Tales of the unexpected: The 2018 Six Nations so far

Jack Colwill Roar Rookie

By Jack Colwill, Jack Colwill is a Roar Rookie

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    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.

    Wales
    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.

    (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)

    Scotland
    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.

    (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)

    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.

    (AFP)

    France’s backbone
    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.

    (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

    Sergio Parisse
    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

    Italy’s backline
    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.

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    The Crowd Says (48)

    • Roar Guru

      February 18th 2018 @ 8:07am
      Kashmir Pete said | February 18th 2018 @ 8:07am | ! Report

      Thanks Jack

      Interesting and informative read.

      Cheers
      KP

    • February 18th 2018 @ 8:31am
      englishbob said | February 18th 2018 @ 8:31am | ! Report

      Good Article Jack.

      Ill be honest the 6N rugby has been universally drab, England showing they have a great defence and can be opportunistic but penalties remain an obstacle to long term success, Ireland have put in solid performances against two fairly limited teams. The wales england game was an odd one and one england really should have put to bed, whenever they had the ball they rumbled forward steadily and then coughed it up. The winger knocked the ball on before anscombe may or may not have grounded it, the tmo should have awarded a try based on the the three seconds of grounding footage but had they rewound 3 seconds the knock on is fairly clear.

      The best game of the recent championships has been Eng/Fra or Wales/Ire both of which are soon, look out for those.

      Wales are an improved team but that group of players isnt nearly as strong as england or ireland and certainly not in the same league as nz.
      Ill be honest the scottish performances havent been all that suprising, they flattened a listless and knackered aussie team who are prone to collapses, and they ran nz a bit close but they dont have the forward pack to gain consistent front foot ball against bigger packs and therefore resolve to try magic when its not on.

      France could be a very good side but wont be until they stop their national players playing a suicidal amount of games a year, 26 league, a possible 8/9 cup and 9/12 tests, its far too much and it shows in both the glacial pace of their league and the wilting of their fitness levels around 60/70 minutes.

    • February 18th 2018 @ 3:10pm
      Akari said | February 18th 2018 @ 3:10pm | ! Report

      Thanks Jack for the extra attention on the Italian players as, apart from Sergio Parisse, we from SH (ok, at least moi) know very little about. You’ve done me a favour by identifying other players that I should look at when Italy is playing.

      The two major turn-offs I find about rugby is the inconsistent refereeing calls and the continued appointment of referees as ARs and TMOs, roles that they have clearly demonstrated to be incompetent at. World Rugby should train specialist people to be linesmen and TMOs and stop corrupting the process by appointing referees that are not competent to officiate as a linesman/woman.

      • February 18th 2018 @ 5:27pm
        Malo said | February 18th 2018 @ 5:27pm | ! Report

        Should be time off for scrums and goals/penalty. Or otherwise increase it to a 90min game

        • February 19th 2018 @ 9:19am
          marfu said | February 19th 2018 @ 9:19am | ! Report

          Malo – Yes there is too much time lost by stoppages as I think the ball is only in play for less half the total time in the average game.

    • February 18th 2018 @ 3:48pm
      Mmmmm..k said | February 18th 2018 @ 3:48pm | ! Report

      Italy have not improved under O’Shea.
      Under their last coach they won 22% and under O’Shea they’re winning 21%.
      Their games in the 6 Nat’s under O’Shea have earned them and ave of 31 point losses. All of the 6 nats under O’Shea have been bad losses.

      Go Italy, apparently that’s an improvement.

      • Roar Guru

        February 18th 2018 @ 5:35pm
        The Neutral View From Sweden said | February 18th 2018 @ 5:35pm | ! Report

        If you watch the games you might understand the point he is making. Italy actually looks like they can score well-constructed tries now, and that is the big improvement so far under COS.

        Dropping stats without watching games is totally pointless. As the great Wayne Smith said: “stats are just entertainment for the public”.

        • February 18th 2018 @ 11:00pm
          Mmmmm..k said | February 18th 2018 @ 11:00pm | ! Report

          Thanks mate but I will judge on results and ability to win games, you judge on how good they look getting thrashed if you like but don’t assume I haven’t watched the games and don’t tell me how to judge a teams performance.

