Six Nations 2021: Wales v England

Six Nations 2021: Wales v England

With Sunday’s match between Scotland and France postponed, Round 3 of the 2021 Six Nations came to a premature end in Cardiff as Wales hosted England. The Welsh had a number of key players returning from injury and they took an early lead through the boot of Dan Biggar, but almost immediately threw it away as Maro Itoje charged down Kieran Hardy’s box kick from the restart, only for Liam Williams to just beat him to the ball as it bounced in-goal. England were soon on the board through an Owen Farrell penalty, but hey were having their own disciplinary problems that would soon prove costly. With quarter of an hour gone, Farrell was penalised for not rolling inside his own 22, and referee Pascal Gaüzère put the team on a warning and told the England captain to talk to his team. The French referee gave the team time to have a talk, but the moment they came out of their huddle blew for time on and the ever-alert Dan Biggar took advantage of the defence all being clumped under the posts and kicked the penalty out to the left wing for Josh Adams to catch and score. Farrell soon cut the deficit with a penalty, but Wales scored again on the half-hour mark, once again in controversial fashion. Josh Adams slotted a grubber in behind the England defence and Louis Rees-Zammit beat everyone to the ball. However the speedster was unable to collect cleanly, knocking the bouncing ball forward, only for it to hit his leg before it hit the floor, which gave the ball some degree of backwards movement as it bounced fortuitously into the hands of Liam Williams who dotted down over the line. To anyone who has seen a game of rugby (and Rees-Zammit himself), it was a clear knock on, but Gaüzère, his AR and TMO Alexandre Ruiz all unbelievably agreed that there was no knock on and allowed the try to stand. Biggar added his second conversion of the match, but England still had time to respond before halftime, with Anthony Watson forcing himself over in the corner and Farrell kicking a penalty with the final play of the half to cut the Welsh lead to 17-14.

Farrell had a chance to level the scores early in the second half, but his attempt siled wide, and this soon proved costly as Jonny Hill gave away a penalty on the edge of his 22 for entering a breakdown from the side. Kieran Hardy was alert to the chance and took a quick tap, scything through the retreating English defenders to go over for Wales’ third try, which Callum Sheedy converted. England continued to fight and keep the game close with another Farrell penalty, and when England finally put together a couple of phases of quality attacking play to make a break down the left wing, Ben Youngs managed to snipe over for a try, which Farrell converted. That was as close as things got for England though, as their discipline fell apart in the final quarter. Callum Sheedy broke through the English line and grubbered to the corner, but Anthony Watson just beat Kieran Hardy to the ball, but a raft of England penalties allowed the Welsh to add 9 points from the tee. England went on one last attack, but Dan Robson’s pass was intercepted by Sheedy, who booted the ball downfield. Louis Rees-Zammit gave chase but the ball would not sit up nicely for him despite a couple of kicks on, allowing the England defence to get back and cover, though they knocked on in the process. From the resulting scrum Wales went through a couple of phases and Cory Hill crossed beneath the posts for the bonus point try, which Sheedy converted for a 40-24 victory that secured the Triple Crown for Wales – something most Welsh fans could only dream about going into the tournament.

Wales

Who would have thought that Wales would be unbeaten after 3 games? Granted, they have been given a hand by 2 red cards and a couple of questionable calls, but the performances have clearly been improving and the injuries they have had to deal with are creating options for them. The rise of Kieran Hardy has just created even more depth at 9, while Callum Sheedy is solidifying his place in the 23 and providing a great alternative to Dan Biggar, with 1 playing a more territorial, defensive game and the other opening the game up in attack. The experiment of moving George North to 13 is working better than I expected, and while Jonathan Davies is still an obvious pick when fit, Ulisi Halaholo, Johnny Williams and Nick Tompkins all look at home on the international stage and bring something different to the game. In the pack, Elliot Dee put in a great performance replacing Ken Owens after an hour, while Taulupe Faletau’s return to form is a massive boon for the back row as they try to find the right balance.

Anything other than a bonus point victory over Italy in 2 weeks would be a shock, and then it is just the French standing between them and the unlikeliest of Grand Slams. Personally, I don’t feel that the Welsh are ready to defeat Les Bleus yet, but if their squad is still being affected by COVID in 3 weeks, that final match of Super Saturday could get very interesting.

England

Don’t be shocked if those in the England camp try to focus on the shoddy officiating. Don’t let them off if they do though, as it was their own indiscipline that cost them the game.

Whether it is due to players thinking they know better than the officials (in the case of the French officials they probably do, but you still have to play to the man with the whistle) or players off the pace from not playing rugby this season, England’s discipline has gone down the drain. Maro Itoje, the darling of England fans and pundits, always plays as close to the line as he can and often crosses it, but he was not getting away with it in this game, giving away a whopping 5 penalties on his own. What was even more worrying is that he gave away an early penalty for jumping across the lineout, and instead of cutting that from their game, the team went on to give away 2 more penalties for this in the final quarter as they lost all control of the match.

