Hawkeye Sidekick

RBS 6 Nations – What we learned

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England crowned RBS 6 Nations Champions (with a week to spare)

A first championship in six years, a championship win won with a week to spare, a championship where England showed enough variety in their play to get over the line. Their 25-21 victory over a Welsh team who were a massive disappointment for well over a  hour of this contest was built on a dominant pack where world rugby saw the emergence of a special second row called Maro Itoje. Itoje’s first half display was nothing short of sensational where he was prominent in tackle count, line breaks (setup Watson try), stole Welsh line-out ball along with George Kruis at will and also won key breakdown tussles where his breakdown steal right at the end of the first half was akin to a back-row player.

England are a work in progress. Eddie Jones would be the first person to tell you that and he credited the players for this championship win but there are glimpses of Jones’ game plan in operation. His decision to move Farrell at twelve has allowed George Ford his opportunity to control at fly-half. Youngs and Care bring variety to the game plan which has being exploited by England in the second half of games. Youngs regimental approach compared to Care’s quick of pass from ruck is a nice contrast for Ford and Farrell to unleash their back line colleagues where Watson and Nowell again yesterday provided width, pace and work rate. Mike Brown was excellent again yesterday making line breaks and providing confidence with some emphatic aerial bomb catches.

England have won the championship because they have executed better than any other team in this tournament. The final product is some long way off but rest assured that with Eddie Jones at the helm and with a focus on introducing talent such as Itoje into the setup, exciting times beckon for the England team and supporters. Paris next weekend to clinch a Grand Slam and after France’s performance at Murrayfield, who would doubt Eddie Jones and team achieving this accolade next weekend.

Wales Conservative Approach Exposed

Wales will rue on a wretched first hour of this contest. Whereas England were looking to make things happen, Wales were hoping for England mistakes to benefit and score from but it never materialized as a dominant England pack controlled proceedings and half-backs controlled the game with confidence. Wales could not predict the impact that Maro Itoje would make on the contest but his emergence in that opening period laid the foundations for the outcome of this result. Itoje’s athletism was at times too much for a Wales pack who struggled in every facet of play. The scrum was destroyed so much so that Samson Lee was given the sledging treatment by Joe Marler. The lineout misfired badly as Baldwin was exposed by a dominant Kruis and Itoje partnership. The breakdown area which favored Wales pre-kickoff swung to England’s favor as Itoje speed and breakdown skills provided the required support for the England back row to assert influence. It was only when Wales were provided with the player advantage that they gained any parity to proceedings. 25-21 scoreline looks close but it was one way traffic for huge portions of this contest. Gatland will realize this fact perfectly clear. Webb at scrum-half and Tipuric in the back row provided impetus but it was too little too late, too much to do in such little time in those last ten minutes. Wales will trounce Italy next weekend but Wales need to reflect on whether their current game plan which contains and is conservative in nature needs to be refined to become more expansive to allow the likes of Davies and North the chance to receive ball more frequently. North was a forlorn figure for the vast majority of this contest. Davies only prospered when England went down to fourteen players. Wales have the skills to execute a more expansive game plan but coaching win at all costs mindset is stifling their ability and team development. Interesting couple of months await.

Scotland victory (at last) against France

After several near calls against Le Bleu, Scotland finally got over the line to beat France at Murrayfield. 29-18 scoreline was wholly merited, a performance built on work rate where the pack admirably nullified a physically superior France front five. Nel at prop had a superb game and his scrum performance laid the foundation for Scotland territorial advantage. Vern Cotter’s team has being reinvigorated, the confidence which flowed in the latter stages of the RWC is now coming to the fore. It is based on a back row which has being superb in the last two games. Hardie has being a revelation in this tournament; hard working, massive tackle count and capable of killing and stealing breakdown ball. Strauss’ ball carrying is well known in the Guinness PRO 12 but his work rate to the cause cannot be understated and then you have one of the key team selections which has swung the balance in favor of the Tartan Army. John Barclay at seven is a player who if you play with, you must enjoy and if you are playing against with sheer dread.

