Yes, it’s back! The Six Nations after one of the most uninspiring initial three rounds many of us can remember for a long time suddenly found a new lease of life this past weekend and provided us with three highly entertaining matches. It wasn’t always pretty especially if you were Italian, Welsh or French but there is no doubt that after three false starts the tournament finally found some much needed tempo and excitement. Ireland completely annihilated an admittedly very poor at times Italy, in a glorious display of running rugby which saw the Men in Green run in nine tries. England then went on to take a step further in clinching the Championship with a win over Wales which in the last ten minutes almost slipped spectacularly away from them. Finally, at Murrayfield, the Scots as we always knew they would provided us a display of skill at times that would have been the envy of any Southern Hemisphere team in arguably the most entertaining match of the weekend. We cheered, cried and forgot to breathe on several occasions in 240 minutes of rugby that reaffirmed our faith in this much loved tournament. We can only hope that it has set us up for a champagne finish this coming Saturday, even though unlike last year England has already won the Championship by being undefeated in the first four rounds and on track for an elusive Grand Slam for the first time in 13 years. Although the Six Nations trophy is England’s already this year, next weekend will shed light on so many questions about the future of all six competitors, and with a weather forecast of sunny European skies it should provide for compelling viewing.
Ireland vs Italy
Final Score – Ireland 58/Italy 15
We thought that in Dublin, Ireland were always destined to win this match by a comfortable margin as they desperately sought their first win of the season, but we never thought for a minute that they would do it in such an emphatic fashion. Italy has looked promising at times in this year’s Six Nations and despite missing some key players, there is enough of a core for Italy that they should be able to provide any of the Six Nations teams with a healthy challenge. Indeed, there were times last Saturday where Italy showed brief glimmers of promise, but sadly they ultimately imploded in the most spectacular fashion against an Irish side which grew in confidence with every score. Ireland, had injury woes of their own, and despite some of us scratching our heads over some of Irish Coach Joe Schmidt’s selections they nevertheless paid off and Ireland completely outclassed their Italian rivals. Whether or not Ireland will be able to repeat this kind of effort against arguably the most exciting attacking side in this year’s tournament, Scotland next weekend, is a huge ask but they certainly laid some solid foundations this Saturday in Dublin.
You sensed that as Ireland took to the field the pressure was all on them, especially in front of the Aviva faithful. Italy too were without a win, but they didn’t have the pressure of dipping so low from being back to back Six Nations champions. Ireland looked slightly nervous in the opening few minutes and to their credit Italy capitalised on this and almost got the first points of the match through a near try from centre Gonzalo Garcia who at the last moment was bundled into touch by some desperate Irish defence. This Italian wake up call seemed to settle Irish nerves and for all intents and purposes Ireland proceeded to dominate Italy for the next 75 minutes. Ireland came surging back at Italy and the resulting pressure caused some defensive madness from Italian winger Leonardo Sarto as he batted the ball backwards deep in his own 22 which Irish centre Jared Payne gleefully pounced on and took to ground. Ireland quickly recycled the ball allowing winger Andrew Trimble to get the first of Ireland’s many five pointers that day. Ireland had their tails up and were full of running rugby with the centres Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw putting in enormous work rates in attack and defense as fly half Johnny Sexton provided the game management. Irish prop Jack McGrath who was in fine form would secure Ireland’s second try, with flanker CJ Stander getting Ireland’s third minutes later. Italy had responded with a penalty well taken by their fly half Edoardo Padovani, but trailing 20-3 it was starting to look like a whitewash by the first quarter.
Italy tried to respond as the clock wound down to half time, and in their defence put in some solid phases, with their superb centre Michele Campagnaro being at the heart of much of it, as he would be all match. In essence for me Campagnaro was the only real stand out player for Italy on Saturday, and he is a real talent for the Azurri and a world class Test player. However, despite Campagnaro’s and Italy’s efforts as half time approached, this happened producing probably the try of the tournament and putting Italy in an impossible starting position in the second half.
Ireland were now on a roll and starting to look almost unstoppable. As Italy headed to the dressing room trailing 25-3 you couldn’t help feeling that there was only more pain to come as they increasingly looked out of ideas against an Irish side clearly revelling in the opportunity to be able to run freely again.
