Six Nations: The mid-term verdict
England have excelled, France have flopped and everyone else is somewhere in between. After two rounds, Iain Morrison delivers his report.
The Six Nations always throws up surprises and England are one of them. We knew they were good but we didn’t know just how physical and committed this team would be. One Scotland coach reckoned that England are more physical at the contact areas than South Africa which, if true, makes them the most brutal team operating in world rugby.
Add to the mix the vision and kicking of Owen Farrell, pictured, Brad Barritt’s defence and the pace and guile of the back three and this team will be handful when they host the World Cup in their own back yard in 2015.
England have shown that they can play both ways. They moved the ball against the Scots and they went toe to toe with a very decent Ireland eight in the Dublin rain and gave nothing away. Pity Ronan O’Gara, who will hope never to see a white shirt again so long as he plays. Another performance like that and his wish may just come true.
Lancaster still has a few issues to sort out. Ben Youngs lacks consistency at scrum-half, brother Tom gets the yips at the sidelines and he has a three-into-two midfield problem that other coaches would die for.
The good: The only team still in with a shout of the Grand Slam, England have done everything expected of them and some more.
The bad: This may be carping but England lost four lineouts in Dublin and they only managed four tries against Scotland despite making 12 clean line breaks.
The bizarre: Warren Gatland suffers another case of foot in mouth disease by suggesting that England players bring too much baggage to take many on the Lions tour. I wonder if Andy Irvine wishes he had opted for Lancaster instead?
It’s like a reality show where the Scotland rugby squad have been given a make-over. They entered the studio as Anne Widdecombe and emerged as Anne Hathaway.
After years of doing dull, Scotland are suddenly sexy because they top the try-scoring ranks after two rounds of the championship with six to their name.
The 4-1 try count against Italy made it look like a massacre but only one of them came from the traditional source of multiple phase play. The rest have all sprung from other wells and, while that doesn’t make them any less valid, it does mean that we still don’t know much about this team’s ability to score when/if they win a regular supply of good ball.
Scotland lost the possession/territory battle at Twickenham with 38 and 33 per cent of each respectively, which you might expect, but they lost the same fight against Italy (38 and 38 per cent), which you might not. We know the back three can score from broken play but it would be nice to see if they can repeat the trick from phase play.
At least Scotland are scoring and Sean Maitland, pictured, is a great capture. The Kiwi not only scored one but he also set up two of Scotland’s six tries and he could have claimed an assist for a third but for a small forward pass. Where is Wayne Barnes when you need him?
The good: One fine win does not make the Six Nations but there is a spring in the Scots’ step and the back three are on fire.
The bad: The Scots’ big men, and they might be the weightiest forward pack ever fielded in navy blue, have lost the battle for the ball hands down.
The bizarre: After something of a famine, Scotland are now feasting on tries, with six in two games.
They will look at their extensive injury list and consider that a 50 per cent return upon their investment to date is a pretty fair dividend, given the personnel who were unavailable to interim coach Rob Howley.
At least his side have snapped a long eight-match losing streak with that gutsy win in Paris, which dispelled some of the gloom following an early loss to Ireland that occurred despite a dramatic, Lazarus-like second-half comeback.
Slowly, some of the wounded warriors are returning to the fray with Alun-Wyn Jones added to the squad that will face Italy in Rome. Leigh Halfpenny is a contender for the Lions, no matter how many Englishmen travel, and so too are the twin towers of George North and Alex Cuthbert, who continue to impress.
You have to feel a little sorry for Sam Warburton who, this time last year, was pencilled in as a Lions skipper but has now lost his place in the Welsh team to Justin Tipuric, pictured, and rightly so. Tipuric may be of Croatian decent but he is still one of the few, traditional, specialist openside flankers in the competition with almost every other team opting for size and strength over intelligence and stealth.
The good: Even shorn of key players, this Welsh side is still a danger to anyone and their wingers can and will score tries.
The bad: Wales gave up their championship crown almost before this tournament had kicked off with a spineless first 40 against Ireland.
The bizarre: It’s bad enough having a Welsh fan invade the pitch in Paris, it is all the more embarrassing when said fan turns out to be George North’s dad.
It HAS been a mixed bag from a team in transition and one that still spends too much time on the naughty step. The loss of Cian Healy to the citing commissioner is a blow because it means that Euan Murray’s replacement (Moray Low is the favourite) will have an easier time of it next Sunday when Ireland visit Murrayfield.
