Considering the reservations that I had regarding the Six Nations, following the kick-fest, that was the Autumn Nations Cup, that was a great start to the 2021 tournament. Not my predictions though!
The tournament started with a straightforward bonus point victory for France in Rome. What was disappointing was the lack of fight from the Italians. In the past they have still been in the game at least at half time, and often in the last 20 minutes. The game was hard to disseminate, as it is difficult to judge France, as Italy were not very good. It didn’t look like France got out of second or third gear, but they still put a half century of points on the Italians and secured a try bonus point. It also opened up the discussion about whether there should be a relegation play-off between the team that finishes last, and the winner of the European Rugby Nations Championship. This is a discussion that has always been in the background, and there is a growing clamour as Italy have not won a match since 2015, which was away in Scotland. If the play-off was incorporated, it may be the same two sides competing frequently, with Georgia recently the strongest team in the lower tier competition. I do however think that if Italy or any other of the nations did finish last, they would comfortably win the play-off as the gap between the two competitions is large.
The only possible positive that Italy could take out of the opening game is that they are bringing new players to the international arena. The total caps of the Italian starting fifteen was only marginally more than those of Welsh captain Alun Wyn-Jones.
The other games were much closer and had the skills and excitement that the non-aficionados would enjoy, despite the limited number for tries being scored. Both matches, were still in the balance as we entered the last minute, and both had the ‘what are they doing’ moments by the winning side, which almost undermined the previous 79 minutes of hard work. The left footed drop goal by Finn Russell, and the grubber kick by Gareth Davies, which gifted possession to the opposition.
Let me start at Twickenham, while I suggested that if everything went Scotland’s way they may win, the one of the three keys for it to happen didn’t occur fully, which made the outcome even more enjoyable for Scottish fans. While the Saracens players appeared undercooked for international rugby and there was a lack of atmosphere, I don’t think that Russell had the game that I thought he needed for Scotland to win. He had a good solid pragmatic game, doing all the basics well, with a sprinkling of what makes Finn, Finn, and with a structured (but flexible) outlook, that was sufficient for Scotland to win at Twickenham for the first time since 1983. Overall, I think Scotland had the game, game plan and execution to win the game, even without these determinant factors. They should have won by more points, but the fact they prevented England scoring a try or even one line break (first time, England have not done this in eight years), shows that Scotland controlled the game through their own volition and nothing to do with England’s supposed deficiencies. From the off Scotland dominated the breakdown and set piece, not allowing England to get a foot hold in the game. And when England tried to wrestle control, they were kept at arms left with a range and variety of kicks. The victory was a win for a team that had an all-round game, based on adventure and solid defence. What has been missed over the last year was the appointment in December 2019 of Steve Tandy, the former Ospreys coach, as defence coach, moving from the same role at the NSW Waratahs. Last Six Nations, Scotland had the best defence (points wise), and the structures that are now in place augurs well for the future. The defence coach is a key to becoming a successful side. You just have to look at the effect Shaun Edwards has had on Wales (and the impact when he left) and France. Now that Scotland has hopefully sorted that out, hopefully a few more tries may follow. It was not quite the 38-38 try fest of 2019, but it was just as enthralling.
Scotland need to back up their victory against England. Last year they could of / should of won in Dublin, it was a lottery in the rain against England, and they won the last three probably without any expectation (except Rome). Scotland wouldn’t have won the grand slam, but they had the opportunities to have finished higher than 4th. The victory against England, was a game that they would have lost, despite having the possession and territory.
Sunday in Cardiff brought the first weekend to a close, and apart from a two-minute spell when there was more rugby tennis than in the rest of the matches put together, it was a good game. I thought that Wales started the stronger and were showing adventure in getting the ball to the backs. As often happens the sending off of Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony, initially helped the handicapped team, but as the game wore on, Wales began to show their superiority of numbers. The loss of Dan Lydiate also had an effect on the Welsh and I feel that his loss, also impacted on the misfunctioning line out, which swung the game towards Ireland. I’m sure that will be a key concern for Wales, and will be worked on this week, as Scotland were able to disrupt a couple of England’s, so will target that next weekend. In the end it was a deserved victory for Wales and sets up an intriguing game at BT Murrayfield on Saturday. Though if it wasn’t for two missed touch finder penalties by the Irish first 5/8th, the result may have been completely different, but it will have been a relieved Wayne Pivac on Sunday, with his first victory over a top ten international ream.