Do England have a right to gripe about the first try? Yes, Gaüzère was pathetic, but it must also be highlighted that England were already at the stage of being put on a team warning for the number of penalties after just 15 minutes, and it could arguably have come sooner!

England have 2 weeks to sort out their mindset. However, just like Eddie will keep ignoring players on form, I doubt that there will be any difference when England host France in 2 weeks, and that could lead to another devastating result.

Lions Watch

Taulupe Faletau‘s return to form has come at the perfect time to force his way back into Lions contention, and with CJ Stander able to also cover 6, he could even force his way into the starting XV, while Callum Sheedy will also be drawing Warren Gatland’s attention with some great attacking play without looking weak in defence. For England, Anthony Watson continued to make some key plays at either end of the pitch, while Ben Youngs had one of his better showings at a time when most of the Home Nations’ regular scrum halves are being forced to fight for their place.

After another week of dreadful handling skills and inexcusable defence (including turning his back when the penalty was given against Jonny Hill for the Hardy try), Elliot Daly should be hoping that he gets a chance to add to yesterday’s 50ᵗʰ cap. Meanwhile, George Ford‘s inclusion as England’s supposedly best attacking fly half was summed up by an aimless kick that drifted into the Wales 22 for an easy mark – with players like Marcus Smith and Joe Simmonds excelling in the Premiership, he should be nowhere near the England squad, let alone the Lions!

Six Nations 2021: Wales v Scotland

Six Nations 2021: Wales v Scotland

Round 2 of the 2021 Six nations saw a match-up between the 2 countries still able to win the Triple Crown, as Scotland hosted Wales at Murrayfield. After an impressive 2020 and an historic Calcutta Cup win at Twickenham last week, Scotland came in as the favourites and after both Leigh Halfpenny and Finn Russell kicked early penalties, Scotland got the early try as Darcy Graham reacted quickest to Ali Price’s clever chip from the back of a ruck to go in untouched under the posts, giving Russell an easy conversion. The Scots soon extended their lead as they spread the ball wide to the right on first phase ball. Stuart Hogg waited for the defence to commit to him before chipping in behind, and Leigh Halfpenny on the turn could not control the ball as he went to ground, allowing Hogg to dive on the loose ball and slide over in the corner, Russell again nailing the kick. Wales were coming into the game with an extensive injury list and desperately needed the next score, and they got it just before half time as they spread the ball wide following a 5m lineout, getting the ball to Louis Rees-Zammit, who stepped inside Graham and went over for the try. With Leigh Halfpenny off following a failed HIA, Dan Biggar was unable to land the kick from wide right and he half ended 17-8.

Scotland were in the ascendency soon after the break, and thought they had scored through Gary Graham after turning down a kick at goal for a 5m tap-and-go penalty, however the try was ruled out due to Scott Cummings running a blocking line right in front of him. This loss of points was exacerbated as a couple of penalties saw Wales deep in the Scottish half just seconds later, and after a catch and drive went 20 metres to deep in the 22, Rees-Zammit came on the loop as the ball was spread left to hit a gap in the Scottish defence out wide and timed his pass perfectly to send Liam Williams over, with replacement fly half Callum Sheedy converting. Things got even worse for the Scots just minutes later, as Zander Fagerson was given a red card for a cleanout to the head of Wyn Jones, very similar to the Peer O’Mahony dismissal last week. From the resulting penalty, Wales kicked to touch and after another big driving maul brought them to the Scottish line, they went through the phases before Wyn Jones forced his way over for the go-ahead try, with Sheedy missing the conversion. The Scots recovered and got some momentum back, eventually earning a penalty between the posts 5m out from the Wales line. Again, they turned down the easy 3 points and went for the scrum – having replaced Darcy Graham with WP Nel to keep a full 8-man pack – and after a couple of resets, the ball was spread to the right and Hogg fended off the challenge of Owen Watkin to go over for the try, with Russell converting. The game really opened up in the final 15 minutes and a Callum Sheedy grubber to the corner flag saw Stuart Hogg just beet Rees-Zammit to the ball to dot down for a 22 drop-out, however just a minute later Rees Lightning got his chance to shine again as he chipped over Stuart Hogg and won the footrace to score the bonus point try. The Scots didn’t give up even with the clock in the red, and created one final chance as Finn Russell forced an offload out the back of his hand under pressure from multiple tacklers to release Duhan van der Merwe down the right wing. The powerhouse wing was flying but a last-ditch tap tackle from Owen Watkin brought him down, and Liam Williams just got a finger to the offload ahead of Stuart Hogg, allowing the Welsh to recover the ball and put it into touch to secure a 24-25 victory.

