To ruck or not to ruck, that is the burning question after the last round of 6N fixtures. Mike Brown’s vigorous rucking of the ball and Conor Murray’s head has raised questions onto what constitutes a citing. The rucking action of Brown bordered on the reckless and the fact that contact was made to Murray’s head area would have surely indicated to both the match official and citing commissioner to take the case further. The decision then to only penalize England’s Danny Care for deliberate kill the ball for ten minutes bordered on the ridiculous. It appears that the match officials are not to protect player’s welfare in the ruck until a serious injury unfortunately emerges. A worrying development and one after the cheap shots inflicted to Johnny Sexton from the French signals another new low in international match referee officiating where all facets of breakdown, scrum need to be urgently reviewed. I will probe more into this point later in the week but enough to say that the scrum officiating is bordering on a flip of a coin with match officials wholly incapable of spotting indiscretions (not driving in straight, players deliberately losing their bind).
England and Wales are in a collision course for the championship after round three of the championship. Wales produced the performance of the tournament so far with a accomplished defensive display, quality breakdown work and of course the ability to score a try when presented by a French side who will rue several missed chances and rudderless half-back play of Plisson who gifted Wales’ try in the second half. Wales’ back row options are embarrassing plentiful. Lydiate works so well with Warburton, their understanding was evident throughout as Lydiate’s tackle count allowed Warburton to compete in breakdown with a confidence not seen yet during the tournament. Tipuric would walk into any other 6N team but the balance of the Welsh back row was key to this success. George North was outstanding again on the wing. Wales continue to grow as this tournament reaches its climax.
England’s performance against Ireland was built on a solid set-piece and ability to score when in range. Itoje and Kruis at lineout caused Rory Best endless problems trying to find his jumpers at vital times. Let their be no doubt, England are far from the finished article but Eddie Jones’ imprint is evident in small bursts. Their tries were very well constructed, forcing Ireland deep into a tackle count which had gone up to ninety before the interval. Ireland were unable to regroup and England were able to create the space required to cross over in that second period. This was a fiercely competitive test match but England had the edge in terms of execution and front five dominance. The England front five were excellent throughout and they have found a star in Itoje. The half-back options are numerous and liked the mix between Youngs and Care at nine. It allowed Ford the time in the second half to launch his runners with more frequency. England’s problem of not scoring when enjoying possession and territorial dominance is a work in progress but few can argue that England have not turned a corner with Eddie Jones at the helm whose abrasive nature with the media has deflected cleverly away from the players who are producing.
Ireland will look to the cameos of the debutantes as a source of inspiration. van der Flier had a positive debut under the pressure of a front five who were losing their battle. The Leinster youngster worked hard and competed in the breakdown. Stuart McCloskey during his debut showed flashes of the potential three quarter partnership with Robbie Henshaw, taking ball with physicality and defensively strong. However, it was the cameo of Ultan Dillane that caught the eye. His energy, work rate and ability to offload caught the eye. It may be early to call it but Ireland have a potential second row to nurture and flourish. It exposed the performance of Ryan and Toner in the second row and surely Schmidt has to provide Dillane with the opportunity to impress in the remaining games of the tournament.
Delighted for Scotland and Vern Cotter in their triumph against an Italy side whose effort was never in question but lacked the attacking cohesion required to win the contest. Scotland showed nerves at various stages of this play, silly penalty concession was a hallmark but with Laidlaw and the Grays prominent, Scotland were able to put the game in the last quarter. Taylor at twelve is an inspired selection. Scotland’s confidence should soar after this triumph and they will look to add a further scalp before the end of the tournament. Italy are a wooden spoon winners. Parisse aside, there is precious little to talk about this Italian whose lack of threat in the back line and lack of game management at ten is making their game plan extremely one dimensional. Their forward intensive game plan can only go so far and this limitation has to be reviewed now for Italian and European rugby to make them a genuine competitive team.
Connacht are the Leicester City of the Pro 12 this season. Their top of the table tenure continues with a thrilling road win against Edinburgh. Pat Lam’s side is a pleasure to watch and will only increase as the pitches dry as we arrive into Spring. Their expansive rugby style, their ability to offload with confidence is easy on the eye. Matt Healy has being the standout back player in the tournament this season and with the emergence of the likes of Dillane, the player pool looks strong and is a credit to Connacht’s academy and scouting structures. While Robbie Henshaw feels that he needs to head to Leinster to further his career, Pat Lam and his squad can now look forward to European Cup Rugby next season which will be another important step in the development of this squad. Connacht realistically need another two wins in their remaining fixtures to clinch a home field playoff semi-final and few will begrudge them this honor given their style and performances this season.
Leinster survived an Ospreys second half examination to win 19-16. Teo and Ringrose at three quarters causing Ospreys massive problems throughout with their ball carrying ability. Isa Nacewa continues to marvel at the full back position and his runs from deep setup Leinster consistently with promising attacking platforms. Leinster are in second place and look well placed to play a pivotal role in the destination of the tournament come May. Ospreys grinded out a second half performance which was typified by Dan Baker’s try who evaded Leinster defense but they needed a win yesterday and with games running out looks consigned to a top six battle, a frustrating season where their side has being decimated with international call-ups and injuries hindering team continuity. Ulster should have too much to not be in the top four, their squad depth should be sufficient to get them over the line. Out of the top four currently, Llanelli Scarlets could be the team most vulnerable. Their front five at times this season has struggled and this will be an area where teams will look exploit until the rest of the season.
Munster have picked up two wins against Treviso and Newport in the last seven days to move up to fifth in the standings. The bonus point victory last night in a 26-5 scoreline was gratefully received by the Munster faithful who turned up at Thomond Park. The four try was painstakingly slow in coming but Munster’s Dave Kilcoyne again caught the eye with an all action display rewarded with a try. Results are going to have to go in Munster’s favor but the need to beat an in-form Connacht and Leinster away looks daunting to say the least. Glasgow beat Cardiff 27-20 but how crucial could a lack of a four try bonus point be come the end of the season? It is going to be an interesting end to the Rabo Pro 12 season with no representation in the European Rugby Cup quarter-finals but before that is the small matter of the end of the RBS 6N tournament.