We rather regard this round of fixtures, before next Saturday’s finals as the contractual obligation weekend. We doubt it’s going to be particularly enthralling as a competition, especially with all three results being essentially foregone conclusions. England’s bruising pack and confident seasoned veterans are likely to put a squad of Welsh new kids on the block to the sword, even with a few wise old heads in the mix to lend a hand. France are the sports car squad of the tournament, and with plenty of heart and spirit Italy may give them a run for their money at times, but once again it’s hard to anticipate too much in the way of surprises when it comes to results. Lastly Ireland aim to be the third team to ensure that Georgia despite their bravery leave the tournament completely empty handed, especially as this is likely the Eastern Europeans last game in the tournament, with Fiji’s participation essentially having become null and void. Three games that have to be played but which ultimately have little or no bearing on the way the finals will be played out next weekend.
England and France are likely to top their respective pools, and thus compete for the first place final. Scotland and Ireland will battle it out in the second final. Wales unless they pull off a miracle this weekend will meet Italy in the third, leaving the hapless Georgians to claim seventh spot due to Fiji likely forfeiting their match with them for the last two spots in terms of ranking. Consequently since there is not a great deal to get excited about this weekend, we’re just looking at the four front running teams to see what we’ve learnt about them so far.
England – Solid as a rock but somehow just not that exciting
England have been the most competent team of the tournament by a country mile, but if it wasn’t for this guy would you really have noticed them?
Many have lamented that England have not looked overly impressive as an attacking unit. However, when you have someone like Jonny May, do you really need one? That try last weekend showed off the talents of a rather extrordinary and gifted athlete. The problem is that without Jonny May, England look rather one-dimensional and flat in attack, preferring instead to use that incredible forward platform to simply bludgeon the opposition into submission. England’s forwards division is without doubt the elite in Test Rugby right now and against teams even less imaginative than England (ie most of the Six Nations sides with the exception of France and possibly Scotland), brutally effective. Until England’s rivals in the Northern Hemisphere learn how to cope with this and negate it, then England really don’t have to worry too much. But figure it out they will and as we saw so dramatically last year in the World Cup final – teams from South of the Equator are already starting to get the measure of England.
Make no mistake England are outstanding at the moment. However, are they the finished product yet -definitely not. On paper they should make short work of Wales tomorrow, but what will another resounding victory against weaker opposition really teach them? England Coach Eddie Jones, keeps telling the world that the great secret of English attacking rugby is still to be revealed – the problem is he’s been saying that for quite a while now. If we don’t start seeing it though by the next Six Nations alarm bells should start ringing, as France seem to have exclusive rights to the blueprints.
France – the tournament’s sports car finds itself equally at home in the monster truck arena
France should cruise past Italy this weekend and set themselves up for a mouthwatering final next Saturday with England. They may have all the attacking skills that England would dearly love to emulate, despite Jonny May’s one man impersonations of the entire French back line – but increasingly the Men in Blue have proven that their forward pack is a 4×4 unit that takes no prisoners. France’s back row in particular have been magnificent with Captain Charles Ollivon and Gregory Aldritt being two of the most impressive performers of the tournament. What France finally have is a team, instead of a collection of exceptionally talented loose canons. Add a solid Coaching team that the players can relate to and allow those talents to flourish when the opportunities present themselves, and there is no denying that France look good right now. What’s more they appear to be only just getting started. They are young, hungry and clearly have their eyes on the main prize – France 2023. While results clearly matter to them at the moment, development of a squad that can lift rugby’s ultimate prize with all the inevitable hiccoughs along the way that provide the necessary learning would appear to be far more important. France seem quite happy to admit that they are still looking for answers, but in the process seem to be thoroughly enjoying the journey. This weekend will provide some insight into whether their incredible attacking game can still flourish without the likes of Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack and Virimi Vakatawa, and in the process give us some real insight into France’s depth. But just in case you’re worried there’s always their own answer to Jonny May.
Ireland – it’s not just about possession
One thing we’ve learned about Ireland this tournament is that they sure do like to hold on to the ball and let’s face it they’re pretty good at it. The problem is that there’s not much point to all that possession if you don’t actually do anything with it. We’ve also learnt that their increasing obsession with naturalizing Southern Hemisphere talent faster than a good pint of Guinness should really be poured is also not quite the answer. To be honest we don’t really understand this recent obsession. Ireland should be building to make France 2023 the first World Cup where they actually get beyond the quarter finals. In our humble opinion the best way to do this is to harness the wealth of emerging talent Ireland has at its disposal. Drafting in foreign players who may well be past their sell by dates come 2023 in order to get short term results is short sighted beyond belief. From what we’ve seen so far this tournament it’s also not producing results. You know we are not fans of Leinster Kiwi import Jamison Gibson-Park being drafted into the Irish squad at the expense of John Cooney. We thought he had a genuine shocker against England. Sure he and fellow New Zealand import James Lowe looked good against Wales, but then anybody could almost look sharp against Wales right now. If you’re going to lose to a quality side like England then at least learn something in the process, and to be honest we felt Ireland learnt nothing last Saturday.
There were some good individual performances from Ireland last weekend. We thought James Ryan stepped up to the leadership role well, despite the loss and let’s face it Ireland didn’t exactly get hammered last Saturday by the best team in the tournament. Keith Earls has consistently been one of our top Irish performers and didn’t disappoint last Saturday, but whether he will still be at his prime in three years time is questionable. We also thought Hugo Keenan was for the most part excellent under the high ball and feel that he is definitely, along with the injured Jordan Larmour, the future for Ireland at fullback – just give him time. Ireland’s back row as always were competitive but their scrum was a disaster as were a lot of their lineouts. James Lowe’s impressive start against Wales was completely negated by England’s water tight defenses and against similar caliber opposition you have to wonder if he is the wonder weapon Ireland and Coach Andy Farrell thought he was.
This Saturday, Ireland are still relying on a majority of big guns to put a hapless Georgian side to the sword. What they will learn out of the process is questionable. Bring in a raft of Ireland’s second strings and get the win, and then you might be talking. Consequently, Sunday’s match holds little in the way of interest for many and is one that would appear to be simply making up the numbers.
Scotland – exciting but inconsistent
Scotland have not lost their appeal, and like many we are gutted that we won’t get to see one of the contests we were most looking forward to in this tournament, their date with Fiji this weekend. In general it’s been a rather encouraging year for Scotland. A lot of what they do works, much of it is built on a relatively youthful squad, and even the seasoned campaigners should all be the right side of the age curve in three years time. In short, what’s not to like about Scotland? It’s that lack of consistency which Scotland just can’t seem to wrap their heads around that worries us. Scotland remind us slightly of Argentina in the last World Cup cycle, just when they need it the most their concentration or focus goes out the window. A gifted team that somehow just doesn’t have that 80 minute killer instinct. Drive and committment is not the problem but focus does seem to be. Even with the extraordinary talents of the likes of Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell there are lapses of concentration that are still proving too costly.
Talent though there is aplenty. Fine tune it, develop a bit more depth along with the positive vibes running through the Scottish camp right now and who knows how far this team can go in the next three years. Perhaps more than anyone for us, Jamie Ritchie epitomizes everything good about this new generation of Scottish players, and if this young man doesn’t find himself at a Lions jersey fitting session next year then there is simply no justice.
We apologize for not taking a look at the bottom feeders in the tournament this weekend – Wales, Italy, Georgia and Fiji. Unfortunately, work got the better of us and sadly with Fiji there is nothing to talk about. We will endeavor to do them justice later this week, and secretly hope that Wales surprise us all tomorrow and Georgia manage to get some points on the board at long last in Dublin.