Six Nations 2019: Team of the Tournament

Six Nations 2019: Team of the Tournament

With the Six Nations over for another year, there is just one more important job to do: picking a team of the tournament. I’ve been doing this for a couple of years now and this was probably the hardest so far as injuries and Jacques Brunel’s inability to settle on a team meant that some players had limited game time, while poor matches or halves of rugby harmed the chances of others. And yet despite that, at some positions I was spoiled for choice and could have picked from 4 or 5 players!

So without further ado, my team of the tournament is:

1- Allan Dell: Mako Vunipola was the choice early in the tournament and I genuinely think England missed him after his injury. Rob Evans has been getting a lot of love but the player who stood out to me was Allan Dell. Dell topped the tackle charts for Scotland with 76 (putting him 5ᵗʰ overall in the tournament) but what really impressed me was his carrying in the loose, which was so important for them given the number of carriers they lost to injury.

2- Jamie George: Did the Saracens hooker do enough to cement the number 2 shirt ahead of regular captain Dylan Hartley? In my opinion, yes. George was reliable in the lineout and a big part of the England defence, finishing the tournament joint-3ʳᵈ in the tackle count with 78, alongside Mark Wilson. What really stood out for me though was his pass to set up Manu Tuilagi for a try against Italy… I’m sure there are centres who would be proud to give a pass like that!

3- Demba Bamba: There wasn’t really any standout performer for me in this position and if I’m honest, I changed my mind as I was writing this. Kyle Sinckler was so close to getting the nod, but I swapped to Bamba at the last moment. At just 20 years old and not even playing in the Top 14, Bamba did not look out of place at all in senior international rugby despite having to take over the starting role early in the tournament following Uini Atonio’s injury. Bamba carried 42 times for 54 metres with a whopping 22 gain line successes (4ᵗʰ most of anyone) and 14 defenders beaten. He may have given away the most penalties in the tournament (8, level with Tom Curry) but this will improve as he gets more experience at this level. Watch out for him over the coming years.

4- Alun Wyn Jones: There have been people wondering if Jones has just played his last Six Nations game. If so, then he has gone out on a high. Despite all the off-field distractions surrounding Project Reset, Jones led the team to a deserved Grand Slam and led by example. He fronted up when he needed to and finished joint-6ᵗʰ in the tackle counts with 71 made and just 4 missed.

5- George Kruis: I wasn’t really enthused by Kruis’ selection at the start of the tournament, however he looked back to his best this year. Kruis was 4ᵗʰ for tackles made in the England squad with 67 (joint-11ᵗʰ overall). But his key point was his work solidifying the England lineout, amassing 17 catches himself to finish joint 3ʳᵈ in the table.

6- Josh Navidi: This was one of the hardest to pick from the quality of performances. Mark Wilson was Mr Reliable for England and Braam Steyn was a big presence for Italy. Peter O’Mahony was going to get the spot until his anonymous performance against Wales. Navidi gets the spot here and I would argue he is one of the most underrated players int he Wales squad. The Cardiff Blues back row finished 2ⁿᵈ overall with 83 tackles and 4 turnovers saw him just miss out on a spot in that top 5 list. He does not look huge but he is so strong and smart, leading to him playing a key role in the Welsh defence with a number of choke tackles and I would argue that his ability attacking in open play is underrated, making 45 metres from 30 carries.

7- Tom Curry: Jamie Richie had a great tournament being thrust into a starting role but in the end the 7 shirt has to go to Tom Curry. Sam Underhill’s injury gave Curry the chance to start and it is hard to imagine him handing the shirt over to anyone else now. Curry’s 86 tackles saw him top the charts and he was joint-4ᵗʰ for turnovers with 5. It has been rare that England have had a proper jackal at 7 under Eddie Jones and Curry has been a real breath of fresh air here. 2 tries didn’t harm his chances either.

8- Billy Vunipola: This was a shootout between Vunipola and Louis Picamoles, but Vunipola’s greater consistency over the tournament. Vunipola’s 71 carries was more than anyone else in the tournament and he finished with more metres than any other forward (231m) and 27 gain line successes (3ʳᵈ behind Braam Steyn and James Ryan). England seriously missed him last season.

