Six Nations 2020: Team of the (Partial) Tournament

Six Nations 2020: Team of the (Partial) Tournament

… Well that was an interesting weekend! The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was keenly felt for rugby fans as Super Saturday went by without a single match being played. At this point in the calendar, the tournament should be over, but there are now 4 matches still to be played and 4 teams with the potential to win the tournament.

Right now, things are up in the air about when the tournament will be completed, so I have taken the decision to proceed with my annual Tournament XV selection, only taking into account the matches that have been played to this point. If and when the tournament is completed, I will look to put out an XV for the whole tournament.

This certainly makes selection more difficult, as due to Ireland v Italy being postponed during Round 4, those teams have played a game less than the other 4. Who would make your XV?

1: Joe Marler:- While his decision to interact with Alun Wyn Jones’ junk was ill-advised, Marler has had an otherwise impressive Six Nations. In the absence of Mako Vunipola, Marler has done a fine job of creating a solid set piece for the team to play off, while making 7 dominant tackles (the most of any prop).

2: Ken Owens:- No hooker has played more minutes in this season’s tournament than Ken Owens and as such, he leads his fellow hookers Julien Marchand and Jamie George in tackles, metres made and carries.

3: Kyle Sinckler:- Kyle Sinckler is slowly establishing himself as one of the best tightheads in World Rugby, and as such has played all but 20 minutes of this tournament so far. As well as helping England put together a super strong scrum, he has made more tackles (49) or passes (17) than any other tighthead.

4: Maro Itoje:- Though he may be one of the most penalised players in this year’s tournament, Maro Itoje makes the list off the back of his defensive prowess. The Saracens lock has made more tackles (74) than anyone else in the tournament and his 20 dominant tackles is 7 more than his closest competitor Bernard le Roux. He also finds himself joint-second in turnovers won with 4, 1 less than CJ Stander. Itoje has also been an important figure at the lineout with 11 lineouts won and 2 lineout steals (joint-second among locks).

5: James Ryan:- Joining Itoje at lock is Jame Ryan, creating what could arguably be the Test pairing for the British and Irish Lions. The Irishman is top among locks for lineouts won (15) and has also been a key factor in both Ireland’s attack and defence, racking up 145 metres off 38 carries, 43 tackles, 10 dominant tackles and a turnover despite having only played 3 matches so far.

6: Jake Polledri:- Jamie Ritchie has been a nightmare for the opposition but narrowly loses out to Jake Polledri. The only player I highlighted as one to watch before the tournament who has consistently started, Jake Polledri is making himself indispensable in the Italian squad. The Gloucester flanker is joint-second for turnovers despite having only played in 3 games, while his 186 metres made puts him third among all forwards.

7: Charles Ollivon:- Hamish Watson and Justin Tipuric deserve some recognition, but Ollivon gets the nod here. The new French captain has done a wonderful job leading his team through the tournament but has also been a big part of their success. He tops the try-scoring charts with 4 touchdowns and has assisted a further 4 tries. Only Bernard le Roux has made more tackles for France than Ollivon’s 55 (tied with Grégory Alldritt), while Ollivon’s 25 lineouts won is the most of any player.

8: Grégory Alldritt:- Alldritt has been one of the stars of the tournament this year and therefore one of the easiest picks to make. As well as having scored a try, the French number 8’s 353 metres made is almost double that of the nearest forward (Hamish Watson) and the second-most of all players. Right now, he would be my pick for Player of the Tournament.

9: Antoine Dupont:- One of the best Northern Hemisphere scum halves, Dupont has been on fire in this tournament. His late transmission from pass to kick for Damian Penaud’s try (one of his 3 assists) was one of the moments of the tournament, while his 158 metres made, 8 offloads and 32 tackles blows his competition out of the water.

10: Romain Ntamack:- While credit needs to be given to Adam Hastings for stepping into the starring role at short notice after Finn Russell’s disagreement with Gregor Townsend, Romain Ntamack gets my pick here due to the way that he has so calmly played the game as required to win France’s first 3 games. He is not yet perfect, but is such a young player, he will only get better over the coming years.

11: Jonny May:- Matteo Minozzi and Gaël Fickou can consider themselves unlucky here, but Jonny May gets the spot as he has become such a key part of the England kicking game, while his 2 tries from nowhere against France showed his pure talent as well as putting an undeserved shine on a poor England performance.

12: Hadleigh Parkes:- You know what you’re going to get with Hadleigh Parkes: a solid, dependable 12 who will carry hard (290 metres from 50 carries) and defend to his last breath. He has had to get used to a new midfield partner and new defensive system, but has continued to be a super reliable cog for Wales.

13: Manu Tuilagi:- Nick Tompkins deserves some recognition for his attacking prowess as he continues to grow into international rugby, but Manu Tuilagi got the pick here. With playmakers at 10 and 12, Tuilagi becomes a key physical component of the England back line, which was seriously missed after his early injury against France. His hard running has caused issues for defences, while on the flip side his strong defence has helped to limit the opposition’s attacks.

14: Mattia Bellini:- Perhaps a surprise pick given Italy’s lack of tries, but Bellini has been in impressive form during this tournament, averaging just over 10 metres per carry (292 metres from 29 carries). Against Scotland especially, Bellini was able to show just how dangerous he could be when given space with some smooth footwork and hips that would make Shakira proud.

