So after three rounds of vintage Six Nations rugby we have a look at how the final two weekends look to be shaping up and how the teams are faring now we’re past the the halfway point.
In short, there have been few suprises as France have turned their status as pre tournament favourites into a seemingly inevitable reality. Ireland very much look the part of finishing as strong runners, up while England definitely have the look of a quality side but one in transition and struggling at times to determine their shape and identity. Wales have proved, as they always do in this tournament, that they are extremely difficult to beat at home as well as the fact that you just can’t write them off when it comes to the Six Nations regardless of their form heading into the competition. Scotland despite getting off to a rip-roaring start against England, have simply looked off the mark against France and Wales and once more just not lived up to their promise. Although Italy look comfortably en route towards their traditional Wooden Spoon, there is definitely something different about the Azurri this year. They still may not win any matches in the 2022 edition but they look more competitive than they have ever done in the twenty years they’ve been in the tournament, and that competitiveness and the set of skills that go with it look to increase dramatically in the coming years if they can keep it up.
So without further ado let’s look at where the six participants stand with the two penultimate rounds left to go!
France – the sleeping giant has finally woken up!
We have a hunch that we may well have egg on our faces when referee Jaco Peyper calls time on the last game of the Championship in a just over two weeks time in Paris. We insisted that a Grand Slam was not in the offing this year for any of the six teams, but having watched France in the first three Rounds, it’s going to take an exceptionally special team to get past them. As talented as England and Wales are, we have a hard time believing that either one is the team to put the brakes on France’s juggernaut.
France are so cohesive at the moment, we can’t remember the last time we’ve seen a team with such a clear understanding of the game they want to play and how to implement it. Every player on the pitch seems to have an intricate knowledge of their role in France’s approach to a given opponent. It is fantastic to watch and they make it all look so effortless. Gone are the traditional French lapses in concentration or discipline at key moments. We’re not saying they are perfect but they’re not far off from being the finished product and so far appear to be light year’s ahead of any of their Six Nations rivals. Their forward pack from one to eight works seamlessly, their halfbacks expertly link the work between the backs and forwards together, and their centre and backfield units are a joy to watch.
French flair is very much alive and well but it is all so clinically organized at the moment. Defensively across the park they are watertight and on attack they have a precision that is absolutely lethal. Their matchday 23s are now a star studded cast and while there are numerous standout players, there are few if any weak links. In their front row Hooker Julien Marchand has been a revelation, while in the second row Cameron Woki is fully justifying all the hype we gave him heading into the tournament. Gregory Aldritt is arguably the best number eight in the modern game – while the halfback combination of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack share a PhD in game management. In the centres Gael Fickou is a defensive and attack field marshal while Damian Penaud is the definition of a world class winger. But this is simply naming but a few of France’s exceptionally talented roster and to single them out almost does injustice to a team that as a whole just works so well together.
Wales may be a possible banana skin in the Cardiff cauldron, but as evidenced against Scotland, France are now a team that travel just as well as they play at home in front of the Stade de France faithful. Provided things go well for France this weekend in Cardiff, England face the equivalent of parting the Red Sea when they face off against les Bleus in the French capital and try to deny them a Grand Slam in the tournament’s final game.
Ireland – a new standard that just might finally peak at the right time for the World Cup
Whether it’s by necessity or choice, one of the most refreshing things about Irish Coach Andy Farrell is his willingness to embrace new talent and look to the future. While we may have had our doubts about him in the past, those have all been put to bed as he is rapidly putting together a squad that blends youth and experience and a way of playing the game that maximizes the potential of both. Meanwhile his Captain, the legendary Jonathan Sexton is playing some of the best rugby of his career at the age of 36. While Ireland still need a long term answer to his replacement, there is little reason to doubt that one of Ireland’s biggest rugby icons of the last twenty years still has a very important contribution to make to next year’s World Cup campaign.
