Natwest 6 Nations: Round 2 Reflections

The second round of the Natwest 6 Nations tournament saw Ireland totally outclass an Italian side whose defensive frailties were exposed at alarming intervals, England go to the trenches to beat a determined Welsh side who will rue the TMO decision not to award Gareth Anscombe an opening half try and Scotland coming late to beat an extremely ill-disciplined French outfit at Murrayfield. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

England win but TMO dominates post game discussions

The video clip above is probably the talking point of the round this weekend and whether you are in the England or Welsh camp, you will have your points on why the try was waved away or not? It was an incredibly close call for the TMO to make. Glenn Newman had several angles. Did Gareth Anscombe touch the ball down first before Anthony Watson? Did Gareth Anscombe have control over the ball?

The fact that Anthony Watson immediately touched the ball down fully after Gareth Anscombe’s initial touch made the decision more complex for the TMO. No try was the decision but you see tries given for less than Gareth Anscombe’s effort and pressure on the ball. It was an incredibly pivotal point in the contest that England won 12-6.

If the incident does anything, it raises the topic of how much downward pressure is required to award a try from a TMO perspective. You tend to see TMO’s giving the benefit of the doubt to the attacking side in cases such as this in NH rugby. It has created a massive hole in the interpretation of downward pressure when a try is scored.

Full control is now required according to Glenn Newman, the response of the tournament organizers and World Rugby will be interested (if any) in the coming days to clarify this situation. It won’t be the first time this happens on a rugby game with high stakes involved.

The test match itself was an arm wrestle. England were very impressive in the first quarter and did not give Wales a chance of impose their will on the contest. The opening try for May was sublime. Farrell spotting acres of space in the Welsh defense to set May free who finished with precision.

The second England try was all about the imposing Joe Launchsbury who had the presence of mind to offload to the supporting May soon after with two Welsh players for company. 12-0 lead for England and it looked ominous for Wales.

Credit though to Wales whose work rate was immense throughout. The work rate was on point and the pack started to create a good platform from which penalties were being conceded by the hosts. Patchell had a mixed afternoon as England squeezed up with high defensive line speed minimizing his overall impact on the contest.

The key positive from the Welsh camp were the performance of the front row who were excellent at scrum time as well as the cameo of Gareth Anscombe when switched to ten. His flair and ability to get his colleagues over the game line was to the fore in the second half. The number ten position is very much for Anscombe after this display; assured performance.

Wales will rue the TMO decision but there was also the key try saving tackle from Sam Underhill whose tackle on Scott Williams saved a certain try. The lack of ball handling and composure at times from Wales also contributed to this loss. A key turnover just before half-time after Wales had turned down the opportunity of three points was a morale sapper.

England win this hard fought encounter; their defensive work was on point throughout. The back row stifled at the breakdown as Navidi struggled to gain a foothold in these exchanges. The half back partnership were efficient if not spectacular and Mike Brown produced an excellent performance at full back. Farrell was all action and his game management for the opening try sensational. To a man, England delivered the victory.

Ireland outclass poor Italy

Let us not beat around the bush here. Italy were shambolic. Ireland beat what was in front of them to the extent that the bench was fully cleared ten minutes into the second half. It was all very routine for Ireland as they set about dismantling the wafer thin Italian defense.

Line breaks were created with huge frequency in that opening period and it was no surprise that Ireland led 28-0 at the break. Henshaw crashing over from close range after the pack had sucked in the Italian defense. Naive Italian defending on the fringes saw Murray waltz in unopposed. Aki used his strength superbly to crash over from close range and the Connacht centre was again involved as his line break and pass saw Earls score for the bonus point try.

The fixture saw a couple of negatives from an Ireland perspective. Tadhg Furlong pulling up early doors was a concern; initial team report suggests that it is not serious but I am not so sure as the manner in which the Wexford man pulled up suggested more of a hamstring pull than a precautionary withdrawal.

Even more of concern was the shoulder injury sustained by Robbie Henshaw after his second try of the contest. The try was as a result of an intercept but the shoulder injury means a long period on the sidelines beckon. Disappointing for the player who was sharp along with Aki in their attacking duties.