15: Anthony Bouthier:- Made his mark on his debut against England with a kick from his own 5m line that finally found touch 10m from the England try line and his just gone from strength to strength. He has looked at home in the 15 shirt, answering any questions asked of him while asking his own with the boot, while he took his chance well to score against Wales.

Six Nations 2020: Scotland v France

Six Nations 2020: Scotland v France

The final match of Round 4 saw Scotland hosting France. The French were the only team still capable of winning the Grand Slam and after a tight half hour, they took the lead through returning winger Damian Penaud. Just a few minutes later however, a large scuffle between the 2 teams saw Mohamed Haouas given a red card for throwing a punch at Jamie Ritchie. Scotland quickly took advantage of the extra man with a try for Sean Maitland either side of half time. Stuart McInally added a third as the French began to tire, but they fought back to score through captain Charles Ollivon, resulting in a final score of 28-17 to Scotland, which takes the Six Nations to next week and beyond due to Italy’s Round 4 & 5 fixtures being postponed.

 

Scotland

This is a very weird time for Scotland. Many of us have got used to seeing the Scots scoring tries for fun but struggling to keep the opposition’s score down. Right now, they’re not scoring anywhere near as much, but they’re also starting to look better in defence. Obviously this game is a little hard to judge due to the red card leaving the French a man down for over half the game, but the Scottish defence was tenacious throughout and really put the French under pressure, causing a number of handling errors that would bring attacks to an end.

It feels like Scotland are finally starting to get the balance right between physical players and skilful attackers, and though they may not be scoring the tries right now, they’re keeping themselves in games, which is a great spot to build from.

France

So much went wrong for France in this game. Substitute hooker Camille Chat had to pull out injured during the warm-up, François Cros got an early yellow card, star fly half Romain Ntamack went off for a HIA just 7 minutes in and never returned, and finally Mohamed Haouas’ moment of madness left France playing over half the game a man down. Granted some of this was avoidable, but that is a lot to go against a team… and yet they still held on to keep things close. Not only that, but they refused to stop playing and kept on going throughout, with a stunning late attack leading to Ollivon’s try.

So many people started talking about the return of the “old France” after the punch – another of those tired narratives the media go to in order to try sounding smart and actually look stupid – but if this was the old France, then they would have capitulated! It is a testament to the coaches and players just how far this team has come already and I expect them to bounce back next week against Ireland.


My standout players

It feels like he gets a weekly mention, but Hamish Watson again proved himself a nightmare for the opposition, with a couple of key turnovers, while Sean Maitland took his chances like a true poacher and I felt that he was unfortunate to be removed when on a hat-trick.

While this was far from the best match Antione Dupont has played for Les Bleus, he still had some moments of incredible skill and controlled the game well alongside Matthieu Jalibert, who reacted well to his early introduction and showed the coaches that they don’t need to worry if Romain Ntamack is unable to make it through return to play protocols this week.

Six Nations 2020: England v Wales

Six Nations 2020: England v Wales

With coronavirus fears causing Ireland’s game against Italy to be postponed, Round 4 of the Six Nations eventually kicked off at Twickenham with England’s match against Wales. Anthony Watson gave England an early lead, which was added to by Elliot Daly and the boot of Owen Farrell, the boots of Leigh Halfpenny and Dan Biggar keeping Wales just in it for a 20-9 halftime score. Wales hit back immediately after the break with a try from Justin Tipuric, but a try for Manu Tuilagi helped England pull away, before the centre’s late red card and a yellow for Ellis Genge gave Wales a 2-man advantage, which allowed them to have the final say through tries for Dan Biggar and Tipuric again to come away with a losing bonus point, the 33-30 final score earning England the Triple Crown.

 

England

England may go down as the victors, but they came so close to shooting themselves in the foot with their poor discipline. A game between these two nations is always going to be a tetchy affair, but there were moments that England took things too far. Captain Owen Farrell saw him penalised on his own line for an unnecessary shove that sparked a brawl and was potentially lucky to not be penalised again shortly later for shoving over Dan Biggar while chasing a kick, while Joe Marler may find himself in hot water for trying to get to know Alun Wyn Jones a little too well during one scuffle. Then with less than 10 minutes left, Ellis Genge was yellow carded for persistent offending from the team and Manu Tuilagi was given a red card for a high shot on George North, which almost cost England the game as Wales scored 14 points in the final 5 minutes. Had they had another 5 minutes, I can’t help but feel that their numerical advantage would have seen them come away with the win.

10 penalties is too many for a team to give away if they want to win a game, England need to buck up their ideas if they want to improve their chances of success in the big games.

Wales

When I asked my friend Gez (a Wales fan who has contributed on some previous posts) what he thought of Wales’ performance, I got the following reply:

So we can score against 13 and can’t defend wide, narrow or against hard runners, that’s what we’ve learned here

While I fully agree that the defensive set-up needs looking at as it is allowing teams to get around them too easily, I think that Wales’ current situation needs remembering. They have just had a change in coaches so will take a moment to adapt to a new playing style, but came into this match missing a number of players who have played key roles in the team recently: Gareth Anscombe, Jonathan Davies, Tomas Francis, Josh Adams and Rhys Patchell. They also had Josh Navidi, Liam Williams, Taulupe Faletau and Dan Biggar (who I question if he as really even 95% fit) playing having recently returned from injury and had Jake Ball and Dillon Lewis go off injured during the game and Alun Wyn Jones, George North and Aaron Shingler finish the game in varying degrees of fitness. Further to that, there were other players like Owen Lane and Willis Haloholo out injured, who could have positively impacted the team.