Scotland

Scotland have never won a Six Nations Championship (their last tournament victory was in the final season before Italy joined) and it has been a long time since they have looked this strong. However, as a result of this, they are now finding themselves in positions that they are not used to, being able to overcome a numerical disadvantage and have a legitimate chance to still win a game at the death.

In games like this, there will always be one or 2 moments where a player’s decision will win or lose a team the match. Unfortunately, that moment belonged to Ali Price in this game, as with just minutes left on the clock and with Scotland going through the phases just inside the Welsh half, he put in an aimless kick with nobody chasing, that Louis Rees-Zammit was not only able to take his time to recover, but also then smashed back downfield to deep in the Scottish half. Of course, he almost got saved by his team with the break at the death, but in any games, that aimless kick would have been game over.

There are very few Scotland players who have been in those high-stakes moments in big games over the last couple of seasons, and they will learn from this heartbreak. They have a week off now before facing France, which now becomes a must-win game if they want to win the tournament. I don’t see them pulling off a win in Paris this year, but as long as the team learn from this weekend, then it will be a benefit in the long run.

Wales

Wayne Pivac made a big call with less than 10 minutes gone in the second half, taking off both his halfbacks in Gareth Davies and Dan Biggar. That was 148 caps coming off the pitch, with their replacements Kieran Hardy and Callum Sheedy combining for just 9 caps (including the 2 they were coming on to earn).

Such a big call could have ruined the team, when you consider that they already had a centre on the wing and an inexperienced centre pairing, but it worked to perfection here as it changed Wales’ attack to a more possession-based game rather than a territorial fight. By keeping hold of possession, Wales were able to start finding the gaps in the Scottish defence as Sheedy moved his backs around – something we see all the time when he plays for Bristol – and this forced the Scots to give away a number of penalties.

It’s no surprise that the Scots only gave away a handful of penalties against an England team that were afraid to play attacking rugby, but faced with a team looking to take the game to them, the penalties returned, while Fagerson’s red card merely added to the gaps for Wales to exploit.

Will Sheedy and Hardy et the star in 2 weeks? It’s unlikely, as Wayne Pivac should have a number of players return from injury, but watching back the highlights from the Italy game will show that England were not as comfortable as you would expect against an expansive attacking game, so don’t be surprised to see Sheedy making an early appearance off the bench if the game is close.

Lions Watch

The Springbok scrum will always be a weapon, so a strong performance by Wyn Jones will have done the loosehead a number of favours, not just securing his spot in the Welsh number 1 shirt, but also pushing him into contention for the Lions’ Touring Party. Meanwhile on the wing, Louis Rees-Zammit shone with 2 tries and 1 assist to highlight his attacking quality. For Scotland, Duhan van der Merwe continued to show his unique blend of size, power and pace, while Chris Harris put in a solid performance going both ways in a position that looks up for grabs with Jonathan Davies’ limited gametime in recent years.

On the flip side, the early removal will be just what Dan Biggar didn’t want with many of his rivals for the Lions 10 jersey underperforming, while Zander Fagerson struggled in the scrum before his red card.

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.

Six Nations 2021: 6 to Watch

Six Nations 2021: 6 to Watch

It feels like only yesterday that the 2020 Six Nations came to an end, but we are already just a week away from the start of the 2021 edition of the Six Nations. In theory, this should have been a big tournament, with these being the last internationals before the British and Irish Lions Tour to South Africa, but the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is currently leaving that in jeopardy.

I’ve made clear my thoughts on whether the Six Nations should be going ahead in the current circumstances, but money talks, so to help myself prepare for the tournament and get in the spirit, I am back with my latest look a one player from each nation to watch out for during the competition.


England

He may already have just over 20 caps to his name, but with Mako Vunipola and Joe Marler out, this s te time for Ellis Genge to shine. Nicknamed “Baby Rhino” for his devastating ball carrying, Genge is now also developing into a solid scrummager, and at 25 he arguably still has the potential of playing the best part of a decade at the top level.

France

The absence of Romain Ntamack is a blow to Les Bleus, but also a great opportunity for Matthieu Jalibert to show what he can do. Capped before Ntamack, injury brought an early end to his first Six Nations, but this will be a great chance to build on his Autumn Nations Cup performances and try to establish a competition for the 10 shirt with Ntamack once he is available. A real attacking talent, expect to see him creating havoc with the quality of backs around him.