Italy were hopelessly out classed but did manage to create a foothold in the contest in the third quarter as Ireland’s lack of cohesion (due to clearing the bench) saw three tries conceded in a seventeen minute spell.

The Ireland fringe players got good test match minutes. Larmour gave a glimpse of his attacking skills but also a realization that his defensive work is a work in progress. Carbery at ten looked to boss the game but lack of game minutes was evident in some questionable game management calls. Porter was superb in the front row. Marmion was efficient at nine. Stander and Healy professional in their work rate.

This game showcased Ireland’s ability to cut loose but the opposition was weak. The Georgia question and this tournament was a key thought personally in the opening period of this contest given how easy Ireland were creating and scoring tries at will. Italy can argue that they scored three tries but let us be honest, the scoreline flattered the Italians as Ireland’s continuity faded after fifty minutes. Italy lacked any guile up front and for all the back line intent with ball in hand, defensively were all at sea. Hard days to come for Conor O’Shea and management this season. 2019 RWC looks daunting already.

Ireland will look for positive fitness reports on Furlong but this was mission accomplished. Wales in two weeks time looks an incredibly tough encounter. Wales will not fear Ireland and given their personnel who will offload and create from expansive play, it will be intriguing to see how Schmidt approaches the fixture.

Sexton and Murray were excellent again. Keith Earls continues to impress; his last minute try saving tackle told you everything you needed to know about the player. Selfless, hard working, team player. The effort to save a last ditch tackle could be the difference between winning this tournament or not if points differences comes into play.

Scotland keep composure to beat France

A much needed morale boosting victory for Scotland against France at Murrayfield. The opening quarter was sensational stuff. France’s player of the season Teddy Thomas scoring a superb try to open France’s account. Their expansive approach to the contest a joy to see. Scotland facing an early period of crisis fought back well and recalled Maitland scoring well.

Laidlaw’s contribution today cannot be underestimated. The scrum-half provided experience and game management throughout, something that Finn Russell struggled with today. It was an out of sorts Russell today in terms of kicking, missing touch on a couple of key stages. Townsend down the stretch made the call to win this test match. Russell hauled off. Price on and Laidlaw switched to ten.

The move worked as Scotland’s pack started to win the 50/50 exchanges and French discipline issues surfacing at a rate of knots. John Lacey consistently pinging France for various offenses from not rolling away to offside. French composure was shot in the final quarter, such a critical juncture of the contest. The composure issues then saw some questionable game management decisions as well but by this stage, France were under the cosh. The game was as good as gone.

Laidlaw’s assured kicking securing the victory. The win was huge for Scotland; a backs to the wall week of preparation, another loss and it was curtains for the championship and would have raised questions on the recent Scottish team and their form leading into this tournament.

Gregor Townsend today delivered a message to his players on the park; failure to execute and you will be benched. To bench Russell was a massive call, it worked handsomely this time as Price was swift in his distribution speeding up play. The ten position ahead of the English clash will be duly noted. Russell needs to step up his performance levels. An intriguing two weeks to the England clash await.

For France, another test match which on another day should have seen a win. Their play in these last two games have at times being good but yet again the lack of discipline seen in the Guy Noves and Philip Saint Andre eras reared its head today. For the brilliance of the tries, France surrender penalties at an alarming rate and Lacey’s penalty count on another day should have seen a French player spend time in the sin bin.

France will argue with the officiating in these past two weekends but teams need to adapt to the officiating crew and in this second half, the discipline and pen count on show could not warrant a test match win. Plenty to address as Italy arrive to Marseilles in two weeks. France and Brunel in backs against the wall prep then.

Natwest 6 Nations: Round 2 Preview

After two blow out wins for England and Wales, both sides lock horns in a highly anticipated showdown at Twickenham. Ireland fresh from their last gasp (get out of jail card) win over France in Paris play host to an Italian side who travel more in hope than expectation. Scotland and France look to gain much needed momentum at Murrayfield. Intriguing fixtures. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

Can expansive Wales upset England on the road?

The key question of this weekend. Wales were excellent in their defeat of Scotland last weekend but Warren Gatland and management will be first to admit that Scotland were well below their best. It is also debatable that England defensive line speed will be as ponderous as Scotland’s last weekend which saw Patchell control affairs and unleash his back line with unerring frequency.

