Seeing Red

Seeing Red

If recent reports are to be believed, World Rugby are considering expanding the 20-minute red card to more competitions. If they do this, it will just show how out of touch the governing body is with the sport and how it is putting the spectacle before player safety.

So let’s take a step back first and look at what the law is. Much like football, if a player is red carded, they are immediately removed from the field of play and their team plays the remainder of the game with a player less. However under the new variation that is currently being trialled in Super Rugby Pacific, while the red carded player’s match is over, the team is allowed to bring on a replacement after 20 minutes.

So what’s happening in Super Rugby. Well I think the only appropriate word would be “mayhem”! It’s not much of an overstatement to say that the majority of games are seeing at least one red card, generally for dangerous play that included contact with the head.

Red cards are surely at an all-time high worldwide, with amendments to the laws in recent years that have been intended to make the game safer by reducing contact with the head. And yet despite the increased sanctions with the risk of a red card—and despite stories in the news of James “Cubby” Davies recently retiring due to a concussion, having not played since November 2020, and former players Steve Thompson and Alix Popham’s revelations that they now suffer from early-onset dementia—players appear to be unwilling or incapable of adapting to the new laws.

The red card is meant to be a deterrent, a punishment to encourage better behaviour, but it has clearly not been enough and the arrival of a 20-minute red card is even less of a punishment, so it is no surprise to see Super Rugby matches turning into a contest of “who can crack a man’s skull open first?” And the reason that this 20-minute red card is being considered: because there is a group of people out there—unfortunately fuelled by a number of so-called “experts” in the media—who complain that red cards ruin the game. Newsflash: they don’t. What ruins the game is players suffering avoidable injuries.

So what should be done?

Well first of all, the 20-minute red card should be scrapped altogether rather than expanding. Current punishments are clearly not a sufficient deterrent, so reducing them will just make things worse, as we are seeing in the Southern Hemisphere.

Secondly, the post-match disciplinary process needs a complete overhaul. As it stands, different offences have different minimum entry points depending on the severity of the offence, while extra weeks may be added for repeat offenders. However, this is all ruined by having weeks taken off for such rubbish as accepting the charge, remorse, attending a “tackle school”, good behaviour in the disciplinary hearing and a previously clean record. You just need to look at the recent case of Axel Müller, whose horror tackle started at a 10-week entry point but ended up being just a 5-week ban once everything was considered! I would argue that any reasons to reduce a ban are removed, while a financial impact also be brought in, with both club and player receiving a fine dependent on the severity of the incident and the disciplinary history that season, with the money being spread among grass-roots rugby and charities focused on head injuries and player welfare. If bans haven’t been enough to encourage better behaviour, perhaps losing money will give players the impetus to improve their technique, or give teams the reason to focus on improving technique.

In line with this, World Rugby needs to enforce more consistency across the board, both from match officials and disciplinary panels. While nobody could argue Hame Faiva’s red card in the Six Nations against Ireland, Ireland’s Ryan Baird escaped even a citing for exactly the same thing later in the match. English referee Karl Dickson is accruing a horribly long list of incidents that he has adjudged to be a yellow card or less, which have then resulted in a citing and the disciplinary panel deciding the incident worth of a red card. Meanwhile, some of the decisions of the judiciary panels SANZAAR have put together have been questionable to say the best, as a number of red cards have been overturned, including a horror shot from Tom Banks on Toni Pulu that rightly ended in a penalty try and red card, but also left the Brumbies fullback requiring facial surgery. You need consistency in order to set a precedent, otherwise players will be able to cite previous incidents where players have escaped punishment for the same offence.

Finally, there is a law that I thin needs changing and that is the one that if a maul becomes unplayable, the ball is turned over. Instead I feel that whichever team was the more dominant right before it became unplayable should get the scrum feed. The reason for this is that the law encourages players to go high for the “man and ball” challenge that holds the player up and creates a maul, leading to a turnover. Look back at England’s match against Ireland and Charlie Ewels’ early red card. England went for a number of high tackles in those opening minutes in an attempt to hold up the ball, and it was a combination of this and Ewels’ inability to adapt to the tackle laws that led to him getting an early shower.

World Rugby has a big decision to make regarding the 20-minute red card. I just hope that they make the right decision.

2022 Six Nations: Team of the Tournament

2022 Six Nations: Team of the Tournament

You knew it had to be coming! With the 2022 edition of the Six Nations completed,there was only one thing left for me to do: pick my Team of the Tournament.

It certainly wasn’t easy this year, wit a number of impressive individual performances standing out in poor team performances, while some players may not have been quite so noticeable but actually played a key role in the success of their teams.

As always, I’ve picked my team on the feelings I got watching the matches, but I have included some stats (courtesy of the Six Nations website) that support their cause. Let me know in the comments who makes your team.


So without further ado, my Team of the 2022 Six Nations is:

1) Cyril Baille: Ellis Genge’s performances certainly had him in contention until his humbling at the hands of the French scrum, while Danilo Fischetti was a real stand-out for Italy, but Baille gets the nod here. An argument could certainly be made that Baille is one of the top 3 looseheads in the world right now. Part of the formidable French front row, Baille is a incredible player in the loose, dynamic and with impressive handling skills (he managed 8 offloads through the tournament). But what really impresses me is that he has the rugby IQ to know when to hit the ruck following a break and when to instead modify his run to instead take the crash ball on the next phase to further destabilise the defence.

