RBS 6 Nations – Reflections

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The first round of games in this weekend’s RBS 6N tournament is in the books. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the opening round of fixtures and wonders if a change in tournament calendar date would improve the product on the pitch.

France Survive

Make no mistake about it, Le Bleu got out of jail against Italy. A performance which tried to add width and creativity was reduced at times to frenzied disorganization and where defensive duties was greeted with indifference. JP Doyle’s pivotal call to ping man of the match Sergio Parisse for moving with the ball when tackled by Camara (marginal tackle and if it was a tackle, it was high) on the seventy-fourth minute incensed the Italian talisman and decided the game when an emphatic penalty kick from Plisson. The Azurri were now facing an uphill battle as Doyle decided to let the French pack off with some blatant offside indiscretions, no attempt to roll away from the tackle. It was incredibly maddening stuff for Italy whose work rate and endeavor had set the platform for victory before the winning score but the lack of success in Italian club rugby and a distinct lack of accountability in the Italian kicking options to take on a drop goal was disgraceful. Parisse was forced to take the kick on and his forlorn look around at the likes of Haimona and McLean spoke volumes. Italy are going nowhere with that lack of leadership and responsibility. France may have scored three tries and their scrum did perform well but that will not be enough to win the championship. Their lack of defensive awareness at times bordered on the ridiculous and if Le Bleu had faced a team with more threat in the back line, the result would have being a different story. Ireland’s six day turnaround means that France potentially could enter the fixture as slight favorites but the lazy defense that marred their RWC campaign was in full effect today and a repeat could give the likes of Sexton and Payne a proverbial field day.

England pack power overwhelms Scotland

Scotland – the true enigma of the 6N tournament. How many years have the pundits and media masses talked up the chances of Scotland only for the same flaws get exposed in the first game of the tournament. The Hastings, Jim Jeffries are long gone and so has Scotland’s inability to genuinely compete in the tournament. England may have won by six points but this loss was as devastating for Scotland as a thirty point trouncing. Scotland’s pack were exposed yet again in a maul situation as Kruis went over with relative ease. The scrum bolstered by Nel was going backwards in key periods as Vunipola at eight was making increasingly added yard as the minutes ticked by. To Scotland’s pack credit, they refused to give up and their lineout was solid which set some level of platform for their back line to impress but more flaws were ruthlessly exposed. Finn Russell’s cameo at ten was indifferent at best; his decision to fly kick in the second half when intercepting an England attack was shocking consider full back Hogg was screaming for the ball on the outside. The missed opportunity compounded by the fact that the television cameras panned in on Russell laughing about the incident seconds later. Laidlaw was accurate in his kicking game but Russell was unable to launch Bennett or Hogg in the back line. Hogg is the standout back line option and one wonders if Scotland should move the talent to fly-half. Lions tour management tested Hogg at the position and it admirably filled the role. Vern Cotter could do a lot worse at present. England’s win was mission accomplished; their pack was solid and organized throughout. The scrum looks to be a potent weapon for Eddie Jones’ charges. When you consider Farrell’s missed kicks, the scoreline flattered Scotland and the two tries that England scored were well constructed. Nowell’s try exposed misreads in the Scotland’s three quarters before the Exeter Chief dived for the corner. England will be hard to beat in this tournament. Scotland need a shrink, a change at ten and potentially a net new three quarters partnership to unleash the likes of Maitland and Hogg. Scotland took one step forward in the RWC but suddenly after this cameo have taken two steps back. Vern Cotter could be waiting a while for his first 6N tournament win such are the issues at present in his side; surprising considering Glasgow Warriors are reigning Pro 12 champions.

Stalemate at Aviva

The draw was greeted with a moot reaction from both sides. The game was the standout fixture in the opening round; great passages of play, incredible physicality and defensively solid cameos. Wales and Ireland will look to next weekend with confidence despite the six day turnaround. Stander’s debut was the stuff of dreams; imposing throughout with or without the ball. Ireland’s back row did an effective job of stifling the influence of the much vaunted Welsh back row although Faletau had a monster game. Wales will look to the front row for their source of comfort; their scrum set piece was dominant and asked massive questions of Nathan White throughout. Wales were untroubled in lineout set piece while Ireland struggled for a third jumper option. Mike McCarthy is not an international jumping option. Donnacha Ryan’s cameo gave Ireland more options in the set piece. Both sides will be pleased with their defensive displays but  on the flip-side, both back lines showed a lack of composure and change of tactics to unlock their counterpart, too many running lines were crash ball specific and not enough drubber kicks or awareness of space out wide. The two teams on show gave a stirring performance considering the weather conditions and should be fighting it out for the championship. The Triple Crown and Grand Slam may be gone but both teams have the quality and nous to beat England and France in the weeks to come.

Wet and Dreary Weather – Poor 6N Product?

The weather conditions this time of year in the NH is abysmal and the product on the pitch reflects as much. All three fixtures were devoid of a quality offloading ball, risk averse tactics to retain ball at every opportunity due to the weather conditions. If the tournament was held in April, then potentially the standard of competition would improve. The weather conditions are defining how teams approach fixtures; attritional, low risk strategy and it was wholly exposed during the RWC tournament where the NH teams were exposed for a lack of basic skill set and quick game management decisions. The standard of play in this tournament only picked up in the last set of fixtures last season; coincided with improved weather conditions. There has to be a rethink to the fixture scheduling. A trial period should be embraced and would improve the attractiveness of the tournament.