Six Nations 2019: Team of the Tournament

Six Nations 2019: Team of the Tournament

With the Six Nations over for another year, there is just one more important job to do: picking a team of the tournament. I’ve been doing this for a couple of years now and this was probably the hardest so far as injuries and Jacques Brunel’s inability to settle on a team meant that some players had limited game time, while poor matches or halves of rugby harmed the chances of others. And yet despite that, at some positions I was spoiled for choice and could have picked from 4 or 5 players!

So without further ado, my team of the tournament is:

1- Allan Dell: Mako Vunipola was the choice early in the tournament and I genuinely think England missed him after his injury. Rob Evans has been getting a lot of love but the player who stood out to me was Allan Dell. Dell topped the tackle charts for Scotland with 76 (putting him 5ᵗʰ overall in the tournament) but what really impressed me was his carrying in the loose, which was so important for them given the number of carriers they lost to injury.

2- Jamie George: Did the Saracens hooker do enough to cement the number 2 shirt ahead of regular captain Dylan Hartley? In my opinion, yes. George was reliable in the lineout and a big part of the England defence, finishing the tournament joint-3ʳᵈ in the tackle count with 78, alongside Mark Wilson. What really stood out for me though was his pass to set up Manu Tuilagi for a try against Italy… I’m sure there are centres who would be proud to give a pass like that!

3- Demba Bamba: There wasn’t really any standout performer for me in this position and if I’m honest, I changed my mind as I was writing this. Kyle Sinckler was so close to getting the nod, but I swapped to Bamba at the last moment. At just 20 years old and not even playing in the Top 14, Bamba did not look out of place at all in senior international rugby despite having to take over the starting role early in the tournament following Uini Atonio’s injury. Bamba carried 42 times for 54 metres with a whopping 22 gain line successes (4ᵗʰ most of anyone) and 14 defenders beaten. He may have given away the most penalties in the tournament (8, level with Tom Curry) but this will improve as he gets more experience at this level. Watch out for him over the coming years.

4- Alun Wyn Jones: There have been people wondering if Jones has just played his last Six Nations game. If so, then he has gone out on a high. Despite all the off-field distractions surrounding Project Reset, Jones led the team to a deserved Grand Slam and led by example. He fronted up when he needed to and finished joint-6ᵗʰ in the tackle counts with 71 made and just 4 missed.

5- George Kruis: I wasn’t really enthused by Kruis’ selection at the start of the tournament, however he looked back to his best this year. Kruis was 4ᵗʰ for tackles made in the England squad with 67 (joint-11ᵗʰ overall). But his key point was his work solidifying the England lineout, amassing 17 catches himself to finish joint 3ʳᵈ in the table.

6- Josh Navidi: This was one of the hardest to pick from the quality of performances. Mark Wilson was Mr Reliable for England and Braam Steyn was a big presence for Italy. Peter O’Mahony was going to get the spot until his anonymous performance against Wales. Navidi gets the spot here and I would argue he is one of the most underrated players int he Wales squad. The Cardiff Blues back row finished 2ⁿᵈ overall with 83 tackles and 4 turnovers saw him just miss out on a spot in that top 5 list. He does not look huge but he is so strong and smart, leading to him playing a key role in the Welsh defence with a number of choke tackles and I would argue that his ability attacking in open play is underrated, making 45 metres from 30 carries.

7- Tom Curry: Jamie Richie had a great tournament being thrust into a starting role but in the end the 7 shirt has to go to Tom Curry. Sam Underhill’s injury gave Curry the chance to start and it is hard to imagine him handing the shirt over to anyone else now. Curry’s 86 tackles saw him top the charts and he was joint-4ᵗʰ for turnovers with 5. It has been rare that England have had a proper jackal at 7 under Eddie Jones and Curry has been a real breath of fresh air here. 2 tries didn’t harm his chances either.

8- Billy Vunipola: This was a shootout between Vunipola and Louis Picamoles, but Vunipola’s greater consistency over the tournament. Vunipola’s 71 carries was more than anyone else in the tournament and he finished with more metres than any other forward (231m) and 27 gain line successes (3ʳᵈ behind Braam Steyn and James Ryan). England seriously missed him last season.

9- Antoine Dupont: Not involved in Round 1 and on the bench in Round 2, Dupont took his chance and ran with it. He still has areas of him game to work on, such as controlling the game when his pack aren’t on the front foot, but he brought some great attacking quality to the French attack, finishing with 8 clean breaks (joint-5ᵗʰ overall), 17 defenders beaten (joint-4ᵗʰ) and 7 offloads (joint-2ⁿᵈ). Shockingly, he was also joint-2ⁿᵈ in the turnover charts with 6, going really under the radar with his defence.

