1. Scotland run out of gas. Again.
Last November Gregor Townsend’s team kept pace with New Zealand for maybe 60 minutes before the Kiwis pulled ahead after the bench brought fresh energy to the task in hand. On Sunday against Ireland it was more like a 50 minute performance. The point is that if Townsend’s side can’t beat an Ireland team that lost three key forwards in the opening half hour and their second hooker eight minutes into the second half then they never will. Although disappointing from a Scottish perspective it was good to see the speed and skill of Mack Hansen trump the power game of Duhan van der Merwe. The big Saffa was found wanting in the aerial battle and jammed in twice to allow Hansen just enough room to sneak over in the corner himself in the first half and then send Jack Conan one in the second half. The fact that Cian Healy filled in seamlessly at hooker is irrelevant now that scrummies feed the ball into the lock’s feet. The fact that Josh van der Flier got a free pass at the sidelines is a shocker. I knew his first throw had to be aimed at the front of the lineout because it was the only safe call for a part timer undertaking a task that requires surgeon-like skills. There are Inuits in Greenland who knew that his first throw was going to the front jumper. The only people blissfully unaware of this fact were standing on the field sporting blue. If Scotland can’t beat Ireland on home soil with all their injury woes what chance do we have in RWC’ 23?
2. Scotland 20s humbled.
I tuned in a few minutes late to the Scotland versus Ireland 20s game on Friday night and the visitors had already scored two converted tries. The game was over almost before it had started. I watched about 30 minutes but turned over to the England versus France 20s match because I was far too angry to keep watching Scotland’s 20s getting thumped. Let’s be clear, Ireland’s age-grade sides are good but the reason they are good is that they emerge from an excellent system that challenges them all the way, so when selected at U20 level they are ready for it and some are already on the fringes of professional rugby. Evan O’Connell (Big Paulie’s nephew) was in Munster’s match-day squad aged 18. There is no intrinsic reason Scotland’s age-grade players should be inferior. They are where they are because the system they have come through is not fit for purpose and here we are, 27 years into the professional era, still flailing around trying to sort it. Jim Mallinder was appointed head of high performance rugby in August of 2019. How long does he want/need to make a positive impact on age grade rugby?
3. I did not see that coming!
If you lie down and put your ear to the floor boards you should be able to hear a strange, unworldly sound emanating from a long way away. That will be Eddie Jones sitting in Australia laughing so hard that his face is about to fall off. My lawyer would like to stress that this is not an actual claim, just a hypothesis for discussion, but if Jones was an Wallaby double agent sent to demoralise and demotivate the English rugby squad he could hardly have done a better job. Remember this is the same England team that could face Australia in the World Cup quarter-finals in the increasingly unlikely event that they qualify. England are in a pool with Japan and Argentina so anything could happen. France’s brilliant victory does put Scotland’s scrappy Twickenham win in some perspective. Junior was at the match. When England were awarded a late penalty he and his pals facetiously shouted “take the points!” Asked what reaction he got from the English crowd he replied … laughter. The poor fans hadn’t many other options. And, yes, before you remind me, this is the same England team that I predicted would finish second.
4. France were brilliant … and still don’t look like World Cup winners to me.
I know, I know. They were in unstoppable form, when all the working pieces fell perfectly into place in an explosion of power and panache. If you wonder where he got his soft hands, lock Thibaud Flament used to play fly-half, all 6’ 8” of him, for Loughborough University fifth XV. But the World Cup doesn’t usually go to sides who are absolutely unplayable for one game. Instead, the World Cup rewards consistency of performance over occasional brilliance. France have already played badly in this Six Nations, twice, against Italy on the opening weekend and against Scotland in the third round. They could have lost either match. The World Cup allows for one hiccup in the pool stages but otherwise it doesn’t accommodate any off days and France still take far too many ‘sickies’. Victory at the World Cup requires a minimum of three consecutive victories at the knockout stages and potentially six successive wins on the bounce should France lose the opener to New Zealand! I genuinely hope they win but I am not confident of it.
5. Recall an outcast, win a Test.
Huw Jones was recalled from the international wilderness at the start of this championship for his first Test since 2021 and he has been a revelation with three tries to his name and counting. He is his old self in attack, picking lines that Pythagoras didn’t know existed, and he has tightened up his defence. He is not the only old stager to have mounted up for another canter around the block Big Leggy style. 34-year-old Wales scrummy Rhys Webb made his first Test start for six years in Rome against Italy, he earned an assist for two of their tries and won the man-of-the-match award. He was excellent, just as he was all those years ago when he quit Wales (without the required number of caps) to take up with French giants Toulon, effectively ruling himself out of the equation. My point is that he has been back in Wales playing for the Ospreys since 2020. Did no one think him worth a look in the last three years and who else out there in the international wilderness might surprise us if handed a second chance? Answers below please but can I get the ball rolling with Stuart McInally who can at least hit the bull more often than not.
6. One to remember.
Watching France beat England at U20 level on Friday was an eye opener. In the French midfield was Emilien Gailleton, a teenager who just happens to be the top try-scorer in the Top 14 with nine touchdowns to his name. Moreover, he plays for Pau, second bottom in the table with just six wins to their name, and most of his games are at centre although he is equally happy on the wing. Remember the name, you will hear it again.
And in other news …
Since rugby’s next big thing (aka USA Eagles) won’t be at RWC’23, it was nice to see their nearest rivals for the NBT title get a big boost. In Super Rugby, Fiji’s Drua team beat the mighty Crusaders by one single point in front of a raucous home crowd. That is not to say that Fiji will beat the All Blacks when/if they next meet but it does augur well for the future of Fijian rugby and, especially, putting in place a pathway whereby the best young talent stays on the islands and remains available to the national team.
Elsewhere, since the Six Nations started Uruguay beat South Africa at rugby. Yes, really. It happened in the Los Angeles World Rugby sevens tournament when the South Americans triumphed by 12-5.
Do you remember the All Blacks famous ‘no dickheads’ dictum? Well Ardie Savea, comfortably their best player over the last two years, signed a slit throat gesture at an opposition player after being carded in Super Rugby. He apologised and got a one week ban. Do you think the All Blacks will drop their best player? No, me neither, and I don’t think they should but can they taper back the sanctimonious bullshit please. They have the same number of dickheads as every other team. Except ours. Of course.
And finally, Georgia play Portugal in the final of the Rugby Europe Championship, Europe’s other Six Nations tourney. The game takes place next Sunday, at the Stadio Cívitas Nuevo Vivero in Badajoat, Spain, at 7pm local time, just in case the three Saturday games don’t sate your appetite for the game.