Six Nations 2021: Ireland v England

Six Nations 2021: Ireland v England

Super Saturday’s second match saw England and Ireland completing their 2021 Six Nations campaigns in Dublin. England had been the victors in their recent encounters and soon took a 0-3 lead through the boot of Owen Farrell, though Jonathan Sexton soon cancelled this out. The match was a tight contest but Ireland found the breakthrough going into the second quarter with a lineout move, overthrowing to Jack Conan who peeled off the back of the line and – under pressure from Tm Curry – played the ball back into the gap between him and the line and straight into the hands of Keith Earls, who had timed his run to perfection an rounded Jonny May to go over in the corner. Sexton added the conversion before trading penalties with Farrell, and it looked like the game would see itself out to half time, until Hugo Keenan beat Elliot Daly in the air competing for a Sexton bomb into the 22. This put the Irish on the front foot and after a couple of phases, they managed to bring the ball up to the English 5m line, before Jack Conan picked from the base of the ruck and managed to power and stretch his way to the line for a second try, which Sexton converted for a 20-6 lead at the break.

Ireland looked like they had scored another try 9 minutes into the second half when Earls dotted down a Sexton cross-kick, however the try was chalked off for a knock on from Cian Healy in the build-up and the men in green were forced to settle for a penalty to extend their lead, while Sexton added another penalty on the hour. Things were looking bad for England, who were without a recognised fly half having replaced George Ford and then lost Owen Farrell to a head injury just minutes later – Max Malins having also pulled out the night before – but they were given a lifeline as Bundee Aki was shown a red card for a high tackle on Billy Vunipola. England kicked the resulting penalty to touch and after pulling in the Irish pack to defend the driving maul, Jamie George peeled off to the blind side and fed Ben Youngs to cross in the corner. The English discipline was – unsurprisingly for this tournament – lacking and Sexton added 2 more penalties to secure the game. There was still time for one final hurrah from England, and after Conor Murray was sent to the bin, stand-in fly half Dan Robson threw a wide pass to put Jonny May over with just minutes left, Daly converting for a final score of 32-18, that condemned England to a 5ᵗʰ-place finish.

James Ryan may be one of the darlings of Irish rugby, but I would argue that Saturday’s pairing of Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne is Ireland’s strongest second row.

While both of the pair have the physicality of locks, they play like extra back rows in the way they carry in the loose and act around the contact area, while they both have the energy to play the full 80 minutes at 100%. Even with CJ Stander having just played his last game in an Ireland shirt, the team has so many great options in the back row – Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan, Caelan Doris and Will Connors to name just a few – that having Beirne and Henderson in the second row allows the team more chance to tailor the back row to fit their opposition, such as playing carriers at 6 and 8 or a more defensive option of Connors and van der Flier on the flanks.

Do I expect the Irish to stick to this pairing once Ryan returns from injury? Not likely, though Beirne may return to 6 to keep the pair in the starting XV, but I feel that this is the second row partnership that will lead to the best Irish performances.

England

After last week’s great performance against France, was it any surprise to see England revert to type against Ireland?

Less that 2 years ago, England were playing in a World Cup final, but if you look deeper, the team was already stagnating under Eddie Jones. The win over New Zealand was the only performance of note in that tournament, with England benefitting from facing France and Argentina – both of whom were woefully lacking form – in the pools, and playing a quarterfinal against an Australian team that was also at a low point.

Following the tournament, England should have done as France had, change coaches and bring in the youth to give them a full 4 years playing together to build ready for RWC2023. Instead, Jones has stayed in place and the team has fallen apart. Too many players are picked on the strength of their name and performances years ago, while the form players who should be the stars of this team are not even getting picked for the squad. This has proved especially disastrous this year with the decision to keep picking Saracens players who had been relegated the the Championship so not played rugby for months, and it has left the team with players lacking match fitness in key positions. Meanwhile, the team has also unquestioningly gone for the new Eddie Jones approach of kicking the ball away at every opportunity and trusting a defence that isn’t actually as good as the think they are, while giving away dozens of ridiculous and completely avoidable penalties that kill off any chance of competing.

This 5ᵗʰ-place finish should be the last straw. Now is the time to move on from Jones before the team stagnates any further. 2 years is still enough time to bed in players like the Simmonds brothers and build this team up ready for the next World Cup.

Come on RFU, make the right decision!

Lions Watch

As well as the lock pairing of Tadhg Beirne and Iain HendersonKeith Earls put in a timely performance to remind Warren Gatland of his reliability. Jonathan Sexton has also done a great job of guiding the Irish attack as it has grown more expansive during the tournament.

Meanwhile, another anonymous display that included an early removal will surely put the nail in the coffin of George Ford‘s Lions chances, while Mako Vunipola was pulled off at half time after struggling in the scrum.

Six Nations 2021: Scotland v Italy

Six Nations 2021: Scotland v Italy

Super Saturday kicked off with a strange feeling in Murrayfield as Scotland prepared to play their penultimate match in the 2021 Six Nations against Italy. The Scots were coming in off the back of a disappointing loss to Ireland, but soon found themselves falling behind to a try from Luca Bigi, who powered over from short range after the Scottish pack collapsed the Italian lineout drive, Paolo Garbisi kicking the conversion from the touchline. Poor Italian discipline soon gave the Scots a chance to repay the favour in kind, and David Cherry rode the power of his pack to go over for his first Test try. Stuart Hogg missed the conversion but the Scots soon had the lead, with Huw Jones breaking from his own 22 off the restart and bringing the ball up to the Italian 22, and when the ball came to the left, the Scots worked an overlap to release Duhan van der Merwe, who brought the ball under the posts to score and allow his captain an easy conversion. Garbisi cut the lead with a penalty, but Italy then shot themselves in the foot once again, with Federic Mori getting sent to the bin on his first Test start for a no-arms challenge on Sam Johnson. The Scots kicked the resulting penalty to touch, and after a series of phases in the Italian 22, Sean Maitland scythed through a gap in midfield. He was stopped just short of the line but offloaded to Huw Jones, who was tackled immediately, but an offload off the floor allowed Darcy Graham to go over for the try, Hogg again missing off the tee. Italy defended strongly but once again found themselves conceding a second try while down a man, with van der Merwe breaking down the left wing and holding himself up long enough in the tackle to offload to a supporting Stuart Hogg, who released the flying Huw Jones with a lovely switch to send the centre over for the bonus point try – the fastest against Italy in this year’s competition, clocked at 28 minutes – which Hogg converted for a 24-10 halftime lead.