Ireland

Regular readers probably won’t be surprised to see me selecting James Lowe here, as I have been a big fan of him since before his move to Leinster. Having become eligible to play for Ireland through residency, I have been shocked at how little Andy Farrell has used him so far, but expect him to be utilised more as Ireland look to become more dangerous. Lowe provides something different to elusive runners like Jordan Larmour, Andrew Conway and Hugo Keenan, in that he will be able to take contact and continue to drive himself forwards. If you go high on him, don’t be shocked to end up on the ground, watching him run away for a try.

Italy

The second fly half to appear on this list, 20-year-old Paolo Garbisi is one of the new young talents being trusted to play a key part in the rebuilding Italian squad. Garbisi looked assured during the Autumn Nations Cup and will look to build on those performances as he solidifies his place in the Azzurri XV. He will need his team to give him front-foot ball (which won’t be helped by Jake Polledri’s injury), but with a big boot and the confidence that comes with youth, he could be the one to lead this new generation of Italian rugby to improved performances and results.

Scotland

It’s probably no big surprise to see Duhan van der Merwe take this spot. Another wing to have recently qualified for his adopted nation through residency, van der Merwe brings a much more physical option to the Scottish attack out wide while still having the pace to exploit any gap. Early appearances have suggested that he will be given quite a bit of freedom to go hunting for the ball by Gregor Townsend, which could be just what the Scots need if they want to carryon last 2020’s success.

Wales

I was so close to picking Josh Macleod, but I’m not sure how much game time he will get, so instead I went for someone who has already been earning a spot in the squad: Louis Rees-Zammit. The Gloucester wing may still be young and have some learning to do, but he has one of the most dangerous weapons in international rugby – supreme pace. The only problem so far has been how the Welsh attack has wasted him and failed to give him the space to exploit, but if they can sort that out this year, he will be deadly!


During the Six Nations, I will be running a predictions pool on Superbru. For each match, you pick who you think will be the winner and the margin of victory and get points depending on how close your prediction was.

You can find my pool here or by downloading the Superbru app and searching for the pool with code tiernose

Guinness Six Nations

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Wales v Italy

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Wales v Italy

Saturday’s 3ʳᵈ and final Autumn Nations Cup game came took us to Parc y Scarlets, where Wales hosted Italy in the fight for 5ᵗʰ place. Wayne Pivac had selected a team with a blend of youth and experience, and they got off to the better start as Taulupe Faletau put Justin Tipuric through a gap and the flanker fed Kieran Hardy to go over for his first Test try, which Callum Sheedy converted. 10 minutes later and another Welsh player was celebrating their first Test try, as Wales went through the phases and Sam Parry eventually pushed over from close range, Sheedy converting again. Italy finally started to get some possession in the Welsh half and Paolo Garbisi opened their account with a penalty. Just a few minutes later, Italy had a lineout on the Welsh 22, and when the maul came infield, Carlo Canna played a grubber in behind the defensive line and his centre partner Marco Zanon collected the ball to cross for his first Test try, which Garbisi duly converted. The Welsh were shook and on a warning for repeat infringements, which proved costly just before the end of the half, as a break from a ruck released Stephen Varney and the Gloucester halfback took the ball all the way to the Welsh 22. Josh Adams finally brought him down, but did not support his weight as he tried to force the turnover and found himself being sent to the sin bin, while Garbisi kicked the penalty to cut Wales’ lead to 14-13 at the break.

Despite the numerical disadvantage, it was Wales who had the better start to the second half, with Sheedy kicking a penalty to extend the lead, but Italy made use of the width of the pitch and the extra man to release Johan Meyer down the right wing, and the flanker sent Ioan Lloyd flying as crashed over for the go-ahead score. As the hour mark approached, Wales began to bring on the replacements, and they saw a marked improvement in the team’s performance. having been put through a gap by Taulupe Faletau in the first half, Justin Tipuric repaid the favour, and the number 8 released Gareth Davies, who outpaced the Italian defence to go over for the try, converted by Sheedy. The game was still in the balance, but Italy played too much in the midfield and were turned over with very few players left to defend out wide, which Wales took advantage of to get up to the Italian try line, before George North picked from the back of the ruck to go the final metres to score, Sheedy converting again. The result had already been decided but there was still time for Wales to add 1 more try, as Callum Sheedy’s delayed pass put the ball behind Federico Mori to Faletau, who put Tipuric over for the final try, which Sheedy converted for a final score of 38-18.

Breaking down

Wales have seriously been missing the breakdown talents of Josh Navidi, and it became apparent in this game. The team gave away a whopping 8 penalties in the first half for offences at the breakdown, with a couple of penalties coming on their own ball but most coming as they tried to win turnovers that weren’t on, either not releasing the tackled player, not coming through the gate or going off their feet. A few penalties is understandable, but the volume they were giving them away was embarrassing!

