Despite the lack of crowds that give the Six Nations its essential festival atmosphere, the rugby on display lacked for nothing in intensity and excitement. Italy and France got us started and while the result was never in doubt, France laid down a marker in full technicolor that they are the team to beat this year by a country mile. Italy’s novices struggled to get to grips with the French thoroughbreds and at times showed some enterprising play, but as always their lack of composure and execution got the better of them as well as a seeming inability to last much more than 60 minutes.
Next up was the not so unexpected surprise of Scotland getting the better of a rather shambolic English side, and winning at Twickenham for the first time in 38 years. Scotland were focused, clinical and simply dominated proceedings while England’s woeful lack of any kind of genuine attacking game was brutally exposed. England looked flat and bereft of ideas juxtaposed against Scotland’s exuberance and ambition.
Lastly on Sunday, Ireland travelled to Cardiff and Wales could not have made a more convincing argument that the pain of 2020 is now behind them, and a brighter future under Wayne Pivac now beckons. Ireland had moments of individual brilliance but as a team they just didn’t quite seem to be at the races or singing from the same song sheet. Furthermore, much like England question marks continued to hang over many of Ireland’s “old guard” who increasingly seem to be there solely on reputation rather than form.
So as we head into Round 2 here’s what got us talking about Saturday’s matchups.
England vs Italy – Saturday, February 13th – Twickenham
After the Scottish shambles last weekend, England simply have to win on Saturday and win big. With a Grand Slam now clearly out of the question, Italy arrive at Twickenham as lambs to the points slaughter. England have to grab as many points as possible on Saturday plain and simple and hope that someone, somewhere along the way knocks the French out of contention for what looks like a seemingly inevitable Grand Slam for the Men in Blue. English supporters will be desperately unhappy with the inept display their troops put on show against Scotland. England looked unfit and out of ideas and a shadow of the team that were World Cup finalists eighteen months ago. Their discipline was awful, too many players seemed to have turned up based solely on reputation alone, with nothing to show for it on the pitch last Saturday at Twickenham. In short, a team that has been talked up endlessly over the last year looked beyond average last weekend.
Italy, after their hiding at the hands of France’s group of wonderkids, no doubt arrive in England lacking a bit of confidence and probably rather alarmed at being England’s first target after a public humiliation. It doesn’t bode well for the Azurri, but still expect them to bring plenty of passion and enthusiasm to the proceedings. There are some bright sparks in this team who could provide some real moments of excitement, even if they are most likely going to be looking at the wrong side of the scoreline at the end of eighty minutes.
Not what they were expecting
To be honest we’re not quite sure what England were expecting from Scotland, but as the above image shows perhaps better than any other last weekend, it wasn’t this. When established giants like Maro Itoje are being taught some of the finer points of the game by the opposition, then clearly England’s preparations have somewhat missed the mark. In his defence we thought Itoje was one of the few English players who played well last weekend against Scotland, but you could tell that even he felt that England lacked shape and purpose. England, much as they were in the World Cup final were outmuscled and out thought at their own game. England appeared to feel that playing without the ball was something they were comfortable with, while biding their time defensively until the opposition tired of doing all the running. Scotland made a mockery of this approach as they held their focus and resolve for the full eighty minutes. It was England who looked exhausted at the end of eighty minutes and not Scotland despite the men in Blue doing almost twice as much running as England. Scotland dominated territory and possession, made 11 clean breaks while England made none, beat almost three times as many defenders….. if it’s stats you’re looking at the list goes on an on. Italy will more than likely run at them all afternoon, but fortunately for England the Azurri’s execution will be well short of that shown by Scotland. England may get a breather this weekend, but they desperately need to use it as an opportunity to bolt on a style of play that allows them to be the ones taking the game to the opposition for a change.
We think he is more than just an impact player
We salute Italian Coach Franco Smith’s efforts at trawling through the resources he has at his disposal this year, but for matches against the tournament’s two biggest guns in the opening rounds, we are baffled as to why Frederico Ruzza has not gotten a starting berth in the lock department. He immediately made an impact when he came on towards the end of the game against France, and against England you would have thought he would have been a shoe in, especially as Marco Sisi and Franco Lazzaroni had very little to say in their battle with France last weekend. Up against England’s Maro Itoje who is likely to be feeling more than a little pumped up, we would have thought Ruzza’s pace and power would have been a natural alternative. We have a feeling we may be seeing Ruzza sooner rather than later on Saturday.
