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Six Nations, Week 2: What should we have expected?

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Roar Guru
14th February, 2021
5

Officiating kept its place in the spotlight this week as World Rugby told referees they have been searching too hard for mitigation, while Nigel Owen kept himself in the headlines advising that referees need to officiate the law book as written.

Fair to say that the path to the new order of the game has now been set – officiating will never be perfect, but players slowing the ball by going off their feet at the breakdown was universally clamped down on.

These are promising developments.

England versus Italy
Did we see the great redeemer performance promised by coach Eddie Jones? Probably not. He added to his list of excuses for recent performances, and we should recap as they are difficult to keep track of:

  • England kick the ball a lot because it’s hard to keep hold of the ball.
  • England couldn’t play with the ball against Scotland because it’s too hard to get the ball back.
  • And the latest, England players are paying too much attention to the future trends in the game with the law changes in Super Rugby. Note to Eddie, the game has already changed and you may have missed it.

In short, England didn’t provide any great statement against Italy, and given the opposition, they were probably in a lose-lose situation anyway no matter the outcome. That the back three ran back rather than kicked back was probably the major development, and their handling couldn’t match the intent.

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Mako Vunipola returned to the fold, sporting conditioning that spurred speculation that the Saracens player’s co-investments with their prior chairman may include a Dunkin’ Donuts. Replacement halfback Dan Robson made a case for future starts with a real injection of pace into the game.

Issues with the form of the England captain continue, whose second-half contribution with the ball was one pass and two knock-ons and then another unpunished foul on teenage opposition member.

Italy, to their credit, fought as well as they could. Two nice tries, both from set pieces, one lineout and one scrum should please them as much as it should concern England.

There have bene so many promising false starts from Italy, so here’s hoping they can find a way to harness some of this young talent into a stronger cohesive unit.

Wales versus Scotland
The key battle in this game was going to be the head to head of the two best British and Irish Lions-eligible halfbacks in the competition, and I would have scored this as a points win for Ali Price right up until his less than stellar management of the closing minutes.

New Calcutta Cup holders Scotland flew out of the blocks and looked very promising, building an early lead of 17-3 through really nice tries to Darcy Graham, who looks lazily fluid, and Stuart Hogg, who is getting back to his ball-carrying best.

But this Wales side is finding some of the steel of recent years and had the score back to 17-15 prior to the send-off of Zander Fagerson. Another red came early in the second half for yet another late arrival – an uncontrolled cleanout that landed firmly on a Welsh head, leaving the referee no choice but to produce the card. It might take while, but players will learn – go off your feet and invite trouble. Wales, as they did last week, did a good job of finding the space left by the man short.

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But as per last week the 14 men continued to compete above their numerical station, and the finishing ability of Hogg looked to have placed the hosts in a position to steal the points right up until the further intervention of Welsh wunderkind Louis Rees-Zammit, who completed his brace with a chip and chase he scored with some aplomb.

It was nice to see WP Nel still doing his stuff, scrumming for fun and drawing kickable penalties, and a shout-out to Southland Stags old boy Ulisi Halaholo for making his national debut. He who looked totally at home at the top level and laid on a nice pass to Rees-Zammit before the final magic show.

There was lots to like about both sides, but the freezing temperatures did no-one any favours.

A final thought: how can a competition which has been at its narrow and conservative best since the 2015 Rugby World Cup keep producing wingers of such exciting quality?

Ireland versus France
This is the first time since 2011 neither Johnny Sexton nor Conor Murray has been in the starting XV. But it’s fair to say Ireland were not noticeably worse off for their absence.

Jamison Gibson-Park provided a noticeable pace improvement in both getting to and clearing rucks, and while Billy Burns wobbled, Ross Bryne looked very compact when he entered the fray.

All week Ireland would have had the same thing drummed into them – do not allow Antoine Dupont multiple touches in the same set of phases. Sure enough, the first time he the handled three times in a move France fractured the line, threw some offloads and found the try-scoring flanker and Captain Charles Ollivon lurking the tramlines, and France were in front.

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France had more than enough chances to ice this game, and a spectacular opening to the second half tore Ireland open down the middle, but faced with both a short and long passing option, either of which would have produced an easy score, Dupont contrived to bounce a pass off the head of lock forward Paul Willemse.

A note on Dupont. I wrote a piece on him this weekend lauding the quite exceptional form he has been in. Very deliberately I did not call him the best halfback in the world, as so many have done, as I question his core skill for the traditional way of playing the position. We saw this as the game went on. He got caught at the base and cleared slowly, and his kicking became somewhat mixed. Ireland forced him back into a more traditional No. 9 role and contained him well the longer the game went.

But as with the genius he still managed the turnover that ended the game and secured the win.

Fortune favours the brave, and Ireland, who had worked really hard closing down those narrow channels, were rewarded for their endeavour as they recovered a French slap-back from a lineout and reserve hooker Ronan Kelleher strolled over unopposed. The score closed right up. Ireland had a good period with the ball in the closing minutes, but in truth they were more likely to draw a penalty than to challenge the French try-line.

French moments of magic overcame the endeavour of Ireland in the end. Was there just enough here for coach Farrell to maybe think it is time to move on from the sacred cow selections of recent years?

Man of the match: Referee Luke Pearce
This is the model of the modern official. HE spoke in French (although his vocabulary didn’t stretch to the word for foot trip), spoke clearly to players using their numbers and followed the World Rugby directives at the breakdown.

There are maybe questions to be answered about whether he holstered the whistle in the last five favouring the side with the ball, but overall I would be very happy if this guy got all the big internationals going forward.

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