What a weekend! The results went the way most people anticipated, but the way they were achieved, particularly for France, shows just why this is such an enthralling competition.
England vs Italy ( 41 -18)
England's win was no real surprise but Italy played well and stayed in the fight to the end. At numbers 9 and 10, their young scrum-half Stephen Varney (19yrs old) and Paolo Garbisi (20yrs old) are future stars.
Whilst in all likelihood Italy will end up at the bottom of the table there were signs of improvement and whilst many question their place in the competition I think they bring something to it.
England on the other hand, despite running out with a 23 point win, still didn't look quite there. There were flashes of brilliance; Anthony Watson on the wing showed real class and Jonny May’s try was just exceptional but something was still missing from the team's overall performance.
Before the game, the commentators mentioned three players that until now had been considered almost undroppable who needed to step up. Sadly for me none of them did. Billy Vunipola once England's most destructive ball carrier was anonymous at no.8. Owen Farrell (no.12) England Captain just doesn’t look like his old self, yes he brings great leadership and defensive qualities but that's just not enough at inside centre. Elliot Daly just doesn’t add the quality you’d expect from him. On the day, his passing often lacked the precision you’d expect at this level.
I don’t know if Eddie Jones as Coach will make huge changes, with Wales next, but at some point loyalty to players needs to be replaced by picking on form.
George Ford at fly-half was England’s player of the match, his passing and vision allowed England to play with width and more flair. Finally, it was such a shame to see Jack Willis injured as he could have world-class potential.
Scotland vs Wales (24 -25)
For the second week in a row, Wales were hugely aided by a red card. Zander Fagerson (one of Scotland’s props) and one of their more influential players was sent off in the 53rd minute. Down to 14 men and despite a valiant effort, Scotland were unable to hold off a resurgent Wales. Some questioned the decision but for me, the referee Matthew Carly had no other choice.
Although Scotland lacked a little of the intensity and execution they showed against England they were the better team on the day. Once again Stuart Hogg at full-back and Finn Russel at fly-half showed just how good they are. Matt Fagerson at no 8 and Ali Price at scrum-half also looked in excellent form. They almost pulled off a win at the death, but it was not to be.
Wales can count themselves lucky to have two wins from their two games thus far in the competition. That said, a number of their players rose to the occasion. Taulupe Faletau at no.8 looked back to his best. Louis Rees- Zammit on the wing showed just why everyone is talking about him. Wyn Jones at prop and Ken Owens at Hooker also had good games. Despite these performances and an overall team display of outstanding fighting spirit, I’m still not sure they really deserved the win.
Lucky or not, Wales's two wins so far can only build their confidence for the next game on 27th Feb vs England.
Watch out France – Scotland will be dying to upset the apple cart and England will certainly want to beat Wales!!
Ireland vs France (13-15)
Once again the Sunday game was the game of the weekend. What a match!! Ireland threw everything, including the kitchen sink at France. They may have been missing three of their most recognised and experienced players (Jonny Sexton (fly half), Conor Murray (Scrumhalf) and James Ryan at lock, but they had a game plan and they executed it so well. They harried France and denied them quick ball and kicked superbly out of hand.
Rhys Ruddock at lock, who had never previously started a Six Nations game was immense. Hugo Keenan at no.15 was dynamic and immensely brave under the high ball. Josh van der Flier on the flank and CJ Stander at no.8 worked tirelessly too, but in the end, Ireland just couldn’t force the victory.
Deux points (two points) – it’s not much but it was that man, Dupoint (pardon the pun) at Scrum-half who was the difference between the teams. He only had two opportunities to move in space, both resulted in scores for France. Can there be any argument that he is the best scrum-half in the world?
It says a lot about France that they denied Ireland a try in the last few minutes with a superb cover tackle on James Lowe, Ireland's winger, by Gail Fickou, their defensive leader and centre. Shaun Edwards influence as defensive coach is apparent. France now matches their flair with an ability to play with steel in defence that makes them a very dangerous team indeed.
Giving Fickou responsibility for defence has made him an even better player. Brice Dulin at no.15 was excellent for France showing huge bravery and skill under a bombardment of high kicks. Charles Ollivon on the flank once again led as a Captain should, by example and Gregory Alldritt at no.8 was excellent.
They have still got a bit to do with Scotland and England yet to play against, but who’d bet against a grand slam decider between them and Wales on the 20th March and last weekend of the competition!!
Bring it on!! I don’t know about you, but I need a week's break from all this excitement, but can’t wait for the next round of games on the 27th & 28th of Feb.
The last word!
In my first article, I questioned if this competition should be going ahead with all the surrounding risks of Covid etc. I can genuinely say now that I am so pleased that it is. If this weekend's games were anything to go by, then “bravo” to all the Nations competing for their massive efforts to ensure that it went ahead safely. I am sure I speak for both long-standing rugby fans and those newer to the sport when I say how grateful we are in these dark locked down days to have such a spectacle to watch.
The Lions selection:
Following on from last week’s article here are a couple of selections from my friend Adrian to stir the debate even more!!
6N XV - 15th Feb 2021
Alun Wyn Jones
Lions XV 14-2-21
Alun Wyn Jones