Italy looked rattled and dare I say it almost resigned to their fate as they came out in the second half and an easily read pass from Italian fly half Padovani, saw Irish centre Jared Payne streaking across the field to get Ireland’s fifth try. Irish number eight Jamie Heaslip made an inspirational return to form and would go on to get his second try shortly after Payne’s efforts. With thirty minutes to go, fly half Johnny Sexton’s work was considered done and he was replaced by Ian Madigan who put in a solid effort for the rest of the afternoon as well as bagging a sound try of his own later on. Ireland were simply running riot now and as an exhausted and completely disorganised Italian effort sought to stem the green tidal wave, Ireland would run in a further four tries from Jamie Heaslip, Sean Cronin, Fergus McFadden and Ian Madigan. Italy would get two consolation scores of their own from Winger Leonardo Sarto and fullback David Odiete, but it was little consolation from an afternoon which saw them well and truly outplayed. Ireland put in a complete team performance and all 23 players stood up and were counted.
Ireland now face a massive final tussle for a probable third place with Scotland next Saturday in Dublin, and with the Scots showing that they can score from almost anywhere on the park, Ireland will face a much sterner test than what Italy provided. For Italy, their tournament is all but over and it will be exceptionally hard for them to pick themselves up for their last game under Coach Jacques Brunel, as they go up against Wales in Cardiff. Wales have their own questions to answer but nothing less than an emphatic win such as Ireland’s will do, meaning that next week’s encounter for Italy is likely to be just as painful as the lessons they learnt in Dublin. For Ireland this performance should help get the team back to winning ways as well as bringing on some of the key new talents they have waiting in the wings. While Ireland has had a tough time adjusting to life after the World Cup, last Saturday showed that this team when allowed to play with imagination and spirit has more than just a few tricks up its sleeve.
England vs Wales
Final Score – England 25/Wales 21
As this match was rightly being considered the title decider many feared it would degenerate into a cautious defensive game with few risks being taken by either side. Fortunately, this was not the case, as England played with plenty of intent, and Wales despite living up to the billing for the first hour, suddenly and especially in the last ten minutes turned the game upside down, leaving us all to wonder what might have happened had they played that way for the full eighty minutes. As England carved out a well-earned but nail-biting win at the end, it was an interesting contrast in styles. England Coach Eddie Jones has clearly helped shaped the way he wants his team to play and allowed them the expression to do so. Welsh Coach Warren Gatland on the other hand has stuck to a game plan that may have worked in the past, but increasingly looks set to be a relic of years gone by as the Northern Hemisphere sides seek to break free of traditional playing styles. Once Wales ditched the formula in the last ten minutes and started playing the kind of rugby they clearly want to play, the match suddenly almost got turned on its head. England have won the Championship, and can now focus on their first Grand Slam in 13 years, while Wales can hopefully afford to throw caution to the wind in their final game against Italy and really start to break free of the constraints in terms of a game plan that is clearly holding them back from achieving their true potential.
England were clearly relishing the prospect of this contest at home in front of a fervent and very vocal Twickenham crowd. Right from the opening whistle they asserted their dominance over a Welsh side that suddenly looked desperately predictable. England came out of the blocks full of intent while Wales on the other hand seemed to lack any kind of intent whatsoever in the first half. Poor discipline in the scrum, endless missed tackles and numerous penalties going against them meant that Wales looked a shadow of the side that had put up such stiff resistance to an Irish side a month ago at the start of the tournament. England on the other hand looked like they were just getting better with every outing and were not only clear tournament favourites but also on track for a Grand Slam.
England applied relentless pressure and Wales were struggling to keep a sense of composure in containing the English onslaught in the first quarter. This allowed the boot of center Owen Farrell to put England in a commanding lead 9-0 within the first quarter, and England clearly running the show in terms of possession. England’s back line in the shape of Nowell, Watson and Brown were constantly sniping and testing gaps in the Welsh defence but it would be England’s newest sensation and ultimate man of the match lock Maro Itoje who would set the stage for the first try of the game.
Wales would continue to struggle for the remainder of the first half, and continued indiscretions in terms of discipline would see England take a commanding lead 16-0 at half time. As ecstatic English supporters cheered their heroes into the tunnel, Welsh supporters took out their binoculars frantically scanning the pitch to see if there was even a Welsh team out there.