Given that injury list, it is hard to look into Wales performance too much right now. Yes, big improvements are needed quickly if Wales want to start winning more, but it is important to not make any snap reactions now. Having a key partnership like hadleigh Parkes and Jonathan Davies return (or even have Halaholo covering for one of these players) with a fully fit Josh Navidi in the back row will immediately make the middle of the park feel ore secure against big runners like a Manu Tuilagi, giving a better platform to build the defence off. If the issues persist with a team much closer to the ideal XV, then change will be needed.


My standout players

Manu Tuilagi‘s game may have ended on a negative, but his hard carrying helped put England on the front foot, while Anthony Watson looked great on his return from injury. Ben Youngs also put in one of his best performances in recent years, controlling the game and exploiting a number of gaps around the breakdown.

It was harder to pick out for Wales in a largely disappointing performance, but Josh Navidi clearly had a positive impact on his return from injury and lasted the full 80 minutes, while his return also appeared to free up Justin Tipuric to have more impact in the loose. Finally, a mention for Dan Biggar, who completed the full 80 minutes despite not appearing to be fully fit after his injury last weekend and did everything he could to keep Wales in the game, though it did feel like somewhat of a kick in the teeth to keep Jarrod Evans on the bench.

The Game I Love is in a Bad State

The Game I Love is in a Bad State

Talking with one of my mates at work the other week, we both found ourselves feeling a bit of a disconnect in our interest for Premiership Rugby this season, despite competing against each other in fantasy rugby. I thought about that a bit over the next few days and realised that it’s not just the Premiership, I’m feeling some degree of apathy to rugby in general. Obviously not enough to stop me wanting to write about it, but enough that I’m finding myself less interested in watching everything I can over recent months.

But what’s causing this? Is it that I have reached rugby saturation due to the World Cup filling most of the usual break? Considering I’ve been known to watch 8 or 9 matches in a weekend and want to watch more, I don’t think it’s that. Is it Gloucester’s struggles this season? Well I’m used to that. Is it the frustration of watching players in the form of their life being ignored by Eddie Jones for players who don’t know the position? Potentially a little bit, but my apathy goes beyond England and the Premiership. Is it the absolute shambles of Sarries finally being found guilty of systematic cheating for years and the punishment that still doesn’t feel like it’s been dealt with right? Again, I think it’s had an impact, but my feelings go well beyond the Premiership.

Then watching the games the last few weeks, it hit me: I’m sick of watching every game get ruined by poor officiating. Now before I go any further, I want to make it clear that I have incredible respect for the officials and this is not an attack at them, more a point that officiating has reached a terrible level and things need to change soon in order to save the sport that I love.

What do I mean when I talk about the poor officiating? I’m not railing about seatbelt tackles being the softest of penalties, because I understand why the rules are how they are. It’s not even the prospective changes to the laws coming in, though I’m strongly against some of them. It’s the fact that officials are routinely ignoring even blatant offences, which is having a negative impact on the competitiveness of a game.

Let’s look at some examples. CJ Stander avoided punishment for taking the law into his own hands against England by striking Owen Farrell with an open hand multiple times after Farrell tried holding him in a ruck. Generally, retaliation will see the penalty reversed, while Law 9.12: “A player must not strike an opponent with the hand, arm or fist, including the elbow, shoulder, head or knee(s)” suggests that Stander was lucky to stay on the pitch, meanwhile Dragons’ Lloyd Fairbrother and Glasgow’s Oli Kebble were both yellow carded on the same weekend for a similar flare-up. Clear cases here of different referees treating the game different and not sticking to the laws of the game. And sometime’s it’s the same referee’s interpretation changing. In Round 2 of the Six Nations, Romain Ntamack’s try against Italy came off the back of Romain Taofifenua winning a penalty at the breakdown, despite Gaël Fickou making no attempt to roll after making the tackle, something that the referee had been quick to pick up earlier in the game. The breakdown is the wild west, with jackals winning penalties despite not supporting their weight and illegal cleanouts coming in form all directions except through the gate. Players are suffering serious injuries due to this, but Ben Ryan’s calls to start refereeing the breakdown correctly fall on deaf ears – cos we all know a 50-20 kick will benefit the game more than effectively-refereed breakdowns (note the sarcasm!).

Of course, it’s not just the referee in the middle, they have an AR on each touchline and a TMO to help them make the right decisions, but so much still gets missed. James Ryan appears to have somehow avoided a citing for the most ridiculous of cleanouts against England, where he basically torpedoed himself into England players twice in one breakdown, very clearly going against Law 15.12: “Players must endeavour to remain on their feet throughout the ruck.” In Gloucester’s recent loss to Exeter, the TMO rightly picked up a clear neck roll by Franco Mostert, which ended a promising Gloucester attack, but a later attack by Exeter was allowed to continue, with an equally clear neck roll from one of their players ignored. Gerbrandt Grobler found himself being called for a knock on as he stretched for the try line, but it was clear that the fumble was caused by an impact from Sam Simmonds, who had tucked his arm into his body and caused contact with his shoulder. It was a clear penalty try right under the referee’s nose, but was completely ignored not just by him, but also the TMO, despite it being obvious on replays.

