Three matches down for all the contenders at this years Six Nations – my thoughts on what has happened so far, team by team in table order.
FRANCE – 13 Points
The new Gallic era has begun with a BANG. Three matches, three wins and this young French side look the real deal, though we are still at an early stage. The whole philosophy is to utilise their brilliant youngsters who have won the last two Under-20 World titles to build towards winning the next Rugby World Cup which is being held on their own soil in 2023. They blitzed the English in their opener, then despite lapses throughout they saw off Italy easily enough, but their performance in Cardiff was the real tell, especially in such a raucous atmosphere away from home. Some may say they were fortunate with some decisions but they deserved the win for their fearless play and ability to turn chances into points clinically as well as yet another monumental defensive effort, especially when down to 14 just before half-time. The appointment of former Wales defence coach Shaun Edwards to drill this French team has been a masterstroke and with head coach Fabien Galthié alongside General Manager, Raphaël Ibanez, the structure behind the scenes in France rugby is solid as a rock. Scotland away up next, you would think they will fancy their chances before the Irish at home to complete the clean sweep. This French side seemingly has the backbone allied to the traditional flair, are we going to see them dominate for the next few years? It would not surprise if they take the Grand Slam to build confidence even further.
ENGLAND – 9 Points
World Cup finalists in November, whilst a massive improvement after their embarrassing group stage exit in 2015, the losing feeling in Yokohama seemed to still be lingering as they were steamrollered by France early in their opening game, 17-0 at half-time. It was soon to be 24-0 and only some outstanding individual, play from Jonny May saw them get anywhere near close, with a losing bonus point secured with the last kick of the game. A second straight defeat in the standard manner of the narrative under Eddie Jones of not being able to deal with a deficit when a team goes right at them and things are not going their way. That performance from the gods against New Zealand now long forgotten. To be fair they have responded well, especially their win over Scotland which thanks to Storm Ciara did make it a bit of a lottery but they played the better rugby on the day and just about got over the line deservedly. This has now been followed up with victory over unbeaten Ireland in a bruising encounter with England winning the power battle and taking full advantage of some Irish defensive lapses. They looked in this match like they were getting back to their best in regards of bullying teams and building pressure to make the opposition cave. Whilst the title is not really in their hands a strong finish has to be a must now with a wounded Wales coming to Twickenham (and they love an upset too so they cannot be underestimated) and then the Italians away, a side they have never lost to in their history. It may not end up with the title but some pride will have been restored with a double win ending, otherwise the questions and recriminations will remain into the summer tour of Japan.
IRELAND – 9 Points
After a disappointing World Cup and let’s be honest a disappointing 2019 overall, it was time to reset with Andy Farrell stepping up from Defence Coach to take the top job from Joe Schmidt. He has stuck with a lot of the old guard and they began with two victories, albeit at home. A workmanlike one over Scotland in which if they had lost nobody would have complained too much, hence their following week battering of Wales was a superb performance, the 24-14 scoreline flattered the visitors as only a late try made it look anywhere near respectable. A resurgent Robbie Henshaw was the standout in that performance and the famed back line of Ireland orchestrated by the Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton double act was on fire. They would have travelled to Twickenham in good spirits, however they were overpowered and bullied at times and made basic errors in the try area, finding themselves 17-0 down at half-time. They rallied somewhat but were never seriously in the hunt to recover the deficit losing 24-12, their Triple Crown and Grand Slam hopes over. The first roadblock in the new era, however they have plenty to play for. Italy will have to be despatched with ease to renew the optimism and then they may well have a chance of the title in France on the final weekend, so despite this recent disappointment, there is plenty for the Ireland to play for.
WALES – 6 Points
It was never going to be easy taking over from a legend such as Warren Gatland, he also had his difficult times, but Wayne Pivac has now lost two matches in a row and whilst it is very early in his tenure – pressure builds easy in top level sport. They were very good in beating Italy 42-0 but the clear caveat from that was that their opponents on that day were extremely poor. They were out muscled by Ireland and poor in the set plays but on occasion showed what the new coach has been working on with some exhilarating back play and ball handling, especially for their opening try in Dublin. We saw more of that against the French, but execution at times cost them and the fact they were up against a well drilled French side that played right till the end without the flakiness associated with them when they are under pressure. Talk may be of some borderline decisions not going their way, but deep down when they go through the match they will know that the best team won. Next up a trip to Twickenham to take on the English, who are on the back of two good victories and who will want revenge for last years defeat in Cardiff let alone the 2015 World Cup defeat. Another loss and the screw will tighten even more on Pivac and then their home match against Scotland may become a must win, not necessarily for his job, but to get the fanatical Wales support to at least believe there is life after the Gatland years.
SCOTLAND – 6 Points
It was workmanlike but their victory over Italy was a massive result for this Scotland team and especially Head Coach Gregor Townsend. Make no mistake a defeat could have been terminal but now they can look forward to the rest of the tournament with hope, even though they have two tough fixtures ahead. To be far to the Scots they could be 3 out of 3 at this stage but small details and simple mistakes, unfortunately by new captain Stuart Hogg were crucial in narrow defeats over Ireland and England, it was apt it was his try (their 1st of the tournament) that opened the scoring against the Italians. The Finn Russell situation has obviously been a distraction through the tournament and despite Adam Hastings doing little wrong, it is clear they miss the mercurial skills of the Racing fly-half and it does look like he may well not return unless there is a change at the top. Defeats in their final games (on the back of a poor World Cup campaign) will open up this can of worms even more, even if the performances are decent. Scotland need to get over the line at least once or Townsend may well not survive, interesting times ahead.
ITALY – 0 Points
And the wait goes on. 28th February 2015 is the quiz answer to the last time Italy won in the Six Nations and that was away, it is even longer for their last home win. They have lost 25 consecutive matches in the tournament and their last 19 at home. Let’s be honest any way you look at it that is pretty horrific. After their opening weekend 42-0 thrashing to Wales, one of the worst Six Nations Performances I have ever seen I messaged a mate to say maybe the Italian Rugby Federation will soon realise how decent a job Conor O’Shea did now he has gone. To be fair they have performed better in their subsequent matches, showing real fight, especially against a rampant France when it looked like they were going to get another thrashing, scoring three tries. Against Scotland they played well enough but just didn’t have the extra quality to take chances they fashioned. Franco Smith is trying to develop the team, but he is only interim Head Coach so where is the continuity and future planning? Also bear in mind Sergio Parisse’s imminent international retirement. A trip to wounded Ireland up next followed by England at home, a team they have never beaten. Two defeats (which being honest are very likely) and the call for another team to replace them in the tournament, however unlikely it is to happen, will begin again.
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