2) Julien Marchand: Marchand is just one of the latest in a long line of elite hookers the French national team has been able to call on. In the loose, it is like having another back row on the pitch with his dynamic carrying and his threat at the breakdown. But not just that, he is super reliable at the breakdown, working with his props to form a dominant scrum while having a solid lineout despite Cameron Woki’s inexperience calling the lineouts.

3) Uini Atonio: Completing a French lock-out in the front row, Uini Antonio is anything but new to the international stage, but appears to have improved over recent years as he appears to have balanced his incredible physicality and scrummaging with some improved fitness, which has made him a much more dangerous player.

4 & 5) Maro Itoje & Paul Willemse: Cameron Woki and Will Rowlands were very close to making the list but just miss out. One of my major issues with Itoje over the years is how he ruins his incredible defence with some truly moronic penalties, but he appears to have cut this out and that has helped him reach a new level of quality. Meanwhile Willemse provided the hard carrying to help put the French on the front foot and the physicality behind Atonio to help the French scrum dominate.

6) Rory Darge: Made his Test debut during the tournament but honestly looked like a seasoned pro. carried well in attack and scored a deserved try, but where he really came into his own was at the breakdown. Darge finished the tournament with 5 turnovers, many of which were at crucial times.

7) Michele Lamaro: Who would have thought that sosoon after Sergio Parisse’ Italy career came to an end that the Azzurri would find another talismanic captain so quickly. Well enter Michele Lamaro. The young Benetton flanker leads by example and finished the tournament with a whopping 86 tackles—16 more than the next closest tackler. Topped off the tournament with Italy’s first Six Nations victory in Cardiff. At just 23 years old, expect him to be a regular contender for this list over the coming years.

8) Grégory Alldritt: A shout-out to Taulupe Faletau who was unbelievable in some of the matches, but Alldritt gets the nod here. The French number 8 was back to his best, carrying hard 65 times (9 more than the next carrier) and with 7 offloads that made his carries even more effective. But it wasn’t even just in attack that he excelled, finding himself in the top 10 for tackles (53) with 6 turnovers.

9) Jamison Gibson-Park: It feels like sacrilege not to pick Antoine Dupont after captaining France to the Grand Slam, but as good as he was, I don’t think he quite reached his lofty high standards. Gibson-Park meanwhile played a key role in the Irish attack, keeping a consistent high tempo that just accentuated the Irish ability to play from 1-23, while he finished the tournament with 4 assists and 390 passes (by comparison, the next-most passes was Ali Price’s 287).

10) Romain Ntamack: Dan Biggar had some wonderful moments in a poor Welsh team, but Ntamack gets the pick here. With Melvyn Jaminet taking the pressure off of him by dealing with kicks at goal, Ntamack controlled the French team with a great blend of kicking and attacking play, finishing the tournament with 4 assists.

11) Gabin Villière: Talk about taking your chance! Just a couple of years ago, Villière was splitting his time between playing for Rouen and the French national sevens team. Now he’s at Toulon and must be working his way up to undroppable status for Les Bleus. A dynamic and skilful attacker, Villière finished the tournament with 3 tries, but it was in defence where he really showed his quality, being one of only 2 backs in the top 10 for turnovers with 4 steals.

12) Jonathan Danty: On the subject of turnovers, Danty’s 5 steals were the most of all backs in this year’s tournament. As well as this, Danty secured himself as a key part of the French midfield by using his physicality to put France on the front foot in attack, while he combined wonderfully with centre partner Fickou to secure the French defence.

13) Gaël Fickou: Fickou has long been one of those super-underrated French players whose skills both in attack and defence have probably not got as much recognition as they deserved. However with Shaun Edwards now in control of the defence, the organisational quality of Fickou has really been highlighted as he helps make Les Bleus so formidable, while his attacking quality is not sacrificed at all.

14) Montanna Ioane: I usually try to stick to a left wing at 11 and a right wing at 14 as the positions do have some differences, but this year I had to pick 2 11s as their performances were so impressive. Despite not even scoring a try in this tournament—thanks to a great cover tackle from Josh Adams—Ioane was consistently superb for the Azzurri. With 51 carries (4ᵗʰ) for 498 metres (2ⁿᵈ) and 9 offloads (1ˢᵗ), Ioane played a key role in frequently putting Italy on the front foot, while his kick chasing continually put the opposition under pressure even if he couldn’t retain the ball himself.

15) Hugo Keenan: Freddie Steward was a positive at 15 in a dull England team but it was Hugo Keenan who had to get the nod here. The Leinster fullback was super reliable in the backfield and under the high ball, while his 47 carries (joint-5ᵗʰ) for 388 metres (8ᵗʰ) helped the Irish get on the front foot.

Guinness Six Nations

2022 Six Nations: France v England

2022 Six Nations: France v England

And so we reach the finale of Super Saturday and the 2022 Six Nations, as England travelled to Paris to face France. The French knew that a win would secure the Grand Slam and as a climax to the tournament, the crowd were ready to do their part to make the occasion one to remember. And with the Paris crowd roaring on their support, it was Melvyn Jaminet who opened the scoring off the tee following a scrum penalty. France were looking the stronger team with Grégory Alldritt winning some big turnovers, and when Gabin Villière took advantage of Freddie Steward’s inexperience on the wing, the French pulled the England defence from side to side and sent Gaël Fickou over in the right corner. England pulled things back slightly with a penalty from Marcus Smith and were incredibly lucky to see Jack Nowell stay on the pitch after taking Jaminet out in the air, as TMO Marius Jonker shockingly felt that Nowell had been impeded in his chase. Luckily for France, Jaminet was able to continue, and he and Smith each added another penalty, before one last attack from France saw them break down the English right wing to get on the front foot, and after Romain Ntamack was stopped just short by the despairing tackle of Ellis Genge, François Cros managed to get the ball to the line, with Jaminet adding the conversion for an 18-6 lead at the break.