9- Antoine Dupont: Not involved in Round 1 and on the bench in Round 2, Dupont took his chance and ran with it. He still has areas of him game to work on, such as controlling the game when his pack aren’t on the front foot, but he brought some great attacking quality to the French attack, finishing with 8 clean breaks (joint-5ᵗʰ overall), 17 defenders beaten (joint-4ᵗʰ) and 7 offloads (joint-2ⁿᵈ). Shockingly, he was also joint-2ⁿᵈ in the turnover charts with 6, going really under the radar with his defence.

10- Owen Farrell: This was probably the hardest pick for me. Gareth Anscombe and Dan Biggar split their time which made it hard to pick between them, while Finn Russell had some great moments in a struggling Scotland team. However Farrell gets the nod for me as I feel that – other than the second halves against Wales and Scotland – he was the most consistent of the 10s, while he finished with 2 assists and was the top scorer in the competition with 59 points.

11- Jonny May: I’m a big fan of May so to have seen him grow into one of England’s most reliable players in recent years has been wonderful! May carried 52 times (the most of any back, joint-6ᵗʰ overall) and made 284 metres (4ᵗʰ overall) and 11 clean breaks (2ⁿᵈ overall), while beating 9 defenders. He also played a big part in the kicking game, with his pace allowing him to outrun defenders chasing back to deep kicks and finishing with 23 kicks caught – 3ʳᵈ overall in the tournament. Oh, and there’s the small matter of his 6 tries making him the top try scorer and 4ᵗʰ highest points scorer.

12- Hadleigh Parkes: The stats may not back this selection up as much as some others, but Parkes gets the nod here over other impressive 12s Manu Tuilagi, Sam Johnson and Luca Morisi. The Welsh defence was the cornerstone of their tournament success and Parkes was one of the linchpins of that defence, putting his body on the line to protect the Welsh try line. Man of the Match against Scotland, he was involved in 2 of the Key moments against Ireland, scoring the early try and then bringing down Jacob Stockdale when he looked set to break away and score.

13- Henry Slade: When England were playing well, Henry Slade was shining. Despite having not played alongside Manu Tuilagi before this tournament, the pair worked great together and Slade’s range of skills helped him keep defences guessing and resulted in him carrying 38 times for 271 metres (8ᵗʰ overall) with 12 clean breaks (1ˢᵗ overall) and finishing with 3 tries and 2 assists. Outside centre is a difficult position to defend, but Slade was generally impressive at the position and did a great job of shutting down the channel.

14- Josh Adams: I heavily considered putting Josh Adams into my 6 to watch article ahead of the tournament but in the end he just missed out to Gareth Anscombe. Leigh Halfpenny’s concussion left room for Adams to come into the starting lineup and he grabbed the ball with both hand – just like his try against England! Adams’ 257 metres made (9ᵗʰ overall) and 9 clean breaks (4ᵗʰ overall) were the most of any player in the Welsh squad and he scored tries against Italy, England and Scotland.

15- Liam Williams: Elliot Daly and Jayden Hayward both had their moments in the tournament and Blair Kinghorn was certainly in with a shot of making the 15 spot until he got injured. Liam Williams gets the place after taking over the Wales 15 shirt in Halfpenny’s absence. He may have had a quieter tournament than we are used to, but he was so assured under the high ball (his 24 kicks caught was 2ⁿᵈ behind Daly) and this helped nullify an England team that was looking unstoppable at that point.

So there’s my XV, who makes yours?

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: Scotland v Wales – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Scotland v Wales – 6 Nations 2019

Wales’ quest for the Grand Slam continues after they left Murrayfield with yet another victory. In a bruising encounter, tries from Josh Adams and Jonathan Davies helped Wales to a 6-15 halftime lead. Darcy Graham’s second half try in his first international start gave Scotland hope, but the Welsh defence held firm and a late penalty from Gareth Anscombe confirmed Wales’ 11-18 victory. This match leaves Scotland likely to finish with just 1 win from 5 in the tournament this season, while a win over Ireland next weekend will see Wales complete the Grand Slam.

