allowing France to clear and celebrate a 15-22 win that will leave them as favourites to top the pool.

Formidable front row

As if the talent in the French back line wasn’t scary enough, this match really highlighted the quality of the pack, and especially the front row. In Jean-Baptiste Gros, Camille Chat and Demba Bamba, Les Bleus were putting out what would be considered their second-choice front row (judging by recent matches), and yet they were still dominant, highlighted by a monster scrum just before halftime that saw them demolish the Scottish pack and earn a penalty. Then when the usual starters came on in Cyril Baille, Julien Marchand and Mohamed Haouas came on, it was just more of the same.

In Marchand and Chat, France have 2 hookers who would waltz into most national teams and could conceivably both be considered in the top 5 in the world, with their strong carrying and their expert jackaling just adding to their reliability at the set piece. And in the 4 props you have expert scrummagers and some dynamic carriers.

And the scariest thing of all: the oldest of them is Baille at 27 years old! Most of these players are only just about coming into their prime or have still not reached it, and as such they are only likely to get better as the team builds towards a home World Cup.

Be very afraid…

Target acquired

Under Shaun Edwards, the French defence has become a nightmare to deal with. With such a physical unit and players so dangerous at the breakdown, Scotland knew that going head-to-head with them would end disastrously, so looked to a more territorial game.

However when you watch the kicks they were putting in, they were still looking for a way to fight the French with the kicks, often putting the high balls towards Thomas Ramos and Vincent Rattez, who are smaller and less able to compete in the air. You can also see that they were looking to target these players with their own selections in the back 3, with a 6’4 monster in Duhan van der Merwe and 2 fullbacks in Hogg and Blair Kinghorn, while Sean Maitland off the bench also covers both wing and 15.

By being able to pepper the smaller members of the French back 3 with high balls and have a high ball specialist or a bigger player competing against them in the air, Scotland were giving themselves a good chance of winning the ball further up the field and getting in behind the French line. Assuming England and France face off at the end of the tournament, it will be interesting to see if England do similar, utilising Jonny May and Anthony Watson.

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Six Nations 2020: France v Ireland

Six Nations 2020: France v Ireland

The longest Six Nations finally reached its conclusion in Paris on Saturday evening as France hosted Ireland in the Championship decider. Following England’s bonus point win in Italy, both teams knew that they had the chance of winning the tournament, but that England could also still win the tournament depending on the result.

It was France who got the better start, as Gaël Fickou’s fancy footwork saw him break down the left touchline and feed the supporting Antoine Dupont for the opening try, converted by Romain Ntamack. The Irish began attacking and Hugo Keenan almost scored in the corner, but was illegally denied by Anthony Bouthier, who received a yellow card. The French defence frustrated Ireland for much of the 10 minutes though, until Cian Healy crashed over from short range on his 100ᵗʰ cap. Seton added a penalty, and the it was time for Ireland to lose a man to the bin as Calean Doris conceded a penalty try by tripping François Cros as he chased a kick into the in-goal. The fly halves traded penalties and the French witheld one last Irish attack on the stroke of halftime to hold a 17-13 lead at the break.

As in the first half, it was the French who struck first after the restart, with Dupont collecting Fickou’s ship down the wing and playing the ball inside to Ntamack, who went on to add 2 penalties. Robbie Henshaw gave the Irish hope with a solo effort to score in the corner, which Sexton converted, but with 10 minutes left, Ntamack collected his own chip over the defence and fed Virimi Vakatawa to secure the victory, though Jacob Stockdale scored a consolation try at the death for a final score of 35-27.

Defeat consigned the Irish to 3ʳᵈ, while France’s margin of victory was not enough to leapfrog England and they had to settle for the runner-up spot.

At risk

Jacob Stockdale’s place in the Irish XV is seriously under risk. The Ulster wing burst onto the scene but has struggled of late, and looks highly unlikely to win the 11 shirt back any time soon, such has been the form of Hugo Keenan.

Stockdale’s attacking threat was minimal in this game, but he also showed that his hands aren’t reliable enough, getting lucky with one knock on in his 22 that was missed by the officials but then quickly gifting the French an opportunity with another fumble, which resulted in the penalty try.

The Irish have a highly talented wing not even in the squad at the moment in the form of James Lowe, and if he were brought into the XV then Andrew Conway could move to fullback to create a dangerous back 3.

I don’t expect Andy Farrell to make changes straight away, as the continued selection of Murray and Sexton has already shown that he is faithful to the players he has worked with in recent years, but Stockdale needs to repay that faith quickly.

Thrown away

When Ireland look back at this game, they will rue their performance at the lineout. A potent weapon back in the days of Donncha O’Callaghan and Paul O’Connell, the set piece faltered at some key moments in this match, especially when they got into good positions. And then on some occasions when the lineout was OK, they could not get the maul going after and found themselves getting turned over deep in the French 22.

The Irish pack is full of quality, but is going through a reset at hooker and still settling on its second row pairing. They need to get this settled soon in order to have time to build the trust and cohesion that all the best teams have.

Until then, Ireland will have to find other ways to defeat their rivals.

Room to improve

It’s a good job for France that Ireland’s lineout play wasn’t up to par because they gifted the Irish too many opportunities with poor discipline.

In total, the French gave away 14 penalties during the match and were lucky that Anthony Bouthier’s yellow card was (correctly, in my opinion) adjudged as just a penalty rather than a penalty try.

A number of the penalties were coming at the breakdown and you can be sure that Shaun Edwards will be working hard to improve their discipline here, as the poor discipline was undoing all their great defensive work.

Right now, the French look formidable. If they can sort out their discipline, they will look near-unbeatable.

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