We have to say that despite the lack of crowds and some initial reservations about this year’s tournament, we are thoroughly enjoying it so far. As for the competitors themselves, we think it’s safe to say some are enjoying it more than others. If you’d asked us at the end of last year if we would be writing about Wales being the only Grand Slam contenders alongside France, we would have muttered politely into our drinks that it might have been stretching the bounds of plausibility. Imagine our surprise and delight for the Men in Red that this now a genuine possibility after two Rounds. There is still the rather uncomfortable issue of having to deal with England and France still to come for Wales, but after Scotland’s victory at Twickenham you’d have to argue that this year’s tournament is one that so far gives everyone the right to dream big. France still look the team to beat, but England along with Scotland and Wales look more than capable of ruining anyone’s party. So at this stage in the competition here’s our look at what we think the teams are feeling so far.
England – Dissatisfied
England may be sitting in third place after the opening two rounds, but these are clearly not happy times for either their Coach Eddie Jones or the team. Sure the win over Italy got them back on track after their wretched performance against Scotland, but Italy still managed to break the English defenses twice as well as make the expected points haul by England considerably less than what the Men in White thought they should have come away with. Tournament favorites France were able to walk away with a 40 point difference in their tangle with Italy in Rome, but England could only manage 23 at Fortress Twickenham. That could well come back to haunt them should either France or Wales slip up in the final three rounds and points difference suddenly give England a genuine shot at the title.
England showed definite promise against Italy and at long last played some attacking rugby. Yes it looked good against a much weaker opponent, but we doubt that France felt overly concerned after watching that game. If Coach Eddie Jones decides to play the stubborn card once more against Wales next weekend, leaving George Ford on the bench and Owen Farrell finds himself back in the 10 jersey, we have a horrible feeling that England will start going backwards once more. England had serious ignition problems at the end of last year, which became glaringly apparent in their opener against Scotland. English supporters have demanded an attacking style of play and Captain Owen Farrell seems increasingly unable to deliver what the people want.
However, it’s not just Farrell- there are too many players in the squad that Jones is picking based on some outdated sense of loyalty to their reputations rather than form. Scrum half Ben Youngs, number 8 Billy Vunipola, fullback Elliot Daly……..the list goes on. He now has a chance to let some of his more dynamic charges such as George Ford, scrum half Dan Robson, fullback Max Malins and many others from his and up and coming players have an opportunity to stake their claim and build an exciting mix of youth and experience. This is the only way to forge a competitive English side able to last the distance between now and the next World Cup. The time to be giving these players game time is now and if Jones doesn’t he only has himself to blame, as the growing dissatisfaction with England’s performances of late builds to a crescendo.
France – Excited
Although they may have been slightly frustrated by the nature of their win over the Irish last weekend, the excitement running through this squad is plain for all to see and Coach Fabien Galthie and his assistant Raphael Ibanez couldn’t be happier. Easily playing the most ambitious rugby of any side in the tournament and clearly loving it, France look in a league of their own. Even if things didn’t quite go their way as evidenced against Ireland, this French side has finally understood how to dig in, keep their emotions intact and sow the seeds of doubt in their opponents. French sides of old would have thrown away that narrow lead last Sunday in Dublin through a combination of desperation and ill discipline. France have finally understood how to absorb pressure and maintain composure. They simply did not panic in Dublin last weekend and held their nerve and resolve to get the better of a determined but unstructured Irish side. France now excel at pinning opposition sides back in their own half and forcing them to start another wave of attack from deep – ask any player of the modern game and they will tell you that is simply exhausting. It’s rarely the aimless kick tennis we’ve seen so often from England and Ireland. France like Scotland are superb at either counterattacking with ball in hand or employing a kicking game that forces opposition teams to run with the ball from deep in their own 22.
While Italy weren’t much of a test for the Six Nations Formula 1 team, Ireland clearly were not exactly a walk in the park. France were brought down to earth in no uncertain terms and made fully aware of the daunting tasks that lie ahead of them with Scotland, England and Wales. However, we’d argue that Ireland did them a favor by giving them a reality check and as a result they will be a lot sharper for their remaining three fixtures which will really show us what this rather extraordinary French side is made of.
Ireland – Confused
Coach Andy Farrell and Captain Jonathan Sexton are now under the most intense scrutiny and it’s not painting either of them in a particularly good light. Andy Farrell seems hopelessly out of his depth and Ireland themselves seem at sixes and sevens under his tutelage on the pitch. While they may be trying their hand at attacking rugby the knife is so blunt it would have trouble getting through butter. Perhaps the only positive from last weekend’s match was the influence of Paul O’Connell as the most recent addition to the Coaching box. His role with the forwards was plain to see as Ireland looked consistently better in the set pieces, especially their lineout work. Meanwhile Captain Jonathan Sexton seems in denial about both his own health and leadership abilities. This once great player’s skill set is now more a feature of highlights reels than anything he is creating on Test pitches these days. In addition, we can’t help feeling that Sexton has forgotten what his role is as playmaker. Put your hands up if like us you find yourself staring at the TV screen in disbelief as Sexton instead of watching how the game is unfolding around him decides he would better serve his teammates by clearing out rucks. A truly great player who sadly seems to have lost the plot somewhat lately and in the process is taking his team down with him.
