Eyes On: Wales v Ireland – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Wales v Ireland – 6 Nations 2019

The entire tournament led to this moment: Wales taking on the Irish at the Principality Stadium with not just the tournament but also the Grand Slam on the line. A home victory would earn Wales the Grand Slam, whereas a victory for the Irish would see England win the title provided they beat Scotland. Unfortunately for Ireland and England fans, Hadleigh Parkes crossed the line in the second minute and Wales didn’t look back from there with 20 points from the boot of Gareth Anscombe seeing them go 25-0 up. Ireland looked set to be nilled but Jordan Lamour’s try on the final play of the game and Jack Carty’s conversion saw them come away with a slightly more respectable 25-7 score.

Shut down

This was an incredible performance from Wales! The nerve to go for a chip deep in the Irish 22 and take advantage of Rob Kearney’s wide positioning showed Anscombe’s confidence at 10 and he reacted well to his early shift to 15 following George North’s injury. Dan Biggar ran the game well following his early introduction and having Anscombe on the pitch as well gave them the extra playmaking ability to keep the Irish defence guessing. Coming into this game, Peter O’Mahony was in contention for my team of the tournament but he was invisible in this game, such was the quality of the Welsh support.

If anything, the defence was even more impressive. Though I would argue that the Irish attack was not at its best (more on that shortly), they were limited to just 2 chances of note, one of which was their try with the result already confirmed. A Johnny Sexton crosskick looked to have sent Jacob Stockdale away down the left wing, but Hadleigh Parkes quickly caught him and brought him down to end the attack. The choke tackle used to be an Irish speciality, but the Welsh made it their own this tournament and used it to great effect once again.

With the coaching staff set to leave following the World Cup, it looks like Wales could be hitting the form they will need to make a serious run in the tournament and send their coaches off on a high.

Over-reliance

During Ireland’s success over the last couple of years, some of the standout players for them have been CJ Stander and halfbacks Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton. This year, none of them have been close to the player we know they can be.

Unfortunately, Joe Schmidt seemed very stuck in his ways this tournament and continued to rely on these players despite their drop in form. I was critical a few rounds ago about how long the halfbacks were kept on against Italy given the quality on the bench and this happened once again against Wales, with neither being replaced until the final 10 minutes with the victory already well beyond them. And yet despite this John Cooney and Jack Carty appeared to get the team functioning a little better – granted the Welsh may have taken their foot off the pedal slightly knowing they had won – and controlled the team on their way to the only points of the game. Stander as well also struggled to get Ireland on the front foot, generating just 9 metres from 14 carries over the 80 minutes. In comparison, Jack Conan took over at number 8 following Sean O’Brien’s replacement and made the same number of metres from just 6 carries, looking much more dangerous in attack.

Ireland have not turned into a bad team overnight, but in this match and this year’s tournament in general they have been poor. If Joe Schmidt wants a chance of finishing his Ireland career by winning the World Cup, then he needs to start selecting players on form rather than relying on players who have been stars in the past but are now struggling.

Growing options

Many teams will likely be jealous of Wale’s options at fly half, with both Anscombe and Biggar having impressed throughout the tournament. To have such quality options available, the question has often been which of them should be starting and who should be on the bench.

While Anscombe arguably brings more options to the overall attack, there have been questions over his place kicking, which has tested a lot this tournament with Leigh Halfpenny unavailable. Despite Dan Biggar being generally regarded as the better kicker, Anscombe was allowed to keep kicking duties following Biggar’s early arrival to the field this weekend and proved the faith in him well justified as he kicked a conversion and 6 penalties for a 100% kick success rate in this game.

While this not only suggests that he can hold the 10 shirt ahead of Biggar – who is an amazing player to bring off the bench – it also suggests that there may not need to be such a reliance on Leigh Halfpenny moving forward, which could open up extra options in the back 3 as it would allow the regular back 3 of this tournament (George North and Josh Adams on the wings, Liam Williams at centre) to continue playing together and building their chemistry as a group. If Halfpenny and these 3 players can keep themselves free of injury between now and the end of the season, it will be interesting to see who makes it into the back 3 for Wales’ next game.

