As the Six Nations passes the half-way mark, the Championship gets ever more intriguing. This weekend, there were twists and turns in store as we build towards an unpredictable climax.
Dubbed the ‘Wooden Spoon decider’, Italy v Scotland was an attritional affair, with neither side looking too convincing in the early exchanges. Adam Hastings was unusually off with the boot and Italy were poor at the breakdown – Scotland forced the turnover 20 times in Rome.
However, it was Scotland’s captain Stuart Hogg who led from the front with a dazzling show of pace and skill to open the scoring and settle his team’s nerves.
Scotland might rue the fact that they couldn’t secure the elusive fourth try which would have earned them a bonus-point, but I think they’ll just be over the moon with a victory that included their first tries of the tournament.
Italy rarely built up any steam and just did not threaten the visitors. Being ‘nilled’ is never good in rugby, and despite showing glimpses of attacking venom through their back-three of Bellini, Hayward and Minozzi, they just did not have the pack to power them over the line.
So much of Scotland’s domination was done up-front. Hamish Watson was truly sensational and ever-present all over the park in the Italian sunshine. The flanker will have to have a repeat performance in two weeks’ time as Scotland prepare to welcome a buoyant French side to Murrayfield.
19 tackles ✅
62 metres ✅
13 carries ✅
79.1 fantasy points ✅
1 MOTM award ✅
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) February 22, 2020
The only side undefeated in the Six Nations, France were seriously impressive as they dispatched Wales 27-23 in their own back yard on their march to the Grand Slam.
France oozed confidence throughout. In their victory over England, their scum-half Antoine Dupont dictated the game. This weekend in Cardiff, it was the turn of fly-half Romain Ntamack.
The playmaker was at the heart of every relentless blue wave, scoring 17 points, including a 50-metre dash to the line to put distance between the teams before the hour mark.
I’ve said it before, but you just can’t underestimate the youthfulness of this French side. They’re not haunted by past failures like their predecessors. They’re sharp and clinical, not ponderous and arrogant. Give them another two years and they can be the best team on the planet. Add to that the fact that the next World Cup will be held in France, they’ll be right up there come 2023.
I anticipated that Wales would do much better in their Principality Stadium fortress and a late show of heart painted over a lot of cracks for the home side. The defeat marked back-to-back defeats for Wales in for the first time in two years in competitive fixtures.
Wayne Pivac does look to be struggling to stamp his mark on what still very much is Warren Gatland’s team. We saw at Scarlets that Pivac likes his sides to play a wide, expansive game and naturally there has been some teething problems as they shift from ‘Warrenball’ – the name for Gatland’s physical and direct brand of rugby.
Possibly the biggest loss for Wales was not Gatland, but his defence coach Shaun Edwards. During his time in Cardiff, the Lancastrian made his side impenetrable. This was demonstrated in last year’s Six Nations as Wales won the Grand Slam despite scoring the fewest tries in the competition.
A rugby league player in his day, Edwards has switched the red of Wales for the blue of France this year, and his impact has been outstanding. This was particularly evident when the home side just could not penetrate the French barricade – down to 14 men – before half-time, leaving with 0 points as the whistle blew.
Now I’m not writing Wales off for good. They are still in a transition period and nothing will spur Alun Wyn Jones’s men on more than the prospect of heading across the border for a crunch match against their arch-rivals, England.
Talking of Twickenham, England returned to HQ for the first time since their run to the World Cup Final in Japan to much anticipation by the home fans. Their side delivered remarkably well. As we’ve become accustomed to with Eddie Jones, England shot out of the blocks in top gear. This translated to relentless pressure as they forced a siege in the Irish 22, before mistakes by Johnny Sexton and Jacob Stockdale saw the home side race to a 17-0 lead at half-time.
Ireland did come back towards the end of the second half, but an English win was never in doubt after their early blitz.
Rugby fans can be fickle. Blasting Jones for his selection one day, before raving about their side’s performance before a half of rugby is up. I thought England got it spot on with their selection and the divisive Jones should be praised for sticking with his guns – Jonathan Joseph had a terrific game on the wing, as did Man of the Match Courtney Lawes at blindside flanker.
However, I also thought England were not at their sparkling best like we saw in the World Cup Semi-Final against the All Blacks. In my opinion their shape and defensive patterns do need a bit of work and there was more than a slice of luck in their two opening scores, but week-on-week they are improving.
The victory has blown the Six Nations wide open and England will be hoping that Scotland can do them a favour and beat France in two weeks’ time in what could be a banana-skin of an encounter for the leaders.
I think that France are fallible, which means that England’s final showdown with Italy in Rome is all the more important. I can’t wait to get out there and Venatour have a fantastic weekend lined up for us. I do hope you’ll join me to celebrate a thrilling Six Nations tournament and hopefully cheer on an English Championship victory.