Extra study required
We have to admit at being rather surprised at watching a player we rate as highly as Tom Curry, put in a performance akin to a schoolboy’s first outing with the senior XV. While we sympathise with the fact that the rules of our beloved sport appear to change with the start of every tournament, making it hard for players to keep up, Tom Curry’s constant infringements on Saturday were hard to justify and referee Andrew Brace’s patience was clearly pushed to the limit. Perhaps not helping Curry’s situation was England’s continued lack of balance in the back row, made worse by probably the worst performance in an English jersey we’ve ever seen from number eight Billy Vunipola. As we mentioned in last week’s post we sadly think Vunipola’s ship has sailed and Coach Eddie Jones reliance on him has become a liability. England has some solid back row options that need developing but we are not sure that Saturday’s lineup is really the answer, with a mish mash of a Curry hopefully up to speed with the rules, the out of form Vunipola and Courtney Lawes who has put in some respectable shifts on the flanks but is not your standard back rower. It’s definitely not balanced, but then neither is Italy’s so it will get the job done, but against France or Ireland we can hear the sirens already.
The Kids are alright
There weren’t too many things to shout about for Italy last weekend, but there is a smoldering promise in the midfield as Italy’s two new kids on the block, scrum half Stephen Varney and fly half Paolo Garbisi, continued to impress. They are a dynamic duo who look set to bring some real zip to Italy. Garbisi is already demonstrating an understanding of the flow of a game well beyond his years, while teenage wonderkid Varney was able to deliver crisp service whenever the ball went to ground. The pair would be a useful role model for English Coach Eddie Jones, who increasingly seems unable to see life beyond the increasingly pedestrian and lethargic delivery of Owen Farrel and Ben Youngs despite the wealth of younger and more dynamic talent at his disposal.
A shot in the arm
It’s about time is all we can say. After increasingly ineffectual performances in the number 10 jersey, Owen Farrell gets moved out to the centres, and England gets a fly half who loves ensuring that England run and attack with ball in hand. We thought initially last week, that Jones might have made the right call in using Farrell to keep Scotland pinned back in their half and then bring on Ford to play some attacking rugby if that wasn’t working. Consequently, when it clearly wasn’t an effective strategy to everyone except Eddie Jones after the first twenty minutes, imagine our disbelief to only see George Ford appear off the bench with 8 minutes left on the clock. He instantly changed England’s shape and it started to look promising but at that stage was a completely lost cause. Jones has said that he has recognized the error of his ways, but we’re not convinced so Ford is probably going to have to make a very big lasting impression on his boss this weekend.
England must and should easily win this game, but we just aren’t convinced that this is an English team we are going to remember great things about this Six Nations. Opportunities to develop a squad that can build and develop for the next World Cup let alone next Six Nations are being squandered, and a reliance on supposed big name players on reputation only is not doing England any favors and runs the risk of leaving them in the shadow of their competitors who increasingly seem to be embracing change with gusto. In order for England to keep their Championship hopes alive they will need an emphatic confidence building win, along with a solid points haul to help them in the closing stages of the tournament. We think they will meet the first condition without too much difficulty, but could be perceived to have fluffed their lines if they don’t come away with at least 50 points plus.
Scotland vs Wales – Saturday, February 13th – Murrayfield
Scotland got their Six Nations campaign off to a fantastic start with an historic win over the ‘auld enemy’ at Twickenham, the first in 38 years. It was a superb performance with Scotland controlling proceedings for the full eighty minutes. It wasn’t without the odd hiccouph – Finn Russell’s clumsy trip and resultant yellow card at the end of the first half and the odd attempt at creating unlikely miracles that almost backfired spectacularly with the scores so close. However, Scotland dominated the game from start to finish and had all the ideas opposed to England who had hardly any. Scotland were disciplined, structured and their execution was leagues ahead of their opponents. However, while we wish to take absolutely nothing away from a marvelous Scottish victory which we thoroughly enjoyed raising our glasses to, Scotland must not get too carried away heading into what should be a difficult match against a Welsh side hoping they are slowly getting back on track. England were a poor side in a crisis of confidence last Saturday, and against France at the end of the month Scotland are going to have to notch their game up yet another set of gears.
As for Wales, the victory against Ireland was long overdue. Although there is still significant room for improvement for Wales, it was a much needed shot in the arm and the first step in banishing the ghosts of a truly miserable 2020 to the dustbin of history. Wales weren’t exactly brilliant against Ireland, and after a moment of complete madness from scrum half Gareth Davies with 15 seconds left on the clock that handed possession back to Ireland with the game clearly sealed in favor of Wales, you were left wondering about the decision making abilities of the Men in Red with so much at stake. Had Irish fly half Billy Burns ill fated miskick to touch in the dying seconds of injury time worked, we might be writing a very different story. However luck smiled kindly on the Welsh, and their comeback from a seemingly inevitable defeat to a 14 man Ireland, showed the kind of grit and determination that has made Wales such a force in this tournament in the last twenty years. They may not be the flashiest or smartest side on the park, but their ability to dig in when the chips are down still remains legendary.