Eyes On: Italy v France – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Italy v France – 6 Nations 2019

The 2019 Six Nations reached its final weekend, beginning with a bottom of the table clash between Italy and France. Bonus points in the earlier rounds meant that it was impossible for Italy to avoid the Wooden Spoon but there was still plenty of pride to play for. Italy took an early lead through a pair of Tommaso Allan penalties, before Antoine Dupont scored a try and Romain Ntamack gave France a 6-10 halftime lead. Yoann Huget scored early in the second half and though Tito Tebaldi kept things close with a try of his own, France held on for the win and a late score from Damian Penaud confirmed a 14-25 victory for Les Bleus and consigned Italy to another year without a Six Nations victory.

Learning the hard way

Injuries to Michele Campagnaro and Tommaso Castello led to Conor O’Shea handing a debut at 13 to 21-year-old Marco Zanon. The Benetton centre has come through the international ranks via the U20s and Emerging Italy team, however did not make his first Pro14 start until September.

That inexperience in professional rugby showed in this match. On one of his first touches of the ball, he tried to arc his run around the French defence but was unable to get to the outside and found himself being bundled into touch too easily. With the score at 6-10 he had the chance to put Italy ahead as he ran onto Allan’s grubber through, only for the ball to bounce off the post and evade his grasp. While the bounce of a rugby ball is always hard to predict, I think many more experienced players would have recognised the chance of the ball hitting the post and – knowing the space they had – slowed their run so that they could react to the ball coming off the post.

Unfortunately for Zanon, that was not the moment people will remember looking back as with the score at 14-20 with just 6 minutes left, Italy worked the ball out to him on the overlap about 7 metres out. While he made it to the line, as he went to ground he allowed Damian Penaud to dislodge the ball and force a knock-on over the line. While it was a great effort from Penaud, it was made easier for him as Zanon dived for the line with the ball in his right hand rather than switching it to his left hand to protect it.

He is not the first and he won’t be the last person to mess up with the game on the line, but this was a game that Italy could and possibly should have won but for his errors. Hopefully he will be able to put this setback behind him and learn from this match.

The kids are alright

France may have had their good and bad moments during this tournament, but one plus point for them has been the development of some of their younger talents.

Demba Bamba was a player I picked as one to watch this tournament. Despite not celebrating his 21st birthday until the day after this match and not even playing in the Top 14 – he currently plays for Brive in Pro D2 but will be playing for Lyon next season – he did not look out of place on the senior international scene. He may have conceded a couple of penalties but this will improve with time, while he is already showing himself as a comfortable ball carrier.

Romain Ntamack has really grown into the tournament. Against Italy, he varied the attacking game well to keep the Italian defence guessing, while also controlling the game and knowing when to take a drop goal to keep the score ticking over. More importantly though, he also took on the role of goal kicker for this match and performed will, despite not even being the first choice kicker at his club. He will certainly have harder tests than against Italy, but this will be a great confidence boost for him and it is a sign that he is growing well into his role with the team.

Damian Penaud is developing into yet another great player on the wing for France. While it probably helped that he was not tested by the Italian kicking game in the same was as against England or Ireland, he looked very assured on the wing and seemed to be getting used to the position. He made a great covering tackle on Marco Zanon and was smart enough to target the ball rather than the player, dislodging it to save a vital try. In attack, his 98 metres made were the more than any other player on the pitch and it was his break that set up Antoine Dupont for his try, while his try in the final minutes secured the victory.

Dupont may not have had the perfect game as he occasionally struggled with forwards getting in his way at the breakdown, but this control of his pack is something that will develop as he continues to play with them… assuming the coaches don’t continue to overhaul the team every other match. He was one of the most exciting 9s in the tournament this year when given some space and his support line off Penaud that led to his try was typical of is playing style and I am sure we will see him getting over the try line plenty more times over the coming years.

The French Wolverine

While many of the younger players impressed in this match, one of the more experienced players also caught my eye. Maxime Médard has been in and out of the national team for years, but in this game I thought he really showed his quality.

Thomas Ramos has made the attack more exciting but has not been the safest defensively or in kick coverage, which is not what you want when you have attack-only Yoann Huget in the back three as well. Médard however was a calming influence at the back, tidying things up and generally making the right decision, while picking his moment to attack to create chaos, such as when he drew in Angelo Esposito and released Penaud with a simple pass to set up Dupont’s try.