Decisions like these change games. Going back to that game between Italy and France, the TMO called in at one point for a missed knock-on my Matteo Minozzi, but a later knock-on from a French tackler that resulted in Italy going from attacking in the French 22 to cleaning up the ball int heir own 22 was ignored, while in the same weekend, Kyle Sinckler’s blatant and cynical strip of the ball after a tackle had been completed 5m out from the England line (almost certainly a yellow card) was also ignored by all the officials and the TMO – an event that completely changed the momentum of the game as Scotland had been pressuring the England defence until that point. I also recently saw the most ridiculous of decisions as referee and TMO combined to yellow card Cheetahs centre Benhard Janse van Rensburg for a “dangerous challenge” on Leinster’s Fergus McFadden that anyone with half a brain could see was just a rugby incident. Finally in England’s U20s Six Nations loss to Ireland, a clear neck roll on England fly half George Barton was ignored in the build-up to Ireland’s final try, while an earlier England knock-on at a maul was changed to an Ireland knock-on by the TMO, despite the replays clearly showing that the Irish player had illegally swam up the side of the maul.

As much as I want my teams to win, I’m a fan of the sport first and foremost and I hate to see so many games being affected by iffy officiating.

How does all of this happen? I can only put it down to narratives being in the minds of the officials. There is a constant narrative that Italy are not good enough to deserve a place in the Six Nations, so if there’s a close (or even vaguely close-ish call) it will go against the Italians. Of course the French tackler didn’t knock the ball on, these Italians don’t know how to throw a pass. Likewise there is the narrative this season that Gloucester are struggling at the scrum, so an offence at the first scrum by Val Rapava Ruskin results in an Exeter penalty, while the following scrums for most of the match saw Fraser Balmain dominating Ben Moon (who was illegally angling in), but the scrums were just getting reset. Once officials have a narrative in their head, it is hard for them to look past that.

So why doesn’t this get called out more? Because the media also buys into these narratives. All the talk during Italy’s Six Nations losses is how they continue to lose every match in the tournament and Georgia continue to dominate in the Rugby Europe Championship, never about how Italian Rugby has been rebuilt under Conor O’Shea to start bringing the talent into the national team, who handily beat Georgia last time they faced off. When even the media is buying into the narratives, how is a casual fan of the sport meant to really see what is going on.

Right now, we have a chance to stop this. To put the focus back on the 4 officials working together to effectively police the game and clean it up. It may lead to a period of penalty-ridden games, but players and coaches will have to adapt to the laws which are already in place or we will begin to see interest wane as the sport just becomes a mess.

Six Nations 2020: England v Ireland

Six Nations 2020: England v Ireland

Round 3 of the 2020 Six Nations came to an end in Twickenham with the visit of Ireland. Andy Farrell’s men came in off the back of a great performance against Wales, but soon found themselves behind after they failed to deal with a Ben Youngs grubber, gifting George Ford a try. Issues with England’s kicking game continued and led to a try for Elliot Daly, while in attack, they rarely looked dangerous, going in 17-0 down at half time. Things evened out a little in the second half, with Robbie Henshaw soon crashing over for a try, but England’s pack and backs bundled Luke Cown-Dickie over the line from 5 metres out to secure the win. A late try for Andre Porter giving the score a bit more respectability, with John Cooney kicking the conversion to bring an end to the game, England emerging 24-12 winners to become the only team still capable of winning the Triple Crown.

England

Does Eddie Jones actually understand what a number 8 does? With Billy Vunipola missing the tournament through injury, many – myself included – were shocked at the lack of a specialist number 8 in the squad for the tournament, especially given the form of Alex Dombrandt and Sam Simmonds. With Ben Earl in incredible form for Sarries and having experience across the back row, I assumed that he was being given the shot at 8, but that chance has instead gone to Tom Curry, who has started all 3 games at the position.

Now fair play to Curry, he has looked better at the position by the week, but he is still not a specialist number 8 and it is clearly limiting the team’s options, as England have barely used the number 8 pick-up option over the first 3 rounds of the tournament, especially in an attacking sense. With England putting themselves in a comfortable position at the hour mark, it was surely time to let Ben Earl show what he could do at the position. Instead, he as kept on the bench for almost another 10 minutes and the number 8 role went to… Charlie Ewels! Certainly he added some heft to the back of the scrum, but again his inclusion at the position is limiting the effectiveness of the England scrum.

Right now, I can’t even begin to imagine how demoralising it must be for Earl and even more so for Simmonds, Dombrandt and Zach Mercer to see that the national team’s head coach will prioritise players with no/limited experience at the position even at club level over players who are putting in starring performances at the position week in, week out.

How many more players will we see thrown in at number 8 ahead of a specialist? Hopefully none, but this is Eddie Jones we’re talking about. If he is to try one more though, I’ll keep my fingers crossed for Ellis Genge – just imagine the destruction he would cause picking up from the base of a scrum!

Ireland

When the game is collapsing around you and everything is going wrong, you turn to your stars and leadership group on the field. But what if they are the ones causing the problem? What were they bringing to the team in this match?

