England and Wales emerge as the sides to beat in this year’s Six Nations, as France starts to settle but Scotland, Ireland and Italy still have more questions than answers!

Posted: February 19, 2016 in Six Nations 2016
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The second round of this year’s Six Nations took place this past weekend and somehow didn’t quite catch the imagination as much as perhaps we might have hoped and if anything seemed slightly predictable.  France squeaked a win in the rain against Ireland which saw Ireland rack up a significant injury list while France continued to show some attacking flair despite struggling to break down Ireland’s defenses.  It was a poor match as a spectacle that left us eagerly anticipating the next fixture – Wales against Scotland under a closed roof.  This match had much more excitement but once again it too took on an air of predictability as a much improved Scotland in terms of execution, showed us what they are capable of in terms of attack.  However, once their key player fullback Stuart Hogg left the field Scotland seemed to revert to type and Wales’ superior organisation saw them get a deserved win.  Once again Scotland looked very promising but ultimately left empty-handed.  Finally, in Rome England put a song in the hearts of their supporters on Valentine’s Day, in a second half thumping of Italy.  Had Italy played like they did in the first half, then it could have been a very different story, but sadly as all too often when up against better quality opposition Italy imploded in the last twenty minutes and the scoreboard got completely beyond them.  England meanwhile, although looking clear favorites now for the title this year, must surely be wondering why they struggled so hard to make any kind of impression against Italy in the first half and will need to improve on this performance if they are to go head to head with a Welsh side that looks very much like the finished product in a month’s time.

France vs Ireland
Final Score – France 10/Ireland 9
Paris

There is no way that you could describe this grueling encounter in the rain in Paris as entertaining.  Most of us had to struggle to keep our interest going for the full eighty minutes.  France got a win by using their bench to greater effect and when they did get an opportunity using it more efficiently than Ireland.  To be fair to Ireland they defended well but continuing injury problems and a lack of a real attacking threat meant that if France were to up their game it was theirs for the taking.  Once more there were glimmers of French flair resurfacing again in attack and through their only try.  For Irish Coach Joe Schmidt as he faces the problem of facing an English side rapidly growing in confidence and ability in two weeks there are more questions than answers right now.  For French Coach Guy Noves, the win may not have been pretty but he surely, unlike his predecessor, must have a clear idea of the team he wants to use for the duration of this tournament, after the devastating turnaround in French fortunes once he replaced his front row.  France may not look polished in attack but the point is they are trying to attack again and that must surely make their supporters happy and their opposition sit up and take notice.

Both teams came into this match desperately needing to make a statement.  France needed to prove that last week’s labored effort against Italy was simply a new team adjusting to life together, while Ireland were keen to prove that the epic draw with Wales was an accurate reflection of Irish hopes and potential in this tournament.  Of the two France probably had a better day with their to do list than Ireland.  Like many we were surprised to see French Coach Noves change his front row for such an important game, and were all hedging bets as to how soon Props Eddie Ben Arous and Rabah Slimani would come off the bench to solidify the French forward effort.  As suspected the minute they were brought on France immediately got themselves into the driving seat in the match, and French supporters must surely be hoping that the experiment is over in this department.  Ireland meanwhile were riddled with injuries and as the game wore on they looked increasingly frail and bereft of ideas especially in attack.  Ireland’s chances of retaining the Six Nations title this year are for the most part done and dusted.  Surely the time is now right for Ireland to start looking for the depth they have available to them in their younger players if they are to gain anything from this year’s tournament which can be used to help rebuild and prepare the team for future success.

In fairness to Ireland they got the better of the very physical encounter between these two sides in the first half and the score line at half time, 9-3 in favor of the Irish, was a fair reflection of proceedings.  Guy Noves experimentation in the front row with Uini Atonio and Jefferson Poirot was just not working, and the resulting penalties awarded to Ireland was putting the game firmly in favor of the Men in Green through the boot of Johnny Sexton.  Furthermore, for France the experimentation with winger Teddy Thomas was also not working.  While he may have plenty of speed the French winger’s defensive skills in such a physical encounter as this are questionable and in wet conditions his handling skills simply aren’t there.  In a first half which did little to fire the imagination from both sides, Ireland could feel comfortable that they at least were a clear six points ahead of France at half time.

The second half would see France ring the changes, with most notably Teddy Thomas being replaced by Hugo Bonneval, who had performed so well against Italy, and Rabah Slimani and Eddy Ben Arous coming on to sort out the front row.  Once this was done France suddenly looked a lot more dangerous.  Had this been the starting XV it may have been a much more productive day for France.  That being said however, it still made the difference in ensuring that France got yet another nervous win.  Scrum half Maxime Machenaud came on and all of a sudden France’s offloading and attacks started to look a lot more promising as a clearly exhausted Ireland struggled to contain them.  The last twenty minutes were essentially a war of attrition for Ireland as they were required to defend continuously against constant pressure from France.  France struggled with execution at times in the wet but the intent was clearly there.  Number eight for France Damien Chouly was denied a try as the ball was not considered grounded but you couldn’t help feeling that it was only a question of time before France would cross the white line.