Ireland under Andy Farrell have started to look desperate. Desperate for results to justify his position while at the same time squandering the opportunity to develop long term solutions to the replacement of key players who will simply be unable to make a useful contribution to Ireland’s World Cup campaign in 2023. Ireland are already looking in danger of being woefully unprepared for France in just over 2 years time. If they are serious about not exiting a World Cup at the quarter finals for the first time in their history then that work and grooming of the right personnel has to start now. They have to be prepared for a rough year as the new faces are bedded into the team with some serious top level game time. The Six Nations happens every year, so even if you lose every game this year but in the process start to develop a squad that will be the right side of 30 come 2023 and experienced to boot, then you focus on next year’s Six Nations for silverware. Let’s face it there are another 2 Six Nations tournaments after this one between now and the next World Cup in which to go trophy hunting. In short, be brave, make some tough decisions and like France really find out what two world class match day 23 man squads look like – but do it now!!!!
Italy – Optimistic
Italy true to form start their Six Nations campaign with two losses – but hang on a minute. Before we get sucked into the inevitable and pointless debate about whether or not Italy should even be in the Six Nations in the first place – we think that new Italian Coach Franco Smith has more grounds for optimism than any of his predecessors. Everyone predicted a whitewash in their encounter with England, but Italy for good chunks of that game were highly competitive and at times genuinely imaginative in attack. Sure their discipline is still their Achilles Heel as is their execution at times but we increasingly enjoy watching them play. Their wonderkid half back combination of scrum half Steven Varney and fly half Paolo Garbisi are genuinely exciting even if their lack of experience at times trips them up in terms of finishing skills. However, that will come with time and they look set to be getting lots of it in the next two years. In short, while they are hardly going to be challenging for any silverware this year, they will make us get up out of chairs and cheer them on as they put in some serious effort and attempt to punch way above their current weight. If you can’t take pleasure in watching them try then you’re probably not a genuine rugby fan. The proof of the pudding will be whether or not all this initial optimism has turned out to be yet another flash in the pan a year from now, but for the moment we’re giving Italy and Franco Smith the benefit of the doubt!
Scotland – Frustrated
The narrow loss to Wales last weekend, may have been a bitter pill to swallow for Scotland after the euphoria of their Calcutta Cup win at Twickenham against England in the opening round, but there was enough skill and determination on show in Murrayfield last Saturday that Scotland are still very much in it to win it. To top it all off they lost by only one point and having to do it all with just 14 men for the major part of the match. Furthermore, Wales have clearly got their mojo back so it was never going to be easy in the first place. Their trip to Paris next weekend will be a daunting task, but as we saw last Saturday this is a Scottish side who simply don’t know when to quit. There are still some consistency concerns around their execution at times, but this is an exceptionally good Scottish side who can go the full eighty minutes. Their discipline is good, despite the costly but unfortunate aberration by prop Zander Fagerson last weekend, and their ability and willingness to both defend and attack are exemplary. In short, a hard team to break down defensively and one that on attack can turn a game on its head in the blink of an eye. While they may not quite have the all rounded skill set of France, they can certainly give them a run for their money and next Sunday in Paris should be a hotly contested affair full of exciting running rugby from both sides. Once they have got the French fixture out of the way, Scotland take up residence at Murrayfield for the remainder of the tournament which should ensure that while they may not be lifting the trophy this year, a strong finish is definitely on the cards. In short, well coached by Gregor Townsend and his assistants and well led by Stuart Hogg, Scotland are the most complete package they’ve been in years. If France or Wales slip up next weekend then it will be time to dream big once more for Scotland.
Wales – cheerful
The drought is over and Wales have emerged from their long cold year in the wilderness. The second try last Saturday by superstar in the making Welsh winger Louis Rees-Zammit, proved to us more than anything that Wales are back. There is plenty of work to do yet, and Wales still looked creaky at times against Scotland, but when they did click they looked impressive. On top of that they proved once more that while they may not be the most exciting team or the most skilled, they are a seriously dogged and gritty unit and one that is very difficult to break down. That quality came through against Ireland and then again in the match last weekend against Scotland. Even though many had written Wales off, we just weren’t comfortable doing so and felt that once they understood what Coach Wayne Pivac was asking of them, Wales would be back to being the tournament’s most consistent dark horse. The first two rounds would appear to have confirmed our suspicions as Wales now find themselves along with France chasing a Grand Slam. What a prospect their match with England in Cardiff has now become! Were Wales just lucky the first two rounds or is the Welsh renaissance now in full swing? Next Saturday will surely answer such questions and if the injury gods are kind to Wales this tournament then we have a hunch they are just getting started on what should be a very good year for them.
That’s it for now, we’ll be back next week with a look ahead to Round 3. Till then stay safe!