A complete team performance
Unless you are a complete rugby philistine, there is no way you could not have enjoyed Scotland’s win over England last Saturday at Twickenham. You may not have enjoyed it so much if you were an English supporter but you no doubt admired it, and for Scottish fans and neutrals alike, rugby and Scotland were the clear winners. We had a hunch that Scotland might pull an upset out of their increasingly varied bag of tricks, but the manner in which they did it was impressive. This was a complete 15 man effort, and while there were some standout individual performances, the key ingredient was everyone knew their roles and worked together seamlessly. The scenes of Scotland’s jubilation at the final whistle were one of the best starts to the 2021 Test rugby calendar we could have asked for. It was a celebration of a great sporting contest that showed off the full range of skills that our glorious sport embodies, even if it was only displayed by one team. In short, well done Scotland and more of the same please this Saturday! Another convincing win and all of a sudden Scotland can start to take themselves seriously as Championship contenders.
Depth issues – Really?
We remember watching a slightly younger George Turner absolutely demolish Canada two years ago on a Scottish developmental summer tour to North America. We thought then that the turbocharged Hooker was a star in the making, thus imagine our delight to see him absolutely tear up the pitch at Twickenham last Saturday, and completely outclass his established English counterpart Jamie George. With Scotland’s regular starters in the number two jersey Fraser Brown and Stuart McInally out injured, concerns were voiced regarding Scotland’s ability to hold their own at scrum time. Fear not after Saturday and if Turner keeps the jersey for the remainder of the tournament, then the competition for it over the next three years leading up to France 2023 is going to be very healthy indeed. Ably assisted on either side by the highly impressive Zander Fagerson and Rory Sutherland, Scotland looks in exceptionally rude health in the front row.
A contest for the ages
Scotland’s “Manic Mish” meets Wales’ “Superman” on Saturday, and with such high stakes for both sides we expect this to be one of the most entertaining contests of the entire Six Nations. Hamish Watson and his manic grin was simply everywhere on Saturday for Scotland, effecting turnovers, making line breaks and generally smashing England into submission across the park. Against Ireland, Justin Tipuric was doing exactly the same thing, always rock solid in defence but also the most important player in a Welsh jersey in ensuring that Wales get go forward ball as that blue scrum cap just pops up everywhere. These two are fan favourites here at the Lineout and consequently the priveledge of seeing them both in action on the same pitch is one of the highlights of the year.
Stop me if you can
First off South Africa must really be wishing that they had managed to hang onto to this guy, but Scotland’s latest Springbok import really is quite the commodity. As he casually brushed off a host of ineffective English defenders trying to prevent him crossing the whitewash last Saturday, similar scenes of England attempting the same with New Zealand’s Jonah Lomu 25 years ago came to mind. Big, fast, and very powerful van der Merwe has clearly been one of Scotland Coach Gregor Townsend’s favorite Christmas presents. While some in Scotland have lamented his immediate departure for club rugby in England once he qualified for a Scotland jersey, there is no denying the power and pace he brings Scotland out wide. His opposite number this Saturday Welsh winger Louis Rees- Zammit was equally impressive against Ireland last weekend justifying our praise of him in last week’s post by scoring an equally fine try of his own. The battle between two of the Six Nations most exciting new talents is likely to be one of the highlights of the competition at Murrayfield on Saturday.
A Leader Comes of Age
Scottish fullback and Captain Stuart Hogg has always been an exceptional player, but initially some people including ourselves felt that his exuberant talents on the pitch clashed slightly with the calm head needed for the Captain’s role. Saturday’s performance both in the 15 jersey and in carrying the Captain’s armband showed a mastery of both. The dazzling breakouts from deep that appear to come out of nowhere but often get his side easily back over the halfway mark were there for all to see, but so was a calm and focused leadership of his charges. He appears able to trust his teammates to do their jobs, whilst at the same time creating an atmosphere that welds all these unique talents together. Scotland worked seamlessly for the full eighty minutes, and Hogg was always there throughout encouraging his teammates and bucking them up if things didn’t quite go to plan. He was confident but not arrogant and clearly the glue that held his team together. In sport it’s often hard for a player of such exceptional talent to take on the role of leader, especially as it can often mean stepping out of the limelight yourself so that others can shine. However, Hogg on Saturday showed that he has matured into an excellent Captain and one who is more than capable of ensuring that his team reach the lofty goals they have clearly set for themselves.
A confident Scottish side literally buzzing with talent and ability will be hard to beat on Saturday on their home turf even if they will be without the crowds. However, knowing that every living room North of Hadrian’s Wall is likely to erupt if they get past Wales, should be sufficient motivation. We can’t help feeling Scotland are riding a wave right now and it is going to take a rather special team to knock them off their board, with perhaps only France in Paris having the ability to spoil Scotland’s New Year’s Party. Wales will fancy their chances and look in a much better position than they did last year to start getting results. However, Murrayfield and Scotland may be a bit more than they have bargained on just yet. Either way we have a hunch that it will be 80 minutes of your time very well spent this Saturday.
That’s it for now. We’ll be back later today with our look at the big one this weekend – Sunday’s clash in Dublin between Ireland and France once the teamsheets get released this morning. Till then stay safe and stock the fridge for some great rugby action this weekend.