          But maybe they’ll judge the next 6 nats on how good a team looks at a particular aspect of the game and NOT POINTS.

          You do realise that the game of rugby is decided by points and a teams performance is judged on wins and losses right?

          And to act all superior and say I haven’t watched the games…

          Yeah they looked really good getting smashed by 37 in their last game, great improvement.
          And when NZ beat them by 58 Italy looked so very special.

          In future I will make an effort to not drop stats like wins, losses and scorelines when judging a teams performance.
          Who knew that those stats were meaningless and it’s not about scorelines or wins and losses.

          • February 19th 2018 @ 9:28am
            Fionn said | February 19th 2018 @ 9:28am | ! Report

            ‘Thanks mate but I will judge on results and ability to win games’

            Aren’t you the same person who has defended Cheika’s selections despite his results?

            • Roar Guru

              February 19th 2018 @ 9:54pm
              The Neutral View From Sweden said | February 19th 2018 @ 9:54pm | ! Report

              No comeback Mmmmm..k?

            • February 20th 2018 @ 6:21pm
              Mmmmm..k said | February 20th 2018 @ 6:21pm | ! Report

              Why am I not allowed to reply to somebody who addresses me?
              I followed the comments policy but both posts are rejected.
              Very frustrating.
              If there are other policies it would be helpful to know them so I don’t waste my time writing something that you’ll just erase on a whim.

              I don’t get it.

        • Roar Guru

          February 19th 2018 @ 7:35am
          rebel said | February 19th 2018 @ 7:35am | ! Report

          NV it would make sense that if England, Ireland and Scotland have all improved and that Italy have maintained the same win ratio, that Italy are going along with them.

          • February 19th 2018 @ 7:09pm
            Mmmmm..k said | February 19th 2018 @ 7:09pm | ! Report

            They don’t just play those teams though.
            In the 6 nats their results have arguably got worse.
            Under the last coach the points difference was and Ave of 19 against Italy. Under O’Shea it’s an Ave of 31 against Italy.

            Great improvement?

            And, yes, Ive seen the games.

            • Roar Guru

              February 19th 2018 @ 11:06pm
              The Neutral View From Sweden said | February 19th 2018 @ 11:06pm | ! Report

              \Well, we all see things different, but it is hard to understand how you can’t see improvement. No-one is saying they are world beaters, but on the attack, they are clearly better. I think most of us can agree it much harder to get the attack right, than play ugly arm-wrestle rugby (like they have done as long as I can remember).

              And they have started the 6N this year against the world number two and three teams, surely the hardest opening ever for any team in the 6N. But such things are of no concern for you?

              They beat SA 2016 and played a great game against the Wallabies in OZ last year, and they were in it almost for the full 80, and that is better than most NH teams have been able to do the last 10 years.

          • Roar Guru

            February 19th 2018 @ 9:49pm
            The Neutral View From Sweden said | February 19th 2018 @ 9:49pm | ! Report

            Agree rebel. And is that not exactly what has happened since COS took over? England, Ireland, and Scotland have improved since the last WC (IMHO)

            • February 19th 2018 @ 10:25pm
              Mmmmm..k said | February 19th 2018 @ 10:25pm | ! Report

              Have you watched their games?

              Yes, they have improved.

              The scorelines against Italy have improved because Italy HASNT improved.

        • February 19th 2018 @ 8:01am
          Goatee said | February 19th 2018 @ 8:01am | ! Report

          @NVFS – ‘Dropping stats without watching games is totally pointless. As the great Wayne Smith said: “stats are just entertainment for the public”.’

          Agreed!

          • February 19th 2018 @ 7:12pm
            Mmmmm..k said | February 19th 2018 @ 7:12pm | ! Report

            Agreed with what?

            “Stats are just entertainment for the public”?

            Pffft, do you think coaches and coaching staff don’t use statistics?
            I’m aware that their needs to be context but to dismiss stats as nothing but entertainment is REALLY naive.