The second half started in much the same vein and yet another penalty would see England leading 19-0. It seemed likely to generate into a complete whitewash, and although exciting in terms of the play on offer from England and certainly not the snooze fest that many had predicted, without Wales offering much in the way of resistance it still had the feel of a slightly lacklustre contest. However, as we headed into the final half hour of the match something changed in the Welsh outlook. A degree of adventurism kicked in and who better to spark the Men in Red into life than fly half Dan Biggar. After some heavy but ultimately fruitless assault work deep in the English 22, Biggar charged down a poorly gauged kick from English fly half George Ford, and the Welshman had acres of space to tear off into unopposed and set the ball down between the posts. Trailing by 12 points was still a mountain to climb given the level of confidence on display from England, but Wales suddenly looked like a side with intent once more. Welsh Captain Sam Warburton was stretchered off moments later, and it suddenly looked like perhaps the turnaround in Welsh fortunes was to be nothing more than an illusion.
With twenty minutes to go, the substitutions started coming thick and fast for both sides. English fly half George Ford was having another match which clearly showed up the dip in form he has suffered this year, while his opposite number Dan Biggar was replaced by Rhys Priestland. In my opinion Wales’ most valuable player at the breakdown and in the loose, flanker Justin Tipuric also came on to the field and Wales all of a sudden appeared to be throwing away the game plan and playing a game that relied less on Coach Warren Gatland’s ideas and more on their own instinct. As we headed into the final ten minutes, Welsh winger George North finally got a chance to showcase just how dangerous and powerful he is when given space.
All of a sudden it was game on again, and although Wales still needed to score two more tries and convert at least one of them, given the new-found intensity they suddenly possessed and given their track record in this fixture at the World Cup last year, it didn’t seem beyond the realms of possibility that they were perhaps about to pull off a comeback that would be talked about for years to come. Sure enough Welsh number eight Talupe Faletau would oblige five minutes later with another well worked try after some scintillating Welsh running and offloading. Rhys Priestland would convert for Wales and all of a sudden Wales were within four points of derailing the English Grand Slam Express. George North would make one more daring break down the touchline with less than a minute to go, but England’s Manu Tuilagi would bundle him into touch and then scrum half Danny Care would boot the ball into the crowd from the restart as Twickenham erupted in a collective roar of relief that could probably have been heard as far away as Cardiff.
We can only wonder what might have been if Wales had thrown away the Warren Gatland playbook and played with the risk and enterprise they showed in the last ten minutes. England were deserved winners on the basis of a superb first half and exceptional composure and skill from key players like Maro Itoje who surely must now be considered an indispensable component of any England starting XV. However, although now surely on track for the Grand Slam against a French side battling with direction, England must also be concerned about the nature of the Welsh comeback and how close they came to suddenly staring defeat in the face after essentially sewing up the game in the first forty. That Wales were able to score two superb tries with ease in five minutes at such a critical juncture in the game is surely ringing more than just a few alarm bells for England Coach Eddie Jones. That kind of breakdown and lack of focus against the Southern Hemisphere sides in the summer and autumn Internationals will cost England dearly and potentially unravel all the solid work that has clearly been done in the past five weeks. Of all the Northern Hemisphere sides England have clearly made the most progress since the World Cup along with Scotland, but as evidenced by the final ten minutes of this match plenty of work still lies ahead of them if they really want to restore their place amongst the elite sides in World Rugby this year.
Scotland vs France
Final Score – Scotland 29/France 18
For us here at the Lineout this was the game, despite the hype surrounding the clash at Twickenham, that we were all looking forward to the most and we certainly were’nt disappointed. Scotland entertained in a superb display of sound decision-making and dazzling skills. France were for the most part outclassed but had moments of their own most notably through their Captain, Hooker Guilhem Guirado who once again scored another superb try for his country and provided his charges with some rock solid inspiration and motivation for the full eighty minutes. Scotland though really have become an exceptionally exciting team to watch, and now that their execution which so often let them down in the past has really been fine tuned, coupled to some excellent decision making and game management, they have become a side that any team should approach with a great deal of respect and caution. While England has rebuilt since the World Cup, Scotland has experienced a genuine Renaissance and surely must be considered title contenders for next year’s tournament if they are able to continue to build on their momentum of the last few weeks.
This was a standout effort from the entire Scottish team, but there is little doubt that at times Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg was in a league of his own. Hogg is clearly one of the most exciting players in international Test Rugby at the moment, but what really made his contribution so valuable on Sunday was how well the rest of his teammates were able to capitalise as a unit on the opportunities he created.