The back row battle at Twickenham is evenly poised. With the decision to allow James Davies to return to the Scarlets for Pro 14 action, it is down to Josh Navidi and Justin Tipuric coming off the bench to grapple and torment England at the breakdown. Navidi was sensational last weekend in his breakdown work, winning ball and slowing down Scotland ball to a crawl. Tipuric continued the good on his introduction and his ball carrying was on point.

England’s back row looks solid. Sam Simmonds has taken his chance superbly at eight in the absence of Billy Vunipola. His brace of tries last weekend showed the player’s mobility, strength and speed. His breakdown work was on point as well as Lawes and Robshaw.

The half-back contest will be fascinating. Care vs. Davies. Ford vs. Patchell. The scrum-halves on show will look to create at every given opportunity so do not be surprised if there are plenty of open exchanges during this contest. Joseph’s inclusion is a key inclusion, his pace and power have caused issues for Wales in the past.

This is a contest if Wales can compete well in the scrum have a realistic chance of producing a result on the road. Can Wales then get enough ball in hand to ask questions of May defensively? It is a huge ask and England do have serious threats with May and Watson playing superbly with ball in hand.

This is the standout fixture of the round. England to shade this contest but the margin of victory could be minute. Wales will come to this fixture full of confidence, nothing to lose with everything to gain. England are the team under pressure to deliver. Intriguing fixture and subplots await.

Ireland’s back line given chance to deliver or else

The Ireland team announcement was delivered with four pack changes but significantly no changes to the back line. No expected Jordan Larmour debut? Why?

Joe Schmidt wants to keep faith with the back line who faced France, an opportunity to see the back division if provided sufficient space and quick ball to showcase their talents. The three quarter partnership is retained. Aki and Henshaw were solid defensively but there were precious little moments of attacking play and platform last weekend, hope for better this weekend.

Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale both looked dangerous with ball in hand. Earls’ contribution to the game winning drop goal cannot be underestimated. A marvelous take from an inch perfect Sexton diagonal kick, meters gained and momentum built.

Jacob Stockdale’s defensive side of play has being under the microscope this week. The Teddy Thomas try was a superb effort and plenty are pointing the blame for the try at Stockdale’s door given his missed first time tackle. Stockdale is still young and learning his craft, good to see management giving the player continuity in the position. No doubt Schmidt has worked with the player to address the defensive lapse this week.

The pack changes were spun in a strange manner. I was unclear whether Jack Conan was included or  CJ Stander dropped? Conan deserves his opportunity given his form with Leinster Rugby this season. Game time for squad members is paramount this weekend.

Dan Leavy was a no brainer inclusion in the back row. Toner gets the nod, looking to impress and probably needs with Beirne primed for international duty next season and James Ryan’s emergence as an international second row last weekend.

The prop competition between Cian Healy and Jack McGrath has being intriguing this season for club and country. Both players are driving each other on, superb to see. McGrath will relish the opportunity to cause serious damage to the Italian scrum.

The bench sees Kieran Marmion given the nod ahead of Luke McGrath, perhaps a horses for courses selection or was it based on training performance this week? Larmour will get his debut at some point and it will be interesting to see the player with space to impress. Solid team selection from Ireland.

Italy make three changes to their side, two personnel changes in the front row while Steyn comes into the back row. Ghiraldini’s lineout throwing was on point last weekend. 100% lineout success so to replace the experienced hooker will prompt Ireland to put pressure on the line out with Toner, Henderson and O’Mahoney looking to unsettle the Italian set piece.

Quaglio and Bigi will need to front up at scrum time but with Furlong and McGrath looking in ominous form, Ireland have the set piece advantage here and with it the platform to create try scoring opportunities. The back row battle will be interesting for the first three quarters but Ireland will be confident to improve their clear out work to allow Murray quicker ball despite Steyn and Parisse. Mbanda’s exclusion is a baffler.

The Italian back line showed glimpses of potential. Allan was composed with his distribution, kicking on point to unleash his back three but the back three were also guilty of some naive defensive game time decisions against England. Watson had the proverbial field day against Italy. Earls and Stockdale should follow suit. Ireland bonus point try win all the way.