Ireland’s opening two games were impressive efforts despite the narrow Round 2 loss to France in Paris. Ireland’s slightly bizarre game against an Italian side essentially playing with one hand tied behind their backs, was a valuable but frustrating exercise. However, what Ireland have shown us is their enterprise and imagination in how they play the game these days, backed up by a talent bank that is rapidly becoming the envy of many rival coaches. Ireland were ultimately able to hold their own against tournament darlings France in Paris and the end result was never a certainty until the final whistle, with Ireland mounting a solid comeback in the second half. Despite some uncharacteristic sloppiness against Italy, Ireland ultimately breezed past the Azurri but were perhaps taken aback by the ferocity with which a severely handicapped opponent fought back.
However, despite the fumbles against Italy and the narrow loss to France, Ireland are definitely on song at the moment and the only real challenger to France’s seemingly inevitable crown. Their final two games against England at Twickenham and then at home to a misfiring Scottish outfit, should see them finish a strong second. Their front row has taken some hits with the loss of Hooker Ronan Kelleher to injury along with Prop Andrew Porter. However in Dan Sheehan they have found a more than capable understudy for Kelleher. In the second row, Tadgh Beirne has been absolutely immense both in the set pieces and the loose, while Ireland’s back row stocks have been arguably the richest in the tournament. Lingering questions remain about the future of the halfback berths but with fly half Sexton and even Gibson-Park at scrum half being in such rich form there is not too much to worry about in the short term. Meanwhile Gary Ringrose is a constant thorn for opposition defences in the centre channels and the back three are blessed with talent out wide and at fullback.
In short, Ireland despite some injury concerns heads into these last two rounds in exceptionally rude health and have every reason to feel as confident as France about their last two matches. They’ll be watching proceedings in Cardiff this Friday with huge interest, but first there is the challenging of getting one past an England side that despite lacking Ireland’s cohesion will pose a huge threat at Fortress Twickenham.
England – The tinkering continues with a side that could be so much more
The new look England that Coach Eddie Jones has finally decided to unleash, certainly has potential but it still remains a lumpy unbalanced unit that at times seems unsure of how to use the array of talent at its disposal. England sit just a point behind Ireland on the table in third place after one loss and two wins, however they have only managed to score six tries all tournament. Ireland have scored 16 and tournament favorites France 13. Given that France and Ireland are England’s last two opponents, that will make for troublesome reading for Jones and his charges as it basically says that England have no real attack. Marcus Smith may be a genius but he can’t singlehandedly provide England with the attacking platform they are so clearly lacking at the moment.
England and Jones seem to be obsessed with the possible return of centre Manu Tuilagi to provide them with the catalyst on attack that they seem to be struggling to find. However, as we and many others have said Tuilagi is simply not a long term option for England as his consistent problems with injury shatter one false dawn after another. Despite Smith making his best efforts to unpick opposition defenses, without an effective centre pairing complimenting his abilities there seems little to work with, and England look woefully bereft of ideas out wide without the likes of Jonny May. In short, England just look blunt in the backs and we find it puzzling given the talent in their ranks such as Jack Nowell, Freddie Steward, Henry Slade and Max Malins. They also seem to be struggling to assert themselves in areas of traditional dominance such as the forwards, even if they finally seem to be starting to develop a more balanced back row. Once again there is a raft of talented individuals putting in huge shifts like Maro Itoje, Tom Curry and Alex Dombrandt but as a unit it’s just not clicking and in the set pieces in particular appears average at best.
What the answer is to England’s dilemma would appear to beyond them for the moment and unfortunately time appears to be running out as the World Cup rapidly looms over the horizon. The next two games will be critical in terms of how England emerges from this Six Nations with an eye to the future. If they can acquit themselves well against arguably the two best sides in the Northern Hemisphere over the next two weekends, then they may well start to find answers to the questions that seem to be eluding them. Either way it certainly won’t be for want of talent.