The Scots were in no mood to sit back and rest after the break, with David Cherry being quickly sent over for another try from a driving maul just minutes after the restart and things got even worse for the Azzurri on 53 minutes as Seb Negri was adjudged to have deliberately slapped the ball down right after 2 other penalty offences from teammates, leading to him being sent to the bin. Once again, Scotland took advantage of the extra man by calling for the scrum, and after Sam Johnson took the crash ball ball up to the try line, Scott Steele sniped off the breakdown and twisted his was over for his first Test try. The Azzurri’s defence stood firm despite the numerical disadvantage and it looked like they would see out the rest of the period unscathed, until Monty Ioane was sent to the bin with 1 minute left on Negri’s removal for a tip tackle on Stuart Hogg. Though they couldn’t take advantage of the 2-man difference, Scotland were camped inside the Italian 22, and when Stuart Hogg released van der Merwe with a pass between his legs, the winger looked certain t score, only for the covering Marco Zanon to dislodge the ball on the line. This only delayed the Scots for a few minutes though, as Scotland won a penalty in the corner and went for the quick tap, and after a couple of phases, Sam Johnson came on a beautiful out-to-in line to crash over for another try. Entering the final minutes, the Azzurri found themselves in the Scotland 22, but the ball was turned over and a show-and-go from replacement halfback Ali Price saw him break away to the halfway line, where he found van der Merwe on the charge and set him free for his second try of the game. As the clock went into the red, Italy had one final chance to finish on a high with a lineout 5m from the Scottish line, but the Scots got up to steal the ball and kick the ball out to finish with a 52-10 victory, their biggest margin of victory over the Azzurri.

With Finn Russell still going through concussion protocols and Adam Hastings banned for this match, we knew that we would be seeing someone different at fly half for this match. That said, it was still a shock to see Stuart Hogg being selected to wear the 10 shirt.

While Hogg had a good game, it was a big risk to put him in considering any concussion would rule him out of Friday’s finale against France while even more importantly in the short term, it was taking him away from a position where he had been excelling and putting him into an area with less space.

In years gone by, I could have understood this decision as Hogg would often be the third on the depth chart in the Scottish camp, but now, he must surely be fifth at best, with Duncan Weir and Jaco van der Walt giving Gregor Townsend the great situation of having 4 legitimate specialist 10s in contention to play, before we reach players like Hogg, who can fit in there. To me, this was the perfect opportunity for Townsend to play van der Walt from the start and give him the full 80 minutes against a struggling defence, to get him more experienced at the international level, perhaps with Hogg providing support from the fullback position if Townsend thought it necessary.

When it comes to the big matches, you are going to want to put out your best available team, and with Russell and Hastings missing, putting Hogg at 10 is not going to be as good for the team as playing him at 15 with a specialist at 10. Hopefully, van der Walt gets the chance to show what he can do in the near future.

Italy

Every week during the Six Nations, I find myself having to defend Italy and their inclusion in a Tier 1 tournament, but now it’s getting really hard to do so.

This tournament started with some shades of positivity as the youth was brought in, but as time went on, that positivity drained away as the Azzurri failed to keep 15 men on the pitch while their discipline disappeared altogether. And it’s not just the discipline. Throughout the tournament, restarts were put out on the full, kicks in open play were aimless, penalties to touch either stayed in play or went out to touch in goal, players were pinged for advancing in front of the kicker.

Yes, some key players were missing, while inexperienced players were played in some key positions, but the attacking promise would last for a while, then the team would concede a couple of easy tries and everything would fall apart, with the second half being spent largely in the Italian half, with the Azzurri never looking threatening.

When you look at the players, there is quality there, but the team performances are not living up to their promise, and a record losing margin against Scotland has consigned the team to their worst Six Nations in terms of tries and points conceded.

Something needs to change, and for me, that comes at the head coach position. There needs to be leadership from the top, but Franco Smith seems to be struggling to get the team playing even more than he has struggled with his mask throughout the tournament. He has moved the team in the right direction since replacing Conor O’Shea, but his is a tenure full of losses. Conor O’Shea had to rebuild the framework of Italian rugby, Franco Smith introduced the youngsters to Test rugby, and now it is time to bring in a new coach to give this team a clean slate and take this team to the next level and become to Italy what Milton Haig was to Georgia and Eddie Jones was to Japan.

Lions Watch

Similar to last week, this was such an abject performance from Italy, it makes it harder to form a proper opinion on players, but Duhan van der Merwe put in a great response to last week’s quiet game, with today’s performance highlighting both his pace and power. He offers something different to other Home Nations wings and reminds me of George North on the tour to Australia 8 years ago. Meanwhile, a Man of the Match performance from Hamish Watson will certainly help his case with so much depth available in the back row.

Six Nations 2021: Italy v Wales

Six Nations 2021: Italy v Wales

Wales’ unlikeliest of Grand Slam campaigns continued on Saturday with their trip to Rome to face Italy. Wales secured the Triple Crown with a win over England 2 weeks ago and were ahead within minutes as Luca Bigi was pinged for being off his feet at the ruck, allow Dan Biggar to kick an early penalty. Bigi was penalised again just minutes later for not being back 10 before tackling Gareth Davies after the scrumhalf took a quick penalty in the Italian 22, leading to the hooker being sent to the bin. Wales took immediate advantage of the extra man, calling for a scrum and spreading the ball on first phase, with Dan Biggar’s wide pass putting Josh Adams outside his man to go over in the corner, with Biggar adding the extras. Wales were soon scoring again, with Josh Adams taking on 3 defenders to bring the ball up to the Italian try line. With the Azzurri defence caught narrow, Wales spread the ball wide to the other wing, where Louis Rees-Zammit took advantage of the overlap to send Taulupe Faletau over, Biggar just missing the conversion. The Italians were struggling to cope with the Welsh maul from the lineout and it proved costly for the next 2 tries as Ken Owens was driven over for number 3, while the maul set up the platform for Owens to break off and stretch for the line to secure the bonus point, with Biggar going 1 of 2 on these conversions. Wales had one more chance to stretch the lead before the break, but Dan Biggar’s pass to release Louis Rees-Zammit drifted forward and they were forced to settle for a 0-27 lead.