10- Owen Farrell: This was probably the hardest pick for me. Gareth Anscombe and Dan Biggar split their time which made it hard to pick between them, while Finn Russell had some great moments in a struggling Scotland team. However Farrell gets the nod for me as I feel that – other than the second halves against Wales and Scotland – he was the most consistent of the 10s, while he finished with 2 assists and was the top scorer in the competition with 59 points.

11- Jonny May: I’m a big fan of May so to have seen him grow into one of England’s most reliable players in recent years has been wonderful! May carried 52 times (the most of any back, joint-6ᵗʰ overall) and made 284 metres (4ᵗʰ overall) and 11 clean breaks (2ⁿᵈ overall), while beating 9 defenders. He also played a big part in the kicking game, with his pace allowing him to outrun defenders chasing back to deep kicks and finishing with 23 kicks caught – 3ʳᵈ overall in the tournament. Oh, and there’s the small matter of his 6 tries making him the top try scorer and 4ᵗʰ highest points scorer.

12- Hadleigh Parkes: The stats may not back this selection up as much as some others, but Parkes gets the nod here over other impressive 12s Manu Tuilagi, Sam Johnson and Luca Morisi. The Welsh defence was the cornerstone of their tournament success and Parkes was one of the linchpins of that defence, putting his body on the line to protect the Welsh try line. Man of the Match against Scotland, he was involved in 2 of the Key moments against Ireland, scoring the early try and then bringing down Jacob Stockdale when he looked set to break away and score.

13- Henry Slade: When England were playing well, Henry Slade was shining. Despite having not played alongside Manu Tuilagi before this tournament, the pair worked great together and Slade’s range of skills helped him keep defences guessing and resulted in him carrying 38 times for 271 metres (8ᵗʰ overall) with 12 clean breaks (1ˢᵗ overall) and finishing with 3 tries and 2 assists. Outside centre is a difficult position to defend, but Slade was generally impressive at the position and did a great job of shutting down the channel.

14- Josh Adams: I heavily considered putting Josh Adams into my 6 to watch article ahead of the tournament but in the end he just missed out to Gareth Anscombe. Leigh Halfpenny’s concussion left room for Adams to come into the starting lineup and he grabbed the ball with both hand – just like his try against England! Adams’ 257 metres made (9ᵗʰ overall) and 9 clean breaks (4ᵗʰ overall) were the most of any player in the Welsh squad and he scored tries against Italy, England and Scotland.

15- Liam Williams: Elliot Daly and Jayden Hayward both had their moments in the tournament and Blair Kinghorn was certainly in with a shot of making the 15 spot until he got injured. Liam Williams gets the place after taking over the Wales 15 shirt in Halfpenny’s absence. He may have had a quieter tournament than we are used to, but he was so assured under the high ball (his 24 kicks caught was 2ⁿᵈ behind Daly) and this helped nullify an England team that was looking unstoppable at that point.

So there’s my XV, who makes yours?

Eyes On: England v Scotland – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: England v Scotland – 6 Nations 2019

With Wales having already secured the Six Nations title with their victory over Ireland, the tournament finale between England and Scotland was a dead rubber except for the rivalry between the 2 countries. England came out the blocks quickly with Jack Nowell crossing in the 2nd minute and they added 3 more tries by the half hour mark through Tom Curry, Joe Launchbury and Jonny May before Stuart McInally scored what appeared to be a consolation try to make the halftime score 31-7. The game was flipped on its head after the break though as Scotland scored tries through Darcy Graham, Magnus Bradbury, Finn Russell and Sam Johnson put Scotland ahead, only for George Ford’s converted try on the last play of the game to level the scores at 38-38 and end the game as the highest scoring draw in international rugby history.

Momentum swings

Maybe England hadn’t heard the result of the Wales match by the time they kicked off as they came out with such a fierce determination to rack up the score. Their attacks were clinical and they used their options in the back line to manipulate the Scottish defence in ways that made it easy for them to finish their tries. Scotland weren’t necessarily playing bad rugby, but they couldn’t get much going in attack that was dangerous enough to trouble England – who were flying up in defence and putting them under heavy pressure – and they struggled defensively to deal with all the attacking options their opponents had.

