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.

Guinness Six Nations

Six Nations 2020: Italy v England

Six Nations 2020: Italy v England

The long-delayed Super Saturday to end the 2020 Six Nations continued at the Stadio Olimpico as Italy hosted England. The Azzurri’s 6ᵗʰ place finish was already confirmed, while the visitors knew that they needed to win – and win big – to potentially win the tournament.

Things couldn’t have started much better for England, with Owen Farrell breaking through in midfield and feeding Ben Youngs to pen the scoring on his 100ᵗʰ cap, Farrell adding the conversion and a further 3 points from a penalty soon after. The men in white struggled to build on this though, and were made to pay when a handling error allowed Jake Polledri to go over in the corner. England survived a 10-minute period without Jonny Hill following a high tackle, but after Polledri was sent to the bin for coming in at the side of a maul, England failed to capitalise on the extra an at the catch and drive – getting turned over short of the line – and almost conceded themselves right before halftime as they failed to deal with a kick down the right wing, with both George Furbank and Federico Mori missing the ball and Jonny May cleaning up to end the half 5-10.

With Polledri still in the bin for the opening minutes of the second half, the Italian defence found themselves stretched and allowed Ben Youngs to snipe off the side of a ruck to go over for his second try of the game. With Italy back to a full complement, they looked like they had the desire but not the personnel, an England drove over from a lineout, Jamie George dotting down for the try, and while England never really shone, Tom Curry and Henry Slade both scored in the corner to secure the bonus point with a 5-34 victory. This victory put England top of the table, and with France beating Ireland later in the evening, they were crowned Six Nations Champions.

Who wants it?

England may have been the one going for the Six Nations title, but there was only 1 team that looked like they had the desire to win this game: Italy. The Azzurri were fired up for this match and taking it as a personal affront any time they were beaten as a pack, while celebrating vociferously with every turnover and penalty they won.

Were England just struggling as this was their first match together? Or were they just taking Italy for granted? Either way, I need to see more desire from England.

In too deep

While Italy may have had the desire, they came away with only 5 points from this game, and the only times they really looked like scoring were the try – which came off an England error – and a chance just before halftime as Mori chased a kick downfield.

To me, one of the big reasons that they created so little was how deep their back line was playing. When the ball was going through the forwards off 9, they were holding parity against the England defence and making metres, but as soon as the ball went to the backs, they were dropping almost 10 metres with each pass, but not doing anything to trouble the England defence. This would lead to them being tackled well behind the gain line and struggling to keep possession as most of their men were in front of the ball.

If Italy want to start having some success, they need to start by getting fly half Paolo Garbisi playing closer to the line. Only by doing this will the Azzurri be able to start bringing in midfield runners to cause defences trouble and create space on the outside.

In the footsteps of a legend

For so long, Italy have rallied around their star man and captain Sergio Parisse. While he may now be gone, another superstar has emerged from his shadow in the shape of Gloucester’s Jake Polledri.

Capable of playing across the back row, he has recently been used at 8 by the Azzurri, which I think suits him best, as he has the power game to create a platform coming off the base of the scrum, while also the pace to exploit any space he is given – both of which he showed in scoring his try in this game. On top of that, he is also a threat at the breakdown, capable of playing at 7.

And at 24 years old and playing for Gloucester, it means that he is playing against many of the best players in the world on a weekly basis. I may have some bias having watched him regularly these past few years, but I feel comfortable picking him amongst the top 5 number 8s in the world currently playing, and that is just the kind of player Italy needs right now.

Guinness Six Nations

Six Nations 2020: Wales v Scotland

Six Nations 2020: Wales v Scotland

The longest Six nations in history reached it’s final day with a customary Super Saturday. What was not so customary was the location, as Llanelli’s Parc y Scarlets played host to Wales and Scotland.

The swirling winds proved a nightmare for both sides, with a Finn Russell penalty the only points of the opening quarter. The first try came on the half hour mark, as a Scottish throw to the back of the lineout in their own 22 went too far and set up Rhys Carré for the opening try. Dan Biggar kicked the conversion and things got worse for the Scots as Finn Russell left the field injured. The Scots had a half-chance right before halftime, and though they were unable to convert it, they did win a penalty which Adam Hastings kicked to reduce the deficit at the break to a point.