It didn’t take long for Wales to score once the game restarted, with Jonathan Davies running a straight line on first phase off a scrum, getting his arms through the tackle and offloading to George North to race in under the posts, giving Biggar an easy conversion. The game was long over as a contest, but the Italians were desperate not to be nilled, and Monty Ioane got them on the scoreboard by chasing his own chip into the Welsh 22 and holding strong through Liam Williams’ tackle, with Paolo Garbisi converting from the touchline. Wales almost had an immediate answer, but Josh Adams was a little to casual dotting down the ball as he rode a tackle in the corner, and it was adjudged that his foot had entered touch in goal before the ball was grounded. It looked like the Italians took a little hope from this, but any growing momentum was quickly dashed as they again found themselves down to 14, with replacement prop Marco Riccioni being sent to the bin for leading with the forearm. The penalty gave Wales possession and territory and after a series of phases close tot he Italian line, Callum Sheedy popped up on Josh Navidi’s shoulder to slip through for his first Test try, which he converted. As Wales took off their big names early to rest them ahead of next week’s Grand Slam decider with France, Italy started to get more possession in the Welsh half and create half-chances, but they could not find the finish and ended up being their own worst enemies, with Rees-Zammit intercepting Carlo Canna’s looped pass inside his own 22 and racing away to score untouched, Sheedy converting. Italy continued to press in the final minutes, but once again their accuracy failed them as they knocked on short of the line, bringing an end to a 7-48 loss.

Italy

After a somewhat promising start to the tournament, these last 2 matches have been embarrassing for Italy. They haven’t been accurate enough in attack, while their discipline has been absolutely awful, gifting teams possession, territory and points. as if that wasn’t bad enough, both of the last 2 games have seen 2 Italians get sent to the bin. It’s hard enough for them to stay competitive with 15 on the pitch, so spending so much time at a numerical disadvantage is killing them.

Of those 4 yellow cards, 2 were given to Luca Bigi, who as captain has been setting an awful example to his young team. The hooker has been a penalty machine all tournament, giving away territory and possession frequently with cheap infringements that were wholly unnecessary, while his 2 yellow cards have led to 4 tries while he has been getting a breather in the sin bin. As a captain, that just isn’t good enough – you wouldn’t see a player like Alun Wyn Jones getting pinged as cheaply or frequently. He may be one of the oldest and most experienced players in the squad, but that doesn’t necessarily make him captaincy material.

Maybe it is time that Franco Smith looked at other options for the captaincy. Carlo Canna provides similar experience and always leads by example even when being used as a crash ball option rather than a playmaker, while Seb Negri is another who is nailed on for a starting spot and always puts in 100%. Will we see a change in leadership next week? I doubt it, but Bigi will need a big – and clean – game.

Wales

I’ve lost count of how many times we’ve seen Wales change 13 or 14 men for this fixture and struggle for 50-60 minutes before finally pulling away at the end as they bring on all their top players. Well this time, as they finally look to put a run of results together, they made only a couple of changes, picking what could arguably be considered their best available XV.

This definitely ended up being the right move as the chemistry between the players was clear to see, and it helped Wales set a tempo early on that allowed them to dominate and secure the bonus point victory in just half an hour. Not only this, but it allowed players like Ken Owens and Alun Wyn Jones to get a decent run-out to stay match-ready, but also allowed them to get an early rest in the second half with next Saturday’s trip to Paris looming.

Could it be considered a missed opportunity to hand starts to a couple of different players, like Callum Sheedy and Uilisi Halaholo? Yes, but while these would have been the changes to make most sense, the starting midfield tri has very little gametime together, so the extra experience of playing together in a Test match could prove vital when the take on Les Bleus.

Lions Watch

It’s hard to really draw any thoughts on players whose Lions chances were harmed by this performance, as nobody performed so badly that they stood out in such a clinical performance, not even Josh Adams, who will surely ensure the ball is grounded quicker next time, with plenty of rivals for the wing spots.

One of those rivals for the wing spot will surely be Louis Rees-Zammit. There is nothing scarier in rugby than a player with pace and the Gloucester wing has that in droves, highlighted by his run home after the intercept, during which he may have just left third gear. Meanwhile just inside him, George North‘s transition into an international 13 is going much better than I expected and that versatility may just earn him a spot in the squad as Warren Gatland knows him well.

Six Nations 2021: Ireland v France

Six Nations 2021: Ireland v France

Round 2 of the 2021 Six Nations came to an end in Dublin on Sunday as Ireland hosted France. Ireland were missing 4 experienced players from Round 1 through injury and suspension, but after both Billy Burns and Matthieu Jalibert missed early kicks at goal, Billy Burns broke the deadlock on 20 minutes with a penalty. A few minutes later, France found themselves temporarily down to 14 after Bernard Le Roux was caught tripping Keith Earls as they chased an Irish kick downfield. The Irish kicked the penalty to touch and thought they had taken an immediate advantage of the extra man as the spread the ball wide on first phase to James Lowe, who powered through Brice Dulin’s tackle to score in the corner, only for a TMO referral to find that his toe had brushed the touchline before he touched down. This let off appeared to galvanise the French, who immediately went on the attack and a series of offloads brought them into the Irish 22. With the Irish defence in disarray, the ball was spread wide to Charles Ollivon, who was able to outpace CJ Stander as he tried to get across to cover and score the opening try. Jalibert kicked the conversion and then a penalty with Le Roux back on the pitch to take a halftime lead of 3-10.