France meanwhile, were often outplayed but looked far less dire than they did against Wales a fortnight ago. However as mentioned in the tries by Guirado and later centre Gael Fickou, France showed that they are not without ideas or intent, it just hasn’t gelled to the point where it can provide a genuine threat for a full eighty minutes, especially when key platforms of their game such as the scrum and multiple handling errors are constantly throwing them back on the defensive despite a clear willingness to attack and spread the ball wide. It was clear in this match that despite an admirable willingness by France to offload as much as possible, there were clearly times when this was not the right option and a balance needs to be struck between spreading the ball and hanging onto it. Once they do hang onto it then the platforms to ensure they retain possession need further work and better organisation. Still there are signs that a reversal of fortunes in French rugby is taking place albeit slowly, and it was France who would make the first statement of intent in the match. Winger Virimi Vakatawa showed just how good he is to ultimately put his Captain over the line for the first try and points of the match.
The build up to this try would see Scottish fly half Finn Russell leave the field with concussion and Scottish supporters suddenly shared a collective sense of anxiety as the young number ten has been such a pivotal part of Scotland’s recent successes. They need not have feared. Russell’s replacement Peter Horne played out of his skin and showed that at fly half Scotland now seemingly has some real strength in depth. Horne was magnificent for Scotland on Sunday and calmly picked up where Russell left off. France still seemed to have the initial momentum though and Scotland appeared slightly phased by the ferocity of the French surprise attacks and Russell’s early departure resulting in a few breakdowns in discipline. Fortunately for Scotland, French fly half Francois Trinh-Duc had a horrendous day with the boot and as a result Scotland rarely had to pay for disciplinary indiscretions.
Scottish scrum half, Greg Laidlaw would soon get Scotland’s first points on the board through a penalty. Scotland their calm restored suddenly looked the more dangerous of the two sides. Horne and Hogg were clearly running the flow of play for Scotland and the fly half made a superb break through bewildered French defences which set in motion a series of phases that would ultimately see Stuart Hogg crash over in the corner. What happened next as the wind really started to catch Scotland’s sails was just one of the many examples of glorious running rugby that Scotland seems gifted with these days.
As Scotland found themselves 18-5 ahead it looked like an epic rout was destined to take place. France however, would not be left out of the limelight. The Men in Blue managed to string together some good phases and some polished offloading saw centre Gael Fickou squeeze into the corner for France’s second try. Trinh-Duc would finally manage to hit the gap between the uprights and the teams headed into the dressing rooms after a thrilling first half with France trailing 18-12.
Scotland put themselves back on the scoreboard again quickly after the restart from a thumping penalty kick from Jack of All Trades Stuart Hogg from inside the Scottish half. France quickly returned the favour with a penalty kick from scrum half Maxime Machenaud who took over the kicking duties from Trinh-Duc who was struggling to make any of his footwork count. This led to a brief period of French ascendancy in attack, but handling errors and a fanatical obsession with offloading at all costs saw a promising but ultimately fruitless passage of play from France.
However, it would be Scotland and that man Stuart Hogg who would once more show off a set of skills that in days gone by would have been most likely attributed to legendary “French flair”. Indeed, after this tournament it would appear that the Scots are now the bearers of this lofty accolade. Just have a look at the skill and decision making of Hogg in setting up Scotland’s third and game breaking try.
Scotland would remain camped in the French 22 for the remainder of the match and the constant pressure would see Laidlaw bag another three points for the Scots as fatigue and discipline problems started to take their toll. France would make one last breakout from their own Maginot Line and a final assault on Hadrian’s wall, but better Scottish focus would see it disintegrate and as referee Glen Jackson called time, the Scottish players and Murrayfield erupted in a joyous and justified celebration. Scotland played a complete and scintillating game, and France while bold at times just lacked the execution and imagination of their Scottish rivals. It had been an enthralling contest that showed that expansive running rugby is alive and well in the Northern Hemisphere and being honed to a fine art in Scotland.
We can now look forward to a potentially thrilling encounter in the final round between Ireland and Scotland as these two sides most likely battle it out for third place. Meanwhile France head back to Paris with the daunting task of trying to scupper the English Grand Slam juggernaut. It will be the biggest test yet of French Coach Guy Noves, but if the decision making and execution by France improves in the space of a mere six days, in the way Scotland’s has in the last six weeks, then you never know – an upset of monumental proportions is still possible. The finale of this year’s tournament is unlikely to be as nail-biting as last year’s, but we will certainly be glued to our television screens next Saturday as our much beloved tournament has once more learnt how to breathe fire!