McInally’s try from a charged down kick and half time coming just a few minutes later brought England’s momentum to a complete half and gave the Scottish time to recover and reset. When the second half started, suddenly Scotland were cutting out the individual errors and starting to make some ground against an England defence that was no longer getting in their faces as fast. England were still making big metres in attack, but the accuracy of the first half was gone and they were beginning to make individual handling errors that would prove costly come the final whistle.

This was an extreme but perfect example of just how easy it is for a switch in momentum to completely change a game. Scotland will be hoping that they don’t find themselves in this position again, but given their injury issues this tournament it is a testament to the character of their team that they were able to turn the game around after such an awful opening half hour.

Finishers and Game Changers

Eddie Jones may call them “Finishers”, Harlequins may call them “Game Changers”. Yep, I’m on about substitutes. No matter what you call them, they’re all doing the same jobs. But perhaps Jones’ name for them has a bit more meaning that it originally appears.

I suggested after the Wales loss that Eddie Jones did not trust his replacements to change the game and that seemed to be the case here as well. As momentum first started to turn in Scotland’s favour and with Ellis Genge having already come on early for the injure Ben Moon, the only changes Jones made were to replace Mark Wilson and Kyle Sinckler (who had both been looking pretty impressive) and replacing them with Brad Shields and Dan Cole, who failed to have as much of an impact on the game. In the backs, it was only in the final 10 minutes that Jones began to make changes despite the Scottish having taken complete control well before this.

In contrast, the moment Scotland scored a couple of quick tries, Gregor Townsend recognised the shifting momentum and made a raft of changes, bringing on more experienced players like Greig Laidlaw, Josh Strauss and Fraser Brown on to take control of the game.

Some of Eddie Jones’ selections have been questioned in recent years, but in this match it felt like he did not trust his replacements to be able to change the game until he had no choice but to give them a shot. For such an experienced and talented coach, in this match he was thoroughly outplayed by Gregor Townsend. If England are to avoid these second half collapses, Jones needs to have a think about the players he is selecting on the bench and how they can be used.

Shoulder Boy

There were hearts in mouths for England fans in the second half as referee Paul Williams went to the TMO to look at a late challenge by Owen Farrell on Darcy Graham. Graham had kicked on and Farrell appeared to be trying to close him down but ended up clattering into him late, but the replays also showed that Farrell did not use his arms at all in the challenge.

The incident reminded me a lot of Samu Kerevi’s hit on Leigh Halfpenny during the Autumn Tests in that neither of them seemed to make much of a legitimate attempt to charge down the kick and instead took out the kicker after the ball was gone. What I found really interesting is that Paul Williams decided to punish Farrell for the late hit but did not take into account the use of a shoulder rather than the arms as he felt that Farrell was protecting himself rather than trying to make a tackle. While I can understand where he is coming from, this seems like an odd decision to me considering tackles are generally judged on their outcome rather then the players intent. For me, this was a yellow card incident and should have probably cost England the game.

This is the 3rd incident including a no-arms tackle by Owen Farrell in the last 10 Tests. Whether you agree with the decisions or not, Farrell’s uncompromising defence is such a big part of what makes him the great fly half that he is. He just needs to be a bit more careful with using his arms or one of these days a tackle could prove costly.

Eyes On: Scotland v Wales – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Scotland v Wales – 6 Nations 2019

Wales’ quest for the Grand Slam continues after they left Murrayfield with yet another victory. In a bruising encounter, tries from Josh Adams and Jonathan Davies helped Wales to a 6-15 halftime lead. Darcy Graham’s second half try in his first international start gave Scotland hope, but the Welsh defence held firm and a late penalty from Gareth Anscombe confirmed Wales’ 11-18 victory. This match leaves Scotland likely to finish with just 1 win from 5 in the tournament this season, while a win over Ireland next weekend will see Wales complete the Grand Slam.

Same old story

It feels like every round, Scotland have been left lamenting yet another injury to their squad. This week, they lost both Tommy Seymour and Blair Kinghorn in the first half alone, and Darcy Graham’s injury led to them finishing the game with 4 halfbacks on the pitch, with Adam Hastings at fullback and Ali Price on the wing. Compare the starting back lines from the opening rounds to the one that finished this game and the only similarities you will see are Laidlaw and Russell at 9 and 10 respectively.

While Scotland’s inability to make the most of their chances has been an issue throughout the tournament this year, the chopping and changing of personnel and players ending up in unfamiliar positions is never going to help as they are unable to build up any chemistry.