With ten minutes to go, France finally figured out how to break through the Irish wall as French danger man and flair specialist of old, fullback Maxime Medard, got the vital five pointer for Les Bleus just as he did the week before against Italy.  Plisson would convert and all of a sudden France simply had to last out for nine minutes to get win number two as they led 10-9.

To be honest Ireland simply didn’t look like they had the ability or game plan to get the win in those final minutes.  A faulty restart from Irish replacement fly half Ian Madigan set the tone for the dying minutes of the game.  Ireland were spent and essentially out of ideas.  The French bench had rejuvenated Les Bleus and the fresh legs were giving France the strength and conviction to hold on.  French Hooker and Captain Gulheim Guirado, had been immense throughout the game and once alongside fellow props Eddy Ben Arous and Rabah Slimani, Guirado and France were clearly in the driving seat against a depleted Ireland.

There were the usual controversies around refereeing decisions most notably what should have been a yellow card against France’s Yoann Maestri for a late hit on Ireland’s Johnny Sexton, even if it may have been slightly milked by the Irishman and there is no question that the rain took away any possible element of spectacle.  A messy and at times ugly win for France, but a win nevertheless.  However, all these excuses aside France still has a great deal of work to do if they are really going to be able to use this new found intent especially in attack to full effect against England and Wales.  Meanwhile Ireland really need to face up to the fact that with Six Nations silverware not much more than a pipe dream this year, it is time to start taking risks by giving new Irish talent some high level international exposure.  I would start with Ulster center Stuart McCloskey, but it appears I am likely to be saying this till the end of the tournament as a play it safe, conservative approach appears to be the order of the day in the Irish camp.  If Ireland are serious about standing up to New Zealand in their two tests at the end of this year, then now is the time to start developing their resources particularly in attack.  France find themselves in the strange position of sitting second in the Six Nations table after Round 2 despite England and Wales clearly being better teams.  If that position and France’s rejuvenation under Coach Guy Noves is to really mean something then France has an enormous amount of work to do as they prepare to face the most settled team in the tournament, Wales, in the cauldron of the Millennium Stadium in two weeks.

Wales vs Scotland
Final Score – Wales 27/Scotland 23
Cardiff

In terms of an evenly matched contest that provided some genuine excitement this was definitely the match to watch this past weekend.  Wales continued to build on their performance the week before against Ireland, while Scotland made some significant improvements in their execution and decision-making only to have it slip away from them once more in the final quarter.  Wales look to be serious contenders for Six Nations glory come the middle of March along with England, while Scotland are still trying to find that complete 80-minute performance.  One can only hope for the sake of Scottish supporters that they find it soon as the frustration levels must be off the charts.  It is one thing to watch your team lose match after match if the skill set and talent levels are not there, but in Scotland’s case they are.  Scotland could have won this match but sadly fell short of the mark. However this was a better performance than against England and surely against Italy a week on Saturday, a much needed confidence boosting win will finally get Scotland on the right footing for the remainder of the tournament and allow them to realize their potential.

The intensity of this match was there for all to see from the get go.  Seven minutes in and Dan Biggar would set up this piece of magic for his half back partner scrum half Gareth Davies.

It’s this kind of quality and vision that is really making Biggar and Davies such a key weapon in Wales attack arsenal.  Davies managed to fool Scottish winger Tommy Seymour with a clever weave and the resulting footrace saw the Welshman ahead by a whisker to cross the try line.

Five minutes later with Scotland on the attack deep in the Welsh 22, it would be Seymour’s turn for revenge as a brilliantly weighted kick by Scottish fly half Finn Russell over the top of the Welsh defense would put Seymour in the corner and all of a sudden the scores were level once more at 7-7.  A special mention must be made of Scotland’s Tommy Seymour who was quite outstanding under the high ball all night. He is a real talent for Scotland and is likely to add plenty more spark to Scotland’s campaign for the remainder of the tournament.  Wales were constantly testing Seymour in the air throughout the match and he was rarely found wanting.

As he always is, fullback Stuart Hogg was electric for Scotland and his loss early in the match due to injury clearly had an influence on the final outcome and it is hoped he will be able to return for Scotland’s next game against Italy.  However, despite Hogg’s departure, Scotland maintained their focus and continued to probe on attack with the execution and decision making being leaps and bounds ahead of what we saw in their opener against England.  At half time, Scotland managed to get ahead with a successful penalty kick from Greg Laidlaw and it appeared that Scotland were getting the better of their hosts leading 13-10.