Les Bleus started the second half on the front foot and almost had another try straight away as Julien Marchand broke into the 22, only for Antoine Dupont’s attempted wide pass from the base of a ruck to be blocked by the face of dummy runner Paul Willemse. This attack cost Ireland Billy Burns, who went off for a HIA that he failed, while just a minute later, Cian Healy and captain Iain Henderson clashed heads and were required to leave the pitch for their own assessments. With so much leadership off the pitch, the French were able to get themselves into the 22 again, and when Jalibert reversed the play back to the right, his wide pass drew in James Lowe, who was stepped inside by Dulin, with the fullback drawing the final Irish tackler and popping the ball off to the looping Damian Penaud to extend the lead, Jalibert missing the conversion. The Irish desperately needed the next score and got it almost immediately, winning a penalty from the restart and kicking the ball up tot the French 22. Replacement hooker Ronan Kelleher’s first action of the game was to throw into the lineout, and the ball was stolen but not cleanly, bouncing in the 5m channel, and the Irish hooker reacted fastest to collect the ball and scamper in unchallenged. Ross Byrne kicked the conversion and added a penalty with 15 minutes remaining, but the Irish could not make any further breakthrough and after Jalibert struck the post with a late attempt at goal, the game fizzled away to a 13-15 win for Les Bleus.

Ireland

I can imagine that many people were nervous as to how Ireland would perform in this match with Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray, James Ryan and Peter O’Mahony all missing. I would argue that the team actually performed better without them on the whole.

With Jamison Gibson-Park and Billy Burns controlling the game, the pace of the Irish attack was so much better, which allowed the Irish pack and midfield to get into the French early on, while Burns’ high bombs were putting Brice Dulin under incredible pressure. Unfortunately, the quality appeared to be missing on the bench, with Craig Casey not even trusted to come on while experienced and talented 9s like Kieran Marmion, John Cooney and Luke McGrath were all ignore. Similarly, Ross Byrne once again looked a passenger (and not in a good way) after replacing Burns and I think that it cost them. We all know what Sexton and Murray can do. Now is the time to leave them out for the rest of the tournament and look at other options, with one of the aforementioned 9s coming in to compete with Gibson-Park for the staring job and Ian Madigan coming in to replace Ross Byrne, as his ability to cover both 10 and 12 would allow him to either replace Burns or come in at centre to give the midfield a different shape late on.

At lock, I understand that James Ryan is the darling of Irish rugby, but he has always seemed to be a good workrate but little more, while this weekend’s pairing of Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson brought that and more. Capable of turning out at lock or 6, the pair brought dynamism with their carries, were dangerous at the breakdown and were also tireless workers in the tighter parts of the game, while Henderson certainly led by example from first minute to last.

Finally in the back row, I have always found O’Mahony to be a penalty risk if a referee is doing their job right, and while I’m not sure Rhys Ruddock was the right pick at 6, I would argue that Will Connors had a great impact in defence when he was brought on later in the game, while Caelan Doris will also provide a great carrying option once back.

France

I dare you to find me a better player in World rugby right now than Antoine Dupont. The Toulouse scrum half is a walking highlights reel! Every match, you can almost guarantee that if a player makes a break, he will be there on their shoulder to keep the attack going, while he has the pace and footwork to exploit the tiniest of gaps – and even highlighted in this match that he has a decent fend despite being one of the smaller players on the pitch.

Even when he’s not able to be so attacking, he’s still showing a range of skills, with a cultured boot – and the calmness to not rush under pressure – while his defence is also an underrate part of his game. And the scary thing is that at 24, he may not have even quite reached his peak yet, while he has a legitimate chance of starring at both the 2023 and 2027 Rugby World Cups. In the meantime, let’s just sit back and enjoy the show.

Lions Watch

Only the Irish to focus on here, and captain Iain Henderson put in a great performance all over the park, and was unlucky to not steal an attempted short lineout and long throw by the French on the own 5m line. Meanwhile, Hugo Keenan looked assured once again at the back and appears to be making the Irish 15 shirt his own, but will have to go a long way to beat out Stuart Hogg.

It wasn’t such a good day for James Lowe, who is currently getting limited chances to run at the defence like he would like to, and his disallowed try in a week where a number of wings shone for the Home Nations will hurt.

Six Nations 2021: Wales v Ireland

Six Nations 2021: Wales v Ireland

Round 1 of the 2021 Six Nations came to an end in Cardiff with Wales hosting Ireland at the Principality Stadium. Neither team had a 2020 campaign to be proud of, but it was the Welsh who had the better start, with Leigh Halfpenny kicking an early penalty after Peter O’Mahony was caught entering a ruck from the side. O’Mahony clearly needs to work on his ruck entry, as he was penalised again 10 minutes later for tucking in the arm and making contact with the head of Tomas Francis, leaving Wayne Barnes with no option other than to send him off. The Welsh were buoyed by the man advantage and soon doubled their lead after Jonathan Sexton was penalised for a high tackle on Johnny Williams. They let the Irish claw themselves back into the game however, and Sexton kicked 2 penalties to bring everything level. Then with just a few minutes left in the half, Robbie Henshaw ran a reverse and found a gap in the Welsh defensive line to break into the 22 before offloading to Josh van der Flier. The flanker was stopped just short, but a solid clean-out from the Irish allowed Tadhg Beirne to pick from the base and cross for the opening try, which Sexton converted for a 6-13 halftime lead.

The Welsh came out looking to play a bit more positive rugby after the break, and when they won a loose ball deep in the Irish half, Josh Navidi picked up from the base of the ruck and offloaded to outside centre George North, who used his support me to dummy his way past James Lowe to score in the corner, Halfpenny missing the conversion. 10 minutes later, wales found themselves in a similar position, and some soft hands under pressure from Halfpenny released Louis Rees-Zammit on the wing, who quickly got up to speed and dived in for the go-ahead try under pressure from Tadhg Furlong. Halfpenny added the conversion and a further 3 points just a few minutes later when Tadhg Beirne was harshly adjudged to have entered a ruck from the side. However the Irish hit back and with Jonathan Sexton off the pitch, Billy Burns kicked a penalty to cut the deficit to 5 points. The clock entered the red with Ireland in possession and making their way downfield, eventually winning an 84ᵗʰ minute penalty. Billy Burns went for the corner but overcooked his kick on a tight angle and the ball went out of play over the dead ball line, securing a 21-16 victory for Wales.

Wales

Wales should consider themselves very lucky to have won this game despite having a man advantage for over an hour of the game, because they played this game completely wrong.

