The Six Nations Championship is always hyped up before the first whistle is blown, and it doesn’t always deliver. This year it did deliver from the very start. A one-sided demolition in Dublin of last years champions, a nail biter at Murrayfield that had everything, and a promising performance from the perennial basement team in Paris.
If you only looked at the results you would probably say that the five-horse race is now down to four. While that is possibly true, I still would not write off Wales. England could have / should have won against Scotland, but the outcome was not a surprise, and Wales can’t be so poor in both attack and defence this week.
Ireland got the proceedings off to a fast start opening with a fast-paced game attacking wide as soon as they could. Wales probably expected them to keep it tight so had flooded the close quarters of the collision, sacrificing the wings. With the change in game-plan by Ireland catching Wales out, there was only going to be one winner. Wales will be thankful that the Irish were occasionally proliferate in attack or the outcome could have been much worse.
In Edinburgh, England had most of the possession and territory and most time in the opposition 22, but came away with a loss. While England never really cut Scotland open, they did score from their one piece of quality play, they will still be disappointed not opening up with a win. That should not take away from Scotland, who had a 98% success rate in the tackles, not allowing England to get a stranglehold on the game, when they were in the ascendancy. It was a game that Scotland would previously has lost, so to grind out a win, when not playing as well as they can, is a habit that should be beneficial going forward. This was a game that Scotland would also have lost if they had been in England’s position with the territorial and possession advantage. This was a victory based on defence, which is a mindset change for Scotland, who in the past has tried to attack from all angles. The two chances they got in the game, they took with aplomb, especially the one leading up to the penalty try award. Finn Russell, has developed into a world class first five since he moved to Paris. He can control games, even when he is playing with slow / sporadic ball. His two kicks to Duhan van der Merwe and Darcy Graham , were right on the button and was well constructed and executed. As for the award, it was the correct call, and that is not just because it was for Scotland’s benefit. As Nigel Owen said on the BBC, if a try is probable, it is a penalty try! I’ve read people saying, Graham had to catch it, which is true, but he is an international winger so he probably would catch it. The other key consideration with a penalty try is that the player who commits the offence (and it was a clear deliberate push of the ball forward), then that player is removed from the scenario. When this happens, Graham is in splendid isolation to touch the ball down.
As for this weekend’s matches, it throws up very interesting match ups. Two unbeaten sides meet, as do two of the defeated sides.
The weekend starts in Cardiff, where a wounded Wales entertain Scotland. This is the most difficult match to predict. Wales cannot be as bad again, and backed with a partisan Cardiff crowd, they will be a stern test for the visitors, who will want to build on last week to secure their first win in Cardiff since 2006. The question for Wales is their defensive system. They played it tight against Ireland expecting a crash ball in the first phase. Ireland went wide quickly and often, which is what would be expected of Scotland. How Wales adjust will be key, as I expect Scotland to vary it, since they’ve selected Sione Tuipulotu at second five-eighth. It is very hard to call, but I will follow my pre-tournament prediction and go for a Welsh victory by five.
Next up is across the channel in France as they entertain Ireland. This will be a good guide to whether Ireland were really good, or Wales assist them in their performance, and whether Italy are making positive growth, and France showing their class in victory. This will be a true test for both teams, and I think that the winners will be favourites for the championship. I think that it will be very tight, but with how advantage (similar to Cardiff), I take France to win, just… by three points.
The Sunday game, I would have said last week would be a formality. It probably will be, but the performance by Italy, and the poor game management by England, puts a slight edge to the game. Was the Italian performance, a steppingstone for progression, or just a hard-working achievement? Was England’s performance (or the top three inches as they say), cause for concern, or just a blip when the stars aligned for Scotland. I think it was the latter.
My prediction is that England will redeem themselves and win comfortably by 22 points.