With all these penalties, it was a simple matter for Italy to claw themselves back into the match from 14-0 down. And much of this came from Wales’ inability to control the contact area. They will face much sterner tests than the Azzurri, and for this reason they need to be smarter at the breakdown. Josh Navidi’s return will be a massive help, as he is such a physical player and a great operator at the breakdown, but they cannot rely on him and a number of the other players in the squad, especially players in the pack, need to step up and do more if this team wants to improve anytime soon.

Defensive unity

Wales had clearly done their homework on the Italy defence as they found a weakness and ruthlessly exploited it. The Italians have added some real physicality to their defence, but too often they were not defending as a unit, but instead looking for the gang tackle on the ball carrier or jamming up on a potential receiver.

The Welsh attack took advantage of this to great effect, with a number of pops off to a runner on their shoulder right before contact catching out the defenders. Both hardy’s and Davies’ tries came from this, putting the runner through a hole to get through the defensive line, then playing it off to a support man.

Similarly, Tipuric’s try at the end came from Federico Mori jamming up on his own, which Sheedy had read. The delay on his pass took Mori completely out of the game and released Faletau, who again had support with him in the form of Tipuric to fully exploit the line break.

While their improved physicality is certainly helping them win more turnovers, the Azzurri need to work as a unit if they want to solidify their defence and keep the opposition’s score to a manageable level.

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Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Wales v England

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Wales v England

The final round of the Autumn Nations Cup pool stage kicked off this afternoon with England’s trip to Llanelli to face Wales. With 2 wins from 2, England arrived at Parc y Scarlets the heavy favourites, but it was the home side who took the lead as Dan Biggar blocked at attempted grubber from Henry Slade, the ball was hacked on into the English dead ball area and centre Johnny Williams – who had previously scored for England in a uncapped match against the Barbarians – beat off all opposition to dot the ball down, with Leigh Halfpenny nailing the conversion. England had been the stronger team before the try and remained so, and when Dan Biggar knocked on after being tackled in the air by Sam Underhill – a clear penalty that referee Romain Poite inexplicably deemed legal despite the TMO’s protestation – England went through the phases and eventually drew in the Welsh defence enough to put Henry Slade over for the try out wide, Farrell missing the conversion – his 2ⁿᵈ miss following an early penalty – to allow Wales to keep the lead. Halfpenny missed a penalty that would have extended the lead, and Owen Farrell found his range with the boot to kick 2 penalties and give England a 7-11 lead at the break.

Wales made a number of changes early in the second half, but it didn’t bring any immediate success as they were tackled over their own line following a 5m lineout. England went through the phases off the scrum and with the ball just inches from the line, Mako Vunipola managed to pick from the base and pirouette through contact to score, Farrell adding the 2 points. Wales kept themselves in the fight with 2 penalties from Dan Biggar, but the game was effectively killed off with 13 minutes remaining, as Ben Youngs took advantage of a loose ball on the floor following a deliberate knock on from Wales 40m out, going though a gap and spreading the ball to Anthony Watson, who was stopped 5m short of the line. However Poite, who had completely missed the knock on decided that a gain of 35 metres was not sufficient to call the advantage over and Farrell duly added the 3 points off the tee to take the lead beyond 7 points. As the clock ticked down, Farrell added another 3 points off the tee but missed a final attempt, and England came away with the 13-24 victory to top the pool.

Eat sleep, kick, repeat

England’s defence was once again fantastic. Their set piece largely dominant. Their attack… Boring? Repetitive? Lacking? Unimaginative? There are certainly very few positive words I can think of to describe it.

Let’s not forget that had Romain Poite been doing a better job, 8 of England’s points wouldn’t have counted and some of the scrum penalties against Wales were very dubious – and this is coming from an Englishman! England have a world class winger in Jonny May and plenty of talented attacking players, however Eddie Jones instead chooses to go for Ben Youngs and George Ford to kick all their ball back to Wales. Yes a lot of them were meant to be contestable kicks, but they were poor, and at best those kicks are usually a 50/50 to retain. Meanwhile Wales are left with what appears to be a decent defence because it was hardly ever tested in the game.

Yes, a solid set piece, reliable goal kicker and stingy defence will only get you so far and you need to have an attack of your own – just look at how dangerous France are at the moment with an incredible attack and defence!

Just one look at a weekend of Premiership action will show you that the attacking talent is available to Eddie Jones, there just needs to be a change of mindset from the coaches to take this team to the next level.

Time running out?

It wasn’t just the England attack that was lacking in this game, as the Welsh attack produced… well, nothing! The one time they truly looked dangerous was Williams’ try, which was just chasing down a blocked kick.

The pack were clearly missing the talents of players like Justin Tipuric and Josh Navidi and struggled to make any ground to put the team on the front foot, and this meant that the backs were unable to create any space, with Louis Rees-Zammit’s best chance coming when he had 5m of space when getting the ball – however this was against Anthony Watson, who had only just come on and had the pace and angle to cover him – and Josh Adams never even got that!