Same old story

It feels like every round, Scotland have been left lamenting yet another injury to their squad. This week, they lost both Tommy Seymour and Blair Kinghorn in the first half alone, and Darcy Graham’s injury led to them finishing the game with 4 halfbacks on the pitch, with Adam Hastings at fullback and Ali Price on the wing. Compare the starting back lines from the opening rounds to the one that finished this game and the only similarities you will see are Laidlaw and Russell at 9 and 10 respectively.

While Scotland’s inability to make the most of their chances has been an issue throughout the tournament this year, the chopping and changing of personnel and players ending up in unfamiliar positions is never going to help as they are unable to build up any chemistry.

While Scotland have arguably been disappointing this tournament, it must be taken into account just how much they have been impacted by injuries, which for a nation with just 2 professional teams is going to be hard to deal with. Scotland finished the 2015 Six Nations with an 0-5 record and the Wooden Spoon yet half a year later, they were one poor lineout and refereeing decision away from a World Cup semifinal, so don’t rule out their chances of impressing in Japan later this year.

Bodies on the line

Wales may not have been the most exciting attacking team in this tournament, but defensively they have been outstanding. With just one match remaining, their 58 points conceded is the least in the tournament and barring the first half against France they have rarely looked like they have struggled.

A big part of Wales’ defence throughout the match was the choke tackle. While I am not a fan of it due to the risk of high tackles and head injuries, with players as strong as Josh Navidi and Alun Wyn Jones, the team do a great job of holding players up long enough to allow the defence to reorganise even if they don’t get the turnover.

The second half saw Wales have just 25% possession and 22% territory as they just made tackle after tackle after tackle. This was a team putting everything on the line and the images of Adam Beard and Hadleigh Parkes coming off battered and bruised just epitomised the effort of the team.

If they can continue to limit teams to just one or 2 tries, then they have the ability to match them for tries and get the win.

Hope for the future

One of the big positives for Scotland from all their injuries this season has been the emergence of some great young talent in the back row. Jamie Ritchie has been arguably their player of the tournament and even managed to keep the returning Hamish Watson on the bench for this game, while Magnus Bradbury – who has himself only just returned from injury – gave the back row some much-needed physicality and led the pack with 39 metres from 15 carries.

Hamish Watson came off the bench in the second half and made a real impact with a whopping 35 metres and 10 defenders beaten (5 more than anyone else on the pitch in this game) from just 5 carries. While John Barclay is a big loss with the experience he brings to the pack, the back 3 combination of Bradbury (23 years old), Ritchie (22) and Watson (27), with Matt Fagerson (20) is a unit to build the team around post-RWC2019.

 

Eyes On: Wales v England – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Wales v England – 6 Nations 2019

Round 3 saw the 2 unbeaten teams of the tournament take each other on as England travelled to the Principality Stadium to take on Wales. After a couple of strong England performances and iffy outings for Wales, the Welsh put in a great defensive performance and though England led 3-10 at half time through a Tom Curry try, they took over in the second half and two late tries from Cory Hill and Josh Adams gave them a 21-13 victory.

A step back

After two weeks of great performances, England took a huge step back against Wales. Their kicking game has been strong in the first 2 games, but that was certainly helped by first Robbie Henshaw at fullback, then France playing a winger at fullback and centres on both wings. Against Wales, they were up against Liam Williams at 15 – who often finds himself playing on the wing but is a top quality fullback – with George North and Josh Adams on the wings. This meant that they were positioned better to deal with the kicks, while they also picked up on England’s tendency for the man competing in the air to often try slapping the ball back towards his team rather than taking it on the full and adapted to it by having players like Josh Navidi and Cory Hill getting in position to win the ball when it was slapped back and also then being in position to secure the ball at the ruck if their man won the ball in the air.