With so many young players in the French back line at the moment, the coaches need to continue selecting Médard to increase their chances of success in Japan.

Eyes On: England v Italy – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: England v Italy – 6 Nations 2019

England looked to get over their loss to Wales with a match at home against Italy on Saturday. The home team made just a handful of changes and their strength showed as they put the Italians to the sword, going in 31-7 ahead at half time courtesy of tries from Jamie George, Jonny May, Manu Tuilagi and Brad Shields. Tuilagi and Shields each added after the break and tries from George Kruis and Dan Robson completed a 57-14 victory.

Bish! Bash! Bosh!

England only made a couple of changes for this match, but they were notable ones as Ben Te’o came in for Henry Slade (with Tuilagi shifting out to 13) and Joe Cokanasiga came in on the wing. The England back line has generally been rather lightweight, but the trio of Te’o, Tuliagi and Cokanasiga had a greater combined weight than heavyweight boxers Anthony Joshua, Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder. A very different approach to usual from England and one that overwhelmed the Italian defence.

The massive midfield of Te’o and Tuilagi frequently forced the Italians to bunch in midfield to deal with them – not helped by the loss of Michele Campagnaro and his replacement Tommaso Castello to injury before half time, leaving Ian McKinley in the centre – and this created space out wide for Cokanasiga and the smaller, faster England backs to exploit. Cokanasiga was a monster in this game, dominating Angelo Esposito in attack and finishing with 107 metres off 8 carries. Even when he was eventually stopped, he always looked able to get his hands free for an offload to a supporting player.

Tuilagi had a great game and looked much more of a threat at 13 where he has that extra bit of space to exploit, running for 82 metres from 8 carries, behind only Cokanasiga for metres made. Te’o may not have been so obvious in attack, but the threat that he possessed played a big factor in creating the space for those outside him.

In defence, there was room for improvement as England’s narrow defensive tactic did lead to Tuilagi occasionally struggling to cover across and Cokanasiga making the wrong decision, but that is always the risk with a group that have not played together before.

Of course, it must be taken into account that Italy are not going to have been the hardest test of this line-up. While I think Henry Slade has done a great job in this tournament and has been a vital cog in defence, I would like to see England continue with this back line against Scotland (though again, the injuries in their squad mean that the resilience of the Scottish defence will likely be somewhat lacking) and develop it into another legitimate option with the World Cup looming.

Predictable Italy

Italy had their moments of success in attack, but not as many as they would have liked. Despite making 160 carries (40 more than England), they made only 373 metres compared to the home team’s 643.

While part of this can be attributed to losing such impressive players in midfield and also finishing with a prop in the back row, their attacks were often too easy for England to deal with. Italy had the ball 61% of the game, yet for all that possession they only made 5 clean breaks over the 80 minutes, compared to England’s 22.

Much of this can be attributed to their predictable attacking making it easy for a strong English defence. The Italians have a number of impressive ball carriers in the pack yet they are largely wasted by always taking the crash ball off the scrum half. There is no variation in the game, which makes is easy to defend. If they were to start crashing their ball carriers off 9, back inside from the 10, outside the 10 or even further out into the back line, then they would make so many more metre and generate quicker attacking ball to take advantage of a retreating defence.

Tito Tebaldi has looked impressive when given space to attack into, but I do not thing either he or Tommasso Allan have the ability to control a game and get the best out of the team in the same way as their opposite numbers. Alessandro Troncon and Diego Dominguez were such a big part of the Italian team of the ‘90s and early ‘00s and they have never been fully replaced. If Conor O’Shea can find the talent at 9 and 10, then it will not take much to unlock this team.

Innovation

Scrums are not something that can often be considered fun to watch these days, but here was a very interesting moment at one of the set pieces in this game. With England set to have the feed around halfway on the right hand side of the pitch, Joe Cokanasiga packed down at number 8 while Billy Vunipola placed himself in the back line.

Putting a winger into the back row is not often going to work well – if you haven’t watched the clip of Jonny May at flanker against Argentina, then you’re missing out! – but Cokanasiga looked at home at the back of the scrum and with him being only slightly lighter than Billy Vunipola, there was no real drop in quality during the scrum. The ball came out to the back line, where Vunipola took the crash ball into the Italian midfield.

