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Rugby chaos reigns

Garry DoyleOwain Jones

A Six Nations weekend with Scotland kicking their heels and France conducting an investigation into Covid breaches meant the tournament was in need of some on-field drama to fill the void and Wales v England game duly delivered – in spades.

Six tries, two heavily debated, pundits imploding, England drowning in penalties, a Welsh masterclass in managing final quarters of games and enough rancour from fans to make a fishwife blush mean the ramifications of the contest continue to pinball around the rugby world. In Rome, there was far less conjecture. A rudimentary win for Andy Farrell was completed in some style, with the introduction of Craig Casey pointing towards the future and the continued class of Johnny Sexton meaning Ireland are not quite ready to move their ageing pivot on just yet, even with Joey Carbery back on the comeback trail. Plenty to discuss for The XV, then…

England the authors of their own demise

It will do England no favours to stew over the two highly contentious tries that went against them in Cardiff on Saturday. For Josh Adams’ try, they will privately concede they should have been more switched on in the 26 seconds that elapsed from Pascal Gaüzère telling Owen Farrell to speak to his players and Dan Biggar’s swinging right boot that saw the ball sail 40metres into Adams’ waiting arms. 

The second try by Liam Williams was certainly fortuitous, with Louis Rees-Zammit failing the ‘poker-face’ audition, but by the letter of the law (well the man in black interpreting the rule book), there was enough evidence to allow the try, so credit must go to Williams for playing to the whistle and just about beating his former team-mate Owen Farrell to the ball. Remember in 2018, when there was clear photographic evidence of Gareth Anscombe grounding a ball over the tryline but the decision went against Wales in a one-score game, that’s the way the game goes and the fact England have chosen not to take up the matter with World Rugby suggests an acceptance they know they were beaten by a team who outsmarted them in the closing stages. 

England
England were out-thought in the final quarter of the game (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

What will give Eddie Jones sleepless nights is that at 24-24, after 62 minutes, the hard work had been done to claw England back into contention. Fighting back from 17-3 down and 24-14, they had played with the elan missing for much of the Nations Cup. But three quickfire penalties, expertly converted by Callum Sheedy, saw Wales pull away and it was Sheedy’s interception that saw 80m lost by England and Cory Hill powering over from a short distance to apply the coup de grâce of a record points total against their old foes.

Despite England picking up the Six Nations and Nations Cup in 2020, those who had watched England closely had seen a regression in their play, a conservatism, that suggests the team of 2019, who had so gloriously run amok against New Zealand in Japan, may need some work under the hood. With France and Ireland to come, it will not get any easier for England, who have precious little time to tidy up their act. England’s penalty count is no laughing matter; a collective reset is required.

Belief courses through Welsh veins

Of Wayne Pivac’s 14 games in charge of the Welsh team, this was by far his team’s most impressive performance. Yes, there was an element of serendipity around some decisions that went their way through Gaüzère, but credit must go to Biggar’s speed of thought and the brilliance of his execution in Adams’ try, and to Williams for carrying on when the watching world was expecting play to be called back for a knock-on. It was the sign of a composed, mature side who were boxing clever and taking their opportunities. 

Every ounce of experience showed by the 902 starting caps was used to nullify England’s running threat, from a rampaging Billy Vunipola to a gliding Henry Slade. Wales’ lineout, for so long their Achilles’ heel started working like a Swiss timepiece, their scrum was rock-solid and in Taulupe Faletau and Justin Tipuric, they have one of the great back-row partnerships, who work in perfect harmony to keep Wales ticking over. Pivac deserves credit for his selection of Kieran Hardy over the experienced Gareth Davies, who has not been at his best. Davies would have privately applauded Hardy’s 47th-minute try because it was a carbon copy of the type Davies scored in his pomp. The early introduction of Sheedy, with Biggar clutching a hip, was also bold but the Bristol fly-half produced a virtuoso cameo in what was a breakthrough game for the 25-year-old.

Cory Hill
Cory Hill emerges after scoring Wales’ fourth try in a 40-24 victory (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Old rugby sages often say it’s the last 20 minutes where games are won and lost and it was in this period that Wales put a metaphorical Chinese burn on England. Their pressure, street-smart play and sophisticated use of the bench paid dividends as England wilted. Indeed, the sight of Rees-Zammit pulling away from his Gloucester team-mate Jonny May on 77 minutes was a mirror to England’s heavy-legged performance, while Wales were full of vim and vigour. At the end, England were sullen and punch-drunk, while Wales looked like another 10 minutes on the clock would have been a breeze. 