With the kicking game not working as well, England needed to change their strategy, but while they played a different plan to the last 2 weeks, it was not a positive change. In the first 2 weeks, we would frequently hear the commentators calling out the names of Manu Tuilagi, Henry Slade, Jonny May, Elliot Daly and whoever was starting on the other wing as these players were frequently on the ball, due to England really varying their attack. This week, those names were barely mentioned as the attacks generally consisted of crash balls through the forwards and then a kick from Youngs or Farrell. The wider players still looked dangerous when they were used, but they rarely were and that one-dimensional attack made it easier for the Welsh to defend and put pressure on, leading to both Farrell and Youngs having poor days with the boot.

Things clearly weren’t going right for them in the second half and yet Eddie Jones seemed reluctant to make changes in the backs, Dan Robson left on the bench once again along with George Ford (if Jones doesn’t think he can positively impact the game from that place then he needs to be swapped for Danny Cipriani!), while I doubt Joe Cokanasiga would have come on if it wasn’t for Jonny May’s head injury.

England’s bonus points have left them in a strong position to still win the tournament (assuming Wales slip up against Scotland or Ireland), but they need to get their performance back to the level of the Ireland and France matches or they could start to struggle again.

Flying high

I must admit that I was surprised at the decision to start Gareth Anscombe over Dan Biggar for this match. While I think Anscombe brings more to the team, Biggar is probably the better player defensively and has the more reliable kicking game, so I thought he would have matched up better against England.

While Anscombe wasn’t perfect, he put in an assured performance that kept the England defence going. When Biggar came on to replace him with 20 minutes left, he continued to vary the game, but his kicking game began to cause England real problems and it appeared to give his teammates confidence and help them improve their own individual kicking games, especially Gareth Davies, who usually struggles to get his kicks right. It was Biggar spreading the ball wide to George North, then coming into the scrum half position at the ruck to keep the speed of ball up and picking up Cory Hill’s superb line that resulted in the go-ahead try, while his first phase cross-kick was inch-perfect for Josh Adams to beat Daly in the air to score the second try and confirm the victory.

This close to the World Cup, Wales have 2 wonderful options at fly half (with Rhys Patchell, Rhys Priestland and Jarrod Evans providing great depth behind them) and if they can work together to improve each other’s weaknesses and keep each other playing at their best every week, then Wales are going to be tough to overcome.

A young star

Sam Underhill’s injury may have given Tom Curry a chance that he will never look back on. Despite being only 20 years old and having just a few caps to his name, Underhill’s injury and those of some more experienced back rowers opened the door for Tom Curry to take the number 7 shirt for England in this tournament and it doesn’t look like he has any intention of giving it back!

While he may have given away a couple of penalties in the tournament, he has been a nightmare for opposition teams at the breakdown, while his 25 tackles completed was the most of any player in the match. As he is growing into his role, he also appears to be taking a larger role in the attack, with his 24 metres made off of 7 carries the 3rd most of any forward in this match, behind Billy Vunipola (51m from 20 carries) and Ross Moriarty (35m from 20 carries).

Such have been his performances, I would be shocked if Eddie Jones were to drop him when other options are available and at just 20 years old, he has the potential to go on to be an England great, feature in 3 World Cups and captain the country in the future. That may sound like a bold prediction for someone with just a few caps, but his age means that he is still some years from his best and that experience will put him in prime position for a leadership role as the newer faces begin to appear following this World Cup campaign.

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: France v Wales – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: France v Wales – 6 Nations 2019

The 2019 Six Nations kicked off in spectacular fashion on Friday night as Wales took a trip to Paris to take on the French. The Welsh came into the game on a run of 9 consecutive wins but did not adapt to the conditions in the first half and were thoroughly outplayed by a much better French team, who led 16-0 at half time. A try for Tomos Williams 6 minutes into the second half sparked a French collapse and George North capitalised on 2 mistakes to score twice and give the Welsh a 19-24 victory.

Typically French

It’s become cliché to say that you never know which France team will show up from week to week. They took it one step further last night by doing a 180⁰ turn in their performance at half time!

In the first half, Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez were playing the conditions to perfection by kicking for territory and daring the Welsh to play the ball away, while Louis Picamoles trucking the ball forward and Arthur Iturria throwing some lovely offloads, while the back 3 looked to capitalise on any loose kicks from Wales.