England started the second half on the front foot, and after Joe Marchant broke through in the middle, some quick but calm handling from Courtney Lawes and Jamie George allowed Marcus Smith to put Freddie Steward over in the corner. However the French began to bring on the replacements and up the tempo in attack, which resulted in Aldritt carrying around the fringe and offloading to his captain Dupont to score on the hour. Down by 12 points, the English continued attacking but the closest they could get was with 10 minutes left as Alex Dombrandt was held up after crashing over from close range, and they held on to secure the 25-13 win and a Six Nations Grand Slam.

France

3 seasons of rugby have led to this. With Fabien Galthié taking over leadership of the team following the World Cup, the decision was made to basically drop everyone and start again with a team made up largely of young and inexperienced players. The idea was that by rebooting immediately after the World Cup they could start picking the players who they would expect to be playing in the 2023 World Cup, allowing what will likely be the vast majority of the future World Cup squad to spend 4 years playing together and growing not just as individuals but as a unit.

In starting this so early, it has led to a core team that has spent the last 3 seasons playing together, and allowed new faces like Melvyn Jaminet or returning faces like Jonathan Danty to come into a settled system that could then gratefully benefit from whatever this new player could introduce to the team, with the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup (where each French player was only allowed to feature in 2 matches, resulting in a 2ⁿᵈ/3ʳᵈ string team narrowly losing to England’s 1ˢᵗ team in the final) and the Summer Test series in Australia giving Les Bleus a chance to test their depth and see who was ready to step up into the main squad.

And so, with the World Cup a year and a half away, this team has built into a unit that has capably beaten the All Blacks and now won a Six Nations Grand Slam. With World Champions South Africa coming to Paris in November, that will be the next sign as to how ready they are to compete for the World Cup, but even then they will still have the best part of a year to grow and improve. I called it soon after France named their first squad under Galthié that France were my favourites to win RWC2023. Right now, everything is going to plan.

England

England went for a very interesting tactic in dealing with the French kicking, repeatedly dropping Ellis Genge back along with the usual kick coverage, with the intention to play the ball off to him and give him a 20+ metre run-up into contact.

I’ve seen dynamic carrying props used in a similar way before, with the Melbourne Rebels often fielding long goal-line drop-outs during Super Rugby AU and having Pone Fa’amausili or Cabous Eloff get a 20+ metre run-up charging back at the defensive line with ball in hand, much like we see off a rugby league kickoff.

So it’s nothing new to see a forward drop back to do this off open play kicks, but the issue here is the selection of Ellis Genge. While he is definitely a destructive ball carrier, he already had a big enough (no pun intended) challenge in the scrums facing Uini Atonio—a challenge which was proving too big for him—so should have been keeping his fitness for that. If Eddie Jones was so desperate to have a dynamic carrier doing this, why was he not starting Alex Dombrandt somewhere in the back row?

2022 Six Nations: Ireland v Scotland

2022 Six Nations: Ireland v Scotland

The middle match of Super Saturday saw Ireland hosting Scotland at the Aviva Stadium. Ireland knew that they still had a chance of winning the tournament should England defeat France later that evening and after a free-flowing first 15 minutes, they found themselves just denied the opening try as Josh van der Flier was held up following a driving maul. However they were trying again with a m maul on the opposite side of the pitch just minutes later, and this time Dan Sheehan was able to splinter off and crash over to break the deadlock. As the half wore on, Ireland began to dominate possession and territory, and the next time they made it up to the Scottish try line, it was Cian Healy who forced himself the final couple of inches to cross the whitewash. However the Scots finally worked their way through some phases and Pierre Schoeman managed to reach out for the line and score, though the conversion from Blair Kinghorn—starting at fly half ahead of Finn Russell following his latest breach of team protocols—drifted wide of the posts to leave the score at 14-5 at the break.

The Scots had the chance to open the scoring after the break as a deflected kick bounced fortuitously off off Stuart Hogg’s thigh to beat his opposite man and allow him to regather, but with 3 men supporting inside, the Scottish captain decided that it had been too long since he had butchered a try and he instead held onto the ball and allowed himself to be tackled into touch just short of the corner by Hugo Keenan. His selfishness became even more costly just before the hour as the latest period of Irish possession in the Scottish 22 saw van der Flier go over for Ireland’s 3ʳᵈ try of the game. The Scots continued to attack, but despite getting some possession and territory, they could still find no way of seriously troubling the Irish defence, and a late yellow card for Ben White set the Irish up nicely for Conor Murray to go over with just a minute left on the clock to earn a bonus point and a 26-5. That result secured Ireland the Triple Crown, while the bonus point meant that a French draw (providing no bonus point) against England would be enough to send the title back to Dublin.

It’s been a while, but it feels like one of Ireland’s few weak spots over the last couple of years is finally sorted: hooker. While Rory Best was a leader, he often struggled at the lineout, and the man who inherited the number 2 jersey, Rob Herring, didn’t necessarily look bad, but was not the same quality as the team around him.

However over the last year or so, Rónan Kelleher finally seemed to win the number 2 jersey, while fellow Leinster hooker Dan Sheehan also took his chances to impress and take on the starting role following Kelleher’s injury. Both are fantastic modern-day hookers; they have the mobility of a back row, the handling skills to match anyone in this Irish team and (most importantly) they are reliable at the line-out.