While I am not sold on Cokanasiga as the regular starter yet, I do like the willingness of the England attack to try something different when he is on the pitch. With Vunipola in the back line, it is understandable to expect him to take the crash ball here, but having done that on this occasion, I would not be surprised to see England take this a step further and use the tactic again in the future, but with Vunipola either as a decoy runner or even as a pivot, similar to what we see from Mako Vunipola at times in open play.

Eyes On: France v Scotland – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: France v Scotland – 6 Nations 2019

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

Building options

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

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

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

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

On the right track

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

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

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

TM-Oh no!

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

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

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

Eyes On: England v France – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: England v France – 6 Nations 2019

England returned to Twickenham looking to back up last week’s victory in Ireland with victory in Le Crunch against a French team who fell apart in the second half against Wales. If anyone was wondering before kickoff which French team would turn up and if England could continue to play like last week then they didn’t have to wait long, as Jonny May went over for a try within 2 minutes. The Leicester winger crossed for 2 more before the half hour mark and Henry Slade earned England the bonus point before half time, a Morgan Parra penalty and Damian Penaud try on the counter the only answer the French could muster. They couldn’t even manage a point in the second half while England extended their lead via Owen Farrell and a penalty try, to finish 44-8.

Amazing England

England’s performances so far this Six Nations are a light-year away from last year’s tournament. This time last year – or even potentially in the Summer and Autumn Tests – there were question marks over who would be the starter in a number of positions, especially the backs. Now, it is likely only injuries and players returning from injury that will alter that starting pack, while in the backs the lack of chance being given to Dan Robson suggests that Ben Youngs (who is finding his form again) will be the starting 9, the midfield combination of Farrell, Tuilagi and Slade look like they have been playing together far longer than 2 matches and Jonny May and Elliot Daly look nailed on in the back 3 with Chris Ashton and Jack Nowell likely fighting for the 14 shirt. Suddenly this team looks settled and firing on all cylinders and they look like they could be pushing for a World Cup semifinal again.

Against France, England continued the in your face defence that troubled Ireland, with Courtney Lawes managing to knock even Mathieu Bastareaud backwards, while the England attack added a new facet to its game this week by a pinpoint kicking game. Time after time they turned the French defensive live and sent the back 3 scrambling across the pitch with a cleverly placed kick, with 2 of May’s tries, Farrell’s try and the penalty try all coming directly from the kick chase, while it was a kick behind that put England on the French try line for Henry Slade’s try. They found a weakness in the French game and fully exploited it for the victory.

The worry for other teams must be that this team does not even yet appear to be at its dangerous best. Eddie Jones commented that they left 15-20 points on the field and I think that is a fair assessment as there were a few times in the second half that they appeared to force things too early rather than work an opportunity by going through the phases. They will also be disappointed by how easily Yoann Huget was able to break through out wide for Penaud’s try, but with 2 weeks now until they take on Wales (the only other team still capable of the Grand Slam) I’m sure they will be confident in their ability to take another step forward.

Headless cockerels

This France team has so many talented players, yet they have failed to do anything of real note in the last 3 halves of rugby now. If the second half capitulation against Wales (complete with the story that Sébastien Vahaamahina had been made captain following their substitutions) did not make the running of the teams already look like a shambles, then this week certainly did.

Wholesale changes were made with only a few due to injury, while both of France’s starting wingers were technically centres, so it is no real surprise England found it easy to catch them out of position in the kicking game. The French centres have such a range of playing styles (consider the difference between Bastareaud and last week’s starter Romain Ntamack), France cannot continue to play the same tactics from one week to another with completely different personnel. Morgan Parra was probably one of France’s best players in the opening 40 as he went to-to-toe with Ben Youngs in the tactical kicking game but he was replaced early in the second half by Antoine Dupont who arguably opened up gaps with his sniping around the fringes but did not have the ability to control the game and put France in the right areas of the pitch. Not only that but the French were throwing on their subs so early in the second half in an attempt to do something vaguely good, the whole thing smacked of desperation.