While the appointment of Wayne Pivac seemed a great move following his success with the Scarlets and the perfect cure to years of Warrenball, it feels like he is struggling to get this team performing at anything close to an acceptable level, and with Scott Robertson looking so impressive with the Crusaders, I can’t help feel that the WRU should reach out to see if he would be interested in stepping up to international rugby and making the move to bring him in before the All Blacks move on from Ian Foster.

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Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Wales v Georgia

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Wales v Georgia

With England winning against Ireland to take the lead in their Autumn Nations Cup pool, the pool’s losing teams from Week 1 faced off at Parc-y-Scarlets. After a nervy start, Callum Sheedy opened the scoring with a penalty, but the real breakthrough did not come until the 26ᵗʰ minute, when Nick Tompkins ran a crash ball off the scrum and offloaded to catch the Georgian defence unprepared, allowing Sheedy to throw a miss pass to Louis Rees-Zammit to score his first Test try in the corner on his first Test start, Sheedy kicking the conversion to put Wales into double figures. The rest of the half passed with little of note, with the Lelos’ only real chance of points a 42m penalty from Tedo Abzhandadze, which sailed wide left to end the half.

The second half began very similar to the end of the first, with Sheedy also pulling a penalty wide left from almost the exact same spot, however he made amends with his next kick on 52 minutes. As the hour approached, Rees-Zammit made probably the break of the game, beating multiple tacklers down the left wing before feeding Justin Tipuric, however the Wales captain caught a swinging arm as he was tackled, leading to him leaving the pitch with a head injury while the offender, Beka Saginadze, being sent to the sin bin. Wales failed to capitalise on the numerical advantage as hordes of replacements left the game disjointed, but as the clock ticked down they were able to finish on a high as they attacked down the blind side at a ruck, with Sheedy setting Rees-Zammit free and the Gloucester flier feeding replacement scrum half Rhys Webb on the inside to score the second try of the game and secure an 18-0 victory.

Looking ahead

With both Ireland and Wales on 1 win and 1 draw, and the Irish facing Georgia next weekend, Wales need a big result against England if they want to have any chance of finishing in the top half of the pool. After a less-than-impressive display against the Irish, don’t be surprised to see changes for this next match. But who put their hands up in this game?

In the pack, Samson Lee and Wyn Jones’ dominance over the Georgian scrum should put them in the driving seat against the might of the England pack. Aaron Wainwright had a better game against the Lelos and impressed with his carrying, which may earn him a return to the starting back row, while James Davies had a great cameo off the bench with a number of turnovers and may take the 7 shirt if Tipuric is unavailable.

In the back line the most obvious change would be at 12, where I feel that Johnny Williams impressed with his straight lines and hard running, potentially adding more dynamism than Owen Watkin to go with his physicality, while Louis Rees-Zammit may just earn a spot on the bench to take advantage of a tiring defence.

Worrying times

It’s not been a great couple of weeks for Georgian rugby. The Lelos have been held scoreless in both of their matches so far in this campaign, wit Abzhandadze’s missed penalty from 42 metres out one of the only times they have looked like they would score. The linebreaks have been severely limited in attack and it has now become familiar to see them kicking the ball away after going nowhere for a few phases.

In defence, they have been stout, not giving up too much in the way of full breaks – potentially helped by the conditions the last 2 weeks – but they have then let themselves down by giving away too many penalties at the breakdown.

But perhaps even more worrying was the way the much-vaunted scrum was dominated by the Welsh pack, being repeatedly pushed back and drawing a number of penalties.

After a number of years where it looked like they were on the up, This is a bad time for it to all fall apart for the Lelos, especially when you remember that they are only in the Autumn Nations Cup due to Japan pulling out. The Georgian Union needs to sort themselves and work on 2 things fast: First of all, they need to find a permanent head coach to replace Milton Haig, who did a wonderful job after 8 years with the Lelos but left after the World Cup – a whole year ago! Secondly, they need to be doing everything they can to get a franchise into the PRO14 as soon as possible to ensure that their players are up against top quality opposition as much as possible.

If these things aren’t worked out soon, I worry that the talents they have will be wasted.

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Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Ireland v Wales

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Ireland v Wales

The newest tournament on the international rugby calendar got underway this evening in Dublin as Ireland and Wales kicked off the Autumn Nations Cup in Dublin.

