So the 6N got off to a start that upset quite a few of the pundits, as Ireland lost to Scotland and the final weekend’s potential grand slam decider is already out of the window.
In all fairness, Scotland were good value for their win and we really shouldn’t be surprised - yes, Ireland beat the All Blacks albeit an understrength All Blacks in November, but Scotland had a very impressive set of November results too and the 6N is not always about recent form because national rivalries and so on come to the fore every year.
Under Vern Cotter Scotland have rediscovered their ability to score tries, which their main problem in recent years, while under Joe Schmidt Ireland seem inconsistent and that showed again here. Ireland are not traditionally slow starters, but perhaps it was that instead as they certainly improved in the second half but, by then, it was really too late. Both Hogg and Maitland certainly raised their hands for Gatland’s Lions squad. Conor Murray, who many felt would have been written in (barring injury) must now be pencilled in a lighter shade as he was outplayed by Laidlaw and Scotland were all over him all day.
In Twickenham, England were supposed to sweep France aside. In the end some brave play from their substitutes saved English blushes and pulled a frankly undeserved victory out in the last few minutes. Brian Moore is fond of saying you however well you play you don’t deserve to win in sport, but I think he might agree England did not play well enough to win that game and got lucky. They lacked cohesion, direction and basic skills far too often and played a lot of the game on the back foot. Throughout the game the French dominated the collisions and dominated a lot of the skill situations too. England were shorn of the big ball carriers and others through injury and it really, really showed. Eddie Jones has not been here long but does not have the strength in depth and the flexibility to cope with three or four missing players yet. In all honesty, although there will be English players on the Lions tour, none really held their hands up this weekend. Haskell, Teo and Nowell, who all came off the substitutes’ bench were their most impressive players on Saturday.
In Rome the final match was, to some extent, spoiled by a massive downpour before kick-off and rain during the first half. We all know the typical commentary that Italy are competitive for 50 minutes and then fall off the pace. We can add to that the years’ old commentary that Wales are slow starters. Both of those seemed to be on show here, but in all honesty, the first half was pretty turgid and that could have been thanks to the weather. In the second half, Wales let rip and were unlucky not to score four or five tries and get the first four try bonus point of the 6N. Parese, for so long the only star in azure is starting to look old rather than stellar. He is still Italy’s star player but he is no longer the dominant force on the rugby pitch that he used to be. As a commentator there is the proviso that “they were playing against Italy” but all the Welsh players in the second half looked a step or two or three sharper than their opponents and based on this performance alone could be donning a red shirt with a different badge come the summer. There will be sterner tests to come but Wales often do really well in Lions’ years and this year might be no exception. Webb, North, Williams, Wyn Jones, Davies (both of them), Warburton, Tipuric, Moriarty and Halfpenny are all ones to watch based on this week’s performance. The Welsh public’s desire to see Sam Davies start at 10 seems likely to be met following what seemed to be rib injuries to Dan Biggar.
The week to come
Wales v England is clearly the big one (and not just because I’m biased). Wales started to play well in the second half, and generally play better after their first match, play better at home and play better against England. England seriously need to play better to stand a chance and generally play worse in Wales than in any other match. I would expect some shuffling of the starting XV of the men in white, but I think Wales will win.
France v Scotland is the next big one. France played a lot better and have the beating of Scotland, particularly in Paris, but Scotland are confident and playing well - if they can cope with all those huge players. I think this will be brutal but Scotland have the precision and self belief to win this as long as there aren’t too many injuries against the huge French players. This sets up a potential Slam decider in week 3 against Wales!
Italy v Ireland. Ireland will be stung, and although in 12 months time Connor O’Shea’s plan might be taking shape, at the moment it’s a plan his players are working towards rather than executing. For all his comments that the referee had it in mind that Italy were offending more than Wales, that’s because they were. (His mantra of ‘don’t follow a mistake with another mistake’ requires comments like that, so he can say to his players they’re improving.) The conditions will dictate whether Italy comes away with a bonus point or not, but I expect a match quite like last week’s, with Italy staying close for 50+ minutes and then Ireland pulling away.
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