The game remained close after the restart, but Scotland got the breakthrough as a catch and drive lineout resulted in Stuart McInally crossing for a try in the corner. With Dan Biggar having gone off injured, Leigh Halfenny kicked the Welsh back within a point, but the Scots got a kickable penalty at the death and, with Hastings now also off injured, Stuart Hogg kicked the 3 point to secure a 10-14 win, Scotland’s first win in Wales since 2002, and 4ᵗʰ place in the standings, while Wales’ first campaign under Wayne Pivac ended in a disappointing 5ᵗʰ place.

Record breaker

Probably the biggest disappointment about this result for Wales is that it came on the day that captain Alun Wyn Jones won his 149ᵗʰ cap to break Richie McCaw’s record for international caps.

The Ospreys lock has rightly become a legend of Welsh Rugby, having now earned 140 Test caps for Wales as well as 9 Test caps with the British and Irish Lions. A natural leader whether captain or not, he commands the lineout so well and will be putting in maximum effort from kickoff to the final whistle.

Like the man he is replacing at the top of the list of most Test caps, his relationship with the referees and his years of experience mean that he is able to not just toe the line of legality but push it to extremes without getting penalised.

Probably the greatest compliment that I can give him is that as a teammate or supporter, you love him, as an opponent, you hate him.

Van’s the man

While the selection of Blair Kinghorn on the wing was probably right for this match due to the way the swirling wind affected the high ball,  I can’t help but feel that the number 11 shirt should belong to Duhan van der Merwe moving forwards.

While Kinghorn is a talented player, he is also a more versatile player who could make an impact off the bench, while I would argue that the pairing of van der Merwe and Darcy Graham provides the most dangerous attacking tandem on the wings. But what van der Merwe also offers is the extra physicality that the Scots have often missed. By bringing him in off his wing, he provides a dangerous crash ball option, while if he can be put through a gap, he then has the pace to exploit it to the maximum.

Don’t be surprised to see the Edinburgh wing becoming a regular starter for Scotland in the Autumn Nations Cup and 2021 Six Nations, and potentially even making a late run for the British and Irish Lions touring party.

Welsh weakness

While van der Merwe adds to the Sottish physicality, the Welsh are really struggling in this area. Wales have fantastic players, but so many of them are lacking on the physical side, with small, technical back rowers and fast, agile wingers. While this can work to a degree, there are many teams who will require you to have a more physical edge in order to get the win.

This is even more evident right now with the loss of Hadleigh Parkes from the 12 shirt, while George North is a shadow of the player he used to be on the wing. While the inside centre position could be sorted in the coming years by Willis Haloholo and Johnny Williams, Wales needs to develop strong, mobile forwards to give the pack that extra oomph. Cory Hill and Will Rowlands could potentially be the guys in the second row but they need to prove it, as does Aaron Wainwright in the back row. Josh Navidi will always play above his strength, but ideally Wales also need Ross Moriarty to get back to his top form and bring back the physical running game he initially had when he first came on the scene with Wales and Gloucester.

If Wales can’t sort out their physical deficiencies soon, they could be in for some disappointing times.

Guinness Six Nations

Six Nations 2020: Ireland v Italy

Six Nations 2020: Ireland v Italy

Almost 8 months after the 2020 Six Nations came to an early end due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the competition resumed today with Ireland’s Round 4 match against Italy.

The Italians were the clear underdogs going into the game but had the brighter start as Seb Negri burs through the defence and into the 22 before passing to Marcello Violi. The scrum half was brought down just short of the line, but a cynical penalty from his opposite number Conor Murray saw the Munsterman sent to the sin bin, while debutant fly half Paolo Garbisi bisected the posts with the penalty. The Irish soon hit back though and a series of phases on the Italian line saw CJ Stander cross for the opening try despite them still being a man down, Jonathan Sexton nailing the converson and a penalty soon after. Like last night’s match between Scotland and Georgia, the game soon settled into a tense affair for the rest of the opening half hour, until Leinster wing Hugo Keenan was sent over in the corner for a try on debut. It looked like he had another just moments later after being set up by a great counterattacking run from fullback Jacob Stockdale, but the try was ruled out for an obstruction by James Ryan that allowed Stockdale to break through the defensive line. The Italians used the resultant penalty to set themselves in the Irish 22, but after Caelan Dorris won a turnover at the breakdown, the Irish countered and Keenan won the chase of Conor Murray’s kick for his second try of the game, Sexton kicking the extras for a 24-3 halftime score.