Townsend wields the axe

Gregor Townsend does not do sentimentality obviously. No opportunity for the likes of Harris, Price, du Preez, Toolis and Welsh to redeem themselves after wretched displays against Wales.

Suffice to say that Townsend has gone for the shock and awe team selection to stir a reaction. The passive performance from Scotland last weekend was at odds to the side who impressed during the November internationals.

All facets of play were under par. Game management was mediocre. Price pivotal in the concession of the opening Welsh tries; intercept pass and then scrum infringement. Russell with a pack retreating could not affect influence.

The pack were second best. The scrum creaked at various points and then the line out system collapsed in the second half giving Wales ample opportunity to create a platform. Maitland, Horne did provide much needed impetus but it was not little too late. Hogg’s lack of game minutes also exposed in defensive work. A week later, will the wrongs of last weekend be remedied?

France were defeated last weekend but there was signs of optimism in their last gasp defeat. Their work rate and defensive structure remained until the final play of game. Ireland were unable to break France down in a well organized defensive display. Teddy Thomas with his only genuine cameo scored a sensational try. The young players in the side did not shirk their responsibility.

Brunel and the squad’s question this weekend is whether they can continue this work rate and defensive organization while also trying to open up their talented back line. It was not seen as Ireland did by and large control the tempo and territory last weekend.

The conditioning of the French side was on point last weekend. No last quarter collapse and the age demographic of the squad suggests that Brunel will focus on youth and players who will work hard for the cause. Machenaud again was excellent in his game management and kicking; more expected from the Racing 92 scrum-half this weekend.

Scotland are in a backs against the wall scenario. If they cannot raise their game this weekend, it will undermine everything that Scotland have built in the last two seasons. Townsend and management will be feeling the pressure and the team selection is designed to execute an open, expansive game plan whilst allowing Laidlaw to game manage when required. Scotland to win but it will not be easy.

Autumn Internationals: What to expect?

November. The end of season Southern Hemisphere tours are upon us and with 2019 Rugby World Cup looming on the horizons, these fixtures will be seen as an initial assessment on squad depth and where improvements are required. Hawkeye Sidekick casts his eye on what we should expect in the coming weeks.

New Zealand keen to reestablish dominance on tour

A drawn series against the British & Irish Lions in July, a series where New Zealand will feel that they left behind. This tour will be a chance to showcase their talent and provide an ominous statement of intent against NH rivals. The fixture list is intriguing as the All Blacks lock horns against France twice in the space of three days. November 18th sees a trip to face Scotland with a final tour game against Wales on November 25th. What to expect from New Zealand? Squad rotation will be seen to full effect next week with the fixture in Lyon. New Zealand have abundance of talent in their ranks and the likes of Perenera, Laumape, Fifita will look to deliver and give Steve Hansen evidence to continue in the side. This is a tour where Sam Cane could be the standout back rower for the All Blacks; his ability to read breakdowns and win turnover ball will be huge in this set of fixtures. The Welsh clash for the breakdown battle will be worth the gate admission fee. You cannot see how New Zealand will be beaten in this tour. Barrett is playing sublime rugby this season both from hand and boot and with an exciting set of backs to be unleashed at any time, the tour opponents have being duly warned.

Australia looking for consistency

Victory over New Zealand last month was a much needed tonic for Michael Cheika’s side to gain confidence. Consistency issues against New Zealand have being duly punished in recent test match fixtures so it was imperative that the Wallabies competed against the All Blacks first and foremost. The win was bonus territory and Australia come into this tour on good confidence scoring sixty-three points against Japan. Defense is a work in progress as thirty points were leaked. Arguments on the merits of this point but the late try concessions will have disappointed Cheika. Australia’s tour will see fixtures against Wales (familiar foe), England and Scotland. The key performance point for Australia on this tour will be how the front five perform as an unit. Consistency issues this season and the scrum has gone backwards against all SH teams at different intervals. Australia are an exciting side to watch in full flow, their speed of pass and running lines are excellent. Kuridrani is a key player in all that Australia in early phases. His power and running style means gain line breaks. Speight is a player who if given ball will create issues for all the NH teams. If the pack can go well on this tour, 2019 RWC chances are elevated. A key tour for Cheika and team beckons.