At just 24 and 23 respectively, Kelleher and Sheehan look to be the go-to hooker pairing for Ireland for the foreseeable future. And the scary thing is that they will likely only get better over the next few years as they get more accustomed to Test rugby.

Now all the Irish lack is a replacement for Jonathan Sexton…

Scotland

While I questioned if it was time the WRU moved on from Wayne Pivac, I think it’s time that the Scots moved on from Gregor Townsend. While they have developed great depth and pulled out some big results, they still flatter to deceive and fail to put together a genuine challenge for the title.

Throughout the tournament their backs have struggled to put together much of note, and the decision to replace Finn Russell with with Blair Kinghorn didn’t help things either—arguably Kinghorn should have been replacing Stuart Hogg at 15, then maybe the team would have stopped butchering their best chances.

But while the aimless attacking has been bad, probably the last straw came following last week’s win over Italy, with 6 players (Ali Price, Finn Russell, Stuart Hogg, Darcy Graham, Sam Johnson and Sione Tuipulotu) breaching team protocols by leaving team premises to go to a bar. That’s 3 of your biggest leaders and all of your playmakers in the back line. If they’re doing this, it suggests that there is some disconnect between them and Townsend, while this is not the first time Russell has been disciplined for breaching team protocols. It seems Townsend has lost control of the team, and there’s no coming back from that.

But this should be an attractive side to potential replacements. The depth of this squad is better than I can remember it being in a long time, with Rory Darge, Ben White, Andy Christie and Ben Vellacott all earning their first caps and players like Schoeman, Tuipulotu, Josh Bayliss and Kyle Steyn all gaining vital international experience. With a decent number of Tests still to play ahead of the World Cup, this is the time to move on from Townsend and bring in someone who can turn this potential into results.

2022 Six Nations: Wales v Italy

2022 Six Nations: Wales v Italy

It feels like only a couple of weeks ago that the 2022 Six Nations was kicking off, and yet we already find ourselves at Super Saturday, the final day of the tournament. This year’s super Saturday kicked off in Cardiff, as Wales faced Italy. Avoiding the Wooden Spoon was mathematically impossible for the Azzurri, but they finally opened the scoring after 13 minutes through a Paolo Garbisi penalty after he was tackled off the ball, while Edoardo Padovani soon added a penalty of his own. An error off the restart gave the Welsh a period of possession in the Italian 22 which they repeatedly failed to exploit, but they finally took advantage of an Italian knock-on to break from deep in their half and stretched the defence to breaking point, allowing Owen Watkin to go over for the try, with Dan Biggar converting to put his side ahead on the occasion of his 100ᵗʰ cap. The lead lasted just a matter of minutes though as the Garbisi/Padovani pairing added 2 more penalties just after the half hour mark. As the clock ticked into the red, a strong Italian scrum in the right hand corner earned a penalty advantage and when Johnny McNicholl failed to hold Garbisi’s cross-kick in the air, Owen Watkin just beat Callum Braley to dot down the loose ball, and the Italian decision to go for a lineout with the penalty saw them held out, though they would still go into the break with a 7-12 lead.

Going into the second half and it was the Azzurri who had the first attacks of note, with a timely jackal from Josh Navidi saving them after Italy broke around the fringes with their forwards and a great cover tackler denying Monty Ioane in the corner. Wales finally got some possession, though and after a penalty at the scrum set them up with a 5m lineout, Dewi Lake managed to force himself over, with Biggar again adding the extras to put his side ahead. Things then went crazy as Ange Capuozzo and Monty Ioane chose to counter a kick into their in-goal under pressure, and ended in Danilo Fischetti leading a chase of Michele Lamaro’s kick to earn a penalty for sealing off beneath the posts, which Garbisi duly dispatched to restore the Italian lead. Wales made a umber of substitutions on the hour—including removing Alun Wyn Jones on his return to injury for his 150ᵗʰ cap, and moving Dan Biggar to fullback to allow for Calum Sheedy’s introduction in place of McNicholl—but they were lucky not to find themselves falling even further behind as Padovani’s next penalty drifted to the right of the posts. However the fresh players took their chance as Wales took advantage of a turnover on halfway to put together some phases of quick ball, and when Josh Adams cut back inside he found a gap between 2 tiring forwards to score the third try of the game. With just ten minutes remaining the Welsh appeared to gain so much confidence, and Wyn Jones soon thought he secured the result by crashing over from close range, only for the officials to decide that he was held up over the line by Braam Steyn, who was himself celebrating his 50ᵗʰ cap. With the clock ticking down it looked like another case of “so near but so far” for brave Italy, but with 2 minutes left, Ange Capuozzo found a gap in the kick chase and broke down the right wing, feeding the supporting Padovani to score beneath the posts and allow Garbisi to kick the simplest of conversions as the clock went red, securing a 21-22 victory, their first win on Welsh soil and first Six Nations win since they defeated Scotland in 2015.

While they may have finished the game with 3 tries, this was a poor attacking performance from Wales. Despite quality throughout the team, there did not seem to be much inspiration, and that has been an issue throughout the tournament, regardless of the personnel that Wayne Pivac has selected.

The backs stand too flat and are rushing the ball out to the wings in the hope that they can get around the outside, but either the rushed passes are inaccurate, or the ball is getting to the wings, only for them to find that the defence has drifted across with them. Meanwhile, the forwards are taking the ball standing still too often, which today allowed Italy to dictate the contact too often and put themselves in a position to slow the ball down or force a turnover.

With the World Cup just a year and a half away, this is a crucial moment for the WRU. Do they look to move on from Wayne Pivac, giving his replacement the Summer and Autumn Tests and 2023 Six Nations? Or do they keep faith in the man who coached the Scarlets to Pro12 glory in the 2016/17 season and hope things improve?