With Ireland going down to 14 men so early in the match Wales should have been looking to keep the ball in hand as much as possible, probing along the defensive line to find the gap that will inevitably appear due to the 1-man advantage, whether it is by creating a hole in the middle or catching the defensive line too narrow to create space out wide for Rees-Zammit. In doing this, not only would it have created chances, but it would have also tired the Irish out, creating even more gaps to exploit as the game wore on.

Instead, Wales entered into a kicking duel with the Irish that on the whole they lost, while the Irish would then utilise their own possession and territory to work the Welsh defence as Wales should have been doing to them. It was only a couple of moments in the second half when Wales really played this right – and they finished both of these occasions with tries!

At the end of the day, a win is a win, but for me there are still a lot of questions about the way Wayne Pivac has this team playing.

Ireland

Ireland have such strength in depth throughout this squad, with almost all of the 15 men starting all able to be replaced by someone of similar quality. However, there are 2 key positions where the Irish are struggling to do this: in the half backs.

Though both Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray are in the twilight of their careers and hold the team back against top quality opponents, they are still given all the minutes by Andy Farrell, exactly as was the case under Joe Schmidt. Meanwhile, players in the form of their lives are lucky to make it onto the bench and get just a handful of minutes, usually once the result is secured. If they’re lucky, they may get a start against a team like Italy, but usually in a team so heavily changed that they build no chemistry with the first team players. This lack of chemistry with the first team and lack of minutes in key international matches leads to performances like today, where Billy Burns is brought on with just 10 minutes left and expected to change his natural game to fit into the scheme that has been made to get the best out of Sexton, and leads to extra pressure on their shoulders in situations like today’s final kick to touch, where they know they must be inch-perfect in order to to even stand a chance of being given minutes over the incumbents, and that extra pressure in an unfamiliar situation leads to mistakes.

At some point, Sexton and Murray will be unavailable, either through injuries or retirement. When that moment comes, Andy Farrell may regret having not given the players just below them in the depth chart more time with the first team.

Lions Watch

Tadhg Beirne and Robbie Henshaw were the standout players from this game and were very unlucky that being n the losing side meant they were not considered for Man of the Match, while CJ Stander looked more mobile than last season without losing any of his power. For wales, Alun Wyn Jones put in a true captain’s performance, carrying hard and repeatedly leaving Irish bodies crumpled on the ground following his tackles.

Arguably the biggest loser from this weekend will be Peter O’Mahony, whose red card just highlighted once again that he is not the player he was a few years ago due to the changed interpretations at the breakdown, while larger players like Beirne and Iain Henderson’s ability to cover the back row as well as lock will make them look more attractive against the massive Springbok packs. Similarly, Johnny Williams has a potential to be a bolter for the squad but needs the minutes at international level, so a failed HIA would have been the last thing he wanted, and he will be hoping that he is fit to face Sotland next weekend.

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Ireland v Scotland

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Ireland v Scotland

With 7ᵗʰ place sorted, it was on to Dublin, where Ireland faced off against Scotland for 3ʳᵈ place in the overall standings. The Irish were playing what Andy Farrell would probably consider his best available team and had the first chance to put points on the board with a penalty, only for Jonathan Sexton to put his kick wide. Scotland grew into the game and after Jaco van der Walt missed a kick on his Test debut, he successfully kicked his next 3 while Sexton also found success with a second effort. As the game began to open up around the half hour mark, an Irish attack was stopped by what referee Matthew Carley considered a deliberate knock on by Duncan Taylor and the centre was sent to the sin bin. The Irish took advantage of the extra man, kicking the initial penalty, and scoring the opening try just before the break, as Robbie Henshaw beat Darcy Graham in the air to a Sexton high ball into the Scotland in-goal, and Keith Earls beat Ali Price to the loose ball on the floor, though Sexton missed the conversion for an 11-9 lead at the halfway point.

The momentum remaining with Ireland after the break and they took advantage of it, with Cian Healy pushing over from a pick-and-go following a series of phases deep in the Scottish 22, before another set of phases in the 22 created a one-man overlap that allowed Peter O’Mahony to send Earls over in the corner, with Sexton adding both conversions. Scotland hit back with a wonderful solo effort from Duhan van der Merwe, sniping down the side of a ruck and past an oblivious Rob Herring before rounding Jacob Stockdale with an arcing run, van der Walt converting. However, the Scottish discipline let them down and Ross Byrne kicked a penalty. The Irish thought they had another try as O’Mahony was fed the ball in acres of space on the right wing, only for a covering tackle from van der Merwe to force him to put a toe in touch, but Byrne kicked another penalty to take the score to 31-16, and the Scots could find no answer in the final minutes.

Man of the match

Man of the Match Caelan Doris should be quickly becoming one of the first names on the team sheet. The Leinster back row brings an extra dimension to the Irish back row, making the hard metres alongside CJ Stander but also being able to open his legs and eat up the ground when given space.

Ireland need to find more ball carriers who can consistently make metres in attack in order to compete against the more physical teams like England, France and South Africa, and a back rower like Doris who can truck the ball up in the tight but also take the ball wider out helps to create a match-up nightmare.

Combining Doris with Stander also creates a degree of tactical flexibility, as both could conceivably pack down at 8 or 6 and do the same job around the pitch, allowing the team to vary who is at the base of the scrum to keep the defence guessing. With Stander an adept jackal, bringing in a flanker who will tackle non-stop would create a great balance to the back row and allow the star players to do what they do best.

Finding the balance

For so long, I have talked about how Scotland will be a threat if they can find the right balance, and it looks like they now have it in the back line. Ali Price is rowing into a very mature halfback and is probably underrated in his ability. In Stuart Hogg at 15 and whoever they have at 10 (van der Walt adding to the depth at the position with Duncan Weir, Adam Hastings and Finn Russell), they have a great playmaker axis, with Hogg creating space when he gets the ball out wide or coming in at first receiver to allow his fly half to play wider.

Duhan van der Merwe and Darcy Graham are arguably the most dangerous pairing on the wings, with Sean Maitland and Blair Kinghorn providing great alternatives, and with the current centre pairing, it looks like they are finally getting released.