However in the second half, the Welsh started to control the ball better and Tomos Williams’ try from Josh Adams’ break appeared to fluster them. Iturria disappeared from the game, Picamoles was marshalled better by the Welsh defence and handling errors began to creep into the French game – most notably Yoann Huget’s fumble on his own line to gift North his first try. What really surprised me is how soon France started making wholesale changes, most notably the removal of Guilhem Guirado – who may not have been having the best match of his career but is still such an important leader for the team – at a time when they needed leaders to settle things down.

It looked like they may have got back into things when at 19-17 with just 9 minutes left, Gaël Fickou beat Adams to a high ball just outside the Welsh 22, but from the resulting breakdown everything went wrong for France. 2 forwards got in the way of Baptiste Serin’s pass to Lopez, causing him to throw a looped pass that the fly half needed to take above his head. Lopez – knowing there was space on the outside – chose to throw a pass to Sébastien Vahaamahina but threw a pass that the second row had to jump to take above his head – an awful pass considering the lock is over 2 metres tall and there was no reason to put the pass high. After 2 such poor passes put the French on the back foot, Vahaamahina should have just driven forward and allowed his team to reset, but instead he tried to throw an audacious wide pass to Huget – missing out both Maxime Médard and Romain Ntamack – that was easily picked off by North and ran back for the winning try.

There is no way that a team should be throwing away a 16-point halftime lead at home and coupled with their loss to Fiji in the Autumn Tests, there is certainly a cause to be worried about the fragility of the French team when put under pressure, despite the obvious promise their first half performance showed.

Discipline almost costly

If not for the French mistakes, Wales’ lack of discipline would have cost them the match. There were so many silly little penalties that you would not expect a team of this experience to be giving away. From Justin Tipuric competing too hard at the lineout and pulling his man down to Ross Moriarty diving on the ball from an offside position after Gareth Davies knocked on at a scrum, in a game that they were struggling to control, these infringements were just giving he French extra chances. There was also a period following Liam Williams’ disallowed try where Wales gave away a series of silly penalties that allowed the French to make their way down the length of the pitch without any real pressure.

It was not even just the discipline in terms of penalties that was lacking at times in this game (particularly the first half) as they made errors that a team as well coached as they are should not be making. George North bit in to tackle Arthur Iturria when Gareth Anscombe was already making the tackle and this allowed the flanker to offload to Huget, who now had the space to run in for France’s second try. Then with just 30 seconds left in the half, Wales won a free kick in their 22. Rather than hold onto the ball for a couple of phases then kicking the ball out of play, they chose to kick downfield to the French, giving them the chance of 1 last attack before halftime and leading to a drop goal that could have proved crucial later in the game.

I hope that these errors do not count against some of these players as I think Wales had the right players involved for the game and I think Anscombe and Williams deserve an extended run in the starting line-up, but Wales need to ensure that they start matches faster and keep their discipline better if they want to win the tournament.

Bigger but not better

The French scrum showed on Friday night that, contrary to what some people may say, size isn’t everything. With behemoths like Uini Atonio, Vahaamahina and Paul Willemse starting, the French boasted one of the heaviest packs in the history of international rugby, considerably heavier than their Welsh opponents. Yet despite this, the Welsh scrum was the one winning penalties and free kicks for much of the match.

While size and strength obviously helps in a scrum, technique is also very important and I feel that this is an area where the French struggle without Rabah Slimani. The French began having more luck with the scrum later in the game, but whether this was down to their better scrummagers being on the bench or the Welsh replacements not being able to match what their starters had been able to do.

With England’s generally strong scrum next up, it will be interesting to see how the French pack fairs at Twickenham, especially if Atonio is missing as it appeared to be a hamstring issue that saw him be replaced early in the second half.

Top performance

George North may have been given the Man of the Match award, but to me the standout player in the game was his teammate Josh Navidi. The flanker did make a couple of mistakes, with a knock on ending an attack in the first half and one moment where he was out of position leading to a penalty for Dan Biggar holding on, but he put in a huge performance beyond that and had a real impact on the game. He ran hard with the ball and made good ground on a couple of occasions to put Wales on the front foot, including the build-up to Liam Williams’ disallowed try. But most notable was his defence. His strength in the tackle was stopping even Louis Picamoles in his tracks and forcing handling errors, while he also did a great job of holding players off the ground to create mauls and turnover ball.