Now looking ahead to this weekend.
England v Italy
Following the events of Twickenham last week, England are in a no-win situation. There has been much criticism of Eddie Jones and the team, some which is fair, and some unjust. They will win comfortably, and I expect them to surpass the 40-point victory France had against Italy. What has been surprising is Jones’s selection for the game. He has gone back to his tried and tested of Owen Farrell at 12 and George Ford at 10, and this has meant that Ollie Lawrence, who rarely saw the ball, has been dropped out of the 23 altogether. Will Italy front up more, I don’t think they have the intensity experience to do that, so it will be a long day in the office for Italy
England win (TBP)
Scotland v Wales
I think the victory for Wales against Ireland, could be a blessing for Scotland. Wales will come up to Scotland looking to get revenge over Scotland for their loss in Llanelli in October. This has already been mooted by Wyn Jones, so there will be added edge as Scotland look for back-to-back wins against Wales for the first time since 2004. While the absence of fans may remove home advantage, I think Scotland that will not have a major effect, as there is always a large swathe of away fans at Murrayfield on match days, more so than at any other stadium, bar Rome. Also, the players from Edinburgh are used to playing in a cavernous near empty stadium. On the playing front, both sides have made enforced changes, and I feel that neither team have been adversely affected more than the other. If Scotland can play with the same intensity, control and accuracy, they should shade the game. For Wales to win, they need to win the set-piece battle, but I think that they will get parity at best in the scrum, but unless they sort the lineout, may be struggle there. Both sides have shown an attacking mindset, and while Wales won the virtual try score, but arguably it was against a weaker team. The loss of Cameron Redpath is a blow, as he acts as a perfect foil to Russell at second receiver. While James Laing is an able deputy, he doesn’t offer the variety of Redpath. On the wing, Scotland have gone for a more magical player in Darcy Graham compared to the solid, dependable Sean Maitland. It was understandable to select Maitland at Twickenham, as with Duhan van der Merwe on the other wing, they looked to utilise only one of the pair effectively. I see more opportunities for Scotland in this game, and with the x factor on both wings, that I feel is the area where Scotland will win the game.
Ireland v France
Ireland will be smarting from their defeat on Sunday, and France were never really challenged in Rome, so this will be an intriguing match-up. France have been building throughout 2020, with their only defeats being against Scotland, after a red card at BT Murrayfield and after extra time in the Autumn Nations Cup at Twickenham. The latter was with a relatively inexperienced team, due to an agreement the FFR had with the Top14 clubs.
With the selections in, the loss of half back pair of Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton will be a blow for Ireland. Billy Burns will start at 10 and will hope to make amends for the kick he put too much on with the last kick of the game, which resulted in the end of the game rather than an attacking line out to Ireland. How much this weighs on him will be interesting, but as a professional I don’t think he will be affected much. But that will not stop the French (and in particular the mercurial Antoine Dupont), targeting the 9-10 axis. Ireland will also be missing the banned O’Mahony, second row James Ryan, and back three Jacob Stockdale. With the half backs, this quintet would more than likely have started for Andy Farrell’s side. With them all present, I think that France would still have won due to their strength and positive attacking flair that they have developed sin the RWC 2019. They have made two tactical changes from their win in Italy at wing forward and wing, so have a settled squad as the players that dropped out retain places on the bench. Ireland will not get the set piece platform that they did against Wales and without Sexton the ability to pin their opponents deep in their own half, they will not push France close. France will dominate most phases and will prevent Ireland from getting a losing bonus point.