Today’s pairing of Duncan Taylor and Chris Harris may be known more for their defensive organisation, which is an important factor in Test rugby, but they also help to create the platform in midfield by running at the line and also knowing when to pass. Harris especially has developed a better attacking game since his move to Gloucester and can be a danger in the 13 channel, while Taylor has the work rate that all coaches cherish. Combine this with the danger of the carriers in the pack and the dual playmakers, and the space will come for the stars out wide to shine.

It was notable that Scotland struggled to create without Taylor on the pitch, and also looked much more beatable in defence. Scotland need to get the Taylor/Harris centre pairing on the pitch as much as they can, or find someone who can come in and keep the dynamic going.

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Rugby Championship 2020: Australia v Argentina

Rugby Championship 2020: Australia v Argentina

The Tri-Nations edition of the Rugby Championship reached its end in Parramatta as hosts Australia took on Argentina. New Zealand’s victory last week meant that – bar the unlikeliest of routs – the 2 teams on show were fighting to finish 2ⁿᵈ, but both teams were coming in looking to finish the tournament on a high.

The Pumas have had a tough week following a heavy defeat and the re-emergence of racist social media posts from 3 players including captain Pablo Matera, but it didn’t seem to affect them on the pitch with their defence being as ferocious as ever in the wet. They found themselves temporarily down to 14 at the quarter-hour mark though, as Marcos Kremer was sent to the bin for a dangerous clean-out on James O’Connor, Reece Hodge kicking the penalty to put the Wallabies ahead. Nicolás Sánchez soon levelled with a penalty of his own from halfway, and just minutes after Kremer returned, it was Australia who had a man sent to the bin, Michael Hooper for the same offence on Sánchez, who was forced off for a HIA. Sánchez’s replacement Domingo Miotti – on for his Test debut – kicked the Pumas into a lead, before the Pumas took advantage of the extra man in the pack, driving a maul from their own 22 up tot he 10m line, before Felipe Ezcurra broke down the blind side and fed Bautista Delguy, who scythed between Hunter Paisami and Marika Koroibete to score the opening try, which Miotti converted. Sánchez returned to the pitch, but the Wallabies had a chance to narrow the gap right before the break with a scrum penalty right under the posts, which Hodge duly kicked for a 6-13 halftime score.

The Aussie comeback continued in the second half with Hodge landing another penalty, but their hopes soon took a hit as replacement Lukhan Salakaia-Loto was sent off on the hour mark for a high tackle on Santiago Grondona, who had to go for a HIA. Miotti, back on the pitch as Sánchez struggled with a niggling injury, kicked the penalty to take the Pumas to 16 points. Australia didn’t give up though and after some sustained pressure, Grondona’s replacement Lucas Paulos was sent to the bin for collapsing a maul after Angus Gardner tired of the Puma’s repeat offending. Australia kicked the penalty to the corner and a well-worked lineout saw captain Hooper driven over for the try, with Reece Hodge converting to level the scores. With just minutes left, Australia earned a penalty wide right just inside the Argentina half and Hodge stepped up to try and win the game, only for his 100% record to disappear as the kick sailed wide right to secure a 16-16 draw. The result means that Argentina and Australia finish on equal points, but points difference gave the Pumas 2ⁿᵈ place in the standings and the Wallabies had to settle for 3ʳᵈ.

Midfield might

Australia were very unlucky to lose their starting 10/12 combo of James O’Connor and Matt To’omua very early in the tournament, with O’Connor only returning in this final game. However, what it did do is open up an early opportunity for some of the youngsters in the squad to shine. None did that more so than Hunter Paisami, who has excelled as a physical presence at 12, becoming a key part of the defence and a solid runner in the channels.

His centre partner in this game, Jordan Petaia, has been less successful. He is an extremely skilled player and stronger than he first looks, but he has looked out of sorts in recent games and lacking in confidence, which is hampering his game. Just in this game alone, he wasted a couple of good attacking opportunities by putting boot to ball.

Once To’omua is back, the Wallabies have a choice to make: do they stick with the risk/reward of Petaia, or do they look at the more defensively secure Paisami? To’omua’s ability as a playmaker would make up for some of the lost attacking flair, but would Paisami find himself more exposed in the 13 channel than he currently is at 12? Thankfully for Dave Rennie, he will have plenty of options when you also consider Reece Hodge and Irae Simone, while Noah Lolesio gaining experience will also allow the option to push O’Connor out to the centres. Sometimes, it’s nice to have a few headaches.

Power pack

On thing that this match really highlighted was the strength in depth of the Pumas in the back 5 of the pack. The apparently ideal back row trio coming into the tournament was Pablo Matera, Marcos Kremer and Rodrigo Bruni, with Matías Alemanno and Guido Petti at lock. However, with Matera and Petti both left out this week following the reveal of racist tweets years ago, Kremer’s versatility was utilised by moving him into the second row, while Facundo Isa and Santiago Grondona came into the back row.

Isa is a fantastic talent who is always going to be fighting with the initial trio for a starting spot in that Pumas back row, and the very best compliment that Grondona can be given is how little his selection instead of Matera – an incredible talent and inspirational leader – appeared to change of affect the Pumas. Even the replacements for this game, Lucas Paulos and Francisco Gorrissen, looked at home on the international stage despite their inexperience.

If a team hopes to go far in a tournament, they need to be able to rotate their squad with minimum drop in quality. Looking at the Pumas’ options in the back 5 of the pack, it’s fair to say that they are setting themselves up nicely with a couple of years still to go until the World Cup.

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Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Ireland v Georgia

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Ireland v Georgia

The pool stages of the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup came to an end in Dublin as Ireland hosted Georgia. The Irish have been having an up and down tournament but got off to a good start as a series of phases in the Georgian 22 ended with Billy Burns gliding through a gap to score a try on his first Test start. Burns added the conversion and a penalty shortly after, but the Georgians hit back as Giorgi Kveseladze found a gap in the Irish midfield and exploited it, using Vasil Lobzhanidze as a distraction to beat Jacob Stockdale and stepping around Burns’ tackle to score under the posts, leaving Tedo Abzhandadze with an easy conversion to bring the score back within 3. Burns soon added another penalty to double the lead, and the Irish thought they had a second try around the half-hour mark after Rob Herring was driven over following a lineout, but replays showed that Beka Gorgadze had managed to get under the ball and hold it up. That only delayed the inevitable though, as Ireland went through the phases off the resultant scrum and created the space out wide for Hugo Keenan to score, with Burns converting. It looked like the Irish had another try as half time approached when Jacob Stockdale set Stuart McCloskey free down the left wing, however a review from the TMO showed that the pass from Stockdale had gone forwards, while one final attempt to score before the break was also adjudged to have been held up over the line.

