1. Matt Williams was right, wasn’t he?
It is not often you find yourself nodding in agreement with former Scotland coach Matt Williams but the Australian was right when asking Scottish players to pipe down ahead of the Six Nations. “They have just got to shut up … They are making fools of themselves,” was what Williams said after Scotland’s loss to Wales and he has a point, especially given Saturday’s roasting. Scotland have never won more than three matches in the Six Nations so talk of winning the Championship is probably a little premature. The Six Nations doesn’t officially start for many until Stuart Hogg has predicted a Scottish sweep and while part of the skipper’s role may be cheerleading, he should know better by now. It isn’t necessarily arrogance but it is surely better to underpromise and overachieve rather than the opposite.
2. England are clueless under Eddie Jones
Beaten at Murrayfield, England scraped past Wales after leaving countless scores on the field in Rome. They will do well to get anything out of their final two ties against Ireland and France. This England team may be in transition from the old (Farrell/Vunipola bros) to the new (Smith/Dombrant/Genge) but they don’t quite appear to have the first clue what to do with the ball without Billy V or Manu T to bash it up. England managed just one try at Twickenham, a gimmie, against a Wales team missing a host of key names (Alun-Wyn, Tipuric, Ken Owens, Josh Navidi, George North etc). The World Cup is held next year and the RFU need to act now if they want England to play more than a walk-on part in it.
3. Forwards front up
I have always maintained that the strength of this Scotland side lies in the backs, especially Finn Russell and the back three, but on Saturday the forwards stood up. The big men won one scrum penalty, conceded two but nicked a line-out throw as well. They negated the French maul, the territory stats were shared but Scotland enjoyed the bulk of possession, although were unable to finish off many of the chances they made. In the final 10 minutes, when Damian Penaud scored his second try from Romain Ntamack’s kick/pass, there were five Scottish backs – 22, 12, 23, 11 & 15 – all clustered together in the middle of the field, leaving the wide channel entirely unattended, to Penaud’s delight. Hogg was the widest defender and even he ended up in between the uprights. What were they thinking?
4. Forgotten faces make a welcome return
Am I the only one to think that we are a little too quick to discard some good players (Matt Scott, Huw Jones, Simon Berghan, Allan Dell). It’s a long list and this from a coach who had his own international career curtailed at the age of 30, by Matt Williams no less. On Saturday Mark Bennett made his first appearance for Scotland since 2018 and a very welcome sight it was. He was the coming man back in 2015 but Bennett was stigmatised as being a poor defender and, give a dog a bad name, could never quite shake the tag. Perhaps even better than Bennett was the performance of Wales winger Alex Cuthbert who has endured a torrid time after some poor performances led to a heap of abuse on social media from the brave legions of keyboard warriors. On Saturday, Cuthbert was awarded 9/10 after carrying the ball for 188 metres in a losing cause at Twickenham! Good work fella.
5. Never enough Ntamacks
If you thought Emile was a silky runner in his day and Romain can control a game from 10, now there is another Ntamack to admire. The younger son of Emile played number eight for the French 20s who dismantled their Scottish counterparts at the weekend. Theo is 6ft 3ins and runs like the wind. It’s his second season with the French 20s and he was mightily impressive on Friday night in Edinburgh.
6. Tomas Francis’ head space
The burly Welsh prop, who scored against Scotland, took a blow to the head when colliding with fellow Welsman Owen Watkin around the 20 minute mark. Francis was staggering for a few moments like a drunk at chucking out time, before briefly clutching a post for support. He was taken off the field for an HIA but passed it and returned to the field of play. This is madness. If you can barely stand you don’t need an HIA, you need to sit out the remainder of the match. World Rugby is already facing a lawsuit over player care and the first item on the prosecution’s list of evidence will be the sight of the big Welshman with his legs the consistency of jelly. The lawsuit will argue that not enough was done to protect players from themselves and, on this evidence, they will be right.
7. Three cheers for the little guys
First it was Darcy Graham leading the way and now Hawick’s hero has been joined by Ireland full-back Mike Lowry flying the flag for the little guys in a big guys sport. Sometimes it seems as if the arms race is taking over the game and then you come across Lowry, 79 kgs soaking wet (less than 12 ½ stone in the old money) but still able to step you in a phone box (ask your dad). More power to him even if Hugo Keenan is likely to remain first choice for now. Rugby was always supposed to be a game for all shapes and sizes and the emergence of Graham/Lowry suggests it still is.
8. Nika Amashukeli … it’s easy for you to say
Spare a thought for Nika Amashukeli. He was making history in Dublin as the first Georgian referee in the Six Nations and he was probably anticipating a nice easy Test match with a clear division of labour. Plucky Italy would defend bravely while efficient Ireland would rack up a snooker score. Instead he came across circumstances unique to Six Nations rugby whereby one hooker was injured and a second hooker was red carded necessitating Italy play with 13 instead of 14 men for most of the match as they are obliged to remove an extra man from the field. The law is designed to prevent weaker teams from deliberately orchestrating uncontested scrums. The referee got the big calls right but did Bram Steyn really knock the ball into touch deliberately with five minutes to go or did the exhausted Saffa simply do what anyone else in his position would have done and stuck a hand out as the ball came his way?
9. Ireland would have scored more against 15 men
They lost it. When Italy were reduced to 13 Ireland lost their habitual ruthless streak and, along with everyone else, felt sorry for the ill-fated Azzurri. So instead of clattering into the Italians and chalking up an easy century of points, they played some dumb, half-arsed, half-hearted, error-ridden rubbish; easily the worst performance of the season. Against 13, and eventually 12 men, Ireland kept kicking the ball for heaven’s sake. It was almost as if they, subconsciously perhaps, wanted to keep Italy in the tournament and South Africa out.
10. Fin de Finn?
Will Gregor Townsend drop Finn Russell for the first time … for reasons beyond beer? It’s a valid question after some underwhelming performances from the Scottish playmaker. Ugo Monye’s Six Nations catch up show highlighted Russell’s agonisingly slow plod back into position after he kicked the ball to Antoine Dupont and the French scrummy ran it back for over 50 metres, the move ending in France’s first try. Russell jogs back and never gets into position to help defend the Scottish line. In fairness to the fly-half he would do much better behind a pack that can give him front foot ball because the Welsh and French blitz defence cut his time and his options. Russell needs quick ball to shine and he should get it in Rome … provided he’s there.