So the week 2 results are in and it’s review time.
Italy v Ireland was even more one-sided than I expected. Ireland were angry and ruthless while Italy seemed to have taken a step backwards after last week. Ireland easily made history by earning the first bonus point for scoring four tries, in the first half in fact, which really says all it needs to - yes, New Zealand can do that to other test nations but in the 6N it’s rare to see such a thumping, even of Italy. There is a body of opinion doing the rounds that we shouldn’t have promotion and relegation from the 6N because every nation has languished at the bottom. Whether it’s a play-off with the top of the shadow six nations or a straight promotion/relegation, so what? Lets have six competitive sides and let the bad sides, when they’re having a bad year or two, drop down and build confidence and come back up more confidence. Italy (at the moment) will learn more by winning some games and gaining confidence than anything else. As with last week and Wales, lots of Irish impressed this week. Stander and Zebo in particular shone for me. Connor Murray was, again, not as standout as you might expect given the circumstances. Last week I put that down to Scotland’s backrow being all over him, now I wonder if he’s carrying an injury or, cruellest fate of all in a year like this, his time as one of the truly greatest in the world was shorter than most.
Wales v England, by every stat bar the one that really matters, had the wrong result. Wales were less penalised, applied more pressure, had more turnovers and so on. However, although the English players had confidence in their attacking patterns according to an interview I saw, really their defence coach and their defensive work must take more credit. Wales kept attacking and the English held them out, often during the first half (although England attacked often then and were repulsed too) and throughout the second half, when England barely mounted an attack but almost every time they did they came away with points, albeit mostly penalties. It’s worth noting that a lot of the features of the previous week were absent for both sides. Wales played at a high level throughout the match. England’s subs didn’t have the dramatic impact of last week. In addition those who doubted Biggar were silenced as he had an enormous impact on the match in attack and defence, likewise those who doubted Warburton have had their criticisms silenced. He was immense, and while last year and the year before his partnership with Tipuric wasn’t good, in the two matches so far this year they have worked well together a Lions backrow of Tipuric, Moriarty and Warbuton is not impossible against the All Blacks on yesterday’s performance - I know Faletau is recovering from an injury but it says something when the opponents are pleased to see him come onto the pitch because the tackling and ball carry is less intense! Alan Wyn Jones and Joe Launchbury would probably be the locking pair in front of them, although the Gray brothers might have something to say about that, and Ball had a fine game too. Hartley still has time to get back to full match fitness but based on this week’s performance still has a way to go. I think Webb continues his impressive form. Of the four hookers in this game, only Jamie George really looked at all likely to be wearing a red jersey in New Zealand this summer, although Owens made few mistakes and forced Hartley off appreciably earlier than the Irish managed which can’t really be overlooked and might be more of a positive than I’m giving it - if he’s seen as able to keep Coles in check that would be a huge plus for him.
Scotland v France was a bruising encounter but France were unlucky not to win by a bigger margin (the TMO blew that call IMO). Scotland were incisive but bent and buckled under the big French ball carriers time and again. That will be worrying considering playing against the All Blacks where you’ll be facing size combined with pace and skill beyond that shown by France. Eventually the size told over the course of the match. I did say the Scots needed to be good enough to withstand the big ball carriers and sadly they weren’t. Hogg is still playing well but he stands out because he’s Scotland’s main attacking weapon from the backs. Russell looked good too, but only in patches really.
It’s too early to really pick a Lions squad yet, and if Ireland and Scotland stand up against the Welsh and English it could change, but at the moment it’s looking to me like there are likely to be a lot of Welsh and English players and a sprinkling of Irish and Scottish players.
It’s also worth pointing out that, unlike last weekend where really only the Scotland v Ireland match was a decent match, this weekend Wales v England was a bruising, high intensity match that was balanced on a knife’s edge, and France v Scotland was also a gripping match with two different styles of play clashing and trying to come to grips with each other. The outcome was clear further for longer, despite a reasonably narrow margin of victory, but it was still a good game.
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