South Africa keen to impress new coaching ticket

Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Niebaner have departed Munster and will look with interest at the progression of this South African side. They commence the tour with a much anticipated tussle against Ireland at the Aviva Stadium. Recent form suggests South Africa are rebuilding nicely after a terrible shut-out loss to New Zealand this season. It was a pivotal fixture; the players have regrouped well and produce stirring performances thereafter running New Zealand to a close loss. Pride was restored in the jersey. This tour will be to identify key personnel to build the side around for the 2019 RWC. This is when South Africa typically start to show signs of promise and Ireland will be duly warned. Etzebeth and De Jager are a massive second row partnership, solid set piece execution. Jantjies at ten is developing into a world class ten. His ability to eye a pass is to the fore but his kicking game is a work in progress. Kriel provides energy and skill to the three quarters; excellent movement where gain line meters are gained. The Ireland test match will go some way to determine how South Africa approach the rest of the tour where they face France and Italy to conclude their tour. With changes to the management team, players will be keen to impress the newly joined Erasmus to the coaching ticket. Niebaner’s defensive skills will be an added boost to the Springboks; all starting to point to a revitalized South African outfit in 2018 and 2019.

Argentina looking to end season on a high note

A tough season for Argentina this season. They have competed for good stretches of test matches but have being let down by lapses in concentration and discipline have being exposed to the max. The most recent results against South Africa illustrated this point perfectly, several well worked tries scored but a red card to Lavanini (home game) opened the gates for South Africa to win with a bit to spare. Talented side with an abrasive front row who will test any side with their scrummaging ability. Creevy and Herrera are world class front row players and England have being duly warned on their prowess from last season’s encounter. Leguizamon is a superb eight, great skill set to the player and with Hernandez pulling the strings at ten, this side will not fear any opponent. England, Italy and Ireland are scheduled this month. The squad depth is a source of concern and it will be interesting to see if Argentina can reveal a couple of new players on tour to increase confidence and momentum ahead of RWC 2019. A disappointing international season but this November international series is an opportunity to end the season on a good note. Abrasive but well capable of exposing defensive weakness out wide, the Pumas deserve plenty of respect.

England look to continue improvement

Eddie Jones has being in bullish form ahead of the November internationals. His side went last season unbeaten until Ireland beat them at the Aviva Stadium in March and there was plenty of positives for Jones to reflect upon from last season. The pack were solid in set piece where Maro Itoje and George Kruis had excellent international seasons. Itoje’s work rate and pace for a forward is sublime and his versatility switching from back row to second row is such a valuable asset to England. Set piece was solid but questions remain on the hooker position. George vs. Hartley. Hartley getting the nod due in part to being captain but Jamie George has grown in stature last season and the British & Irish Lions tour has made him an even better player. Billy Vunipola’s injury will be an interesting subplot; a chance for Jones to run the rule over a couple of candidates. England’s attacking lines improved as the season progressed last year. Farrell and Youngs looking to hit back line players with pace hitting the line incredibly flat. The back line has being an interesting side-note to the international series. Yarde has being omitted. Solomona has had an opportunity to impress but it looks like May and Daly will be the key attacking threats for England. Test matches against Argentina (pack workout beckons), Australia and bankrupt Samoa will tell more about England but the key contest will be against New Zealand, all in good time.

Ireland move on without Zebo

Simon Zebo’s decision to move to France next season has seen the player omitted from the national team squad. Joe Schmidt quite clear on his intentions with Zebo, a player with creativity and flair from full back. Ireland will miss the player particularly in games where creativity is required to break up the field. Ireland’s squad selection apart from Zebo had few surprises. Sexton and Murray will be asked to control game management. Murray with his spiral kicks. Sexton looking to launch his back line at regular intervals. The front row looks excellent. Furlong is in incredible form currently and with Jack McGrath alongside, the scrum should go well. The question mark is the set piece; statistics for the Ireland hooker players are less than stellar and South Africa will look to expose this facet of play this weekend. The back row options are endless. It will be interesting to see how CJ Stander goes against his native homeland, excellent ball carrier and work ethos. This series of games will see hopefully who is best placed to fill the full back and ten positions. O’Halloran and Carbery will get game time at full back. Carbery potentially may get game time against Fiji at ten. Ireland’s weak point in recent RWC cycles has being their inability to find an adequate squad to fill multiple positions when injuries arise. Schmidt must take note of failures from the past. Argentina game will be abrasive; the pack exchanges will be interesting to observe.

