The first two weeks of the 2018 Six Nations are in the books, and sadly the highlight of my rugby calendar is already nearly half over.
Instead of giving way to a moment of silence to commiserate that fact, I would like to instead celebrate the two weeks of quite fascinating rugby we’ve seen.
The overriding thing that has struck me from the six games so far is that very little seems to have gone as expected. True, England and Ireland are both two from two, Italy have fallen to two heavy defeats and the other three sides are jostling for mid-table positions, but when you look past the standings and into the games themselves, there have been a number of things that have defied all the pre-tournament expectation.
I would like to examine just a few of them here. I’m not going to spend time looking at England and Ireland because, while they have not been all-powerful through the opening two rounds, they have done what was basically expected of them. I would rather focus on some real talking points.
[latest_videos_strip category=”rugby” name=”Rugby”]
Let’s start with the most obvious one. Wales were written off across the board before this year’s torunament. They had mounting injury problems, they were missing their talisman halfback Dan Biggar, the form of enduring servant Leigh Halfpenny was under close scrutiny and Warren Gatland was under pressure to change his style of play. Everything seemed stacked against the Welsh coming into their opener against Scotland.
However, what has followed has proved that you do not write off a champion team. Wales have shown once again the mettle and grit that has been installed from the word go under Gatland, but they have also added a renewed attacking spark that saw them put a Scottish side oozing confidence after a fantastic autumn to the sword in a way very few people saw coming.
What’s more, to then go to what must now again be called Fortress Twickenham, face arguably the best England side since 2003 and push that side all the way is a mightily impressive retort to all the criticism they have faced.
Had it not been for a generous video referee call at Twickenham and a superhuman try-saving tackle from Sam Underhill, Wales may have been sitting with a 100 per cent record and a first Twickenham defeat of Eddie Jones’s regime under their belts.
I wrote a piece before this tournament about the fact that Scotland have tended to impress against Southern Hemisphere opposition over a number of years now but have failed to back it up in subsequent Six Nations campaigns.
I prophesied then that this would be the year that Scotland buck the trend and really announce themselves anew as Six Nations threats, but sadly the way they were dismantled by Wales in Cardiff has shown us that they still have a long way to go.
It is true that their injury list, particularly in the front row department, has been a major hindrance for them and that they have reinstalled some hope for themselves by holding on to beat France at Murrayfield, but the fact remains that they have not in either game produced the kinds of performances that saw them demolish Australia and give the All Blacks a mighty scare three months or so ago.
Finn Russell has been trying to do too much, the forward pack was overpowered and they still need to find a way of getting Stuart Hogg regularly involved in attacking positions with space and time to make things happen, for he is and will remain their greatest weapon. These are the simple facts of Scottish rugby now.
Against southern nations, who play a much looser and free-flowing brand of rugby, Scotland can unleash their weapons like Hogg and Byron McGuigan with space and Russell does not have to overdo anything but merely find the space and exploit it. In Six Nations rugby, when things are tighter, nastier and much more about grinding down your opposition, this Scotland team need to find a plan B.
Given their own way, they want to play fast-paced, explosive, attacking rugby, but a team like theirs rarely gets their way in the Six Nations, and they need to find a way of adapting their style to match it with their counterparts up north.
On a positive side note – this is not countering anyone’s expectations at all – how good is Greig Laidlaw’s game management? The way he orchestrated Scotland’s comeback win over France was nothing short of genius. A real champion performance, even when he was surprisingly shifted to ten.
Watching him pull off a perfect one-on-one strip on his own line on Virimi Vakatawa, the French wing pretty much twice his size in every dimension, was the icing on the cake and a turning-point play in the game.
Much of France’s rugby so far in this tournament has been predictable. Under a new coach Jacques Brunel they have still flattered to deceive, shown they are capable of moments of magic and proved there are still players of real quality in their side.
Teddy Thomas has been electric in both games and has scored some beautiful tries, Maxime Machenaud has matured into an excellent game manager and a world-class scrumhalf, I liked the look of young Mathieu Jalibert before he was cruelly struck down by injury against Ireland and Guilhelm Guirado must surely now go down as close to if not the outright best hooker in the world.
All this we knew already. However, what’s surprised me about their performances against both Scotland and Ireland is that for the first time in a number of years I saw a French side that was up for the fight. I saw a French outfit who stuck to the grind, who did not give any quarter and who showed real discipline and application in their defence against Ireland in particular. To defend 41 phases in overtime and concede no penalties or errors is quite a feat, whatever may have happened at the end of it.
They looked like a side that played for each other, for their coach and for their fans. They are certainly not one of the great French sides of old, but if they can maintain that determination, fight and sheer backbone in the future, it will finally give them the right foundation to build a new era of French rugby on.
I will come to Italy – well, their backline – separately in a moment, but I wanted to focus on Parisse this time and obviously not for the expected reasons. Italy have improved markedly as a team under Conor O’Shea already, that much is obvious, but I honestly cannot recall Parisse putting together two more error-strewn performances than he did against England and Ireland. He missed tackles, he dropped balls and he gave bad passes.
The superman we are used to seeing drag Italy along by the collar in big games has honestly been outshone by a number of his teammates so far. In some ways, though, that’s pretty heartening to see. If this Italy team can put together competitive performances without Parisse at his best leading the way, that speaks volumes about the work being laid down by the players around him, which is one of the things Italy have struggled with for years
The performances of the Italian forward pack have never been questioned. They may be down on quality but Italy have always been competitive in the forwards to make their opposition work hard. It is in the backline that we find the source of Italy’s marked improvement.
It starts with Tommaso Allan at ten, who has moulded into a very competent game manager far removed from the raw and erratic player who first came into the Italy setup years ago. He has directed his troops around the park well in both games and kicked his goals when asked, and his tactical kicking has been smart in theory if sometimes a little lacking in execution.
The backline outside Allan is showing improvement in every jersey, but I want to highlight two players who have stood out. Firstly, the centre Tommaso Boni, who has been aggressive in defence, particularly against England when he kept Ben Te’o to a limited impact all day long, and has not been afraid of the hard carry in attack.
Boni has shown good instincts with his attacking play too, his distribution has not failed him and he was a marginally forward pass away from picking up a try against England off a really clever short line.
The other player who stands out is Matteo Minozzi at fullback. This guy may be the sprinkling of stardust Italy have long needed in the backs. Armed with good pace, dazzling footwork and a keen eye for a gap, he looks like he could be a real weapon. The way he stood up Kieran Marmion on the way to setting up Eduardo Gori’s try against Ireland was sublime, and he looks like a magical player – he has almost certainly been my player to watch from the tournament so far.
The important thing to bear in mind with all this is that while the scoreboards may not reflect the quality we have seen from these players, England and Ireland, the two best teams in the competition, had to seriously work hard and play really well to break Italy down and get away from them. That is something to be celebrated in itself. They got beaten heavily, yes, but they were beaten heavily by top-drawer teams who had to play really well to do it.