A freezing cold, wet weekend in the UK meant some tricky conditions for rugby, but that didn’t stop the Six Nations from providing three more cracking games to enjoy.
Red cards, wingers flying through the air to score, horror injuries, youngsters setting the game on fire and the oldies of the international game picking up another win for the record books – there was lots going on and lots to talk about.
Is it time to take action against the crocodile?One of the saddest moments from the weekend came within minutes of one of the highlights. Jack Willis, the England back-rower, had fought his way back from a serious knee injury to become player of the English Premiership season in 2020 and into the England set-up. Soon after coming on against Italy he had scored a try and the comeback story was complete – or so many thought.
Moments later he could be heard screaming in agony as his knee was twisted badly in a crocodile tackle from Italian flanker Sebastian Negri. As the Englishman was driven off the field the debate started about whether it was time to bring in changes to make the crocodile tackle illegal.
Sadly Willis isn’t the first player to be injured by the controversial technique but the debate is made more complex in this situation because Negri was actually off his feet when he tackled the Englishman. The referee decided there was no infringement and so no punishment was given on the field, but there will be more debate as another top player has his career threatened by the technique.
The R word is back againAlthough the current youngsters of Italy are attracting some compliments, the stark reality is that the team have yet again lost the first two games of the competition and conceded a bucketload of points.
For every comment about how the current team of exciting youth deserve a few years to bond and grow together there’s also a comment saying it was time to discuss relegation again as part of the Six Nations tournament.
It’s not a new debate, but as long as Italy continue to prop up the ladder like a stack of dusty books under a student’s bed, then it will not go away.Unfortunately the stats continue to work against the Italians.
They’ve come last 15 years out of 20 in the competition.
They haven’t won a game in the Six Nations for six years now.
They’ve conceded an average of 31 points per game and scored an average of only 13.
They are surrounded by the European Tier 2 teams in the world rankings – Italy are sitting at 14th while Georgia are 12th, Spain 17th and Romania 19th.
Could there be a new play-off game where the sixth-placed side from the Six Nations plays against the winner of the Rugby Europe International Championship (the Tier 2 competition) each year?
Of course the impact of a decision like this goes far beyond the national team and would impact domestic competition a huge amount. But how much longer can the Six Nations organisers refuse to penalise teams for coming last and refuse to reward the Tier 2 sides for winning their competition?
Does Owen Farrell need to start worrying?England beat Italy comfortably on the weekend, and even though Italy scored first, the result was never really in doubt. Despite this solid win, mentions of Owen Farrell in the sports pages are not about a strong response from him as a leader or a player but rather questioning whether he is a dead cert for selection any more.
Against Italy there was another one of those Farrell moments when he came under scrutiny for a dodgy tackle. This time it was a late hit on Stephen Varney and a head collision. The officials decided there was no penalty required, but for many fans it was another example of how Farrell keeps coming under the spotlight for these sorts of incidents. And for what? He wasn’t saving a try or desperately trying to get his team back into a game they were losing. The game was won and the Italians were no threat. So why do it, Owen?
Eddie Jones played Farrell at No. 10 in Round 1 against Scotland and he didn’t play well. When England did have the ball there was little direction, control or flair. He’s not England’s only decent goal kicker and there are better playmakers or creative players available to Jones.
These realities are starting to stack up against the England captain, and now there are concerns that he’s one of the reasons why England are struggling to find their attacking rhythm. England’s wingers looked good on the weekend and Henry Slade is also nice to watch with ball in hand, but these players seem to be getting the ball only in broken play or from an opposition kick. Farrell is not distributing or giving these players time and space with the ball and England’s attack is stuttering.
Farrell has been away from the game for a while and so perhaps these things will change with some game time. But you wonder if the underlying attitude that sees him challenge the rules and fans’ patience time and again will ever change and how much longer it will be tolerated.
Owen Farrell (Kaz Photography/Getty Images)
What do we make of Wales?If you were to look at the table alone, you’d assume the Welsh are looking pretty and playing well. Wins against Ireland and Scotland – that last one away in Edinburgh – and the Welsh Dragon is flying high.
Add to the ladder the fact that you’ve got a player like 20-year-old Louis Rees-Zammit playing beautifully and scoring tries that make fans of all types stand up from the seats and shout, “How did he do that?”, and you’d think everything is going oh so well for the men in red.
However, the other side of the coin suggests this Welsh team are being flattered by the competition ladder. Yes, they’ve won two from two, but in both games they’ve been on the beneficial side of red cards and played against 14 men for long periods of time.
If you ask pundits and fans alike, a large number believe that Wales would not have beaten Scotland this weekend were it not for the red card, and many feel the same about their first-round outing against the Irish. Of course you can only play the opposition in front of you, and if one of them is going to get sent off, then what are you meant to do? Ask the ref to give him a second chance and promise to be a good boy?
But people point to the fact that Wales’ new style under Wayne Pivac still isn’t really clear to see and that the team is nowhere near as good as the ladder leads people to believe. Their line out has started to creak and is not as reliable as it used to be.
There are three games left for Wales, and it’ll be interesting to see where they end up. They’ll beat Italy, so it all comes down to how they do against England and France. If they lose to both of these two, then a mid-table finish is likely and the first two wins against 14-man sides will perhaps hide some of the blushes. But if they beat England in Round 3 in Cardiff, they could be going to Paris to battle it out for the grand slam. It would be hard to argue then that they don’t deserve their position on the ladder.
French defence and control is scarier than their attackFrance are on top of the ladder and playing some wonderful rugby. There is so much talk about their star names, and many regard scrumhalf Antoine Dupont as the form player in the world, let alone the Six Nations.
But as they wrapped up an important away win over Ireland this round the aspect of their game that really stood out was their control and defence – and that should scare other teams.
Ireland had almost 60 per cent possession and territory during the game and forced France to make over 200 tackles. But despite all this time with the ball in their hands, the Irish could create only three clean breaks and completed just five offloads.
The French defence and general attitude has really evolved over the past couple of years, and unsurprisingly master defensive coach Shaun Edwards is receiving a lot of praise. This ability for the French side to play with confidence and control while they don’t have the ball, trusting themselves and their teammates to soak up the pressure, is one of the signs of a team that is going to dominate others and pick up win after win after win.
They’ve got the attacking flair and ability to score from anywhere, and they can strike in a split second when an opponent makes a simple mistake. First-choice flyhalf Romain Ntamack is still out, but the team hasn’t missed a step as Dupont and Matthieu Jalibert have combined to make a really exciting halfback pairing.
But it’s the fact that their defence has become so effective that is the daunting prospect for all opposition. While Wales might be two from two alongside France at the top of the ladder, you’d be hard pressed to find many who would bet against Les Bleus winning the whole thing unbeaten.