The Lelos were looking much more competitive in this match and got the opening points of the second half with a penalty from Abzhandadze, but Ross Byrne – on early in the half for the injured Burns – replied with a penalty of his own. Substitutions, a couple of head knocks and a serious injury to Gorgadze stopped either team from building any real momentum in the second half, but the Irish finished the game on the attack and after earning an attacking lineout 5m from the Georgian try line, they faked the maul and instead sent CJ sStander on a charge for the line, however the Lelos succeeded in holding him up and holding onto a tied second half and a 23-10 final score. The result means that Ireland will face the Scots in the 3ʳᵈ-Place Final, while Georgia will face Fiji for 7ᵗʰ, assuming the islanders are able to play.

Taking their chance

Andy Farrell is going to have some big calls to make against Scotland. He needs to be looking to the future and figuring out the players who will be a key part of his RWC2023 campaign, but a 4ᵗʰ-placed finish would also be a very disappointing result, especially given the manner of their defeat to England.

For this game, Ireland put out a strong squad, but still managed to test their depth at some positions, with starts for players like Burns, Bealham and McCloskey and a debut for Shane Daly off the bench. I would expect that next week, they will go with their strongest available team, so who put their hands up for selection in this game?

Billy Burns had a strong first half, looking comfortable in his first start and getting the back line moving well for the second week running, while it was noticeable that the attacking quality dropped off in the second half after he came off. As someone who can also hold his own in defence, I would argue that the focus should be on Burns as the starting 10 moving forwards, with a view to having him as a leader within the squad by the time the World Cup comes around.

Hugo Keenan has had a great tournament and once again looked both dangerous with ball in hand and solid under the high ball. It’s hard to imagine that he won’t be a nailed on starter come the Six Nations.

Chris Farrell has been unlucky over the years that he has had to compete against Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose, but he is taking his chance well and consistently helped the Irish get on the front foot in attack while remaining pretty solid in defence and has been one of their more consistent players in the tournament.

Tadhg Beirne is in such an interesting position, as he never really seems to have a bad match, but seems to struggle to hold down a place in the squad. An incredibly mobile player who is super dangerous at the breakdown, Beirne showed both of these skills in the first half, appearing a 6 in this game, but equally adept at lock. He feels like a slightly bigger version of Peter O’Mahony, but I feel he would be a great option as a 4, providing mobility and an extra breakdown threat to complement what appears to be the most balanced Irish back row of CJ Stander, Caelan Doris and Will Connors.

Building to success

It feels harsh to say, but the Lelos were poor in the first 2 weeks. This week however, they looked legitimately competitive against a 23 that was maybe not full strength, but still plenty strong enough to leave me expecting a very one-sided affair. That proved far from the case though, as the Lelos competed for the full 80 and were fully deserving of the draw in the second half, often pushing back the Irish with their solid defence.

To me, this is showing that part of the Georgian problem in the opening weeks was he lack of preparation, with them not getting to spend much time together ahead of the tournament and players spread throughout the French leagues, Georgian teams and a few in Russia or England. With such little time together – and much of that spent having to travel to Tier 1 nations who are too worried about themselves to travel to Georgia.

The Lelos need to start getting fair treatment, in the same was as people discuss the importance of Tier 1 Nations travelling to the Pacific Islands, they also need to be travelling to Tbilisi so that the Lelos can face top teams in front of a home crowd on a ground they know well. If they start getting that, it’s just a matter of time before they start getting results against Tier 1 nations.

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Autumn Nations Cup 2020: France v Italy

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: France v Italy

With England’s place in the Autumn Nations Cup final confirmed, eyes turned to Paris to see who they would be facing as France took on Italy. Having defeated Scotland last weekend, Les Bleus knew that a win over Italy would see them top the pool, but Top 14 player usage rules meant that they were playing with a largely inexperienced 23, which would increase Italy’s hopes of a first win against a Tier 1 nation since 2016.

France got off to a good start with Matthieu Jalibert kicking a penalty just 3 minutes into the game, but this was followed by a 20-minute period of tight rugby with plenty of kicks for territory. The Italians found the breakthrough, as Marco Zanon charged through the line and fed Paolo Garbisi, who offloaded to Carlo Canna to cross for the opening try, though Garbisi missed the conversion. It looked like the Azzurri may hold the lead into halftime, but a late 5m lineout for the French gave them a platform and centre Jonathan Danty crashed over from short range, with Jalibert converting for a 10-5 halftime lead.

Things went downhill for the Italians after the break, with Jacopo Trulla sent to the bin for a deliberate knock on. The French used the man advantage to kill the game off, with tries from Gabin Villière, Baptiste Serin and Teddy Thomas, with Jalibert adding 2 conversions. The Italians kept fightingfor some pride in the final quarter but could not find the breakthrough and France added one more try at the death through Sekou Macalou, with replacement Louis Carbonel kicking the conversion for a final score of 36-5.

Staking a claim

Due to an agreement with the Top 14, players were limited in the number of matches they could play in during this tournament, which led to an almost completely different 23 playing this week, comprised mainly of highly inexperienced players and a handful of former internationals like Uini Atonio and Brice Dulin. While the lack of chemistry certainly caused some issues in this match, there were a number of players who stood out an will hope that their performances may bring them closer to the first choice squad.

Matthieu Jalibert already seems to be the go-to replacement for Romain Ntamack and though it is clear that he needs more experience at this level, he controlled the game well and will benefit from more playing time with the regulars.

Jonathan Danty had a great match in midfield, utilising his physicality in both attack and defence, and capping it off with a try. While Gaël Fickou provides a great ball-playing option at 12, Danty provides a more physical option that could provide a different dimension to the back line.

Brice Dulin was a great talent when he first came on the scene for Les Bleus and looked very much back to his best with his silky running and reliable boot in the kicking game, including a high bomb that could again add an extra dimension to the back line.