            • Roar Guru

              February 19th 2018 @ 11:16pm
              The Neutral View From Sweden said | February 19th 2018 @ 11:16pm | ! Report

              No-one can stop you from calling arguably the greatest rugby thinker the last 20 years naive.

              I also think Eddie Jones is on the record saying that the only stat he is interested in is how fast players get back in line after a tackle, the rest is not important.

              For sure top-level coaches are looking at stats, but I seriously doubt they let them decide how they select players and how they set up their team tactics. It is just a tool that can give them some hints, but very few clear answers.

              • February 20th 2018 @ 11:04am
                Highlander said | February 20th 2018 @ 11:04am | ! Report

                To be clear

                1. Smith was referring to the stats in the public domain, very different from what he sees – so don’t run off on the wrong tangent Viking

                2. Grant Fox summed in up best, when they were working together, We get mountains of stats every week, but I use them to confirm what my eyes are already telling me.

                Do you really think something pops out of the stats that these guys or their analyst team haven’t picked up, wont happen, If anything the stats provide a magnitude to an issue.

              • Roar Guru

                February 20th 2018 @ 2:18pm
                The Neutral View From Sweden said | February 20th 2018 @ 2:18pm | ! Report

                1. Smith was referring to the stats in the public domain, very different from what he sees – so don’t run off on the wrong tangent Viking

                What are you on about Highlander? Maybe read what I and others have written before you go on about running off on the wrong tangent.

              • February 20th 2018 @ 4:34pm
                Highlander said | February 20th 2018 @ 4:34pm | ! Report

                you are stating and using quotation marks that smith said stats are for public entertainment – not what he said at all

              • Roar Guru

                February 21st 2018 @ 12:29am
                The Neutral View From Sweden said | February 21st 2018 @ 12:29am | ! Report

                Well, it was you who said those exact words to me when we had a discussion about Maro Itoje’s performance in the Lions series.You went about how “poor: he was in the lineouts, and I showed you an example where he “technically” lost the lineout, but he stole the ball before it even had hit the ground. We both agreed that relying on stats only to prove something can be very very risky, and you finished that conversation with that exact quote from Smithy.

                Maybe I should be more careful in the future trusting you on what you are saying is correct?

            • February 20th 2018 @ 1:01am
              Goatee said | February 20th 2018 @ 1:01am | ! Report

              @Mmmmm..k

              ‘Do you think coaches and coaching staff don’t use statistics?’

              I’m certain they do… and I imagine that the information or data they collect, has no real value or benefit UNLESS viewed within the wider context of the game,OR in terms of what they are working towards (ie,goals/targets) for the future.

              So, yes, I’m AGREEING that unless ‘stats’ are viewed within this wider context they are fairly pointless… and when viewed in isolation from ‘the bigger picture’ (or ‘goal’, you are working towards) they won’t tell you the whole story.

              There can also be a subjective element when interpreting statistics or data. If I fill a 100 ml jug with 50 ml of water, some may argue that it is half-full, while others will conclude it is half empty.

              I’m not sure what goals or targets COS has set for himself and the Italian team. Conceivably, this season, it might revolve around developing their attack, and increasing the number of line breaks or try-scoring opportunities in a game? If so (and even at this early stage of the tournament )it would come as no surprise if the ‘numbers’ for this, were well in advance of what they were at the same stage, last year.

              • February 20th 2018 @ 6:39pm
                Mmmmm..k said | February 20th 2018 @ 6:39pm | ! Report

                So what exactly are you agreeing with?

                That Italy hasn’t or has improved as a team?

                That stats need context?

                That stats can be positive or negative depending on the outcome you are looking for?

                As I said, Italy hasn’t improved as a team, they are losing by bigger margins more often, are scoring no more 5 pointers and their for and against is worse under O’Shea.
                Providing past wins and losses and winning margins when talking about the performance of a team is giving context.

                But Italy has improved as a team.
                When I say that I mean that they can all dance better and they fill out the jumpers much nicer.