  • Conor Murray looked horribly off form. His famed kicking game was woefully wayward and gifting England possession in good areas, while he could not up the pace enough to catch out the England defensive line
  • Jonathan Sexton looked anything but a former World Rugby Player of the Year. His inability to deal with a grubber into the dead ball area gifted George Ford a try, his kicking at goal was so horribly shanked to the left I was left wondering if he was seeing double and his control of the back line was best summed up with him slipping on his butt when missing a boot
  • CJ Stander’s biggest impacts in the game were the ones he made with his right hand on Owen Farrell. Yes there was provocation from Farrell, but Stander was lucky not to be penalised
  • Cian Healy (whose impact was limited by an early injury) and Tadhg Furlong were overpowered by the English pack
  • James Ryan was more noticeable for his torpedoing into breakdowns and his picking fights than he was for any actual rugby

That just isn’t good enough from a set of key players. I have been arguing that John Cooney should have been the starting scrum half all tournament, and he clearly improved the team dynamic after he came on, upping the pace to help them get behind the defence, while he as also nailed his only attempted kick at goal, a much more difficult one than one of Sexton’s missed kicks. Likewise, Caelan Doris added something late on with his carrying, making more metres per carry than anyone else in the Irish pack.

This has to be the moment when Andy Farrell moves on from some of Joe Schmidt’s stalwarts and brings in the new blood that can help the team moving forward. Will he make the swaps, or will he continue to show faith with the tried and tested players?


My standout players

As I mentioned above, John Cooney‘s introduction certainly improved the Irish performance during the second half, which should now begin his time in the 9 shirt, while Bundee Aki but in a strong defensive performance, making 10 tackles and causing issues at the breakdown, while carrying hard to try and create a platform.

For England, Manu Tuilagi‘s big hits and bigger carries set England up to dominate the game, while Man of the Match Courtney Lawes appeared to carry harder than usual, looking more at home in the 6 shirt. Similar to Gaël Fickou yesterday, I think that Jonathan Joseph put in a strong performance out of position on the left wing, with some good sniping runs in attack, while he also benefited from not really being tested by the Irish kicking game. For the last 2 picks, I’d still prefer an actual back row and winger to play the positions, but their performances today deserved recognition.

Six Nations 2020: Wales v France

Six Nations 2020: Wales v France

We reached the halfway point of the 2020 Six Nations on Saturday with France’s trip to Wales. France’s young guns came into this match with 2 victories under their belt and took an early lead as Wales’ failure to deal with a high ball led to Anthony Bouthier’s early try, while Paul Willemse crashed over from short range, Dan Biggar’s boot keeping Wales just in touch, with a 9-17 halftime score. Romain Ntamack added a try and a further 5 points off the tee, and though Dan Biggar replied with a try and conversion of his own, France managed to hold on in the final minutes and Camille Chat earned a penalty at the breakdown with the clock in the red to secure a 23-27 victory and keep their Grand Slam hopes alive.

Wales

Wayne Pivac had great success with the Scarlets playing an expansive gameplan, but it’s not quite clicked yet for Wales. In this match, the attack looked very poor. Despite fantastic attacking talents like Gareth Davies, Nick Tompkins, Johnny McNicholl and Josh Adams in the backs, the attack often looked panicky trying to deal with France’s blitz defence.

If Wales set up the breakdown, then France were often able to reset and blitz again, pushing the Welsh back, but the team cohesiveness was not there to keep the ball moving out of the tackle with the sheer number of offloads the team was trying to throw. To me, this came back to an issue that I think Wales have been finding of late: they do not have enough physical ball carriers. They certainly have players like Alun Wyn Jones and Ken Owens, who will carry all day, but they are not going to push the gain line back in a way that for example the Irish pack of CJ Stander, Tadhg Furlong, Cian Healy and James Ryan will, which makes it hard for Wales to get on the front foot.

Right now, George North has become a shadow of the player he used to be and this latest concussion could be accelerating the end of his international career. Hadleigh Parkes is currently one of the only players regularly making metres in the tighter areas. Personally, I think that Ross Moriarty is being used in too much of a defensive role and a couple of late carries were a good reminder of how destructive he can be when allowed to carry in attack, while I also think that Taulupe Faletau is yet to reach anything near his best following his injury nightmares and so I think another stronger carrier like Aaron Wainwright would help this team create the platform that they are currently missing.

I will be interesting to see if any changes are made ahead of Round 4.

France

Last week I mentioned how Wales really seem to be missing Shaun Edwards, this week we got to see just how much France are benefiting from having him.

The French team are full of physical players through the pack and midfield, which combined with an organised blitz defence to continually push Wales back towards their own line, making a whopping 177 tackles over the 80 minutes. They are not yet the finished article as they are giving away more penalties than you would expect from a Shaun Edwards defence and maybe aren’t hitting the tackle completion percentages Edwards woudl want (they finished on 87%), but even when they were down to 14 men (on 2 occasions!) they defended admirably and rarely looked in real trouble.

This defence will just get better over the next couple of seasons as the players gain more international experience and get to spend more time with Edwards. This is a team on their way to being world-beaters.


My standout players

For Wales, the back row pairing of Ross Moriarty and Justin Tipuric put in strong defensive performances while also making some dangerous carries in attack, while Hadleigh Parkes once again Carried hard in midfield to try creating a platform for the team.