To me, he would walk into the starting line-up of most 6 Nations teams, but if everyone was fit for Wales there is no guarantee he will start, such is the strength in depth in the Welsh back row!

2019 Six Nations: 6 to Watch

2019 Six Nations: 6 to Watch

We are just weeks away from the 6 Nations kicking off for another year. With the World Cup starting in October, the tournament will take on extra significance as not only will players be trying to win the tournament but they will also be trying to prove to their coaches that they should be on the plane to Japan later this year.

With the squads now released for the opening rounds, I’ve taken a look at each team and selected a player to watch. These are generally players who have either only amassed a few caps or not been an obvious name to those who only watch international rugby. How will these players do this tournament and how many of them will we see at the World Cup?

England: Tom Curry

The injury to Sam Underhill has opened the door for Sale flanker Tom Curry to likely take the 7 shirt for the tournament. At 20 years old, Curry has been capped 5 times since making his debut on the 2017 tour to Argentina. England have struggled to find a real “jackal” at flanker for a number of years but Curry is a real danger at the breakdown and if the support men are not close enough then expect him to add another turnover to his tally.

France: Demba Bamba

It’s not very often these days that we see a player in the 6 Nations who is not playing in one of the top 3 domestic European leagues (Premiership, Pro 14, Top 14). That will be the case though if 20-year-old prop Demba Bamba comes off the bench. Currently playing in Pro D2 for Brive, Bamba was one of the stars of the French U20s and made his debut for the senior international team against Fiji in November. It’s often said that a prop doesn’t reach his best days until much later in his career, this 6 Nations will give us the chance to see the early days of what could end up being a great career… assuming the team around him turns up this season.

Ireland: Tadhg Beirne

One of the older players on this list, Beirne is a hell of a player who I have really enjoyed watching for the Scarlets and now Munster over recent seasons. Having moved back to Irelend, Beirne made his international debut in the Autumn Tests. With James Ryan, Devin Toner and Iain Henderson all more experienced in the Irish second row there is no guarantee that Beirne will get massive game time (so I feel even more sorry for Ultan Dillane who is also in the squad) but when he is on the pitch his threat at the breakdown and his ability in the loose will show why I picked him in my Uncapped XV last year.

Italy: Seb Negri

Negri has been in and around the Italian squad for a couple of year now, having earned 12 caps since his debut in June 2016 and was a regular in the Italian XV during last season’s 6 Nations. Part of the Hartpury squad that won promotion to the Championship, the Zimbabwean-born flanker is a strong runner that will help the team got on the front foot. Parisse may be nearing the end of his career, but Negri is one of the new generation of stars coming through for Conor O’Shea and Italy.

Scotland: Adam Hastings

The son of Gavin and nephew of Scott, Hastings has the rugby pedigree. I was not overly impressed with the fly half at Bath but he has flourished since moving to Glasgow. He is likely second to Finn Russell on the depth chart but they did start together in November with Russell moving to 12 and Gregor Townsend may try this again during the tournament. A very exiting player, the 22-year-old’s chemistry with a number of his Glasgow teammates could see him be the breakout star of this year’s tournament.

Wales: Gareth Anscombe

With 20 caps to his name, 27-year-old Gareth Anscombe is probably the most well-known player on this list to the casual fan. Outside of the back row – which has been hit by injuries – I can’t see there being too many inexperienced players in the Wales XV, however Anscombe has only recently started to look like the starter at 10. Anscombe started the final of the 2011 Junior World Championship at fly half for New Zealand, with Beauden Barrett and Lima Sopoaga at 15 and 12 respectively, which shows the quality he has. He has a good enough kicking game to control the match but also has that attacking ability that takes Wales to a new level. Even if Dan Biggar starts at 10, with Leigh Halfpenny still to recover from concussion symptoms after Samu Kerevi’s late hit in the Autumn Tests, there is always a chance that Anscombe could line up at 15.