After a confrontational opening quarter in which Johnny Sexton and Leigh Halfpenny each scored a penalty, Ireland found themselves on the Welsh try line and Quinn Roux – a late call-up to the starting line-up following Iain Henderson’s illness – managed to power himself the last few inches for the opening try, which was converted by Sexton. Sexton added another penalty but this was one of Sexton’s last impacts on the game as he was removed with a hamstring injury, and a change in the tides at the scrum soon saw Wales get back within a try through the boot of Leigh Halfpenny. The Irish dominance in open play continued however, and replacement fly half Billy burns soon opened his account on his debut with a penalty to bring the score to 16-6, with Andrew Porter just failing to dot down the ball over the line right before the break after issues at the Welsh lineout.

The Welsh had been very much the second team in the first half but they started slightly more positively after the break, with a Leigh Halfpenny penalty from halfway dropping just short, before another bisected the posts. That was as good as things got for Wales as Gareth Davies found his box kick charged down by Caelan Doris, who kept the ball in play for Cian Healy, who was held up over the line by Taulupe Faletau, but the Irish domination continued and with Wales creating very little, Billy Burns pulled the Irish away with another penalty and Conor Murray added 2 of his own after Burns was forced off the pitch. With the game secured and the clock ticking down, a strong Irish scrum in the 22 allowed Caelan Doris to pick off the base and offload to James Lowe, who had the strength to cross the line to cap off his international debut with a try, coverted by Murray for a final score of 32-9.

Lowe risk, high reward

James Lowe is a player who I have had my eye on for years, dating back to his time with the Chiefs in New Zealand. With his scoring record and blend of pace and power, I’ve always rated him and now that he has completed his residency period in Ireland, he has been able to show just what he can do on the international scene.

While his defence and covering of kicks could be improved, what he brings is good pace, but incredible power. If you give him half a gap he will punch through it and if you don’t get him down, he will continue to power himself on as long as he can, which he did to great effect in this game, needing multiple tacklers to bring him down and still only after making positive metres. He was arguably one of the most dangerous men on the pitch in this game and it was only right that he finished the game with a try, taking the ball from Caelan Doris as he came off the scrum and forcing his way over the line to embarrass the Welsh defence on first phase ball.

I suggested recently that the trio of Lowe, Conway and Keenan could prove effective for Ireland, with Keenan and Conway being elusive runners and more technical players, and Lowe providing the extra physical edge. With their success in this game despite a late call-up for Conway, the trio should be given the time to build a relationship together as a unit and kept the same through the coming weeks.

(Loose)Head-scratcher

I can’t help feel for Rhys Carré in this game. The Cardiff Blues loosehead suffered a torrid time in the opening quarter, being dominated at the scrum by Andrew Porter. Credit to the youngster though, he did not let his head drop despite a number of early penalties and in fact managed to fight back at the scrum despite the bad early look he gave referee Mathieu Reynal, and in fact managed to earn party and even a couple of penalties. And then suddenly he was yanked from the pitch just seconds before the end of the half to be replaced by the “better scrummager” Wyn Jones.

Now I could have understood this replacement in the opening 20 minutes as Carré’s early struggles in the scrum will paint a negative impression in the officials’ minds, but when the coaches chose to keep him on and he fought back in the scrum, he earned the chance to play the full starting role and there was absolutely no need to take him off with a scrum 5m from the try line with just seconds left in the half.

And did it really improve the game? Wyn Jones may have had some success, but the real improvement in the Welsh scrum didn’t come until Samson Lee came on at tighthead, while Wyn Jones ended up conceding the same amount of penalties as Carré.

At just 22 years old, Carré is still some years off of his prime. Hopefully getting the early shepherd’s crook here doesn’t negatively affect his development.

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Six Nations 2020: Wales v Scotland

Six Nations 2020: Wales v Scotland

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

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

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

Record breaker

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

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

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

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

Van’s the man

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

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

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

Welsh weakness

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

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

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

Guinness Six Nations

France v Wales

France v Wales

With the 2020 Six Nations set to finally conclude next week and the Autumn Nations Cup begin straight after, France and Wales met at the Stade de France for a highly entertaining warm-up match.

Les Bleus may have won the Six Nations fixture back in February, but they were soon behind as some lovely passing from Justin Tipuric helped put Leigh Halfpenny over in the corner, Biggar landing the conversion and a penalty soon after. The French soon got going though, and after Romain Ntamack and Antoine Dupont broke to bring possession all the way to the Welsh try line, prop Cyril Baille crashed over from close range. France were growing into the game and after another penalty from Biggar, an offload from Virimi Vakatawa released Teddy Thomas down the right wing and he played the ball back inside to send Antoine Dupont over for the try, with Ntamack adding the conversion to put the French ahead. Their lead was soon increased as Gaël Fickou put Vakatawa through a hole and Dupont was again found supporting on an inside line for a second try in quick succession, Ntamack nailing the kick to make it 21-13 at the break.