For France, Antoine Dupont and Man of the Match Romain Ntamack controlled the game almost perfectly, while Gaël Fickou actually appeared more involved from his left wing position than he had at centre the last few weeks. Meanwhile, fullback Anthony Bouthier answered the questions that the Welsh kicking game asked of him, while asking questions of his own and scoring an important early try.

Six Nations 2020: Italy v Scotland

Six Nations 2020: Italy v Scotland

The Six Nations returned after a week off with our first trip to Rome in 2020. Scotland and Italy have generally shared the Wooden Spoon between them most years since the tournament took its current form, and the first 2 rounds made that likely to be the case again this year.

In a tight affair, Stuart Hogg put Scotland ahead with a wonderful solo attack on 23 minutes for the only points of the first half. The game continued in much the same way in the second half: Scotland and Italy both fighting hard for possession and territory with limited success in each other’s 22, though Chris Harris did manage to power himself over for a try 7 minutes after halftime. Then in the dying minute, a final attack from Italy was turned over and Adam Hastings was able to sneak away down the blind side to score and convert a try for an eventual 0-17 victory.

Italy

It’s never nice to see a player give the shepherd’s crook early in a game, but sometimes a player’s performance will be so bad, there is no way they can be kept on the pitch. Sadly, that was the case today for young Italian tighthead Giosuè Zilocchi. He may be great in the loose, but the Zebre prop put in one of the worst scrummaging performances I have seen in professional rugby. Every scrum saw him set up with his legs so far back that his body was almost perfectly aligned from head to toe – not a good scrummaging position at all as it left him unable to keep the scrum up the moment it began to move on his side. By the time that he had been replaced at the half-hour mark, he had already given away 3 penalties.

I can understand why the coaching staff want him involved, as he showed his abilities in the loose when an injury to his replacement Marco Riccioni forced him back on for the final 25 minutes (which were thankfully light on scrums), but with the scrum such a vital part of the game, play like that made him a liability.

This performance from Zilocchi has left me with some big questions. Has he been scrummaging like this in training or did this suddenly happen in the match? If this has happened out of nowhere in the match, why has this happened? If this has been happening in training, why was he selected if the coaches had not been able to get him scrummaging properly? The coaching team have had limited time with the squad, but this was something that would be obvious to an observer.

Hopefully Zilocchi can improve his technique over the coming fortnight.

Scotland

What has happened to this Scotland side? Even though they have struggled to win games at times over the last few years, one of their big positives has been the tries they score. Now they are seriously struggling to cross the line. Their 3 tries in this game were their first in the tournament… and even 2 of these were from counterattacks rather than structured attacking play – Stuart Hogg exploiting a mismatch when running back a kick and Adam Hastings sneaking away down the blind side following a turnover.

I’ve talked about how Scotland needed to get more of a balance to the squad between hard runners and flair players – which they now have – and supporting better around the park, but despite this, they could still barely break down the Italian defence. For me, some big changes need making over these final 2 rounds: Rory Hutchinson needs to be given a starting spot and Darcy Graham needs to return to the wing if he is fit.

Ideally as well would be the return of Finn Russell, but it doesn’t look like that will be happening while Gregor Townsend remains in charge. Right now, that could sound the death knell for Townsend’s time as head coach.


My standout players

Such was the disappointment in Scotland’s performance, the only players who really stood out to me for them were flankers Hamish Watson (who was named Man of the Match) and Jamie Ritchie, who made the breakdown a nightmare for the Italians with a number of turnovers, while they also played key roles in one of Scotland’s more promising attacks.

For Italy, the back three of Matteo Minozzi, Jayden Hayward and Mattia Bellini were limited in their chances to attack, but took them well when they arose, looking far more exciting than their opposite numbers. Bellini especially showed a set of hips that Shakira would be proud of on one first half break. Jake Polledri continued to stand out with his strong carrying and tireless tackling as well as a couple of big turnovers, while replacement back row Giovanni Licata also contributed well tot he defensive effort and made some big carries late in the game, so much so that I would love to see him start in the back row with Polledri and Braam Steyn in Round 4.

Six Nations 2020: France v Italy

Six Nations 2020: France v Italy

The 2ⁿᵈ round of the 2020 Six Nations came to an end in Paris as Italy took on France. Les Bleus took an early lead through the boot of Romain Ntamack before Teddy Thomas and Charles Ollivon crossed to give them a handy advantage. Italy grew into the game and Matteo Minozzi crossed to make it a contest, before Grégory Alldritt’s try just before half time. The second half was a much closer affair. Ntamack crossed to secure a bonus point for France, before a series of French penalties led to a try for Federico Zani.

Italy frequently found themselves (wrongly) on the wrong side of the officials’ decisions as the game went on, with referee Andrew Brace ignoring/missing (honestly it happened so often in the match, I’m not certain!) a number of French offences that allowed them to push the Italians right back, and a late try from substitute Baptiste Serin secured the game for Italy, despite a late try from Mattia Bellini, the game ending 35-22.

France

Romain Ntamack is a fantastic young player and is doing a good job of leading the French back line despite not always being considered the starting fly half for Toulouse yet. However, he is not yet perfect and in a closer game, his goal kicking could prove to be an issue.