Finally, in the pack, Sekou Macalou put in a fine defensive performance, soaking up ball carriers and winning the turnovers, while his late try was a just reward for his efforts on the day. His one issue is that he finds himself competing with captain Charles Ollivon for the 7 shirt, but he would be a dangerous addition off the bench.

Finding the breakthrough

Italy find themselves in an interesting position. Paolo Garbisi looks better with every cap, and while Carlo Canna provides a second playmaking option at 12, he is often utilised as a crash ball instead, doing it with gusto but to little effect. In this match, Marco Zanon really showed his quality with a number of line breaks, including 3 in the build-up to Canna’s try. It looks like he is close to cementing his place as one of the starting centres, but is Canna the right option beside him?

I think it is time that Canna is moved to the bench to allow Garbisi to run the backline, with Matteo Minozzi providing a secondary playmaker option at 15. This would then allow a second specialist centre to pair with Zanon, either the experienced Luca Morisi or the young but impressive Federico Mori, to create a dangerous centre pairing that will force defences to narrow up in midfield and provide more space out wide for the wings to exploit.

Will it work? There’s no guarantee. But with talismanic back row carrier Jake Polledri out for some time, the Azzurri need to find a breakthrough somewhere.

 

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Rugby Championship 2020: Argentina v New Zealand

Rugby Championship 2020: Argentina v New Zealand

A rollercoaster Rugby Championship reached its end for New Zealand as they faced off against Argentina in Newcastle. The All Blacks were coming into the match off the back of losses to Australia and the Pumas, but quickly established themselves as the stronger team in this game, though Jordie Barrett missed an early kick from range and older brother Beauden knocked on at the line after Anton Lienert-Brown stopped the Pumas winning a Richie Mo’unga high ball in their 22. They soon found the breakthrough, though, as they managed to get a touch on Nicolás Sánchez’s attempted clearance to keep the ball in play, and after a series of phases, Mo’unga floated a pass out to Dane Coles to go over in the corner. Mo’unga added the conversion and a penalty, before making a thrilling break and spreading the ball wide to Caleb Clarke, however the wing was not quite able to stay in play as he tried to score in the corner. Mo’unga had one more chance to add o the score before halftime, but the ball came out off the posts and the Pumas were able to clear their lines for a 0-10 halftime deficit.

The second half opened with both sides looking dangerous in attack, but after New Zealand quickly worked their way into the Pumas 22, it took until the 50ᵗʰ minute for them to dot down, though this was denied for a knock-on by Caleb Clarke. The All Blacks won a penalty from the resulting scrum and kicked to the corner, and a clever lineout move by the forwards saw Ardie Savea crash over from close range, Mo’unga adding the extras. The game continued to be a close affair as the substitutions stared en masse, but 2 of the replacements proved key as Santiago Carreras, on at 15 in place of Sánchez, struggled attacking flat to the line and gifted the ball to Will Jordan to run in from halfway twice in 2 minutes to secure a bonus point victory, with Mo’unga adding both conversions. New Zealand thought they had added the cherry to the top of the cake as the lock ticked into the red with Reiko Ioane crossing, but a TMO review instead awarded a penalty to the Pumas and saw Tyrel Lomax sent to the sin bin for a clearout to the head. The Pumas had the chance to kick the ball out and end the game, but instead chose to kick to touch and launch one more attack, however the All Blacks won the ball back and put Patrick Tuipulotu through a gap to add an undeserved shine on the result, Mo’unga adding the 2 points to secure a 0-38 victory that all-but guarantees the All Blacks will win the Tri Nations.

Testing the depth

The Pumas certainly drew the short straw with the fixture scheduling after South Africa pulled out, as they are the only one of the 3 teams involved this year who has to play on 4 consecutive weeks. As such, it was no giant surprise to see a number of changes to the 23, but unfortunately I feel that it proved costly in his match.

In place of the highly experienced prop pairing of Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro and Francisco Gómez Kodela, Santiago Medrano (24 years old) and Mayco Vivas (22) were given the start, but they found the All Blacks scrum too much for them to deal with. Obviously the only way they can learn to scrummage at the top level is by putting them into matches like this, but unfortunately it proved costly in this match as their scrum was in almost constant retreat and giving away penalties at an alarming rate, which was gifting New Zealand possession and territory far too often.

As if that wasn’t enough, the number of scrums skyrocketed as a heavily changed back line struggled to create any cohesion, with too many attempts to put a player through a gap resulting in the ball going to floor. This only got worse as Santiago Carreras – who usually plays in the back 3 for Argentina – was brought on at fly half, as he clearly wasn’t comfortable in the position and gifted Will Jordan 2 tries when he tried to play flat to the line and bring the back line into play.

Obviously it was disappointing on the day, but the players will have learned a lot from this match and will benefit from this in the long term. And I’m sure there will be a lot more focus in the coming week on building the chemistry.

Inefficient

A 0-38 victory certainly looks good on paper, but I can’t help feel that anyone who actually watched the match will feel that this didn’t really do much to help Ian Foster’s job security.

When you think of the All Blacks, you think of a team that pounces on your mistakes and exploits them by making the right decisions to score the try. Instead, this game was just another example of blown opportunities from New Zealand.

Beauden Barrett is meant to be one of the best players in the world but couldn’t even hold onto the ball as he crossed the line under pressure from Felipe Ezcurra, while Reiko Ioane may also be thankful that Tyrel Lomax’s indiscretion meant his potential try was not looked at further. Mo’unga created a brilliant chance with his break and wide pass to Clarke (who had already wasted one chance with a knock on 5m from the line), but the winger was then selfish by trying to round the defender himself, rather than holding his line to draw the defence as they rushed across and then feeding the man who was in the process of looping behind him. And then finally in the early minutes of the second half, Anton Lienert-Brown wasted an overlap 5m from the line by playing the ball back inside.

This is not the clinical team that we are used to, this is a bunch of players who have lost direction and were lucky Carreras gifted them 2 tries to make it to the bonus point. New Zealand need to replace Foster with someone who can refresh the team, pick the players on form and get the best out of them. That man is currently at the Crusaders: Scott Robertson. But they will need to move quick as there’s always the chance he could move abroad to take on an international role elsewhere.

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