While Scotland have arguably been disappointing this tournament, it must be taken into account just how much they have been impacted by injuries, which for a nation with just 2 professional teams is going to be hard to deal with. Scotland finished the 2015 Six Nations with an 0-5 record and the Wooden Spoon yet half a year later, they were one poor lineout and refereeing decision away from a World Cup semifinal, so don’t rule out their chances of impressing in Japan later this year.

Bodies on the line

Wales may not have been the most exciting attacking team in this tournament, but defensively they have been outstanding. With just one match remaining, their 58 points conceded is the least in the tournament and barring the first half against France they have rarely looked like they have struggled.

A big part of Wales’ defence throughout the match was the choke tackle. While I am not a fan of it due to the risk of high tackles and head injuries, with players as strong as Josh Navidi and Alun Wyn Jones, the team do a great job of holding players up long enough to allow the defence to reorganise even if they don’t get the turnover.

The second half saw Wales have just 25% possession and 22% territory as they just made tackle after tackle after tackle. This was a team putting everything on the line and the images of Adam Beard and Hadleigh Parkes coming off battered and bruised just epitomised the effort of the team.

If they can continue to limit teams to just one or 2 tries, then they have the ability to match them for tries and get the win.

Hope for the future

One of the big positives for Scotland from all their injuries this season has been the emergence of some great young talent in the back row. Jamie Ritchie has been arguably their player of the tournament and even managed to keep the returning Hamish Watson on the bench for this game, while Magnus Bradbury – who has himself only just returned from injury – gave the back row some much-needed physicality and led the pack with 39 metres from 15 carries.

Hamish Watson came off the bench in the second half and made a real impact with a whopping 35 metres and 10 defenders beaten (5 more than anyone else on the pitch in this game) from just 5 carries. While John Barclay is a big loss with the experience he brings to the pack, the back 3 combination of Bradbury (23 years old), Ritchie (22) and Watson (27), with Matt Fagerson (20) is a unit to build the team around post-RWC2019.

 

Eyes On: France v Scotland – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: France v Scotland – 6 Nations 2019

As we reached the middle week of the 2019 Six Nations, France made a number of changes again in the search for their first victory against a Scotland team forced to make changes in notable positions due to injuries. France put in a performance like their first half against Wales, with a Romain Ntamack try helping them to a 10-3 halftime lead. Tries from Yoann Huget and Gregory Aldritt confirmed the victory and after Ali Price scored a consolation try, Alldritt crossed again with the last play of the game to earn France the bonus point and a 25-10 victory.

Building options

As if Scotland hadn’t been struggling with injuries enough in this tournament, this match was a step too far. With half their pack already missing, Ryan Wilson became the latest casualty in the forwards, while Huw Jones was ruled out for the rest of the tournament and both Stuart Hogg (shoulder) and Finn Russell (concussion) were also unavailable for the trip to Paris. With the amount of players missing including some of their biggest stars and most influential players, I’m honestly not surprised that they struggled in this match.

Blair Kinghorn was the clear replacement for Hogg and continues to impress in the tournament to the stage where I think Gregor Townsend will find it hard to drop him from the XV when everybody is available, probably at the expense of either Sean Maitland or Tommy Seymour – in my opinion, Seymour is not looking at his best and has squandered a couple of opportunities this tournament by not being in the right position.

Jones’ injury made space for Nick Grigg and while I have not seen much before this match that stood out, I thought he was fantastic defensively against France with a range of tackles including a 1v1 low hit that stopped Mathieu Bastareaud in his tracks and a wonderful covering tackle on Antoine Dupont when he looked set to score. The Jones/Johnson/Jones combination looks dangerous in attack, but if anyone can break into that midfield at the moment it will be the more defensive Glasgow centre.

Peter Horne is a quality player, but I honestly do not understand Gregor Townsend’s decision to start him at fly half. While he has been a regular at international level in recent seasons, it has not usually been at 10, whereas Adam Hastings had appeared to have cemented himself as Finn Russell’s understudy. I imagine that Horne’s experience is what got him picked over Hastings, but I don’t think that his style of play suited the team as much as Hastings. I found Horne to play generally quite a safe game that rarely troubled the French, whereas once Hastings was introduced, there was much more variety in the Scottish play. If Hastings is considered ready to be Russell’s replacement, then he needs to be given the starting job in his absence.

On the right track

This was the best French performance so far in the championship – though admittedly that isn’t saying much after their first 2 games! Having kept a fairly settled pack, Jacques Brunel once again made a raft of changes in the backs, but this time appeared to find the combinations to really hurt a depleted Scotland side.

