Of the six nations involved in the first week of the Guinness Six Nations, only one team will be more than happy with their performances this weekend. England really put the cat among the pigeons, with their bonus point victory in Dublin. They played with an intensity in both attack and defence, that Ireland couldn’t live with. It was the fact that Ireland couldn’t cope that was a major surprise. Considering they are expected to be the biggest threat to New Zealand’s attempt at a ‘Threepeat’ in Japan, that will be a big worry to Joe Schmidt. England getting a try so early (having not scored one in Dublin for 8 years) was crucial and Ireland were always playing catch up. My observation was that Ireland played this as a sprint, rather than a marathon. They went for line-outs rather than the points when they were awarded a penalty. New Zealand never do this, they always keep the scoreboard ticking over and back themselves to score again. They only go for tries when the game is comfortable. It is the mindset of Schmidt, but that could be there downfall if they persist in the knock out stages of the RWC. The last time they lost to Scotland in Dublin (last game at Croke Park), they did the same, they put the cart before the horse and went for seven when they had an easy three on offer, which resulted in Dan Parks scoring a winning penalty in the last minute.
How they deal with this setback will give a good gauge to their credentials in the Autumn. England will be happy, as they mixed it up well, and were very similar to the early 2000s, they may be doing an ‘Australia’ and peaking in time for RWC.
In Paris in the opening game on Friday, the question was ‘How good or bad were France and Wales’. It was the proverbial game of two halves. The weather was not conducive to an error free game and while Wales will take the plaudits for coming back from a 17-0 half time deficit, it is difficult to say who are more likely to be happier with the performance (result notwithstanding). France were architects of their own downfall, down to some basic errors in the wet, I thought that they were the better team. If it had been dry (and I agree, the way you deal with the weather is the same for both teams), they would have won comfortably. It will be interesting next week at Twickenham, to see how France react. Wales will build on this victory against Italy next week.
I think that the game against England on the middle Saturday will be a better guide of where Wales are. There was much comment about Wales not knowing how to lose, which I thought was strange as they were in my opinion ‘lucky’ though they deserved to win against France. They may have won all the Autumn internationals, but they beat a Scotland team short of some of their first choice as the game came outside the international window, and just got past an Australian side, that was comprehensively beaten by England and haven’t beaten Scotland in three years and lost a home series to Ireland. I think the game in three weeks in Cardiff will give a better reflection of where they are in the build-up to RWC 2019, and also England’s as this will be a game that will be expected to win.
Scotland were on Saturday against Italy, what Scotland normally do. Play some great rugby and through in some OMG moments. Cruising 33-3, with 20 minutes to go, and Italy having very rarely been seen as an attacking force, they conceded three tries, which from Scotland’s point of view be seen as sloppy. What I think it did show is that while Scotland have developed a depth of squad in most positions, when they are hit with injuries (as all teams are), the third string may not be up to the standard to take on tier one nations.
My concern for Scotland is the same that I have had throughout Gregor Townsend’s tenure, he coaches the way he played! I feel he needs to take a more pragmatic approach to game management. While there was evidence that he was during the Italy game, I feel he needs to adopt more structure to the phases, while still allowing the expression of a very promising back three. If they can do that, and stay injury free, they will have a greater chance of reaching their potential.
As for Italy, I don’t know what to make of them. They scored three tries at Murrayfield (albeit after the game was lost), but prior to that they never really looked like troubling the scoreboard. They would have looked at the game as a potential victory as they have won in Scotland before.
So for this week, I expect Ireland to bounce back with a win, but it will be tight with a potential BP for Scotland. Wales to win, but depending how quick they start, it may be a close game in Rome, with a BP for Italy, as they will be trying to amend for their poor display against Scotland. As for ‘Le Crunch’, it will depend on the French! I reckon that England will win this one, but the margin will be down to the French. England’s defence has improved greatly since Jon Mitchell joined the backroom staff, so defensively will dominate as they did in Dublin.