The French have a habit of getting things together just in time for the World Cup ready to put a strong run together, but honestly right now the thought of them even making it out of their pool seems laughable considering they will likely need to beat at least one of Argentina or England in order to do so.

Change is needed. Not just with the man in charge but the entire mentality. Half the squad cannot be changed each week or no chemistry will build up. If France can get consistency in their selection, they will be a real danger. Until then, they should consider 4th in the tournament a success.

Cool it down

Kyle Sinckler has firmly taken hold of the number 3 shirt for England, but he has to be careful. He has developed well as a scrummager and is a wrecking ball with deceptively good handling skills in the loose, but he does have to watch out for his temper.

Last week he did a great job of getting under Peter O’Mahony’s skin and rattling the Irishman, but this week he got himself in trouble after an incident where he appeared to try and rip the scrum cap off Arthur Iturria’s head. Sinckler appeared to be arguing that Iturria was the instigator with an action not seen on the replay, but regardless of this, Sinckler has developed somewhat of a reputation as a hot-headed player. Obviously I don’t want him to take away from his style of play, but he just needs to be careful to not get himself in trouble with the referee as a penalty (or worse, a card) at the wrong time could prove crucial in a match.

Eyes On: Italy v Wales – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Italy v Wales – 6 Nations 2019

Wales came to the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday looking for a record-equalling 11 consecutive victories. After being handed victory by the French last week, Warren Gatland chose to make 10 changes to his squad and it may have backfired as Braam Steyn scored the only try of the first half compared to 4 penalties from Dan Biggar, for a 7-12 halftime score. Wales improved again in the second half with tries from Josh Adams and Owen Watkin, while Edoardo Padovani scored late to make the final 5 minutes interesting but the Italians could not push on for a losing bonus point and Thomas Young had a try disallowed at the death, resulting in a 15-26 final score.

 

Too many changes

It’s a familiar tale for Wales under Warren Gatland: a match against a weaker opposition that everybody expects to be an easy victory result in a raft of changes to the starting lineup. The starting team put in a poor performance and struggle to pull away, leading to a bevy of early substitutions as the usual starters are forced to come on to save the game.

I felt that last week’s halfback partnership of Tomos Williams and Gareth Anscombe should have started again this week to get used to playing together at international level, but instead Dan Biggar was brought back in with Aled Davies at 9. Biggar did well off the tee but struggled to create anything in open play, while his kicking out of hand was poor at times with kicks going out on the full and one cross-kick to Josh Adams deep in the Wales half won by Padovani to put Wales under unnecessary pressure. Davies looked largely out of his depth and his hesitation at the back of the ruck and maul led to a couple of big turnovers for Italy.

Young and Josh Navidi did everything they could to win ball back and give the Welsh a platform to attack from, but the back line looked disjointed, likely due to the lack of time playing together as a unit, which limited the effectiveness of a dangerous back 3 (Josh Adams, Jonah Holmes and Liam Williams).

I understand wanting to get experience for the next players up and testing the depth of your squad, but this close to the World Cup it feels like there are some key positions that are not yet sorted and it means that the players are not playing together regularly enough to build up a chemistry. Not only that, but with bonus points now being part of the Six Nations, Wales have potentially put their position in the table at risk by failing to come away with 4 tries against Italy, which is something that I can see most teams doing.

Signs of improvement

Italy may be on a disappointing run of results in the Six Nations, but there are clear signs of improvement under Conor O’Shea. With so many influential players having retired over recent years, the Irishman has not just been working to improve the national team, but the whole of Italian Rugby. Things are clearly starting to improve in the domestic game with Benetton currently sitting 2ⁿᵈ in their Pro14 conference and 3 wins for Zebre, the U20s are on the up and bringing through talent for the national team, who are playing a much more attractive and well-rounded brand of rugby than they used to.

In the first half especially, their defence held strong and it was only moments of indiscipline that allowed Wales to get on the scoresheet. They scored the same number of tries as Wales, made 5 clean breaks to Wales’ 4 and on the day had a much more effective lineout. In recent years, they have found themselves falling off at the end of matches, the last 15 minutes was probably their best period of the game against Scotland last week and they held their own once again this week, with Padovani finishing off a well-worked try near the end.