Granted, this match was not the ideal conditions for a goal kicker, but Ntamack ended the game with just 3/7 successful kicks, missing a couple that an international kicker would be expected to nail. Even one of those successful kicks needed a double-doink off both posts to ensure it went through! When the game became a tight affair in the second half, it looked like those missed kicks could potentially prove costly, and it seemed to hit his confidence a little, causing further errors in his game as the team dropped off. Luckily for France it didn’t prove costly this weekend, but it is certainly possible that one of their remaining matches could come down to goal kicking. Ntamack is not the first choice kicker at Toulouse, so will this lead to a change for France in Round 3?

There are certainly options. Thomas Ramos could come in at 15, but he currently seems down the pecking order. Baptiste Serin is an adept kicker, but has the issue of competing for the 9 jersey with Antione Dupont, who is arguably one of the best scrum halves in the world right now. Another option would be to bring in Matthieu Jalibert or Louis Carbonel at fly half. While they could drop Ntamack from the bench in this final case, I also think that they could look to move him to 12, as Gaël Fickou has had a limited impact so far, so a change to a dual-playmaker system could help unleash a back line that includes (when they are all fit) Damian Penaud, Virimi Vakatawa and Teddy Thomas.

Italy

Sometimes, I really don’t know what Italy are trying to do. Early in the game, the Azzurri seriously struggled to make any ground as they were unable to get around the French blitz defence. The blitz was also making Tommaso Allan stand very deep when looking to kick the ball clear. This meant that it was even harder for him to make ground with the pressure coming on him. and yet it took forever for Callum Braley to start taking charge and box kicking himself in dangerous situations.

Similarly, Carlo Canna is the last person I would think of if I heard the phrase “crash ball centre” but he was frequently used as such in this game – honestly I’m surprised that he lasted the full 80 minutes in one piece! And once again, the game began with Italy sending one-out forward runners into the heart of the French defence. I was worried that this game could become a bloodbath.

Then in the 24ᵗʰ minute, things began to change. Jake Polledri took the ball on the blind side, but instead of crashing forward, he turned and played the ball out to Allan, catching out the blitzing French and leading to Minozzi’s try. Then as the game went on, Italy seemed to be supporting their runners with more intent, quick ball was produced and the forwards used this to make even more ground, adding in offloads out of the tackle and off the floor.

Unfortunately, the officials were either incapable or unwilling to referee the 2 teams equally and a number of promising attacks were unfairly ended by the French, to the point that I feel the Italians can consider themselves hard done by to come away with nothing from the game.

After seeing such positive results, hopefully we will see more of this more varied game from Italy in 2 weeks.


My standout players

It’s no real surprise to see Antoine Dupont and Matteo Minozzi featuring in this section as they are absolute live-wires on a weekly basis.

Jake Polledri was a big par of Italy’s success, with a whopping 25 tackles and also 11 carries, many of which helped put Italy on the front foot.

Finally, Carlo Canna deserves some recognition for his variety of play, helping Allan control the back line and spreading the ball to the wings, but also doing a good job of crashing the ball up the middle to keep the French defence guessing, though I imagine he’ll be feeling it tomorrow!

Six Nations 2020: Scotland v England

Six Nations 2020: Scotland v England

Saturday’s second Round 2 match was a battle between Scotland and England at Murrayfield. The poor weather may have held off for the opening game of the day in Dublin, but it was at Edinburgh in full force, leading to a game full of handling errors and (often misplaced) kicks.

England went into halftime with a 0-3 lead, with Owen Farrell having missed a couple of penalties kicking into the wind, but the Scots came out firing in the second half and Adam Hastings pulled them level, but the Scots could not take advantage of their superiority and open up a lead, which proved costly as another mistake from Stuart Hogg put England in position for Ellis Genge to drive over for the only try of the game, leaving Hastings to kick a late penalty to earn a losing bonus point, with the final score 6-13.

Scotland

If you ever wanted to see the impact that momentum has on a game, you just need to watch the second half of this game. Coming out for the second half 0-3 down and playing into the wind, Scotland should have been in a worrying position, but an early break from Rory Sutherland put them right on the front foot and they refused to let up the pressure. They eventually came away with 3 points from that attack, but their tails were up and they were making the right calls, coping with the weather far better than England, who were continually kicking the ball out on the full. To fuel this momentum even more, Stuart Hogg made a great break down the left after fielding a kick, stepping his way past both Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph before slotting a grubber kick between Jonny May and George Furbank to the corner.

Scotland kept the pressure on, but the momentum started to shift as referee Pascal Gaüzère inexplicably missed/allowed the most obvious of rips on the floor from Kyle Sinckler 5m out from the England line, allowing England to clear deep into the Scotland half. The momentum then switched completely as Stuart Hogg completely failed to deal with a questioning kick from England, almost conceding a try but instead giving England a 5m scrum, which led to Genge’s try. Suddenly after this, it was Scotland who were unable to deal with the conditions and the call to take the 3 points with a late penalty was definitely the right one as it allowed them to come away from the match with something.

Obviously it’s not often that Scotland will play in such terrible conditions and they should be happy at how well they adapted to them, but they will look back at this as a game they should have won and they need to find ways to control the momentum of the game better.