However, the second half saw Wales seeming to have a clearer idea of where to probe Scottish weaknesses with Welsh danger man, winger George North, really starting to hit his stride.  Some solid work from the Welsh winger would ultimately see a penalty for Wales and Biggar would level the scores once more.  In a period of seesawing possession, both sides still looked evenly matched and Laidlaw would restore the Scottish lead again through another penalty.  At 16-13 for Scotland and heading into the last quarter the game was still poised on a knife edge.  As we headed into the final quarter, Welsh replacements particularly at the scrum were starting to take effect and Wales were slowly starting to get the ascendancy in the forward battles.  Wales’ center Jamie Roberts would crash over from a solid Welsh scrum effort metres from the Scottish line.  Eight minutes later Wales would strike again through George North as the Scottish defense started to fall apart and Scotland as a whole started to lose their cohesion and execution under pressure with 10 minutes to go.

It wouldn’t be all over for Scotland, as center Duncan Taylor would score a superb try of his own to allow Scotland to leave the match with their honor intact but bitterly disappointed as yet another game in which they had competed so well ultimately slipped away from them.  Wales meanwhile, look very much the finished product for the remainder of the tournament and will be a very tough proposition for England in a month’s time.  Wales’ title hopes are very much alive and with that in mind expect the Welsh dragon to be breathing fire for the remainder of the tournament.

Italy vs England
Final Score – Italy 9/England 40
Rome

In the second half of this match we finally got to see what a new look England side can do and a complete team performance from the Men in White.  England Coach Eddie Jones must feel happy with the momentum England has gained in the opening two weeks of the competition as they head into the final three rounds against slightly more problematic opposition.  For Italy, they will take great heart at how well they held England at bay in the first half, but then to implode the way they did in the second half is something that desperately needs to be addressed and quickly.  Italy played a superb forty minutes of rugby in Rome last Sunday and clearly rattled an English side that was caught off guard by the ferocity of the Italian challenge.  However, in the second half England quickly got the measure of the Azurri and adapted accordingly and as a result Italy was left wondering what might have been.  In England’s case they will be pleased that their ability to adapt their game plan and take risks when necessary in the last half of the match paid huge dividends.  The England of the second half was a completely different beast to that of the opening forty minutes.  Italy just did not adapt to England’s risk taking and opportunism and paid the price.  English supporters must be taking heart in the fact that England are becoming slightly less predictable and much more adventurous if the last forty minutes of this match are anything to go by.  There is still a long way to go, but the changes that Eddie Jones said were necessary in the English approach seem to be taking effect, albeit slowly.  England still have a long way to go before the Southern Hemisphere nations are likely to be losing too much sleep, and their next three encounters in this tournament will be much sterner examinations of what progress England really has made.  However, after a solid second half last Sunday in Rome which showed plenty of enterprise, the pulse of English rugby certainly seems to be racing a bit quicker at the moment.

Italy just as they were against France were exceptionally motivated and in all fairness to them played a superb first forty minutes of rugby, as always led from the front by the indomitable number eight and Captain Sergio Parisse.  England, although steady seemed to be having difficulty getting the measure of the ferocity of the Italian challenge, and certainly Italy appeared to have the edge in attack, with centre Michele Campagnaro putting in an outstanding performance for the Azurri in the first half.  Italy were tackling everything in sight and managing for the most part to hang onto possession in attack.  However, England would score the only try of the half through fly half George Ford after some superb interplay between him and center Owen Farrell.  Italian fly half Carlo Canna however would keep Italy in touch and at half time they were only trailing England by two points at 11-9 to England.

The second half however seemed to live up to the ending that many were predicting as England really started to tear away and this man below would score a hat trick of tries to give the Men in White a conclusive win.

Center Jonathan Joseph was very much a reflection of the overall team effort that simply derailed a very spirited initial Italian challenge as he would score three tries in less than twenty minutes.  England came alive in the second half and the pace at which they played the game, especially in the last quarter, left an exhausted and injury depleted Italian side with a mountain to climb.  England were expansive and exciting to watch in the second half as the solid forward platform they are renowned for linked much more effectively with the backs in this match than against Scotland.  Whether or not England will be afforded the same kind of space and opportunity against Ireland a week Saturday remains to be seen.

What is clear from this match is that Italy will still rise to the challenge of a Scotland desperate for a win when they meet in Rome in just over a week’s time.  The passion is there coupled with a real sense of cohesion from this relatively young looking but talented and enthusiastic Italian side.  If they can play with the same kind of intensity and composure they showed in the first half, Scotland could be in for a very long afternoon at the Stadio Olimpico.  For England this performance was clear evidence that they know the kind of game they want to play and are blessed with the talent and experience to achieve it both on the field and in the Coaching box.  England will now face three very stern examinations over the coming weeks which will really test their resilience and ability to deliver results under pressure.  However, after this match and if they maintain such momentum over the coming weeks, then they are clearly contenders for not only Six Nations glory but also in a position to challenge their Southern Hemisphere rivals for a greater share of Test rugby honors leading up to the next global showdown in Japan in 2019.

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