So, after the first weekend of the Nat-West 6 Nations, my predictions show why the bookmakers would love me if I was a gambler. Only getting one of the three scores correct, and that was the easiest of the three to predict, England’s bonus point victory over Italy in Rome. The Irish victory over France with Sexton’s drop goal in the last play of the game, was deserving of a game, where try opportunities were at a premium with only two in the whole match (both for France). It was an intense game, with Ireland dominating possession and territory, with France having the one moment of magic giving them a one point lead in the dying embers of the game. Sexton’s intervention prevented a victory for France.
The game was in contrast to the opening fixture in Cardiff where Wales swept Scotland aside in a bonus point victory. There are two big questions that will be answered in the remaining fixtures: 1) Have Wales changed their outlook and basic game plan so that they will develop to be a force come Rugby World Cup (RWC) 2019; 2) Is this another false dawn from Scotland and has Gregor Townsend got a plan B.
Wales thoroughly deserved their victory over Scotland, but it was against the back drop of a Scotland team that looked a pale shadow of the team that sparkled in the Autumn Internationals. It showed clearly that the strength in depth that Scotland thought that they were gaining, was not as deep as thought. The performance was very reminiscent of the seven try demolition that Scotland received at Twickenham last year, when the team seemed to be caught in the headlights. At Twickenham, there were events that conspired against them, an early yellow card and injury.
In Cardiff, Scotland gifted Wales 14 points in the first quarter, so whether the Welsh play with the same positivity against the other main protagonists is open to debate, or will they return to the Warren Gatland style of play? With the early points surplus, Wales
could play a more aggressive defensive line and expansive back play earlier than they would have hoped. The fact that Scotland got to the break still only 14 points down would suggest that the this may have been the case. Scotland had more positivity at half time in the stats than the score line would suggest. The fact that Wales have selected the same starting line-up for their Twickenham match up against England, will show the extent of Gatland’s change of style.
As for Scotland, the same old flaws that have haunted the team for the last two decades were back in abundance at the Principality Stadium. Knock-ons, cheap attacking penalties and lateral attacking, were the hallmarks of Scotland in the pre-Vern Cotter days. The disappointing thing for me was the lack of change of game plan by Townsend for the second half. I can understand that they were relatively successful with the basic skills letting them down, but those breakdowns were much to do with the defensive structures of Wales. They did a job on Scotland, and the Scottish coaches had no answer to it. By trying to play the same way, Scotland played into the hands of the Welsh and subsequently lost by 4 tries to 1. While Townsend’s attacking philosophy should be applauded, this is his first experience of competitive rugby at the highest level, where you need to be more pragmatic than in a league season. His game plan is all about attack, but it will be under more scrutiny, with the coaches at this level finding new ways to negate his intent. I am always of the belief that you earn the right to be expansive. To a certain extent Wales did this on Saturday, by taking their chances in the first half, defending well and then being more expansive as the game wore on. Scotland, attempted to put the cart before the horse. Similar to Ireland in their last game at Croke Park in 2010 (in defeat to Scotland), they didn’t do the hard work that then allows you to be attacking.
If Townsend learns from this and varies his options to counter the different defensive structures, they might still have a say in the outcome of the championship. Failing that the tournament will be a testing ground for many of the Scotland players credentials in the build-up to RWC 2019. With six changes to the starting XV for Scotland, it looks like Townsend is going for a more robust set up, with a more purposeful backline and tinkering to the pack, that gives the team a better balance. However, I feel that France will just have a bit too much grunt throughout their team and will shade this one with a LBP for Scotland. Elsewhere, I can’t see past a home win for Ireland over Italy at the Aviva in Dublin, and I feel that England will be comfortable winners over Wales. With the only two changes, Jamie Joseph coming in for Ben Te’o and the enforced change of Danny Care replacing Ben Youngs at scrum half, there will not be much change in the Eddie Jones game plan. With my concerns about whether Wales have changed outlook, I feel that this will be a comfortable win for England.