Sorry for the delay in posting this, if anyone was waiting with baited breath - I had it mostly written then a migraine came along.
As expected Scotland bounced back. Their defence coach will be particularly happy after last week’s drubbing to have not conceded any points, even against Italy. In attack Scotland didn’t shine, only creating 5 real attacking moments, but scored four tries which is good. How much of Scotland’s failure to shine in attack was due to missing key players, how much due to the weather and how much due to improved Italian play is hard to judge but I think all three played a part.
And it has to be said, although Italy are still, by some margin, the weakest of the Six Nations and, in my opinion, should play off against Romania (who won the Shadow Six Nations, knocking Georgia off the top spot for the first time in over a decade) to keep their place, they are improving under Conor O’Shea. They still have a long way to go though.
To my surprise, and chagrin, France beat Wales. I think France gamed the HIA rules, leaving Barnes with no choice but to accept a substitution even though he (and probably everyone else) might well have thought it was just to get a better scrummaging prop back on. Once a doctor has told the referee a player needs an HIA, the player has to be substituted for that HIA, and with a prop, a suitable prop has to be brought on if one is available. The ref bows to the medical opinion on the grounds of player safety, which has to be right, although it does assume the doctor isn’t going to lie. Although Barnes called the scrums the way most refs would, it was clear on several occasions when he awarded a penalty to France (who were going forward) their hooker was also going up first (which is a penalty to Wales). This was another brutal match but, unlike last week’s match against Ireland, the quality never showed through from either side, at least not consistently. Again the conditions were poor, I think the combination of the intensity and the rain combined here, plus the fact that both teams are - for different reasons - struggling to get their passes to stick. Wales at home, and against a smaller Irish side, managed to do it but away and against the bigger French side didn’t.
Finally, Ireland beat England, denying them a grand slam and beating the All Black’s tier 1 winning streak record. This was a match played with an odd atmosphere on the pitch. With a different referee, Itoje could have been yellow carded and at various points nearly every player on both sides seemed more interested in the physical confrontation than actually playing the game. Haskell and Wood continued Itoje’s edge of yellow card play as well. But it spread wider than that. I’ve been critical that England haven’t really played well throughout this 6N, the exception being against Scotland. I would also say they’ve played worse away from home than at Twickenham which is bad considering Lions selection. They have played well enough to win their other matches, but it has to be said that they’ve really played well in patches against sides that are poor (Italy), rebuilding (France) or completely changing their style of play (Wales) but not well. The exception to that being Scotland where England really clicked. Against Ireland - away again note - they showed the other side of the coin and they actually played poorly - yes Ireland were as physical in defence as they were against Wales, but England dropped passes, dropped kicks and were generally sloppy. The Irish were playing in the same conditions and kept their hands on the ball much better, which resulted in them having 75% of the ball over the match! English commentators are saying a lot of men in white will be wearing Lions red come the summer, but I’m really left wondering. England have been dull, mentally, as they showed against both Italy and Ireland, and generally played poorly. New Zealand, all the Kiwi sides, will play to the highest standard we’ve seen here, or higher, all the time and it’s not clear many of the men in white are up to the challenge based on yesterday’s performance.
This 6N will have given Gatland a headache. Really only a very small number of players have had consistently good performances in all their games. Webb, Owens, Tipuric, Warburton, Alun-Wyn Jones, Grey, Hogg, possibly Liam Williams. One off game would add some more to the mix: Moriaty, Farrell, Biggar, possibly North, Stander, Murray, Barclay, maybe Huw Jones and the Welsh and Irish centres (Davies, Williams, Henshaw and Ringrose), Heaslip and Jamie George. In some positions, like prop, no one really stood out, in either direction to my mind.
Normally at this point I have a pretty solid idea of who I’d have as most of Lions squad. I probably can’t even take all 22 of those I’ve named because there are too many competing for the same positions!
I think, given the intensity of matches and the need for complete replacements for the front row, Gatland will take 3 of each of tight head, loose head and hooker. I think he’ll take the Welsh and Irish starting front rows intact, the English starting props and probably Jamie George (although the Scottish hooker might get the nod). Second row Jones, the Gray brothers. I suspect Itoje will get on as cover for second row and back row although I might take Launchbury as a specialist. I’d take Tipuric, Warburton, Moriaty, Faletau, Stander and maybe Heaslip as my back row. There will be howls that Vunipola should get in to the side, but I’m still not impressed. He does one thing brilliantly - the best in the world - which is pick the ball up in a bad position and make hard metres, and it looks good on the stats sheet. But he will need to take the ball at lineout, tackle hard against fast moving players and ideally link well and we haven’t seen those skills from him consistently. All of Moriaty, Faletau and Heaslip bring the rounded game of a great 8 to the table. Webb, Murray and one of Care or Laidlaw as scrum halves. I’d probably pick Care over Laidlaw because I think Laidlaw’s X-factor is the kicking. Sexton and Biggar at 10. I don’t like Farrell as a 12, I think he’s there for his kicking rather than his play making but he does offer a good second kicking option if Gatland decides on that strategy, I’d take 5 centres, Davies, Williams, Henshaw, Ringrose and Huw Jones. I’d be open to Joseph but I don’t think he’s had enough good games to force his way on - but I’m not a good judge of centre play. This leaves a back three. Hogg I think, Kearney, Williams, probably North, and Zebo.
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