My assertion that the clash between a resurgent Scotland and a rehabilitating France would be the highlight of the 2nd Six Nations weekend was very wrong.While we all absorbed the sad reality of an uncompetitive Italy on the day, the real drama lay down in Cardiff, where England and Wales played out a dramatic and vintage contest in the best traditions of that great fixture. It now seems highly likely that Dublin in March will be a day of reckoning for England’s attempt to achieve a back to back Grand Slam.
Here is a taster of what happened and what’s to come…..
We can only be fearful of what lies ahead at Twickenham for the Azzurri. Ireland played really well and had all the luck in Rome, but no International side should lose at home by 50 points in this competition. England could run up a cricket score and it is that scary thought which will drive the Italian effort. They will take a backs to the wall attitude into the match and talking of backs please could Campagnaro start this time! All neutrals will hope for a competitive match but Eddie Jones wants a big performance this time, and that couldn’t be worse news for Conor O’Shea.
Their guns were spiked against a monstrous French team, but I did not understand their tactics. Instead of casting their net out wide with great support runners like Hamish Watson who is fast being a flanker of some repute, they ran into the French head on, literally. At least three head injuries resulted, and an inability to quicken the game up against what should have been a tiring opposition. The game in fact ground to a halt which was fine for Les Bleus who needed a win and no more. There were however signs of some real quality in the passing of the French forwards, but it is early days for this new team. As for Scotland, the loss of Laidlaw will be felt and they need to steel themselves for a big challenge from Wales. Just think if Finn Russell hadn’t rushed his conversion under instruction from the off field team who were concerned about the legitimacy of the try just scored it could have all been so different…..5 points up with 10 minutes to play.
Their inabiity to close out such a big match with the result under their noses will haunt them as it did Scotland in the World Cup. A botched line out and scrum followed by a high tackle, missed tackles against England’s now legendary replacement hit squad, and a loose kick – all in less than ten minutes. There’s the match. However they were so impressive up front for long periods, especially Ross Moriarty – was he really tired after 50 minutes ? Didn’t look it to me. Dan Biggar and Liam Williams were Lions standard and overall the squad should kick on from here. I was worried whether Howley had the connection with his players and we know the answer now.
They found the style they should have used against Scotland, and the Slam would still be on. It’s a blessing to be able to try things out in International surroundings when you have the game won, and this will be a positive when the next three tough ones are in the balance, which they will be. Stander was mighty impressive, although he wont get the freedom of the park against the rest! Sexton is back now, they will only get better but need to employ the Leinster approach to keep winning.
They could well have lost this and if Scotland had trusted their known qualities they would have. As it stands they now have some mini momentum, and will try to pull Ireland into an arm wrestle a la Scotland. Gail Fickou is at last showing his true potential, and if the French forwards can develop that interpassing we saw last week, it could be a potent mix. The draw this year hasn’t done them any favours in a tournament of razor thin margins.
Saving the best till last, well in terms of results anyway ! For many, this win has signalled them as real contenders to the Number One slot, as they adopt All Black style resilience in winning tight games. The rest of their game though is much less impressive, so I will reserve judgement. Changes at hooker and full back could be imminent, and some returning forwards simply emphasizes the depth. Launchbury and Lawes are two of the world’s best and they didn’t even feature into the top pick team! Loving Farrell’s leadership and growing maturity which is new and welcome, and Daly is a Lions selection without doubt. Only bad weather or self-induced pressure will save Italy from a hiding next up as Eddie is not happy that his team have been outplayed twice in a row. But what he loves is their belief and determination. Next weeks verbals will be severe and asking for total dominance to carry into the tougher business end of the season.
Thought of the Week
Lifttheweight is a new campaign initiated by the RPA and covers the mental health challenges for the players who carry our game from strength to strength but who are human beings who find life difficult to adjust to when they stop playing. Please go and find out more because we must all support it.
A tough time for all rugby supporters with the news of the death of ex-Wallaby Dan Vickerman. RIP.