The Azzurri tightened things up at the start of the second half and began to get more possession, but still struggled to make anything of it, but when Ireland got the ball back, Sexton found his miss pass intercepted by Edoardo Padovani, who dotted down under the posts. The Irish soon hit back, with a driving maul resulting in a try on debut for flanker Will Connors, while Sexton crashed over for another try just minutes later to ensure the win was guaranteed with 15 minutes remaining. The Irish knew that they were set to go top of the table with this result, but with a trip to France still to come, it was important to score every point they could, and after turning over the ball deep in the Italian half, they spread the ball while to put Bundee Aki over in the corner, before scoring their 7ᵗʰ try entering the final minute as a rolling maul propelled Dave Heffernan over the line. Replacement fly half Ross Byrne chose to take a quick conversion to force the restart in the hopes of 1 more try, but this ended up proving costly as the Irish knocked on the high ball and after a number of phases in midfield, Garbisi broke through a gap and made it over for a consolation try, kicking the conversion for a final score of 50-17.

Looking to the future

One look at today’s Italy line-up – or the wider squad as a whole – will tell you that Franco Smith is already looking ahead to RWC2023 by selecting a younger and less experienced squad who will be coming into their prime com the World Cup. Fullback Jayden Hayward was the only player in the 23 in his 30s (with Leonardo Ghiraldini the only other one in the wider squad), while 7 of the 23 involved were 24 or younger, including 20-year-old fly half Garbisi. I also wouldn’t have been surprised to see 19-year-old scrum half Stephen Varney involved in the game following some scintillating displays for Gloucester since the restart, only for him to suffer a positive COVID-19 test.

There is the short-term risk that this lack of experience may make it harder for Italy to win games, but these players are coming in off some success with the U20s and improving performances from the Pro14 franchises, so this freshness may actually turn out to be exactly what the team needs right now. If nothing else though, they will be an experienced unit come 2023 and the World Cup.

Crash ball Canna

Carlo Canna is a talented fly half and playmaker. What he is not is an obvious pick to be a crash ball 12, and yet that is how he sees himself being used by Franco Smith. Fair play to Canna, he puts in the effort in this role, but (as you would expect) it is with limited success. This leads to Italy having to play with a deep line in order to try to make it to the outside, but when they are then caught in midfield, they are in danger due to most of their players now being ahead of the ball.

Italy have some wonderful ball carriers, especially in the forwards, and yet it is so rare to see them getting a chance to run at the defence outside 1or 2 men from the breakdown, where the defence is still tightly grouped so a line-break is unlikely. You just need to see Jake Polledri running riot for Gloucester or Seb Negri’s break in the opening minutes of this game to see just how dangerous this team can be if they are playing the right way.

Franco Smith needs to make a decision what he wants at 12. If he wants a second playmaker to help take the pressure off Garbisi, then he needs to have the forwards getting the ball in wider positions and have the blindside winger and Luca Morisi attacking the line more often. And if he wants his 12 to be a North to South runner, then he needs to change the personnel he is selecting.

Back row balance

Ireland went for a very different looking back row for this match, but it looked highly effective and I would not be surprised to see them go for something similar again.

While CJ Stander remained at 8, he was given some carrying support by playing Caelan Doris at 6. What is great about this pairing is that they are both different styles of carrier, with Stander making the hard yards from a high number of carries (74m from 21 carries – just over 3.5 metres per carry) while Doris is more of an effective carrier in open play (6 carriers for 33m – 5.5 metres per carry).

More than that, though, the selectin of Will Connors at 7 seemed to suggest that Andy Farrell knew he had plenty of turnover specialists throughout the team, so instead brought in a player who, much like Dan Lydiate used to do for Wales, would just tackle all day long, allowing players like Stander, Doris, Cian Healy and Tadhg Beirne to get in over the ball and make the turnover.

There will of course be tougher tests than Italy, but I think that Ireland should test this balance again in their upcoming matches.

Guinness Six Nations

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.