Italy

It’s something that I’ve been saying has been coming for a while, but despite Wales having looked shaky all tournament, even I didn’t see the win coming for Italy today. But this is a huge moment for Italian rugby.

While they may have been outscored by 3 tries to 1, the performance from Italy all around the park was huge, and on another day Ioane scores in the corner and they score off the cross kick or following maul just before half time. But while it’s been a long time since their last Six Nations victory, it has been a time of growth from the bottom up. And what shows this most is the quality of player missing today.

Legendary captain Sergio Parisse is gone, but in Michele Lamaro they have a new talisman to lead them through the next 10 years. Jake Polledri—arguably one of the few players who could be considered World Class—is still injured, while his fellow back row Seb Negri has also missed the last couple of games. And yet this has allowed Toa Halafihi a run of games in the number 8 shirt and he has grown into the role. In the backs, the absence of Tommy Allan and Carlo Canna has led to the introduction of Leonardo Marin, while Matteo Minozzi’s absence has led to a run of strong performances by players in the 14 shirt, and now the emergence of Toulouse-bound Ange Capuozzo. And as this all goes on, the U18s and U20s continue to not just be competitive, but win their fair share of games. And that quality will just continue to find its way into the senior squad over the coming years, allowing them to end up with a squad that has quality not just from 1-23, but throughout the wider squad and beyond.

This summer will see the Azzurri face off against USA, Canada and an Argentina team that has just seen head coach Mario Ledesma replaced by Michael Cheika. The timing could not be better for Italy to bounce on and put together a run of wins and potentially beat another Tier 1 nation.

2022 Six Nations: England v Ireland

2022 Six Nations: England v Ireland

The penultimate weekend of the 2022 Six Nations came to an end with England hosting Ireland at Twickenham. Both teams knew that a win would still keep their title hopes alive (assuming England beat France next week), but things became infinitely harder for England as Charlie Ewels was given a red card after just 82 seconds for a high tackle on James Ryan, Jonathan Sexton kicking the penalty for an early 0-3 lead. And just minutes later Ireland were over for a try, as Dan Sheehan and Josh van der Flier worked the blind side to release James Lowe. Ireland were taking full advantage of the extra space by drawing England in tight and thought they were over for a second try on 12 minutes through Caelan Doris, only for the TMO to find that Maro Itoje had forced a knock-on in the build-up. England grew into the game, but could only muster 2 successful penalties from 3 attempts by Marcus Smith, and as Ireland looked to dictate things in the closing phases of the half, a quick tap penalty from Jamison Gibson-Park sent Hugo Keenan over for a try, though Smith was able to add one more penalty before the break for a 9-15 halftime deficit.

The Irish came hard in the early minutes of the second half, but England’s defence held strong and Irish handling let them down, and it was the English who opened the scoring in the half as Joe Marchant forced a holding on penalty following a great kick chase from Freddie Steward. Ireland’s discipline was quickly disappearing as England dominated the scrums (with Jack Nowell in as a makeshift flanker) and increased in confidence, and Smith levelled the scores with another penalty on the hour mark. Sexton soon had the Irish back ahead by 3 points, and as the final 10 minutes approached it looked like the Irish may be about to score a crucial try as Caelan Doris broke through, only for Ben Youngs to make a good recovering tackle and his offload to the supporting Conor Murray to be a little too far behind him. However the exhaustion of playing a man down for so long was clearly starting to hurt the English and Ireland finally pulled them apart sufficiently for Jack Conan to crash over from short range, Sexton’s conversion stretching the lead to 10 points with 6 minutes remaining. The English resistance had been broken and the Irish secured the bonus point through Finlay Bealham’s first Six Nations try. Witht he match secured, Sexton was removed from what will be his last Test at Twickenham—having announced his intention to retire after the World Cup—and he watched on from the sidelines as his side held out one last England attack to keep their title hopes alive with a 15-32 victory.

England

While there were a number of heroic England performances following Charlie Ewels’ decision that he didn’t want to play rugby today, one man who deserves so much praise is Ellis Genge.

Known more for his play in the loose than in the set piece, the baby rhinoceros found himself packing down against arguably the world’s best tighthead in Tadhg Furlong, and rather than the reassuring bulk of Courtney Lawes pushing from blind side flanker, he instead had Jack Nowell. And yet somehow he not only held his own in the scrum, but actually dominated Furlong, winning countless penalties that allowed England to clear their lines, settle, get into Irish territory and kick points of their own.

While he has continued to make his name with his play in the loose, Genge has quietly matured into a solid all-round player. With this showing against Furlong, he has just sent out a message to opposition tightheads. Next week he will likely come up against the walking talking mountain Uini Atonio. Can he back up this performance with another strong day at the scrum? Time will tell…

Ireland

It’s a good job that the English fell away at the end of this match, as this was starting to look like we could be watching a very embarrassing day for Ireland. As great as England defended, the Irish should have been taking full advantage of their numerical advantage.

Instead, bar a few moments, the Irish either panicked and tried to score too quickly (resulting in errors) or took the pressure off England too much, allowing them to dictate the game for large portions. And as they struggled to finish off their chances, they began to panic and lose their discipline, with moments like their lineout being penalised for obstruction—ironically something Peter O’Mahony had asked the referee to watch out for from England earlier in the game.

At the same time, the scrum was pretty much a guaranteed penalty for England as Tadhg Furlong was second-best to Ellis Genge, and then even the breakdown started becoming a mess for them as player like Joe Marchant made up for their numerical disadvantage and the loss of Tom Curry to injury.

