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The beautiful game

Garry DoyleOwain JonesJamie Lyall

The daffodils are emerging as Spring threatens to break out and helping it on its way is a weekend of glorious action in Round Four of the Six Nations. True Italy didn’t turn up to their own party in Rome, but Wales looked tournament winners-elect as they ran in seven tries and had two tries disallowed. The game of the tournament, so far, however, was at Twickenham, where Eddie Jones’ squad found a way to creep past a French side with quadruple threats. It was a joyous watch that Lawrence Dallaglio said had made rugby fans, ‘fall back in love with the game’. He wasn’t wrong. Yesterday’s helping was no less dramatic as Scotland fought back from 24-10 down to 24 apiece only to give away a penalty leaving Johnny Sexton to lift Irish spirits with a pressure kick from an acute angle. It was a beauty of a weekend and here’s what The XV made of it…

The ‘Project’ is back on for Eddie’s boys

The pressure was on England against France, and in the end, their desire told as Maro Itoje powered over the whitewash on 76 minutes for the ball to momentarily kiss the Twickenham blades of turf and arrest a disconcerting dent to Eddie Jones’ masterplan of late. Two losses to Scotland and Wales had left the critics picking away at their discipline, leadership and lack of potency in attack. Their win was a narrow one. It was not a tub-thumping, runaway victory, but there is no doubt it was their best collective performance since the semi-final of the Rugby World Cup in Japan and gives Jones’ men a platform from which to work from. 

The standout individual performances were plentiful. With every game Billy Vunipola appears to be getting back to his old self, and that backrow balance is critical to England’s success. Mark Wilson added the dark to dark arts around the breakdown, wrestling with France’s piano shifters, while Tom Curry’s turnover late in the first half would have led to fist-bumps from Penzance to Penrith. 

Maro Itoje
Maro Itoje scores the winning try for England (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Curry is turning into an all-court player, who can carry with venom, tackle himself to standstill and still affect matters on the deck. He will be favourite to wear the No 7 shirt against the Springboks this summer, even with the likes of the brilliant Justin Tipuric and Hamish Watson breathing down his neck. 

Under-fire skipper, Owen Farrell, also showed the best version of himself, with workrate, leadership and kicking on point. The aerial work of Jonny May, and fast-feet of Anthony Watson in broken-field running, was also a reminder of the attacking threats the side have in the back three, and Max Malins showed enough to warrant another start against Ireland at full-back. Finish in style in Dublin and ‘project England’ will be back on track.

Wales turnaround almost complete

Wales appear to have had a personality transplant. Where there was indecision and doubt against Italy four months ago, where, don’t forget, Wales were trailing the Azzurri midway through the second-half, in Rome on Saturday they were a model of clinical execution, enterprise, defensive hunger and cohesion. The seven tries scored could easily have been nine were it not for Josh Adams’ imperfect grounding and Dan Biggar’s forward pass to a galloping Louis Rees-Zammit, but these were minor frustrations the Welsh camp could brush off.

George North
George North powers away for this 43rd Test try for Wales (Photo by Antonietta Baldassarre Getty Images)

Italy were too passive, to lacking in defensive zeal to trouble Welsh strike runners, with three players carrying over 100m; Louis Rees-Zammit, George North and Josh Adams. In boxing parlance, they barely laid a glove on Wales and that will be a massive frustration for coach Franco Smith. Wales were smart, consistently turning over Italian ball and spreading the ball wide, while defensively, Wales have been much harder to break down than in the Nations Cup and Gethin Jenkins was snapping pencils on the side lines when Monty Ioane scorched over after a fine individual try, but in Josh Navidi (with 19 tackles) and Justin Tipuric, with 15, they have players with bite defensively.

Indeed, such was their dominance, that they were able to empty their bench between the 50th and 60th minute and rest the likes of Taulupe Faletau, Alun Wyn Jones and Ken Owens, who was on for a hat-trick, for their tilt at the Grand Slam in Paris next weekend. Wales have scored a record 17 tries already in Six Nations and they should be brimming with confidence against an aesthetically pleasing French side.

