English sparkling wine may be all the rage at the moment if you don’t bother to check the price against high quality Prosecco, but on the rugby field last weekend there was a serious failure to check the rulebook. Watching Italy play havoc with England’s attack play through a rule noone seemed to know was faintly amusing. Not just because Eddie Jones’ face was thunderous for the whole match but because it prevented Italy visiting the cleaners as had been predicted by the unbeaten English coach. That was probably a good thing bearing in mind the near hysterical calls for Georgia to be brought into the Six Nations or even for a Seven Nations to be born, as if there is room for that in a cluttered season.
The tournament so far has been wonderful for moments of ambition and skill out wide which was so lacking last year. I pick out Elliot Daly, Tim Visser and Stuart Hogg ( again) as particular stand outs in that regard. Serin the French scrum half may lack wisdom at key moments and was shown up by a world class Murray but his sidestep to bamboozle Kearney was almost worth the entrance money on its own as his team struggle to deal with structural deficiencies at home which limit their development.
However my picks of the weekend were the England ‘finishers’ Jack Nowell and Kyle Sinckler. The man from Exeter breathes life into every movement, and it was he who turned a stuttering England win into something vaguely respectable, and was close to a hat trick had it not been for some obstruction. His team mate Campagnaro ( who I have called for all tournament) was equally effective and his try was a gem, making fools of various England defenders. That Devon air is obviously intoxicating. As for Sinckler, his carving run was more reminiscent of a pacy centre than a Dan Cole replacement. This man will start soon and be a force for 2019.
This round of matches told us little new about Scotland and Ireland in truth. As they approach Twickenham, where they haven’t won since 1983, the Scots will pitch for a Triple Crown but they need to play out wide where England are vulnerable and too often as against France and at times against Wales they run collision tactics seeking for some mix so that the likes of Huw Jones and Stuart Hogg are starved of ball. Then they get injuries and this hurts them as they have little depth compared to England. It is hard to overstate Conor Murray’s performance in tricky conditions. He was the difference between the two sides and I enjoyed seeing the Irish centres getting the ball rather than pop ups to the likes of Stander which blighted their match against Scotland. They will travel to Cardiff with historic confidence and in the knowledge that Wales look deflated, unable to capitalise on periods of strong play to force wins.
As for England, it has all been said hasn’t it? Hartley has taken the responsibility for a slow reaction to Italy’s tactics but where was everyone else? Eddie Jones’ mike may have been faulty because he could have handed out instructions too. Hands up, I say. A collective brain freeze on the day and a bemused Twickenham crowd, me included, who in hindsight were ok to see their team gather a bonus point and not put the Azzurri to the sword. The nagging doubts remain about England’s poor form when the intention is to get better each game, not worse. Perhaps Scotland are going to get the treatment the others have avoided or do we have to accept that England just aren’t that good? Well, we know that their bench, sorry their finishers, are World-class. It’s the previous 60 minutes which aren’t so impressive. But does it matter if they can churn out the result?
We shall soon find out. Worryingly the media is building up steam and already comparing them to the Double Grand Slam team of 1992 ( viz Daily Telegraph). My wing place would apparently go to Daly who has more speed than I did as an ex-centre. I was 31 at the time but ask Simon Geogeghan the red-hot Irish winger – who scored the tries in 1992??! Talking of Ireland…