That’s 2 games in a row now that Ireland have found themselves struggling despite a numerical advantage. If they want to be considered one of the very best teams in the world, they need to become more clinical, urgently.

2022 Six Nations: Italy v Scotland

2022 Six Nations: Italy v Scotland

The penultimate Saturday of the 2022 Six Nations kicked off with Scotland’s trip to Italy. The Italian’s las win in the competition came at Scotland’s expense, and the Azzurri took an early lead through a penalty from Paolo Garbisi. However it was the Scots who got the opening try on 17 minutes after a loose Italian kick allowed them to counter; George Turner broke down the right wing and as his supporting men kept the ball alive, Finn Russell was able to spread the ball wide to send Sam Johnson over in the left corner. Italy soon found themselves on the attack, but Ali Price intercepted Callum Braley’s pass just 5 metres from the Scottish line and broker away with Kyle Steyn, and as the wing ran out of space he chipped back inside for the supporting Chris Harris to finish. The Italians were not deterred by such a blow though, and after Garbisi missed a penalty, a sweeping move to the right saw Pierre Bruno dominate contact with Stuart Hogg and offload back inside to Callum Braley for the try, with Garbisi’s touchline conversion bringing them back within 2 points. However an Ali Price break put the Scots into the Italian 22, and after a head injury forced a stoppage, the Scottish back ran some clever lines to send Harris crashing over for his second, with Russell kicking the conversion for a 10-19 halftime lead.

The game remained close after the break, but the Scotland attack appeared to be growing in confidence, and when an inside pass from Finn Russell put Darcy Graham through just inside the opposition 22, the wing stepped his way over to secure the bonus point. As the hour approached, Italy made a number of changes, but this arguably interrupted their play and as Garbisi missed another penalty, a comeback was looking unlikely. That “unlikely” became “almost certainly not” as Man of the Match Ali Price broke the line on the hour and mad plenty of ground before sending captain Stuart Hogg over in the corner, while Monty Ioane was beaten by the bounce of the ball just minutes later as he ran onto a grubber kick with the line at his mercy. However Italy kept on the pressure and forced another try through Ange Capuozzo, just 22 minutes into his debut off the bench. This score appeared to invigorate them and with 7 minutes left were perhaps unlucky not to get a penalty try as their maul was collapsed just short of the line, but they refused to give up and with the clock 2 minutes into the red, Capuozzo stepped over for another try and a 22-33 final score.

Italy

One player who doesn’t get talked about anywhere near enough in this Italian squad is Monty Ioane. While the 14 shirt has been somewhat a revolving door of players, Ioane has deservedly made the 11 shirt his own.

A strong and willing carrier, he rarely gets the chance to find himself with the ball and clear air in front of him, but he continually still makes metres, with a great combination of strength and footwork to beat defenders and break tackles. Meanwhile in the kicking game he runs his heart out and competes well, while also popping up in the midfield to provide an option to get a move going by taking an inside pass through a gap or to chase a cheeky chip (as we saw from Braley today) if the kick defence is too deep.

At 27 years old, he is in his prime and will benefit as Italy continue to improve as a team, as it will create the space out wide for him to exploit rather than forcing him to make the space himself, and as this next generation of stars comes through from the U18s and U20s, he will be an experienced mentor to take his replacements to even higher levels.

Scotland

This was a big match for Scotland. After a big start to the tournament with victory over England, things have gone downhill and they took a shellacking 2 weeks ago. With stars Jamie Ritchie and Duhan van der Merwe missing, there was always a risk of the Italians becoming a banana skin today.

But the Scots got things right today, going back to their kicking game and relying on the quality of their defence to limit the Italian opportunities, and then taking advantage of any poor Italian kick chases or gaps in the Italian defence with the quality of attackers like Ali Price, Finn Russell, Darcy Graham and Stuart Hogg going the length of the field in just seconds.

2 weeks ago, Scotland threw out their gameplan as soo as they found themselves behind… and lost. This week, they stuck with it, and if they continue to do so, they will be a challenge for many teams.

2022 Six Nations: Wales v France

2022 Six Nations: Wales v France

The penultimate round of the 2022 Six Nations kicked off with a rare Friday night fixture as Wales hosted France. Both Melvyn Jaminet and Dan Biggar were able to land early penalties in a scrappy start, but when Jaminet and Gabin Villière countered a kick from Liam Williams, les Bleus got on the front foot and soon created the space to put Anthony Jelonch over for the opening try. The French continued to be frustrated by the Welsh defence though, and as the home team grew into the game, a pair of penalties from Biggar narrowed the French lead to a point, while a last minute drop goal attempts from Melvyn Jaminet dropped short for a 9-10 halftime score.

Jaminet kicked an early penalty after the break, but a Welsh penalty soon had them with a lineout 5 metres out from the French line, only for Ryan Elias to become isolated and held up over the line. It was the Welsh who has the next chance just after the hour as Dan Biggar found Taulupe Faletau on he wing with a deft cross-kick, only for Jonathan Davies to fumble the number 8’s pass back inside with the line at his mercy. As the French ill-discipline continued, Wales continued to enjoy the territorial advantage without being able to get over the line and when Peato Mauvaka stole the ball with the clock in the red, the game came to an end with a 9-13 result that keeps hopes of a French Grand Slam alive.

Wales

It was yet another new back row combination for Wales in this tournament, as Josh Navidi returned to Test rugby, with Seb Davies being promoted to join him and Faletau. But what an impact they had. Navidi and Faletau did what they always did, but it was Davies who had a huge impact on the match.