Antoine Dupont is a dangerous attacking threat but this match showed that he has also worked on his kicking game and I now see him and Baptiste Serin as the regular one-two punch at scrum half, while Morgan Parra and Maxime Machenaud give good depth at the position. Romain Ntamack looked assured at fly half and gave the team a good variety in attack, having the pace to go himself for his try while also putting in an inch-perfect chip to Gaël Fickou for a try that was unfortunately disallowed. The centre pairing between Fickou and Bastareaud looked well balanced and confident, with Bastareaud even catching the Scottish out with a delightful chip and chase. Meanwhile in the back 3, Damian Penaud looks more comfortable on the wing by the week (though admittedly he was targeted much less by the Scottish kicking game than against England), while Thomas Ramos was often in position to take the kicks and had the ability to launch some deadly counterattacks.

This does not mean that the French performance was perfect, however. Ramos did not have the best of days off the tee, which makes me wonder if Serin or Lopez will find themselves back in the starting XV next week. Meanwhile Yoann Huget continued to show an inability – or perhaps lack of desire – to get back and cover the backfield in the kicking game. Huget is a talented attacker, but I think that when everybody is fit and available, a winger like Teddy Thomas or Rémy Grosso can provide similar danger in attack but more security in defence.

TM-Oh no!

With the final play of the game, Gregory Aldritt earned France the bonus point for scoring 4 tries, but they also had a whopping 4 tries disallowed through referrals to the TMO during the game, but should they have all been disallowed?

  • Damian Penaud was the first to have a try ruled out in the corner after the TMO ruled that Antoine Dupont had knocked on when picking the ball out of the ruck to pass to him. The replay was shown a number of times and I’m still to be convinced that Dupont played the ball as to me it looks like the man clearing out knocks it forward with his leg. The TMO is there to overturn the try if there is clear and obvious evidence that the try should not stand; considering how many times the replay had to be viewed and the fact that there is still a question over the knock on, I can’t see how that can be considered clear and obvious.
  • The next to have a try chalked off was Gaël Fickou, who collected a lovely Ntamack chip in the Scottish 22 and went over for the try. The try was disallowed as replays proved that Wenceslas Lauret had knocked on earlier in the play. The knock on was clear, however the play continued and there were 2 rucks before Fickou went over for the try. The TMO protocols state that a TMO review can only go back up to 2 phases, so while the right decision was technically made, the TMO should not have been reviewing an incident this far back.
  • Fickou then had a second try ruled out after he reached through a ruck on the Scottish try line to dot down the ball which was being presented in the in-goal area. On review, the try was not given as it was decided that the ball had been grounded in-goal by the Scottish as they presented it back. I can understand why the decision was made as technically a ruck cannot be formed beyond the try line, however the hand position of the player presenting the ball makes me question if there was really any downward pressure before Fickou’s intervention.
  • Not long before France’s fourth try was awarded, they found themselves falling foul of another TMO referral as Gregory Aldritt was considered to have performed a double movement in the act of scoring a try. While the replacement back row was clearly stopped short, he did not appear to make any further movement towards the line and appeared to be pushed over by the support man. The TMO could be heard saying that the player was pushed over the line but then decides that Aldritt has made a double-movement, which goes against his previous statement.

Now I watch more rugby than most would consider healthy and while I would not consider myself an expert in the laws of the game, I would say that I have a good understanding. So for me to have found questions about 4 disallowed tries that on another day could have proved crucial to the result, it must be wondered if some of the laws and protocols need simplifying to make the job of the officials – and the experience of the fans – better.

Eyes On: Scotland v Ireland – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Scotland v Ireland – 6 Nations 2019

Round 2 of the 2019 Six Nations kicked off on Saturday afternoon with Scotland’s second consecutive home match, this time at home to defending champions Ireland. The Scots came into this off the back of a win over Italy and started the better team, but 2 tries in quick succession gave Ireland a lead. Scotland pulled one back through Sam Johnson for a 10-12 halftime score, but the home team could not push on in the second half and Keith Earls finished off a Joey Carbery break to guarantee victory, 13-22 being the final score.

Missed chances

I have real sympathy for Scottish rugby fans as cheering for them is a roller coaster. Scotland created a number of chances against the Irish despite them defending well, but with the exception on Johnson’s try from a Finn Russell interception they were unable to cross the line.