There are still areas where they can improve, such as their discipline, their control of the game via the halfbacks, the scrum and their general depth of talent, but this is a team that is clearly going in the right direction and O’Shea should be commended for this.

Options in the back row

Arguably Italy’s star player in this game was openside flanker Braam Steyn. The South African-born Benetton flanker’s 24 metres from 12 runs was the most by an Italian forward, his 20 tackles was the most by any man on the pitch (next was Thomas Young – 15), he was one of the main targets in the lineout, won a couple of turnovers… oh and scored the opening try!

Jake Polledri’s injury has been a shame as it is a big loss to the Italian back row, but the back row of Steyn, Seb Negri and captain Sergio Parisse have played well and led by example. When Polledri is back from injury, I would love to see Conor O’Shea find a way to get all 4 of them into the starting XV, potentially by moving Negri into the second row to free up a spot for Polledri on the flank.

Will O’Shea do this, or will he choose to keep one of them as a impact player off the bench?

Eyes On: Ireland v England – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Ireland v England – 6 Nations 2019

Ireland kicked off their Six Nations campaign at home to England on Saturday, but it’s safe to say things didn’t go as planned for them. England came flying out the blocks and went ahead within 2 minutes through Jonny May, while tries from Cian Healy and Elliot Daly left the halftime score at 10-17. A second half brace from Henry Slade confirmed England’s victory, while Ireland got a late consolation through John Cooney for a final score of 20-32.

 

Welcome returns

It was great seeing Billy Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi back in the starting XV for England this weekend  and for me, it was one of the key reasons for their success. Often in recent matches, England have found themselves lacking the big ball carriers, which has often limited their attacking options. However having these two big names back, along with Mako Vunipola and Kyle Sinckler in the front row, gave the team a number of options when looking for the hard metres and this gave the attack a new edge where they could be attacking the Irish in a number of different ways.

Further than this, the added impetus from a couple of big names returning after so long could draw a big performance from the players around them, as happened in this game. Everyone stepped up in this match and did everything they could to deny the Irish even a foothold in the game. Johnny Sexton, Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose were quickly closed down every time they got the ball and it gave the players outside them very little decent ball to attack with.

Watching this game, I found the performance reminiscent of the win over New Zealand in 2012 under Stuart Lancaster. After a poor 2018, are things once again on an upwards trajectory for England?

Sorely missed

Though I wouldn’t say that his presence would have given Ireland victory, I really think Rob Kearney was missed this weekend. When it was suggested that Robbie Henshaw could start at 15 in the days leading up to Joe Schmidt’s team announcement, I scoffed at the idea considering how long it has been since he frequently played the position. I understood that with Kearney having just 1 appearance for Leinster under his belt since his return from injury meant he was unlikely to play, but I thought that we would see his deputy at Leinster, Jordan Larmour given the 15 shirt given his recent experience in the role.

Henshaw played a decent game, but he was put under heavy pressure which is exactly what you don’t want when playing in a position that you’re not 100% comfortable in. England continually had him running around his 22 trying to get to their kicks, which often found him finally getting the ball in a corner, close to his line, with a wall of white stopping him doing anything.

I can’t help wonder if Kearney’s presence would have helped as he is so good at getting himself in position ahead of time, it may have allowed him to deal with the England kicking game better. I think Kearney’s ability under the high ball would have been utilised too, as Elliot Daly was not tested in this area anywhere near as much as I expected given his performances in the Autumn Tests.

With a trip to Scotland (who will likely be fielding 2 recognised fullbacks in Stuart Hogg and Blair Kinghorn again) next weekend, it will be interesting to see if Henshaw keeps his place in the 15 shirt.

Unused

With just a couple of minutes left, and the game won, Eddie Jones brought on George Ford, Ellis Genge and Luke Cowan-Dickie from the bench. Now first off, I don’t understand why these changes were made with just a couple of minutes left as I doubt the players they replaced all got inured at the same point, but there was no time for them to have any impact on the match or really gain anything from the experience. And if he was just looking to give the players a cap, then why was Dan Robson left on the bench?

Gregor Townsend did something very similar in bringing on Adam Hastings with just a few minutes left, but besides getting players an extra cap, I don’t see what benefit it has for anyone!