One of those huge physical specimens at 6 who has a surprising amount of ball skills, his introduction gave the Welsh a physical answer to the power of the French pack, but where he really proved important was at the lineout.

The French have used the lineout to set up a number of their tries through the tournament, but with Davies joining locks Adam Beard and Will Rowlands as lineout jumpers, the Welsh were able to limit French options at the set piece and cause Cameron Woki a nightmare in picking the right option resulting in a number of opportunities being ruined as the usually-reliable lineout struggled to function.

Such was the performance from Davies, it was a shock to see him replaced by Ross Moriarty, especially so early in the second half. And it was clear to see that the French appreciated the reduced pressure as a crucial late lineout saw them call for a ball to the tail from Peato Mauvaka. Could things have gone different had Davies been kept on for the full 80 minutes?

France

The old cliché is that you never know what France will turn up, but under Fabien Galthié they have generally been much more reliable. However, tonight’s performance was especially odd.

While the lineout struggles certainly didn’t help the French attack, it also felt somewhat tame, with far too much kicking that was often very poor—either kicks down the middle that the Welsh kicked back with interest or high balls that the Welsh won with ease.

It was almost as if the team was allowing Wales to have the ball and daring them to attack, trusting in the quality of Shaun Edwards’ defensive coaching, but this almost cost them as they gave away far too many penalties, while better handling from Jonathan Davies would surely have seen him go over for the go-ahead try just after the hour.

When the French did attack like we expect, they scored within a handful of phases, while they also managed to look dangerous in a spell of Harlem Globetrotters rugby that saw them offloading in contact with regularity and getting in behind. Had they done more of this, the Welsh defence looked like they would be in serious trouble.

Now, with only England between them and the Gran Slam, expect a week of questions as to which France turns up next week.

2022 Six Nations: Ireland v Italy

2022 Six Nations: Ireland v Italy

Round 3 of the 2022 edition of the Six Nations came to an end with a trip to Dublin to see Ireland host Italy. The Irish made a handful of changes with a match against England in the near future, but were soon ahead as an inside pass put Caelan Doris through a hole and his offload found hooker Dan Sheehan, who fed Joey Carbery for the opening try in less than 4 minutes. Italy were soon on the scoreboard after Edoardo Padovani blasted over a penalty from halfway, but found themselves playing a man after less than a quarter of the match down when Epalahame Faiva—on early after an injury to starting hooker Gianmarco Lucchesi—was red carded for a high tackle on Sheehan. A quirk of the rugby laws (that is absolutely bonkers and would be changed immediately if any of the big nations fell afoul of it) means that with nobody else in the Italian 23 able to play hooker, scrums would go uncontested (which must always be 8v8) but the Italians would be down to 13 (taking 2 men off but bringing on 1 replacement front row), and the Irish took advantage of the extra space for Jamison Gibson-Park to score, while fullback James Lowry went over on the half hour from the first phase after a scrum and Peter O’Mahony secured the bonus point just before half time. The Italians kept on fighting though, and Paolo Garbisi kicked a penalty to end the half down 24-6.

It took the Irish attack a while to get going after the break, but finally they got a series of phases of front foot ball and pulled the defense narrow, allowing Gibson-Park to throw a wide pass to James Lowe to cross out wide. With the game over as a competition, the replacements were coming on earlier than usual, and Jonathan Sexton marked his 55ᵗʰ minute introduction by immediately attacking a gap and offloading to Lowry for his second of the day. The Irish continued to struggle to pull away in quite the fashion one would expect, but when Ryan Baird charged down Alessandro Fusco’s box kick, there were no blue shirts in behind to stop him gathering the loose ball and going over for the try. But with just minutes remaining Braam Steyn was carded for a deliberate knock on that saw the Italians down to 12, and the Irish took advantage by going for the scrum and using the 3-man advantage in the back line to put Lowe over for a second try. There was time for another attack which saw Josh van der Flier held up over the line, but with time remaining for the goal line drop-out and a 3-man advantage, the Irish managed to send Kieron Treadwell over for one final try, with Sexton kicking the conversion for a 57-6 victory.

Ireland

Ireland may have earned the bonus point by half time and come away with a comfortable victory, but they should be disappointed with this. With a 2-man advantage for an hour (including 5 minutes at the end with a 3-man advantage), they should have been winning by so much more.

While there were some huge individual performances in the Italian defence, with 2 men less and 3 props on the pitch, there was always going to be space, but Ireland did not do the work to find or create it, and far too often they ended up playing into the Italian pack and getting turned over, forcing the pass once a half-break was made rather than recycling to go again with quick ball, or getting white line fever and going alone when the pass was the better option.

Perhaps even more worrying was that Andy Farrell saw the need to bring Sexton on before the hour with a lead of just 23 points. While there were a couple of unfamiliar combinations out there, I can’t help feel that a team like France or even Ian Foster’s New Zealand would have found a way to turn this into a cricket score with such a numerical advantage.

Italy

A phrase I hear in rugby too often is that red cards ruin games. That is not true at all, but unfortunately this game was ruined as a result of the red card to Hame Faiva. Now I want to make clear first of all that the officials were all spot-on in the decision and did a great job of talking everything through with the teams. Unfortunately, it was a rarely-seen law from World Rugby that saw Italy further punished.

rugby uncontested scrums referee document

As Wayne Barnes details in this video, referees are provided with the above guidelines for when a scrum goes uncontested. Lucchesi’s early injury (he went off cradling his arm after just 5 minutes) is unfortunate as hooker is a specialist position and it is rare that you will have more than 2 trained hookers in a matchday 23. And that means that if anything happens to Hame Faiva in the remaining 75 minutes, Italy will be unable to field a trained hooker.