Same old for Scotland

This was a movie Scotland fans have seen a million times over, a grim franchise with more sequels than Fast and Furious. An eye-watering error count, hair-brained lack of discipline and a line-out that combusted in the opening quarter and never steadied, ravaged by James Ryan and his pals.

There is precious little between Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England on any given day right now, but how often do Scotland emerge on the right side of these furious contests? Will they ever harness the ruthlessness and streetsmarts to best an Ireland side always rich in both? They are becoming a better team under Gregor Townsend, but will they ever amount to anything approaching title contenders? The gamut of hard-luck stories, near misses and coulda-woulda-shoulda laments runs as long as the Clyde. You just never get the sense that they have victory within their grasp. The heinousness of the last throes on Sunday, when after working so incredibly hard to claw back a 14-point deficit, they coughed up a terrible match-deciding penalty, was Scotland in microcosm.

Scotland and Ireland contest a line-out at Murrayfield.
Scotland won two of their eight line-outs under intense Irish pressure (Getty Images)

Ireland were better on the floor, better in the air, better in the collisions, better at the line-out and better at managing the slightly erratic Romain Poite. Of all the individual duels out there, of all the Lions challengers going toe-to-toe, Andy Farrell’s men won just about the lot.

The boundless euphoria of Twickenham feels a lifetime ago now.

Ireland not punching their weight

For the first decade of the professional era, international rugby operated off a caste system. If you were a New Zealander, Australian or South African, success was your birthright. In Europe, whenever they took the mood, England and France were capable of doing whatever they pleased to everyone else until the French remembered they were a clichéd basket-case and made things interesting.

That’s what makes the Six Nations such an enduringly fascinating championship. An outsider watching yesterday’s error-ridden showing in Edinburgh would be liable to believe it was a second division contest in comparison to the quality displayed a day earlier at Twickenham.

Yet Scotland beat England in round one of this year’s competition; Ireland nearly defeated France in round two; while the Welsh have reminded us all that you can still upset the ruling class if you get the basics right and are well coached.That’s what Ireland did under Joe Schmidt. They’d never beaten New Zealand in their history but did so twice on his watch; they won a test series in Australia for the first time in 39 years, picked up a first win over the Springboks on South African soil, won three Six Nations titles in five years.

But since that golden year of 2018, the revolutionaries have gone quiet. England have beaten them four times in a row and are widely expected to extend that sequence to five this weekend; it’s two straight victories for France over Ireland, too – and you have to genuinely wonder if Ireland will ever rediscover the heights reached by Schmidt.

Paul O'Connell
Paul O’Connell has made a noticeable difference to Ireland’s line out (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Right now, the view isn’t pretty. For almost a year now, we’ve been saying how passive the team is in defence and how predictable they are in attack, Sunday’s show in Edinburgh adding to that impression, Ireland missing 22 tackles, Scotland six; Ireland making two line breaks, Scotland five.

Yet there’s some hope. Heading into last weekend’s game, both Scotland and Ireland were top of the class when it came to lineout success rates, Scotland winning 24 of their 26 throws, Ireland 29 of their 32. By 5pm yesterday, those stats were radically altered after the Scots secured just two of their eight lineouts.

In contrast, Ireland were still able to win their own ball off Rob Herring’s darts. So, when you examine all the evidence – Ireland’s set-piece being average last autumn, yet suddenly excellent this spring – you don’t need to be much of a detective to figure out how they’ve got better. It’s called the appointment of Paul O’Connell as forwards coach.

Again, we return to our original point. Given their physical and numerical advantages, the only five countries to have ever reached a World Cup final – New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, England, France – will always be contenders for rugby’s top prizes, or at least very hard to beat.