                Let’s get serious.
                When somebody claims a teams improved they mean they’ve improved generally at the game they play.
                My argument is that they haven’t because they’re losing bigger and more often.

                Then I get a lecture about how I shouldn’t use stats and how stats should be used.
                Seriously?

                OK.
                The Wallabies have improved since 1999.

                Now use context and figure out what aspect I’m talking about.
                Oh, no stats either.

              • February 21st 2018 @ 4:19am
                Goatee said | February 21st 2018 @ 4:19am | ! Report

                @Mmmm..k

                ‘So what exactly are you agreeing with?’
                Read my post… again.

                ‘That Italy hasn’t or has improved as a team?’
                If we’re judging purely in terms of their win/loss ratio then they clearly, haven’t improved… If it’s with regard to specific components of their game (and stats are being used to monitor this) then you need to ask COS. I’m unable to confirm what his goals/targets are.

                ‘That stats need context?’
                Read my post, again.

                ‘That stats can be positive or negative depending on the outcome you are looking for?
                Read my post, again.

                ‘Then I get a lecture about how I shouldn’t use stats and how stats should be used.’
                From who?

      • Roar Guru

        February 19th 2018 @ 12:28pm
        Derm McCrum said | February 19th 2018 @ 12:28pm | ! Report

        I wouldn’t be too harsh at this point. O’Shea has only had 7 Six Nations games. Brunel had 25 and won 4 in five years with his last season 0-5. O’Shea has said it’s going to take time. They have some very good players coming through at club level and will improve further.

        • February 19th 2018 @ 7:15pm
          Mmmmm..k said | February 19th 2018 @ 7:15pm | ! Report

          Nobody is being harsh.
          Just disagreeing with the assertion that Italy have “markedly improved as a team” under their new coach.

          Imo, they haven’t improved as a team at all.
          Sure, certain aspects may have improved but as far as results and for and against, it’s actually worse.

        • Roar Guru

          February 19th 2018 @ 9:53pm
          The Neutral View From Sweden said | February 19th 2018 @ 9:53pm | ! Report

          The improvements in Pro 14 are very telling that things are slowly moving in the right direction. Treviso has won five games in a row, and that is pretty impressive considering what level they are coming from.

          Overall the two Italian sides in Pro 14 has won 11 games (and lost 18) this season. Pretty sure that is record already, with 13 games still to play for Italian sides.

          • February 19th 2018 @ 10:28pm
            Mmmmm..k said | February 19th 2018 @ 10:28pm | ! Report

            Traviso isn’t Italy.

            That’s like saying England is not improving because Leisciter hasn’t improved.

            But feel free to drop win/loss statistics if you like.

    • February 18th 2018 @ 9:45pm
      Hartley's Dad said | February 18th 2018 @ 9:45pm | ! Report

      Very interesting and fair account of the tournament so far. I am unable to understand, however, Wales’ (particularly Gatlands) dismay at the “disallowed” try. If Watson had not been there to gather the ball, it would have been knocked forward by the Welsh player anyway.
      Blinkered view by those that feel let down I think. Also no mention of the previous game where two tries came from forward passes !

    • February 18th 2018 @ 10:31pm
      mzilikazi said | February 18th 2018 @ 10:31pm | ! Report

      Thanks, Jack. Good write up, and for me very informative, as I have really only watched highlights so far….intend to rectify that this week, and catch up.

      Really hope the Scots can do the job on England at home, and then Ireland roll them at Twickenham.

      • February 19th 2018 @ 7:52am
        Goatee said | February 19th 2018 @ 7:52am | ! Report

        @ mzilikazi

        My expectation is that they will lose one of those two games – but would love to be proven wrong!!

        Didn’t you tip England to lose 3 games, before the tournament?

        • February 19th 2018 @ 3:46pm
          Neil Back said | February 19th 2018 @ 3:46pm | ! Report

          I’ll answer. Yes, he did.

        • February 19th 2018 @ 10:39pm
          Mmmmm..k said | February 19th 2018 @ 10:39pm | ! Report

          The Irish game is going to be epic.

          Ireland have such a good team.

          Not the greatest depth but still.

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