So when Faiva then went high and gave the referee no choice but to red card him, that is when everything went tits up. With uncontested scrums coming, Italy always had to sacrifice someone for a prop in order to keep the front row unit full of 3 specialist front rows, but per the table above, they also had to lose a second player for the rest of the match. And here is the problem.

The reason for this law makes sense, as the Italian scrum should be penalised for their hooker getting sent off, while this stops a team struggling in the scrum from pretending their last available front row is injured in order to go to uncontested scrums. But does this require 2 players to effectively be sent off? Being forced to field 3 props already harms a defence when you consider that most hookers these days are like an extra back row and super mobile. By the team already having to take a player off for the replacement front row and the numerical advantage in the back line, is this not already creating enough of an advantage for the opposition team? Or perhaps is it time to look at something I have suggested previously about having larger matchday squads (say 30 for example, with 5 or 6 specialist front rows on the bench) but still the same number of replacements allowed per match (or less), which would allow more flexibility so that games are not decided by a team having to play someone out of position…

2022 Six Nations: England v Wales

2022 Six Nations: England v Wales

With France’s win over Scotland confirmed, today’s Six Nations action moved to Twickenham, which would play host to England’s match against Wales. England’s build-up was disrupted by an injury to Manu Tuilagi following the initial naming of the squad, but they still found themselves too strong for the Welsh in the early stages, with a series of penalties allowing Marcus Smith to kick them into a 6-0 lead in the opening 5 minutes. The Welsh grew into the game and after a clever kick from Nick Tompkins put the Welsh deep in the English 22, they found themselves with a lineout 5m out, but inaccuracies cost them. England hit back from this warning and when Charlie Ewels was held up over the line, Liam Williams was sent to the sin bin for cynically playing the ball in the ruck. However the 14 men held out with a scrum penalty allowing them to clear their lines as referee Mike Adamson found himself out of his depth, and England were forced to settle for 2 more penalties from Smith for a 12-0 halftime lead.

In the last round, I noted how the Welsh lineout had finally began to sort itself out and avoid being a liability. Well it seems that praise came too early as Elias struggled to connect with his men throughout the game, and just minutes after the break and with a lineout in his own 22, he overthrew his entire pack (though it must be noted that nobody was even lifted, so it may not have all been his fault) and the ball went straight to Alex Dombrandt, who went over for his first Test try. The Welsh attack looked more cohesive in this half, and when they finally got some possession in the England 22, a clever flat pass from the back of a ruck by Tomos Williams sent Josh Adams over in the corner. What had been a 17-0 lead for England suddenly looked fragile, and after a series of penalties allowed Wales more time deep in the English 22, Topkins went over just after the hour and Dan Biggar converted to cut the lead to 5. 2 penalties from Smith gave England some breathing room but they couldn’t quite kill off the game, and when Kieran Hardy went over from a quick-tap penalty in the 80ᵗʰ minute, Biggar managed to take a quick drop goal conversion to bring the score to 23-19 but crucially give Wales one final chance to play. Of course they would need to go the length, but what looked the unlikeliest of victories suddenly became more realistic as England captain Courtney Lawes was penalised for a deliberate knock-on. However referee Adamson’s officiating style would be called questionable at best and though he awarded the penalty, he chose not to send Lawes to the bin, and though Wales found themselves in the English half, they were unable to penetrate the 15-man English defence and Maro Itoje won a crucial turnover to secure victory for England.

England

Plenty has been said about Marcus Smith over the last couple of weeks, but today was another great example at just how dangerous he is with ball in hand.

The young Harlequins fly half repeatedly took the ball to the line, but did a great job of varying his play between playing the ball off to a forward to truck it up and running with it himself. This variety is crucial. If he plays the ball off every time, the defence can adapt to this and zero in on the forward,whereas if he runs, they know that they have to commit to him. However by varying it up, it forces the defender to make a decision as to whether they commit to Smith or the forward runner. And the moment the defender makes up their mind and commits one way or the other, Smith can strike by doing the opposite.

Granted, England were outscored 3 tries to 1 today, and that try was gifted to them by the Welsh, but that was not on Smith’s play. With such a lightweight back line outside of him, he was forced to rely on forward runners, whereas the option of a more physical back (Tuilagi may be out but Mark Atkinson and Dan Kelly were both playing in the Premiership today) would have added an extra dimension to the attack and given the defence a third option to consider.

Wales

Wales should consider this one that got away from them. Had they turned up in the first half, or had their lineout been of Test rugby standard, they could have won this.

The performance in the first half was the real killer. There was a clear tactic from the off to get the ball out to the wide men as soon as possible, and they certainly had some success out wide, with Alex Cuthbert carrying for 137 metres. The issue however was that there was not enough organisation to deal with these breaks and half-breaks. Too often the ball carrier would find themselves isolated once the were stopped, gifting England possession, territory, while 2 of Marcus Smith’s penalties came from Cuthbert holding on as support failed to get to him soon enough—those 6 points alone would have been enough to change the result. They still weren’t perfect in the second half, but they were much better organised. And with that, they were able to build phases in the England 22 and force their way over their tries.

A tactic of getting it wide as quick as possible puts a lot of pressure on the rest of the team to keep up with the back 3, who are often the fastest men on the pitch. Will Wales look to stick with this game plan in 2 weeks’ time? Or was this a plan to try (and fail) to keep the ball away from the English pack?