What a great weekend of rugby from the Six Nations. Here are five rugby-related observations from a weekend where France Scotland rose up, Ireland plateaued and England crashed.
1. Mathieu Bastareaud
If anybody was worried about the French not caring about rugby anymore they should be reassured by Friday’s performance.
Les Bleus were playing in Marseille, rugby heartlands of France, and they had to win. It was this knee-bending desperation that permeated every aspect of their play and nothing encapsulated this more than the bullocking centre’s erratically brilliant display.
It is clear that Bastareaud desperately wants to play for his country. In one moment he made a saving tackle behind his own gainline, got back to his feet, rucked two Italian players out of the way, kicked the ball free and into his own hands, and then made ten metres. All by himself.
Added to this, the man’s figures get gradually more and more impressive as they go: 34 metres gained, 13 passes, seven defenders beaten and three offloads. If that wasn’t enough he also made four turnovers and scored a try.
The man was a flanker, No.8, centre and finisher all in one.
Bastareaud was not perfect though. Two turnovers conceded and 80 per cent tackle success rate hints that there are areas still to improve. But for once it was nice to see a player who has had his issues off the field (and on them) grasp what was probably his last chance on the international stage with such riotous determination.
2. Jonathon Sexton
Before the Lions tour I had written Sexton off. Playing in France seemed to have robbed him of his love for the game and injuries seemed to be taking their toll on his body. Then, halfway through that tour, the old Sexton appeared and what a player he can be.
Shaun Edwards’ defence is not prone to leaking points, but Sexton was a magician on Saturday, whipping passes left and right to runners who found gaps between pillars no other side (barring New Zealand) have been able to find.
He engineered attacks on his own 22 that would take Ireland 50 metres down field in one play. That is not something that happens to Wales in the Six Nations.
However, he was not perfect. The curse of a 10, and I’ll call this the ‘Bernard Foley Curse’, is that even if you whip up three tries out of nothing but finish the game with a 43 per cent kick success rate, people will focus on the negative rather than the positive.
Ireland almost lost because of those missed kicks. Is this something for Irish fans to worry about or just a statistical blip? Only time will tell.
Saying that, I’m a fan of Foley and, I’m happy to say, I’m a fan of Sexton again. He was a maestro yesterday who conducted a mesmerising symphony.
3. Irish Backs
I love Sexton but that does not mean I have universal love for their back play. When he’s in control, genius. When he’s not, what on Earth in the name of sweet heavenly rugby are the emerald men playing at?
When you get behind the gain-line you go wide. That’s where the space it. That’s where the tries are. That’s literally where no one in green was on Saturday.
I want to say Ireland are the second best team in the world and the most realistic threat to New Zealand come the World Cup, but if a player like Sexton keeps unlocking defences with such ease but then Ireland let their forwards pick-and-go for over ten phases only to get held up over the line then New Zealand can feel pretty safe.
An Irish friend suggested this was because Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose are currently unavailable, and they’ll give the Irish back-line more width when they’re back.
For the sake of my Portuguese speaking neighbours I hope so, because I can’t keep ruining their Saturday afternoon with manic cries of ‘wide, go wide!’ interspersed with industrial strength cursing.
4. England’s inadequacy at the breakdown
This shouldn’t be a surprise. In the Champions Cup this year English teams like Saracens and Exeter have been emasculated at the breakdown by Pro-14 sides. I suspect it’s the way the breakdown has been refereed in either domestic competition.
Pro-14 sides consistently produce outstanding flankers because it is still an incredibly competitive aspect of their domestic game. Referees give the advantage at the breakdown to whoever has the better technique.
In the premiership I fear the push for more tries and a more ‘entertaining product’ has neutralised the breakdown as a competitive sphere of the game. Referees give the benefit of the doubt to the attacking side regardless of context, and Saturday’s performance is symptomatic of this shift.
How many times did the English ball carrier hit the deck while one white-shirted player casually approached the ruck only for a Scot to dip over, lock on and stay there as ineffectual hands pawed at them.
What was more worrying for England was that Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchberry, Chris Robshaw, and Nathan Hughes were so slow to cotton on. Scotland were the first to the breakdown and viciously competed throughout the first half and yet England still only committed one man to defend the ruck. It wasn’t until the coaches got hold of them at half-time did things start to change.
England talk a lot about producing players who can think for themselves and respond effectively when things go wrong. I think they might be deluding themselves. Very rarely do England change a game-plan without Eddie Jones telling them to.
Two years ago, against Australia it took a substitution to change the game.
Last year against Italy it took a half-time talk for someone to explain that pick-and-go is the obvious solution to a no-rucking Venter-inspired tactic (something all competent school-boy rugby players would instinctively know).
And this year Scotland relentlessly competed at the breakdown and England didn’t think to commit more men to the tackle area?
Then when they tried to compete on Scottish ball they conceded penalties, 14 of them.
One plus point is that England can’t ignore this deficiency anymore and they can be taught, but Eddie Jones and his coaching staff only have two weeks to succeed before they go to Paris.
5. Scotland, marvellous, brilliant Scotland
Who didn’t enjoy that game?
Scotland smashed England in the breakdown.
Huw Jones tore it up.
Finn Russell had the sort of game you dream about as a teenager; the sort of super-human display that only happens in video games when you’ve turned the settings to ‘easiest’ and left the opposition to be manned by an empty controller.
There will be a lot of articles undermining the brilliance of this result by claiming England were never really that good and Eddie’s white shirted revolution was more a case of Emperor’s new clothes. Those people are delusional or idiots or both. You don’t win 24 out of 25 games by fluke.
England are a tough outfit and from minute 40-52 they threatened to tear Scotland apart. I asked the question in my previous article whether Scotland would be able to withstand the English blitz and they unequivocally demonstrated that they could.
Before I get carried away, Scotland must play Ireland in Dublin in two weeks. But that is a discussion for another article.
Today is a day that Scotland fans (and rugby fans) can bask in the glory or an unashamedly dazzling performance.
Thank you Scotland, that was great!