England

Only England could come away from this match with a thoroughly undeserved win. This team completely failed to deal with the conditions and can consider themselves lucky that a couple of key moments went in their favour.

“Did I ever tell you what the definition of insanity is? Insanity is doing the exact same f***ing thing over and over again, expecting s*** to change. That is crazy.”

Vaas Montenegro – Far Cry 3

Watching this game, I couldn’t help feel that the coaches had drilled into the team to focus on kicking for the corners to turn the defence or putting the ball up high to test their handling… to the point that nobody on the pitch had the strength of leadership to move away from this tactic. After Elliot Daly made a great break down the left wing, there was a great chance for England to work an overlap to put Jonny May over in the corner, but Owen Farrell instead chose to put a grubber into the corner. Playing with the wind behind them in the second half, Willi Heinz put 3 touchline box kicks out on the full, while Owen Farrell, George Ford and Elliot Daly all found their kicks going too long with astounding regularity.

Last week, England tried to run Jonathan Joseph hard at the France defence as if he was Manu Tuilagi. This week, they refused to go away from a kicking game that wasn’t working. How many more times will England continue to just do the same thing over and over again when it’s clearly not working?

Did I ever tell you what the definition of insanity is?


My standout players

In a day of horrible conditions, I need to give some respect to Adam Hastings for running the Scotland attack so well and dealing with the weather far better than England’s more experienced playmakers.

Tom Curry had a much better game at the back of the scrum and caused some mayhem at the breakdown alongside Sam Underhill.

The big standout player for me, though, was George Furbank. After a debut to forget last week, these kind of conditions were the last thing he would have anted, but he dealt with them well and really grew into the game, looking one of the more assured players in the England back line.

Six Nations 2020: Ireland v Wales

Six Nations 2020: Ireland v Wales

The 2ⁿᵈ weekend of the 2020 Six Nations kicked off with a match begin 2 of Round 1’s winning teams. Wales travelled to the Aviva Stadium, but after a close start they found themselves going behind after Jordan Larmour stepped his way through Nick Tompkins’ attempted tackle for the opening try. Tomos Williams soon crossed and Dan Biggar converted to give Wales the lead, but it was short-lived as Tadhg Furlong barrelled over to put the Irish back ahead. The second half saw the home team pull away with tries from Josh van der Flier and Andrew Conway either side of a disallowed Hadeigh Parkes try, while Justin Tipuric crossed with the final play of the game to make the final score of 24-14 look more respectable.

Ireland

For so long, Wales have been one of the best teams in the Northern Hemisphere when it comes to the breakdown. Though they had some success early in the game, it was generally as an Irish player found themselves isolated. When the breakdown became a contest, Ireland were largely dominant.

Perhaps it helps that they have an extremely physical pack and midfield when Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw are on the pitch, but whatever it is, it is hard to stop. I was critical of CJ Stander last season, but he has looked back to his best in these first 2 rounds and was the real stand-out player on Saturday. Every time Wales got something going, it felt like Stander was there bent over the man on the floor, winning the ball back or earning the Irish a penalty. Yes, he was pinged a couple of times, resulting in a late yellow card, but even a couple of those decisions were very close (by the standards that you see at every other breakdown, even if technically the calls were correct).

With Josh van der Flier and Peter O’Mahony taking responsibility for the majority of the tackling in the back row, it allows Stander to focus on winning the ball back. The one thing this back row does lack though is significant carrying metres. It will be interesting to see how the back row’s performance changes if Caelan Doris is given that starting spot back in favour of Peter O’Mahony in Round 3.

Wales

While the big talk has been about the change of head coach from Warren Gatland to Wayne Pivac, what probably hasn’t been discussed enough is the loss of Shaun Edwards to France. Byron Hayward may be a great coach, but he is replacing arguably one of the best defensive coaches in the game and it will take time for him to settle at international level. His case certainly isn’t helped either by having some key personnel like Jonathan Davies missing.

While it is still early days, it looks like the defensive organisation needs a lot of work over the next couple of weeks. I can’t remember the last time I saw the team defend so narrow!Right from the opening minutes, Ireland were finding joy spreading the ball wide and getting around the edge of the Welsh defensive line. I can’t help wonder if this was the case against Italy as well, but just not as obvious as the Italians allowed the defence to drift better.

Why did they defend like this? Had they predicted a tighter game due to the predicted adverse weather conditions? Were they trying to defend super narrow to deal with the physicality of the Irish pack and midfield? Or is Hayward seriously miscalculating his players’ ability to cover the width of the pitch effectively from a narrow starting point?

With France up next and likely coming in off the back of 2 wins with one of the most dangerous back lines in the competition, Wales need to sort their defence out quickly.


My standout players

As I’ve already mentioned, CJ Stander was superb in his defensive work and is really looking back to his best.

Jordan Larmour continues to look assured in the starting lineup and appears to ave made the 15 shirt his own, while his fellow back 3 member Andrew Conway appears to be doing the same with the 14 shirt, putting in a great 2-way performance and making some fantastic clearing kicks.

While Wales had a poor day, Alun Wyn Jones put in another majestic performance, completing 22/23 tackles while also playing an important role in the attack with some strong carrying and deft offloads.

Hadleigh Parkes also looked back to his best after an injury-disrupted World Cup, putting in a strong defensive performance and also being the team’s primary carrier with 16 carries for 27 metres.