The second half started close, with both kickers adding 3 points to their team’s score, while the closest either team came to a try in the 3ʳᵈ quarter was as French number 8 Grégory Alldritt ran a beautiful out-to-in line to breakthrough the Welsh goal-line defence, only to fail to keep hold of the pass. The French struck soon after the hour mark, though, as Josh Adams – who had moved to fullback following Halfpenny’s departure – failed to collect a high ball from Dupont, which the scrum half then collected before breaking through a gap in the Welsh defence and feeding his captain Charles Ollivon for another try. The Welsh kept coming, though Biggar (who had been struggling with an injury since the tenth minute) missed a couple of kicks at goal, but after Ntamack failed to clean up a kick through by Nick Tompkins, George North collected and fed Tompkins to bring the Welsh up to the French goal line, with Nicky Smith forcing himself over a few phases later. Any chance of a Welsh comeback was soon ended however, as Teddy Thomas chased and collected his own chip to go over in the corner, with Ntamack kicking the conversion to secure a 38-21 victory.

French flair

If the Irish were watching this match in preparation for next weekend’s Six Nations fixture, I can imagine they got a little nervous.

This may be one of the best French teams I can remember watching, and there is the potential that they will only get better over the next few years as the younger players gain experience and more players from the recently successful U20s team make the step up to the seniors. Right now, all the politics that always seems to plague French squads appears to be gone, and the pressure is off the team, leading to incredible performances.

Antoine Dupont is securing himself as one of the best scrum halves in the world, while Virimi Vakatawa is almost unplayable when on form, with an incredible blend of strength, pace and footwork, and a killer offload when all that fails! Teddy Thomas’ abilities have never been in question and Romain Ntamack looks experienced beyond his 21 years and 17 caps. And then in the pack, you are getting a great blend of sheer physical power and more technical prowess.

In this game, the French attack was pummelling away at the Welsh defensive line throughout, but as they grew into the game, they started to find and manipulate the gaps, especially around wherever Vakatawa could be found, while Dupont always seemed to be in just the right place whenever a teammate broke through.

Assuming the French can stay away from all the infighting and politics that seems to always destroy them, I would make France my favourites for the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

Risky business

When Gareth Anscombe first started showing signs of discomfort during Wales’ World Cup warm-up match against England, I felt that he should be removed immediately to avoid the risk that a small niggle could potentially become something worse. The doctors chose to let him continue, but he went off a little later with his World Cup dream over and an ACL injury that he is still to return from. Obviously, I can’t say that keeping him on the pitch made things worse, but in a “warm-up” or “friendly” ahead of a tournament, the last thing I want to do is risk one of my key players if they are carrying a knock.

So imagine my surprise when Dan Biggar started struggling with an injury to his leg just 10 minutes in, but continued to play until the 73ʳᵈ minute. Now, credit to Biggar that he is a warrior who doesn’t want to go off and let his team down, but there were a number of moments throughout the match where he was either clearly limping or not looking fully comfortable, and I can’t help feeling that this injury helped contribute to his uncharacteristically poor 57% success rate off the tee. I also noticed that he didn’t seem to be as much of a figure in the kick chase as usual, a big loss considering just how impressive he is in the air.

What makes the decision to keep him on even more perplexing is that they had a replacement fly half on the bench in the form of Rhys Patchell, who could have very easily taken over the running of the team at any point, but was instead wasted on a 7-minute cameo with the victory already out of Wales’ reach.

It will be interesting to see how Wayne Pivac acts in the future of any key players take a knock.

The beginning of the end?

While it is wonderful to see Taulupe Faletau back in the Welsh line-up, I couldn’t help question before the match if he was still able to hold a spot in the starting XV, let along the wider squad. 80 minutes later and I still don’t feel any more confident.

The Bath number 8 was arguably one of the best in the world at his position and at 29 should still have a handful of good years in him, but he has missed so much time over recent years with a number of injuries and looks a shadow of the player he used to.

He used to be a real threat with ball in hand in wide areas, but in this game only carried 4 times for a tiny 9 metres. Defensively, he was still reliable with a 100% tackle success rate but that was only from 9 tackles, far off the total of Justin Tipuric, who you would much rather have getting over the ball after the tackle rather than making the tackle himself. The only other bit to Faletau’s game was his cleaning up, which he did to some degree with the scrum coming under heavy pressure.

But is tackling and cleaning up really enough from a Tier 1 starting number 8 these days? The Welsh need physical carriers in the pack to help them get on the front foot and make up for the loss of Haleigh Parkes at 12 and as such, I think that the team would benefit far more from Ross Moriarty or Josh Navidi (who should be nailed on as a starter) rather than Faletau. There is only so long that a player can be picked on past performances. To me, it is time for Faletau to earn his place back in the squad.