The loss of Johnny Sexton means that the grand old man of Irish rugby is dusted down and sent into battle like a modern day re-enactment of El Cid. Ronan O’Gara, pictured, is playing the Charlton Heston role with more acting skills than the Hollywood star ever mustered.
O’Gara was targeted mercilessly by England when he came on and the Scots will surely offer him a little more tackling practice if he plays. On that basis it’s unlikely but not inconceivable that Munster’s Ian Keatley gets the nod in his stead. In addition to losing their playmaker, Ireland also lost their best finisher when Simon Zebo limped off, lock Mick McCarthy and centre Gordon D’Arcy are also injured.
At least Declan Kidney’s men remain fiercely competitive up front with no-nonsense characters like Sean O’Brien, Rory Best and Donnacha Ryan. If Ireland are to go down at Murrayfield next weekend, and that is by no means certain, they will go down fighting.
The good: The breakaways remain hugely competitive, we include Brian O’Driscoll in that august group, and Ireland were unstoppable for 40 minutes against Wales.
The bad: ROG is not just beginning to look his age, he is beginning to look mine and one third of the starting XV will miss the Scotland match for one reason or another.
The bizarre: Ireland enjoyed 56 per cent of territory during the first half in Cardiff and 19 per cent after the break. Whatever they did at half time… don’t.
The Azzurri have experienced the ying and the yang of sporting life with what was only their third-ever win over France at Test level followed up by a dispiriting four-try loss at Murrayfield.
The flyweight fly-half Luciano Orquera, pictured, personified their woes. He flirted with greatness against France, making tries for Sergio Parisse and Martin Castrogiovanni and kicking well from hand and the tee. One week later he could scarcely put one foot in front of the other without falling over. He kicked one ball into touch when bending over to pick it up. He gave the pass that Stuart Hogg intercepted for a try and his suspect defence was found wanting time and again. It was a painful fall from grace.
With all three Italian tries to date having come from their forwards, this side looks a little like Scotland did a year ago, dominating possession and bossing the hard yards at the coal face without ever getting a decent return for all their efforts on the scoreboard.
Ahead of this tournament, their French coach Jacques Brunel admitted that his side lacked an out and out finisher in the Tim Visser mould and, for all their honest endeavour, that truth is hurting the Italians.
The good: A magnificent win over France and Sergio Parisse. The world-class skipper is only 29, he already has 93 caps to his name and will eventually retire with one hundred and plenty.
The bad: Normally so passionate, the Italians were out-fought by the Scots at Murrayfield.
The bizarre: Italians know a thing or two about footie but Giovanbattista Venditti, who scored the winning try against Scotland last season, missed the ball altogether with one fly hack to almost gift Matt Scott an early try.
It would take a hard-hearted cynic not to laugh out loud at France’s current misfortune. Philippe Saint-Andre has seen his side stumble to a second successive loss in Rome before watching Wales secure a late win in Paris.
PSA’s problems are partly of his own making. He dropped the best performing flanker, Toulouse’s Yannick Nyanga, from the squad altogether and he picked Freddie Michalak at ten when the little man has spent the entire season playing scrum-half for Toulon. PSA then shuffled his best midfielder, Wesley Fofana, off to the wing and he took the captaincy away from Thierry Dusautoir, who had led the French to the World Cup final despite all the shenanigans surrounding the then coach Marc Lievremont.
Still the current French coach, pictured, may have a point when he moans about the access to his players with the Top 14 slugging it out right up to the Six Nations and on the “rest” weekends in between. Something has to give and, right now, with just two years until the next World Cup, it looks like PSA’s Eden Park jacket is on a shoogly peg.
The French need a performance, if not a result, in London on Saturday and it has rarely been a happy hunting ground, especially with Stuart Lancaster’s team in their current miserly mood. It’s a brave man who would bet against France being three from three (losses that is) and stuck at the bottom of the table when the totting up is done next weekend.
The good: Fofana is still doing his stuff on the wing even if they need him back in the midfield.
The bad: The rest. Michalak looks bored frankly, barely able to summon the energy to yawn.
The bizarre: Selection will always provoke arguments but almost no-one is defending PSA’s left-field picks.
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