One chance went begging when a Huw Jones pass went behind Tommy Seymour, causing him to check his run and give Jacob Stockdale time to get over and cover just short of the line. I’ve watched the chance a number of times and to me it is a matter of Seymour not holding his depth well enough, which is a poor error for an international winger of his experience.

Perhaps even worse was a decision to take a tap and go penalty 5m out with the Irish defensive line set, only to be turned over pretty much instantly. I understand that the penalty out wide was not necessarily a gimme for Greig Laidlaw and the lineout was clearly not functioning perfectly (it finished 7/10, likely hampered by the constantly changing cast of locks and back rowers due to injuries), but there must have been better options at that penalty than what they did.

While these were chances lost inside the Irish 22, there were also a number of attacks ended far too early by players trying to do too much as they chased the game rather than take the tackle and set up a ruck, while they were also let down at times by handling errors or silly penalties – while incredibly soft, Jonny Gray taking Sean O’Brien beyond the breakdown as Scotland had a chance to break down the right was unnecessary and stupid from a player that is one of the team’s leaders.

Scotland’s attack has come a long way in recent years and is looking good, but they need to start finishing more chances if they want to win regularly.

The understudy

After last weekend’s loss to England and with the Scots pressuring behind the gain line, losing Johnny Sexton after just a quarter of the match is the last thing Ireland will have wanted. The 2018 World Rugby Player of the Year has not looked at his best so far in this tournament and took a couple of hits early on that appeared to leave him struggling, but he did well to set up Jacob Stockdale for his try. Joey Carbery has been his international understudy for a few seasons now and has been playing very well of late for Munster, but he has had limited playing time against Tier 1 international teams.

This lack of experience appeared to show in the first half especially with Sam Johnson’s try, where his attempted pass to Rory Best was far too telegraphed and laid out on a platter for Russell to intercept. However he grew into the game in the second half and showed some of his Munster form for Earls’ try, recovering to take a poor bouncing pass from O’Brien, breaking through the tackles of Allan Dell and Rob Harley (who appeared to knock each other off the player), turn on the gas and run a line to draw in the winger, before throwing a wide pass to the now-available Keith Earls to score the third and final try.

With a week off either side of a trip to Italy, it will be interesting to see who gets given the number 10 shirt for the next match (assuming Sexton is fit). I would usually argue for picking Sexton for consistency and because 3 weeks without a match could see him off the pace against France in Round 4, but I think that with the World Cup just around the corner Carbery needs to have more time playing from the start to get used to controlling the game against fresh opposition at international level rather than coming on against a tired opponent.

Bish, bash, bosh

Last week, England pressured the Irish behind the gain line when defending and kept their defence on the back foot when attacking. Scotland tried to do similar this week but were unable to pull it off. The reason as far as I could see: the personnel.

Kyle Sinckler, the Vunipolas and Manu Tuilagi especially played such a big part in England’s highly physical approach last week, but the Scottish team did not have the players to pull it off. The back line especially does not have a crash ball runner like Tuilagi, instead focusing on a ball-playing centre pairing in Johnson and Jones with Peter Horne on the bench. In the forwards, Josh Strauss and Ryan Wilson are strong runners, but neither of them would be expected to have the impact of a Billy Vunipola (Strauss managed just 44 metres off 17 carries), while Wilson was replaced at halftime for the more defensive Rob Harley.

What impact does this lack of ball carriers have? It makes it harder to attack especially once they reach the opponents 22 as they do not have the players to punch it up down the middle and draw in the defence, making it harder for them to create the space to finish out wide.

Taking his chance

One player who has really impressed me over the first 2 rounds of the tournament has been Jamie Ritchie. Someone who probably wouldn’t have been starting were it not for Hamish Watson’s injury, Ritchie has really taken his chance so far. In this match, his 13 metres from 5 carries was bested by only Josh Strauss on the Scottish stats sheet, while in defence he completed 24/25 tackles and was a constant nuisance at the breakdown.

While the incredible raft of injuries in the back row is certainly hurting Scotland right now, when they get everyone back from injury Gregor Townsend will be spoiled for choice!

Eyes On: Scotland v Italy – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Scotland v Italy – 6 Nations 2019

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

Best men on the pitch

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

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

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

Impressive debut

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

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

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

Another man down

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

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

2019 Six Nations: 6 to Watch

2019 Six Nations: 6 to Watch

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

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

England: Tom Curry

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

France: Demba Bamba

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

Ireland: Tadhg Beirne

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

Italy: Seb Negri

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

Scotland: Adam Hastings

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

Wales: Gareth Anscombe

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