For Wales, they have the excitement of a fifth Grand Slam in 16 years to look forward to. It would be a shock of gargantuan proportions were they to lose to Italy, who haven’t won in the tournament for six years, but all roads would lead to Paris and you wouldn’t bet against Wales’ old guard going out with a ten-gun salute.

Rome in ruins as Italy count the cost of another heavy loss

Rome wasn’t built in a day yet construction projects in the old town still happened quicker than they do in Italian rugby. It is 21 years now since the Azzurri entered the Six Nations but with 15 wooden spoons already stored in the kitchen, and a 16th about to arrive, you really have to wonder what they’re at.

It’s all well and good for Franco Smith to talk about his young team being “competitive with anyone in seven to eight years” but the truth is, as head coach, he has to make that happen in seven to eight days. And you can’t see him doing so, not when their defence is more static than the Greco-Roman statues that line the terrace on the walk up to the Stadio Olimpico.

They missed nearly one tackle in five on Saturday, conceding 48 points to add to the 91 they had already coughed up to England and France. Their set-piece is shaky; they get to the breakdown slower than a mechanic in rush hour and their discipline is shocking. Eighteen times they were penalised on Saturday; at one stage they had only 13 men on the pitch.

Jacopo Trulla
Jacopo Trulla laments another heavy loss for the Azzurri (Photo by Emmanuele Ciancaglini/Getty Images)

So, you can’t talk confidently about their future when the evidence of the present is so damning. Six years and 30 games have passed since they last won a game in this championship and some of the hammerings delivered in that timeframe have been awful, Ireland beating them by 43 points in 2016, by 53 a year later, by 37 in 2018, 33 last year and now 38. The one time Italy ran them close, in 2019, Conor O’Shea, their then coach, pointed out how he didn’t want “pats on the back’”. “We have good players,” he added.

The trouble is they don’t have enough of them. Their captain has talent. His name is Luca but he lives on rugby’s second tier. 

Way back in the mid-90s, when Ireland-Italy encounters were also predictably one-sided – albeit with the Italians repeatedly coming out on top in that era – the Azzurri had so much more depth, especially with their half-back pairing, Diego Dominguez and Alessandro Troncon, purring with intent.

Three wins on the trot against Ireland from 1995 to ‘97 were complemented by victories over France, Scotland and Argentina in that period. They ran Australia to three points in Brisbane; England to seven at the 1995 World Cup. Sadly they ran out of steam by the time they finally were allowed enter the championship in 2000.

The excuse at the time was that they’d improve with experience. Show them patience, their backers suggested. We have. We’re still waiting, still hoping for signs of progress. But it isn’t visible. Their average losing margin in last year’s championship was 26.8 points. This year it is just shy of 34. Rome is in ruins.

The perfect tens

Sexton was never going to drift quietly away. He is too proud, too resilient, too good, Saturday providing further evidence of his ‘bouncebackability’ after his opening-day injury against Wales. Eight kicks from eight, backed up by a sizzling pass to set up Keith Earls for Ireland’s final score, was evidence of a man who has rediscovered his form. “It’s more than that,” said Andy Farrell after Ireland’s 48-10 victory. “Johnny is influencing others to step up to the plate. Our leadership is growing. It’s looking good on that front.”

The succession plan is also looking a good deal healthier this weekend after Carbery, Sexton’s heir, played his first game in 14 months. Troubled by an ankle injury picked up just prior to the World Cup, Carbery’s rehabilitation came to a completion at the Arms Park on Friday, when he came off the bench for Munster.

Johnny Sexton
Johnny Sexton is proving difficult to replace for Ireland (Photo By Roberto Bregani/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

It was as if he’d never been away, the way he took the ball to the line, the slickness of his passing, the smoothness of his late conversion. Whatever about the 25-year-old’s skills, it’s his mentality that impresses, not just in terms of how he has dealt with this injury but also the manner with which he recovers from setbacks.

At Murrayfield a couple of years ago, when Sexton went off early, Carbery got picked off by Finn Russell en route to Sam Johnson’s first-half try. The question was how he would react. We soon discovered, as he steered the ship home having earlier veered it into the iceberg. When fiery Sexton finally passes on the torch, it will be to a cool head. 

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