Barclay’s ability to compete in the breakdown and provide a nuisance factor slowing ball and around ruck time has being something sorely lacking in Scotland play. It has allowed Scotland time to regroup defensively. Barclay also provides a good ball carrying option for Laidlaw at nine to clear their lines. Scotland’s three quarter has found a talent in Taylor. The Saracens player has grown in this tournament and his expertly taken try in the opening period emphasized the confidence which the player is bringing to the team. Taylor’s emergence has allowed Duncan Hogg to receive more space from opposition and he is relishing the freedom, another barnstorming performance from the Glasgow Warrior. Visser’s try was superb, the flick from Hogg was exemplary. What a difference a year makes? Would you even consider Scotland doing something like this last year in the RBS 6 Nations. What a difference a little bit of confidence and belief will do for a team. Scotland have two wins in the championship and are a live opponent for Ireland next weekend at the Aviva Stadium which looks quite an attractive fixture. The tournament needed Scotland to become competitive and this year’s showing bodes well for Vern Cotter’s long term.

France – The Enigma

While Scotland bask in a first triumph over France in ten years, France will reflect on a game which started well but descended into anarchy and confusion as their game plan unravelled against an opponent who grew into the contest. Guy Noves’ project is at an early stage and the tries scored showed the potential flair in the side, slick offloading and player ability to identify space to score. Fickou, Mermoz revelled in the opening quarter but then went quiet as France’s pack were moved around the pitch and tired rapidly conceding penalties to Scotland in the middle quarters. The scrum was under pressure throughout surprisingly and leaked penalties to their hosts who gained a foothold that they never let go. The lack of homegrown talent in the Pro 14 is coming home to roost; the players on show are lacking game time and this is effecting their skill set and general game management. Laidlaw controlled the game from start to finish and unless Pro 14 provide more opportunity to their homegrown talent to play in the top flight, this trend will continue. Scotland saw out the game with ease and the fact that they were able to win back at the death spoke volumes on how ponderous France became in the closing exchanges. England arrive to Paris next weekend and unless France play an abandonment which has not being seen in this tournament to date, it looks like a England win by at least ten points. Trinh Duc at fly-half showed flashes but they were merely flashes, the ten jersey debate will divide debate in French bistros this week in the leadup to this contest.

Ireland win exposes Italian weaknesses brutally

Ireland comprehensive victory over Italy to start off this round of the tournament exposed more questions in the competitiveness of Italy than it did about the performance of Ireland. Yes, Ireland’s all round performance at times was excellent but Italy’s defensive organization and overall inferior work rate around the fringes were major talking points. CJ Stander’s cameo for the second and his debut try immediately after emphasized the point perfectly, three Italian players putting in half-hearted attempts to stop the Munster player. Parisse’s post-game interview pulled no punches; second best and he was not happy. Italy are going backwards, no identity to their play and the fact that their back line is devoid of attacking threat and also vulnerable in defensive situations does not bode well for a trip to Cardiff next weekend. The half-back experiment imploded within the first quarter and Murray / Sexton had an armchair ride throughout.

The fact that Ireland management could take off Sexton after forty-nine minutes spoke volumes. Zebo revelled in the open space afforded by Italy and his off-load to Payne for the fourth try was worth the game admission fee. Ireland realize that Scotland will be a tough tough test next weekend but at least confidence is somewhat restored ahead of this fixture. Question marks over the prop replacement options continue for Ireland but that is for another day as all the fringe players got valuable game time.

What now for Italy? Professional club scene spiraling to mediocrity is now replicating itself into international scene. The tournament organizer need to consider introducing the idea of promotion / relegation from the RBS 6 Nations. The sense of demotion from the top tier would focus minds for the current teams and would allow the likes of Georgia and Romania the opportunity to win a place in the tournament. It is worth a go as Italy need a kick in the right direction to get back on an upward curve. Parisse aside, the team is going nowhere. Time to act now.