As always, there were several questions posited leading into this year’s Six Nations. Would England’s unbeaten run continue? (They finished 2016 on a 14 game winning streak). Could Ireland build on recent success? (They beat New Zealand, amongst others). How would Wales fare after heavy criticism of their “sterile” play? Would Scotland, France or Italy make a statement in the tournament? Finally, how would the introduction of the bonus points system effect play?
While still in a nascent stage, the tournament narratives are beginning to unfurl. First, I will consider the action that has already taken place.
In the Autumn, England demonstrated their attacking capability in registering victories over South Africa, Fiji, Argentina and Australia. In the 6 Nations so far, they have exhibited another side of their character. This team is showing its sheer desire to win, at all costs; through all adversity, it is simply never beaten. So far, they have registered victories against France at home (19-16) and Wales away (21-16). In both games, England were largely the inferior team; in both games, moments of perfect English execution sealed victory.
At Twickenham, against the French, the goal was simple: win the game. England were blighted by first-game-of-the-tournament lethargy. They trailed past the 70 minute mark. It was power off the bench, particularly James Haskall and the game-winning try scorer Ben Te’o, which eventually secured the victory. The French, to their credit, were powerful and effective, overwhelming an English team lacking the brawn of the Vunipola brothers and George Kruis. It was Eddie Jones’ bench players, the “finishers” as he has termed them, that got them over the line.
The Wales game was different. While sporting fixtures often pale in comparison to the build-up, this was a monolithic clash, a true heavyweight bout. Like France, Wales upped their performance level massively. They had comfortably dispatched Italy 33-7 in their opening game, barely getting out of second gear. However, I would argue this was the most complete Welsh performance since the 2015 World Cup. They were almost perfect. Their tackling was ferocious, along with their ability to affect turnovers. The Welsh backrow, Sam Warburton, Ross Moriarty and Justin Tipuric, were gargantuan, completely overwhelming their English counterparts. Moriarity, particularly, was phenomenal; bringing him off after 50 odd minutes was a mistake. Moreover, Liam Williams’ try just before half time demonstrated all black-level ingenuity.
However, it was one fatal error, Jonathan Davies’ clearance kick that didn’t make touch, that gave England the opportunity to win the game. As with France, perfect execution put Elliot Daly into the corner for the game-winning try. It was sporting drama at its most raw. For the English, Joe Launchberry and Courtney Lawes had mammoth games, while Daly had his best game yet since becoming a starter. A critic will say that Wales should’ve killed England off, they had the opportunities to. Yet, England showed the pedigree of champions: they were never fully beaten. As a result, after two matches England are in pole position.
Scotland vs Ireland was the match of the opening weekend. It presented Scotland playing to their fullest capability, with dynamism and pace. Stuart Hogg at fullback was magnificent; he has developed into a world-class player and must surely be a starter for the Lions in the summer. Scotland really hit Ireland hot, going into halftime 21-8 up, scoring 3 great tries. The Irish fight back was convincing and it seemed they would claw their way back to victory. However, a Scottish resurgence eventually secured a 27-22 victory. It was completely deserved. Ireland responded to their opening game defeat, hammering Italy 63-10 in Rome. While Italy were admittedly poor, Ireland were precise and clinical. CJ Stander was the exceptional player in game, scoring 3 tries: he is another who has stated his claim for a Lions starting place.
While Scotland demonstrated their full potential in round 1, their deficiencies were exhibited in round 2: they lost 22-16 to France in Paris. In a hugely physical contest, the French weight that gave England a real test was too much for a lightweight Scottish side missing prop WP Nel. Again, the Scots played with real ambition. Hogg dazzled with a lovely try, while the second try, finished off by Tim Swinson, arose from a positive kick-and-chase. Finn Russell missed a seemingly-simple conversion in front of the posts which would’ve made the game closer. The French try, finished off by Gael Fickou, came after an endless passage of phases. Ultimately, it was French strength, and Scottish indiscipline giving Camille Lopez penalty opportunities, that decided the tie. Despite the loss, Scotland are showing promising signs. A big blow for Scotland is that Greg Laidlaw, the instrumental captain and scrum-half, is out for the rest of the tournament with an ankle injury.
Where does this leave us then? The tournament is delicately poised. England have a very favourable route to a Grand Slam decider in Dublin against Ireland, facing home games against Italy and Scotland. Potential banana skins no doubt, particularly the Scottish. However, two convincing victories are expected. England are a class above the rest currently and anything less than a second consecutive Grand Slam will be viewed as a disappointment.
For the rest, the bonus point system has resulted in the standings being incredibly tight. Scotland and Ireland will look to utilize home advantage in two of the remaining three games. There are several home-nation grudge matches still to play: Scotland vs Wales, Wales vs Ireland, England vs Scotland, and the big one, Ireland vs England, which will likely decide the tournament outcome. I expect England to finish the job, securing three more victories and a second consecutive Grand Slam, with Ireland finishing second and Wales third. With Lions places up for grabs, it’s still all to play for in the tournament.
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