With the second round of the RBS 6 Nations complete let’s revisit some of the interesting happenings of the weekend.
1. The Race So Far
After two rounds, only France and England are still in it for a Grand Slam; Wales can still win the title, and Ireland have an outside mathematical miracle of chance, but need to actually score in the opposition 22 first.
England are the most efficient side so far, especially in the second half (37 total second half points). They also have the most tries, most clean breaks, most total points, and most Vunipolas dropping back-door passes to flyhalves for a score in the corner —this week it was Billy.
However, they also lead in penalties, and their first two opponents have anchored the bottom of the 6N table eight of the last nine years, so let’s see if their form maintains.
2. Giants, squids and darts
Wales v Scotland was the most open and constructively positive game of the weekend, with both sides managing five line breaks and trying to impose their offensive style—Scotland trying to pass and speed the ball around the Welsh behemoths, and Wales trying to run over the game Scots.
Wales particularly benefited from lock Luke Charteris’ giant squid-like presence at the maul, wrapping it up in all kinds of weird ways to disrupt Scottish momentum. But Scotland are pushing defenses and scoring tries, and once they land a win or two, may become something formidable.
Italy v England had the home team continue to try to play creatively; last week Italian fly half Carlo Canna became the first Italian to score a try, drop goal, conversion and penalty in a 6N match, and this week center Michele Campagnaro showed Sergio Parisse isn’t the only Azzuri who can make rampaging runs.
But they didn’t have enough polish or fitness before an error or England’s defence shut them down. England, on the other hand, preferred to make this more of a game of lineouts—31 in total—showing again that they’re re-establishing their set piece game.
However, captain Dylan Hartley didn’t have the best day with the darts, and England’s lineout began to wobble. But England’s ball carriers currently seem to have the most support, while the other sides’ carriers tend to be more isolated and with fewer options. With England’s strike-running backs, that makes them a real threat.
France v Ireland was a defensive slog played in a downpour, which contributed to a number of handling errors at crucial moments, and France made Ireland make a stat-topping 191 tackles (Tommy O’Donnell made 20).
Ireland negated the wing threats of Virimi Vakatawa and Teddy Thomas, and France kept Ireland’s centers from making good on coach Joe Schmidt’s lauded power plays. Oddly, despite the rain, France-Ireland tied with Wales-Scotland for the fewest overall errors.
3. A Game of Second Halves
Every game was low-scoring and tight at the half; only Wales-Scotland was offensively competitive in the second half, with wings George North and Tom James finally exploiting some space, and Jamie Roberts actually crashing over the line.
But Scotland’s concentration lapses let them down; Richie Gray took a good Scottish lineout on their own 5-meter line and dropped it down to a dozy Greg Laidlaw, who knocked on and gave Wales position that led to Jamie Roberts’ try.
And a late defensive system error left the gaps that George North exploited to score his first international try in two years (BBC interviewer Lee McKenzie mentioned that it had been a “bit of a wait” for the wing to score; North responded “Meow”).
England turned on the action in the second half in Rome, with four tries, including a Jonathan Joseph hat trick. Danny Care came on at 49 minutes and increased England’s attacking threat . Four of their five tries were scored after he arrived; so Ben Youngs won MOTM.
Eddie Jones noted before the game that he wanted England to up their fitness, and that fitness may be found in the younger players on the bench. When Saracens’ lock Maro Itoje and hooker Jamie George, Harlequins’ flanker Jack Clifford, and Saints’ prop Paul Hill arrived, they provided a spark after the break that Italy couldn’t extinguish.
It was France’s second half front-row replacements and one key Irish defensive lapse that made the difference in Paris. Ireland repeatedly got into the French 22, but errors and turnovers stopped them from converting territory into tries, and France managed to turn the second half into a stultifying scrum fest.
Before the break the Irish scrum regularly split the French, but replacement props Rabah Slimani and Eddie Ben Arous un-straightened France’s scrum in the second half, angling and twisting the Irish into knots on France’s own scrums.
In the last quarter of the game, France finally earned a scrum on the Irish 5-meter line (and another five more as neutral TV viewers nodded off), and Maxime Medard eventually scored, which saved Jaco Peyper from awarding a penalty try.
4. Oddball Calls
South African referee Jaco Peyper had a questionable performance. The French twice decapitated the Irish, resulting in only one penalty to Yoann Maestri after he charged into the back of Johnny Sexton’s head off the ball (Peyper actually had to leap over Sexton to follow play).
He pinged Ireland prop Jack McGrath for moving beyond the 15 in a lineout just after French hooker Guilhem Guirardo ran in front of Peyper well past the 15, but before McGrath had ever reached the line.
And he killed play on both sides, calling two Irish knock-ons that weren’t, one deliberate France knock-on in their own 22 a scrum, and penalising a French maul formation he allowed just minutes before.
Debate also rages over Wales’ first try: was Gareth Davies offside when he caught Jamie Roberts’ tip off Scotland’s Duncan Taylor’s hand? Ireland’s George Clancy went to the booth to check for a knock-on, but didn’t consider whether Davies was onside or not.
Scottish commentator Andy Nicol observed that the play could be the winning or losing of the game. He wasn’t wrong.
New Zealand’s Glen Jackson had a less controversial game in Rome, but managed to rip the ball off Billy Vunipola when the English 8 ran into the referee. Jackson, a former fly half, noted it was the “first time ever” he ripped a ball off someone.
5. Southern Exposure
Nick Bishop recently wrote about 6N sides over-resourcing the ruck, but getting slow ball and narrow attacking width.
Not much has changed. Interestingly, it was the losing sides who put fewer players in the ruck and tried to get quicker ball (Ireland has won the most rucks so far). One difference is they’re still more likely to look for contact than space after getting quick ball, and then aren’t as likely to have support.
And speaking on BBC Wales’ Scrum V about Wales-Scotland, former New Zealand larrikin lock Ali Williams noted that a major difference exists in tackling technique. Below the equator, they are more likely to tackle low to allow the second man to go for the ball—hence the success of Australia’s double-7s (the “Pooper”).
In the north, they are more likely to tackle high, which makes it far more difficult for a second player to go for the ball. Both Wales and Scotland employed double-7s, but their effectiveness was limited.