Round 3 - The Elephant in the room.

Covid strikes the Six Nations.

Let’s start this week’s round-up by addressing the elephant in the room. In my first article on this year's competition, I questioned whether, in this period of Covid lockdowns, the Six Nations should be played at all. How for example I asked would points be allocated if games were cancelled? What would the value of the title be if one of the top sides was unable to play due to a Covid outbreak? Well despite the best efforts of all involved it looks like these questions may now have to be answered.

The elephant as they say is now definitely in the room. This week a number of the French players tested positive for Covid. Amongst those identified was arguably the player of the tournament so far, Antoine Dupont the French Scrum Half. Later in the week, further positive tests were announced in the French team (Charles Ollivon, their Captain, Cyril Baille, Peato Mauvaka, Brice Dulin and Romain Taofifenua, Arthur Vincent, Julien Marchand, Gabin Villière and Mohamed Haouas). When the number of French players who had tested positive reached 11, the tournament organisers were finally forced to pull the plug and postpone Sunday's game against Scotland.

For the competition as a whole and for these two teams in particular the positive tests and the subsequent delay could not have come at a more vital moment.

Currently, France is on course for a possible Grand Slam (beating all the nations in the competition) this is something they haven't achieved since 2010. For Scotland, this year's competition hangs in the balance. It had started so well with an unexpected win against England, but following a close defeat last time out against Wales, this game was to be their acid test. Had the victory over England been the dawn of a new golden age of Scottish rugby or just another of the false dawns which have littered Scottish rugby's recent history. Only time and the next few weeks of Six Nations action will provide us with the answers to these questions.

Aside from the potential impact on this year's competition, the other question raised by the positive results of the French team is its possible impact on the health of the other players in the tournament.

France has played both Italy and Ireland in the last few weeks. Now whilst I’m sure there are very strict protocols in place and rigorous testing regimes being undertaken by all, there remains the real possibility of the virus spreading and other players being infected.

We can only hope that this is an isolated incident and has no real impact on the next few games for France or indeed the outcome of the competition. Organisers say a new date will be announced "in due course" and they are currently considering several options, including a midweek game in the week commencing 8 March, or the weekend of 27 March. However, if the game takes place outside World Rugby's international window on a week-end, Scotland could be missing more than 10 players as they will have to return to their clubs in England and France!! There are also rumours that France is being investigated for breaking Covid compliant rules and could be docked points or even forfeit the game against Scotland – the elephant is definitely in the room.

So, to the games that were played:

Italy vs Ireland - 10-48 win to Ireland!!

Italy looked good for the first ten to fifteen minutes, moving the ball quickly from side to side and attacking with pace and power but they couldn't score and ultimately paid the price for failing to take their chances which their hard work created. When Paolo Garbisi, their fly-half, found time and space he looked impressive. Italy have a young team and they will develop but I'm not sure that losses like this will help them get to the right place mentally. They didn't give up, but Italy have got to learn to turn opportunities into points if they are going to progress any further in future competitions.

Ireland weathered Italy's early storm and as the game went on began to stamp their authority on the match. Ireland was immense, playing with power, precision, and great decision making/execution. Italy’s defence was poor, but it was Ireland's ability to turn opportunities into tries or points that was the difference between the teams.

Jonny Sexton Ireland's fly-half steered the ship beautifully and James Lowe on the wing was a constant threat, but it was up front where the real damage was done. Ireland won the collisions, made yards and looked the part. C J Stander at 8 was a force to be reckoned with, but for once I have to agree with the TV pundits, Tadgh Beirne, playing on the flank, (he’s normally a lock) was the man of the match. He may even have put himself in the frame for the upcoming Lions tour.

Ireland play Scotland next and if they carry this form through to that game we may find ourselves watching the match of the tournament.

Wales vs England – 40-24 bonus point win (4 Tries) to Wales!!

Before the competition began who would have predicted that result? The first half was one of controversy, with Wales awarded two tries by Pascal Gauzere, the French referee, both of which were contentious and caused much debate amongst fans on Twitter and WhatsApp Groups etc.

When at half time (with Wales in a commanding lead) the TV pundits, who included Sam Warburton, (ex-Captain of Wales and Lions Captain), saying that he thought that in particular, the Josh Adams (Wales Wing) try was not the right decision, you have to wonder what Gauzere was thinking at the time.

We’ve all played, (I certainly have), with referees that seem to ignore the obvious and who are in our minds at least siding with the opposition. However, at the end of the day, the referee has the final say and has to be respected. I take my hat off to Owen Farrell for walking away from a further heated conversation with the referee when the first try was awarded.

Wales played with precision. They fought hard throughout to disrupt England game plan. Wales were clinical and precise and deserved the win. Biggar at fly-half didn’t miss a kick and Wyn Jones at prop, Alun Wyn-Jones at Lock and Taulupe Faletau at 8 provided the base for everything they did well. Louis Rees-Zammitt was again highly effective and showed that he’s probably the quickest winger in the tournament. Hats off to the Triple Crown winners (awarded to the home nation that beats all other home nations) and dare I say it Grand Slam winners in the making.

Wales face Italy next knowing that they need a big score to ensure that they enter what should be the tournament deciding match against France on the 20th of March with a positive points difference. Their confidence will be sky high …. What an end to the competition this could be for Wales.

Where do you start with England – they can look so good and fought back to 24 points all, only to give the game away on silly penalties. At the moment England's penalty count is more than 12 per game!! You can't win international games when you're giving away that many points.

For England, Anthony Watson on the wing showed again what a finisher he is. Billy Vunipola at 8 finally began to look like the player we known he can be. Tom Curry on the flank was relentless, Ben Youngs at scrum-half played well and Captain Andy Farrell in the Centre tried to lead by example, but they say the results speak for themselves. Unfortunately, it was probably England's best player Maro Itoje, at lock, that gave away most of these penalties and may have cost them the game. Eddie Jones as Coach has a lot of hard thinking to do!

Predictions at this stage:

Well, we've reached the halfway mark and it’s still all to play for. This year's Six Nations may come down to points difference! Wales could be on for a Grand Slam! France might still win the Six Nations, but I still think they might lose a game – so no grand slam. Ireland to finish strong and maybe beat England in the last round – 3rd or 4th. Scotland – depending on what happens regarding the French game could end up 3rd or 4th. England could end up 5th if they lose to France & Ireland! A distinct possibility!! Italy 6th

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