Scotland appear to be heading for the door with a whimper
Scotland looked to be on a roll after that opening game against England which saw them claim back to back Six Nations victories over the Red Rose. Since then though it has all started to go rather pear shaped. As we feared injuries have not helped their cause, but there is also a level of frustration with Scotland when it comes to execution and consistency – qualities we thought they had got a handle on last year. Scotland much like England are blessed with some extraordinary individual talent but at times lack the shape and cohesion necessary to make them the force they could and should be. Their decision making particularly from Captain Stuart Hogg and fly half Finn Russell is not always the best, and for us Russell continues to force the game at times which results in multiple costly errors that simply hand momentum back to the opposition.
As they head into their final two games, they simply have to tighten up their game and rein in the propensity for recklessness that is Russell’s Achilles Heel and with it the team’s. Against France and Wales they rapidly lost shape, and in the French game in particular they appeared to take no cognizance of how superbly well organized France are defensively. In short they looked more and more desperate as the game wore on. Italy as we’ve seen in adversity will be no pushover in Rome and Ireland in Dublin will be a decidedly painful lesson if Scotland haven’t tightened up their game management and decision making. Despite the initial promise this could well be a Six Nations that Scotland will want to forget in a hurry.
The team that just refuses to quit
Wales had everything against them as the tournament got underway, an injury list from hell and a thumping at the hands of Ireland that made them appear a spent force from the outset. Then came the gritty home win against the Scots followed up by a second half performance at Twickenham that gave England the fright of their lives. Wales could have won that game and if they had we would all be looking at them in rather a different light. As it is now they head back to Cardiff to face the tournament’s red hot favorites France. As we saw against England there was clearly a hint of one genuinely big performance to come from this Welsh side and in front of the Principality faithful it could be this Friday against France. France have yet to prove that they can take their seemingly invincible track record now at the Stade de France on the road with them. They blew apart an inept Scotland a fortnight ago at Murrayfield, but Cardiff will be a veritable cauldron of noise and Wales will be hoping they can be the banana skin that France invariably encounters somewhere along the road in a Six Nations Championship.
Wales are clearly not the force they were in years gone by, but to write them off against France despite the odds stacked against them, would be foolish to say the least. If they do pull off the unthinkable Friday, then all of a sudden a respectable third place finish could be in their sights. In a tournament where nothing is ever a given we can’t wait to see how the the Welsh dragon’s fortunes pan out.
The Wooden Spoon may be inevitable but this is a very competitive and resilient Italian side
Italy are likely going to end up clutching the Wooden Spoon once again this year, but, provided they can put in two solid performances in their final two games, we genuinely feel that we’ve seen a different Italy this year and one which bodes well for the future. Put aside that 57-6 thumping at the hands of Ireland, but we found ourselves taking our hats off to them for the way they approached a match that from the 20th minute on they had a snowball’s chance in hell of winning. Shorn of two players for the entire match and towards the end down to 12 against 15, they still played with huge character and heart and despite the scoreline Ireland didn’t exactly have things all their way. Italy managed to deny England the points haul the Men in White so desperately needed, and in their opener against France they nobly demonstrated the fact that France never start well managing to hold their own against Les Bleus until the second half.
Captain Michele Lamaro has shown a maturity and degree of leadership well in excess of his 23 years on this planet. In short Italy have a leader who will be able to carry this team for at least the next three World Cups. Italy still have an enormous amount of work to do, and losing their Hooker Gianmarco Lucchesi who has really risen to the task for the rest of the tournament is a hammer blow. However, there is a real belief in this exceptionally young but talented team. Now with the pointless debate about their place in the tournament seemingly dead and buried, we feel that Italy could finally start to get the breathing room to develop into a side that could actually start to hand the Wooden Spoon to somebody else in years to come.
Whichever way you cut it these final two rounds of this year’s Six Nations should be some of the most fascinating we’ve seen in years with points to prove for all!!!