Wales fresh faces looking to make impact

November has not being a good month for Wales in recent years; not many wins. Gatland has changed up the squad dropping the likes of Jamie Roberts, Sam Davies, Scott Williams and Luke Charteris from the squad. Excellent players but is this a sign that Gatland and management are switching their style of play. Australia do not seem to be buying it and are expecting physicality in ball carrying, abrasive breakdown contest. The squad dynamics though would suggest that if Wales can gain parity in the pack, a back line with the likes of Liam Willams, Steff Evans, Leigh Halfpenny must surely indicate fast ball out wide under the roof of the Principality Stadium. The back row has always being a strong area for Wales, hoping Josh Navidi gets game time as the Cardiff Blues player has being a consistent high performer in Pro 12 / 14 leagues this year. The front five will be an area where Australia and New Zealand will look to turn the screw at scrum-time. The front row looks vulnerable without the likes of Samson Lee in the ranks. Gatland looking to see new talent, will be intriguing if the players impress against Australia, Georgia, New Zealand and South Africa. Does Gatland bring back the players left out this time around?

Scotland look to continue upward progression

Scotland were the most progressive NH side last season. Under the management of Vern Cotter, the RBS 6N tournament went well. Despite the mauling against England, the side competed well and earned notable scalps against Ireland, Wales and Italy with an exciting brand of rugby. The back line play of Jones, Fife, Hogg and Seymour were to the fore and with solid game management from Russell and Laidlaw at half-back, the team played with an increased attacking threat. The pack were competitive. Gray’s leading from the front but there were issues defending opposition mauls and the scrum did struggle at times against England and France. New head coach Gregor Townsend will look to address these issues but also look to build on the expansive attacking style seen last season. His tenure for Glasgow Warriors means that the national side will look to execute an expansive style of play. The fixtures look tough with visits from New Zealand and Australia but confidence should be high before this with a visit from Samoa who are financially bankrupt and the appetite of the players on national duty may not be what it should be.

Italy need to build momentum

Conor O’Shea will look for Italy to follow the lead of Benetton Rugby and Zebre Rugby with more determined, competitive performances. There has being an upturn in performance with the two clubs this season and it is hoped that the national side will improve as a result. Plenty for O’Shea and management to work on. The pack is a work in progress, discipline and penalty count needs to be reduced and this is the key indicator to see where Italy are at after this month’s fixture list. Increased penalty count will lead to points conceded for Italy. The back line and half-backs need to be better; lack of threat out wide meant that opposition could stifle ball carrying from the pack creating turnover ball. November is a time where Italy need to show signs of improvement in all areas of the pitch. Let us not be started on the kicking off the tee; abysmal last year. Hopefully, there will be a positive run of performances from Italy but the fixture against Fiji will make or break this side. Fiji will fancy their chances. Italy need to send out a statement of intent. Argentina and South Africa are teams which Italy will look to compete well against but this weekend is their proverbial cup final to build confidence and momentum.

France: Club vs. Country

The fact that two fixtures against the All Blacks are within a three day period says a lot on French rugby, national vs. club is rearing its head. National team has suffered due to lack of training camps during the season when compared with other RBS 6N teams. Guy Noves is facing an uphill task; he has the players now but the game plan will be conservative. It has to be given the lack of training sessions that the squad has had. New Zealand (first test) will be interesting. Can the French pack be competitive for long enough to allow the back line enough ball to create try scoring opportunities? The second fixture against All Blacks in Lyon is a bit of a mystery. Is this a representational side or an actual test match? South African game will be a true indicator of where the team is at. France, mysterious as always. The clubs are patiently waiting for their assets back to resume league action next month. The disparity between national side vs. professional club is growing by the day. Sad development.