So that was the 3rd Round done and dusted in this years Six Nations. And what was my overriding impression from this round of games? Zzzzzz…..
There was little to get the pulse racing across the three games. Fofana’s moment of brilliance apart, there will be little to live long in the memory. All three games were highly influenced by the performance of the three officials with the endless problems at the scrum and breakdown again being a negative drain on entertainment. Perhaps this is why teams are so scared to keep the ball in hand and explains the endless box kicking we have been subjected to over the last two rounds of games. However it doesn’t explain the poor level of basic skill on display with endless handling errors and low quality passing a continual theme. I don’t buy the impact of the weather either. It does rain in New Zealand too….
On a positive note, I did at least get a full house of correct predictions this week to take my score to a respectable 7 correct predictions out of the 9 games played. My margins of victory were also pretty good as well!
I’ll start in Rome where Wales put Italy away in the first bore fest of the weekend. Wales were head and shoulders above their hosts in most departments but both teams kicked poorly and the Welsh kick chase remains a disorganised mess for the most part. The biggest surprise was it took the French referee so long to sin bin one of the Italian front row. Castro was the eventual fall guy after continually throwing himself to the floor in almost every scrum. Wales claimed 9 points from penalties resulting from scrums. Not pretty but effective.. I suppose. Personally I would like the Welsh to play some more rugby. For it to take them 44 minutes to get the ball to Jonathan Davies says it all. I think George North may still be waiting for his pass. Italy were dreadful. Their ageing pack looked underpowered whilst behind the scrum it was a complete disaster. Yet another change of half backs did nothing to improve their game and they remain clueless as to how to break down organised defences. Wales will be happy that their set piece has improved and they put a nice strike move together for Cuthbert’s try but as someone who wants to see Wales play with some more ambition I question whether the 10,12 selections are really getting the best out the Welsh outside backs. Halfpenny was immense, it’s just a shame we can’t see him more as an attacking force.
At Twickenham we saw a game for exactly 52 minutes before the French coaching staff decided it was time to grab inevitable defeat from the jaws of possible victory. I’m not saying that France would have won if the changes hadn’t been made, but I think the game would have remained a lot closer and would have probably gone down to the wire. England were their usual organised selves but they were hugely benefitted by the performance of referee Craig Joubert and his merry band of assistants. Joubert you will recall refereed the World Cup Final. In that match, he ludicrously penalised the French to the point where he denied them a likely win. Here he was extremely hot on any French indiscretions at the breakdown but strangely unable to spot a clear offside for England’s try or able to spot a professional foul from Vunipola when the game was finely balanced at 17-13. Such fine margins can decide test matches but in the end the French will have to look at themselves first. To replace their best half back pairing and their loose head prop (who was giving Dan Cole an almighty hiding at the scrum) and then the immense Nicolas Mas screamed of coaching by numbers rather than assessing what was taking place in front of them. The changes robbed Les Bleus of their building momentum and allowed England to get a roll in the final quarter. The England bench added the required something that was missing and Lancaster will know that the selection of Lawes at blindside was not a success. England played their get out of jail free card but have much to attend to if they are to win a Grand Slam. Their scrum and lineout are currently the joint lowest in terms of efficiency in the tournament to date. They will be glad that they have Italy at home next to attend to one or two parts of their game.
The final game of the weekend was also a grim affair, particularly if you are an Irish supporter. Despite having 80% possession and 80% territory, the Irish scored 8 points in 80 minutes. I think it is fair to say that if any of the southern hemisphere giants had such dominance they would have probably scored 80 points against the Scots. Ireland calved Scotland up numerous times in the first half but were badly let down by some horrendous skill execution and decision making that robbed them of at least 3 simple tries. Messrs Earls and Marshall will have nightmares about their inability to put supporting team mates in for easy scores. I predicted that goal kicking would be an issue and Paddy Jackson will again be one suffering from a lack of sleep this week. The Irish excuses were out in force before and after the game with 8 key men either injured or unavailable. Given the Irish provinces competitiveness in Europe, surely they have enough strength in depth to cover such losses? Or has the continued loyalty to seasoned campaigners meant that the new blood has been stifled in its development? The Scots will be delighted to have won a second game and their tenaciousness is to be applauded. However this was a freak result given their lack of possession and territory and this was for the third game running where they have been hammered on both fronts. I think it is a little premature to suggest Scotland are now a realistic force in the championship. They will need to show much more in the final two games if they are to be considered realistic contenders.
So, all in all another frustrating weekend’s viewing for the Northern Hemisphere rugby fan. The excitement of the opening weekend has disappeared as teams have reverted to safety first, no risk rugby built on endless scrummaging and box kicking. It would appear easier to play without the ball rather than with it but perhaps the approach of the respective coaches has to be questioned? Yes winning is everything at international level. But it wouldn’t hurt if we saw a bit more positive rugby as well.