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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