For everyone else, the only way to interrupt this exclusive party is to be smarter and better coached. Scotland, in the 1980s and ‘90s, were under Telfer and McGeechan, the same rule applied for Wales under Gatland, Ireland under Schmidt. But this year’s coaching team have a mixed school report. O’Connell is top of his class; scrum coach John Fogarty is also getting good marks but attack coach, Mike Catt, and defence coach, Simon Easterby, have ‘must do better’ comments splattered across their journals in red ink.

Who’s to say things won’t improve? But unless things do, Ireland will remain a mid-table operator. To mix with the elite, you don’t just need a world class side but a world class system. 

Warren watching

With Warren Gatland peering on from the stands, this was a game that could burnish or blight a player’s Lions credentials. The men in green emerged with significantly more credit than their vanquished hosts.

In the Scotland side, only Hamish Watson and Stuart Hogg came out of that war with their prospects enhanced, and barring injury, Hogg is already a shoo-in to tour. Jonny Gray and Scott Cummings were outdone by Iain Henderson and Ryan. Tadhg Beirne was hugely influential against Jamie Ritchie, on the latter’s return return from injury. Tadhg Furlong was a bruiser in the scrum and a ballerina in the loose. Johnny Sexton steered his ship far more assuredly than Finn Russell piloted his. Robbie Henshaw was a colossus at inside centre while Sam Johnson saw too little ball to make an impact.

Warren Gatland watches Scotland play Ireland.
Warren Gatland was an interested observer at Murrayfield on Sunday (Getty Images)

Gatland has been slaughtered in the past for choosing so few Scots, but when they are routinely beaten by their rivals, when so many of their players are outshone by their opposites, can you really blame him?

A dent in the masterplan?

You can take nothing away from England’s wing but if Fabien Galthie were looking for mitigating factors for them not quite being able to hold out at Twickenham, he could have pointed to two players being missing through positive Covid-19 Tests; Uini Atonio and Arthur Vincent and the influential Bernard Le Roux missing through injury. That, allied to them having not played for a month may have made them feel a little leggy in the final few minutes. As for Galthie’s conduct, as Bernard Laporte, adjudged, there was ‘nothing to see there’ and time to move on.

The thing is, when they’re in sync, France are a beautiful side to watch, something we witnessed with their try from Damien Penaud off first-phase lineout ball, but there were a few too many forced errors not to believe they are the finished article.

Matthieu Jalibert
Matthieu Jalibert is growing in confidence with every game for France (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

What will be encouraging is the continued development of Matthieu Jalibert as a credible alternative to Romain Ntamack, continued form of Julien Marchand at hooker and consistency of Gregory Aldritt. Galthie and his lieutenants, Shaun Edwards and Raphael Ibanez, know they have the spine of a side that can be world-class and challenging for their home World Cup in 2023. The loss is likely to be a minor blip in their grand plans.

Dunn and dusted

While half of England wails over Eddie Jones’ continued exclusion of Sam Simmonds, Marcus Smith and all the others laying waste to the Premiership, Tom Dunn continues to impress for Bath.

The hooker put in 22 tackles against Exeter Chiefs last weekend without missing a shot, and bagged a close-range double on Saturday as Newcastle Falcons were dynamited. Dunn is a terrific asset to Bath on both sides of the ball, and their recent line-out numbers are excellent too.

Tom Dunn in action for Bath against Newcastle Falcons.
Tom Dunn scored two of Bath’s sixth tries in their comprehensive triumph over Newcastle Falcons (Getty Images)

Stuart Hooper was shorn of so many go-to men for the journey north, then Rhys Priestland went down in the warm-up, yet he still fielded a XV of nine internationals. Sam Underhill was a bristling menace as he ramps up his comeback from a hip injury. Hooper’s centres were Josh Matavesi and Jonathan Joseph; the four back-three players he used were Ruaridh McConnochie, Joe Cokanasiga, Tom de Glanville and Semesa Rokoduguni.

Bath’s 38-19 victory was their first at Kingston Park for over six years and their third away win on the bounce. With weaponry like this, expect them to soar up the Premiership table.

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