Iain Morrison: Six Nations half-term report card
A somewhat underwhelming start to the tournament. They saw off Italy without too much trouble but struggled to translate heaps of possession and acres of territory into points against a combative and organised Welsh team. Found wanting against Scotland especially at the breakdown where, as Eddie Jones has noted on several occasions, Chris Robshaw is not a seven. Sam Underhill is and we expect him to start against France despite that yellow card at Murrayfield.
We like: Danny Care, George Ford and Owen Farrell combining to kick Wales to defeat at Twickenham. Care’s eye for a break and the pace to take it. Anthony Watson’s finishing against Italy.
And not so much: The complacency at Murrayfield. The lack of cutting edge against Wales. Opting for size over skill in the third row of the scrum. Mike Brown’s lack of grace and Owen Farrell’s perpetual teenage petulance.
Verdict: Must do better and probably will.
Brave against Ireland but they needed that win because it only gets tougher from here on in. France are the biggest under-performers on the rugby field and they made fools of themselves off it in Edinburgh too. Jacques Brunel is hampered by the type of player that the Top 14 produces and we all witnessed the limitations of a pack of behemoths when England came to Murrayfield. France have no particular style of play to call their own, they are tactically leaderless and they only ended Italy’s challenge in the final quarter. That match, please Lord, was the worse of this Six Nations by a margin...two bad teams having an off day. The rugby powerhouse that is France, boasting deep coffers and a huge playing population, is now ranked below Fiji many of whose best players turn out in other colours.
We like: Teddy Thomas took his tries well against Ireland and Scotland while Guilhem Guirado is one of those leaders you’d follow across the River Styx.
And not so much: The talent is not used to its best effect so the players lose faith in the system and fail to offer the best of themselves. France has been ordinary for so long that the public are now inured to the humiliations heaped upon their miserable team.
Verdict: Flawed, faulty and, err, French. Desperately in need of a visionary coach to harness all that talent.
You have to feel for Conor O’Shea who took on the Italian job without perhaps realising the size of the task in hand. The Irishman has always been a DOR rather than a coach and he lost his hands-on man when Brendan Venter returned to South Africa. Italy have been brave and occasionally inspired but they can’t keep it up for 80 minutes and there is a certain inevitability about those second half collapses. They are desperately short of genuine class and their new style of running rugby is somewhat hampered by picking the kicking specialist Tommaso Allen, once of this parish, at flyhalf. Promising newbies come into the squad full of excitement and they quickly have expectations squashed. Italy sit two places below Georgia in the rankings and they are horribly aware of this uncomfortable fact.
We like: They have shown enterprise and skill in scoring more tries (7) after three matches than they did in the whole of the 2017 championship (6) including good scores from both wings against a tough England defence. Italy have been in every match at the break.
And not so much: Italy score tries but not nearly as many as they concede. The Italian defence has leaked 18 in three matches, ten more than the next worst team Wales. They need leadership from Sergio Parisse and instead their skipper rolls his eyes for the TV cameras when a colleague makes a mistake. Not helpful Sergio, really not helpful.
Verdict: The one team to date to have matched everyone’s expectations exactly.
When rugby went professional it entered the area of the entertainment business, whether they liked it or not, and what Ireland are offering under Joe Schmidt is designed to drive anyone who isn’t Irish to grab the remote and start pressing. Ireland are the only unbeaten side left in the championship but they have ground their way unconvincingly to wins over Wales and France while putting Italy to the sword. Three of their tries against Wales came from inches and, while the fans won’t argue with a Grand Slam it’s difficult to see ‘Schmidtball’ being enough to see off the Blacks next year at RWC’19, which is his ultimate goal.
We like: Ireland win matches and Jonny Sexton remains the best flyhalf in world rugby, his winning drop against France a thing of beauty. Cian Healy is back and James Ryan is the next Paul O’Connell, only better, according to Sean O’Brien.
And not so much: The game that Ireland play is predicated on holding onto the ball long enough to bore the opposition into submission and it certainly does that to me. Schmidt is short of creativity outside ten so he fills the backs with straight runners while Jordan Larmour, who could step a Sumo wrestler in an Edinburgh close, kicks his heels on the bench.
Verdict: Aesthetically speaking Ireland are a crime against sport but they are horribly difficult to beat, especially at the Aviva.
Difficult to know quite what to make of this Scotland’s squad transformation from Cardiff clowns to comic book superheroes at Marvel Murrayfield. It was a metamorphosis from grub to butterfly every bit as astonishing as that little moment of natural history magic. Since Cardiff Scotland have won two at home even if the French victory owed nothing to Gregor Townsend’s rugby philosophy, but have yet to take that form on the road. England were complacent but still the Scots put in a near perfect forty minute performance before battening down the second half hatches. Joe Schmidt’s Ireland are far too canny to get caught with their pants around their ankles but Wales proved that they are vulnerable to a bit of creativity in the wider channels which is what this Scotland team specialise in.
We like: Simon Berghan came of age against France, just as Stuart McInally did against England. Greig Laidlaw proved his worth and the smiling assassin Finn Russell bounced rather than broke. Finally it was nice to see that the Scots can still celebrate a Calcutta Cup victory in the traditional manner.
And not so much: What happened in Wales is a mystery. Russell forced things in Cardiff and kicked horribly against France. Peter Horne never gives less than 100% but still makes more mistakes than is ideal. And whatever Eddie Jones has done he didn’t deserve the odure heaped upon his head.
Verdict: Interesting, intriguing, improving with everything still to do away from home.
Lost two from three but they did so in some style and, with so many players missing from the roster, Warren Gatland won’t be too distressed. Wales showed more ambition, skill and panache in 80 minutes against Scotland than they have done in the last decade. Leigh Halfpenny was a revelation, Josh Adams an attacking force and Rhys Webb barely missed at scrumhalf as Gareth Davies stepped in and stepped up. They pushed England close, it would have been closer still had Gareth Anscombe’s try stood, and did the same to Ireland despite living off the smell of an oily rag.
We like: Everything about that opener against Scotland. The ability of Wales to create and score tries from almost anywhere on the field. Leigh Halfpenny reminding everyone he can do more than just catch and kick a rugby ball. The Scarlets front row.
The Bad: One win from three matches is nothing to boast about and Wales won’t win the title. The forwards have come a distant second in their own battles within the war against both England and especially Ireland when they spent just 25% of the match in the Irish half.
The Verdict: The “what if?” team of this tournament.