1. Les Blues’ blues
Sorry but France don’t look like World Champions in waiting and it pains me to say so because the international game desperately needs a new country to prevail at the big one and they are the best bet. For the second time in three games, Les Bleus have raced into a commanding lead only to get a severe case of the collywobbles as the clock wound down. With the odd exception this side doesn’t look remotely capable of playing high intensity rugby for 80 minutes although they will have time before the September start to put that right. Leave aside for a moment the idiocy of Mohamed Haouas, the first person in the history of the Championship to collect two red cards (and why didn’t Ben White get hauled off for an HIA because everyone witnessed him getting his bell rung?) and look instead at Fabien Galthie. The former scrummy is slowly morphing into Zoolander in the stand but ignore the shades, concentrate on his subs. We are in the 68th minute of the match, a stubborn Scotland have clawed their way back into contention and lie just four points adrift. This is the crucial stage where the game will be won and lost and, remember, a second successive defeat for France is calamitous for their World Cup hopes. What does Galthie do? Replace his key playmaker Romain Ntamack with Mathieu Jalibert. It is not the most rousing vote of confidence in France’s second most important player.
2. Golden Age of Six Nations.
We are witnessing a Golden Age of Six Nations rugby. This is partly thanks to Italy who have made themselves a joy to watch and if their defence catches up with the giant strides made in attack they will become contenders. In each of the three weekends’ of action to date we have enjoyed at least one humdinger; England v Scotland on the opening Saturday, Ireland v France the following weekend and France v Scotland most recently. The Italy v Ireland game wasn’t bad either with the host nation just four points shy of the best team in the world well inside the final quarter. With the possible exception of Wales, who may yet come good, you feel that every team in the competition could beat every other team with a following wind and a little luck, which is exactly what you want.
3. Scotland has taken an important step
Long suffering Scotland fans wondered if it would ever happen but their team have finally upped the ante this season in a way that we simply didn’t imagine possible after that rather tame defeat against Australia in November. They bossed the second best team in the world in their own backyard, grabbing the lion’s share of territory and possession and would have won with something to spare if they had not allowed France to race into a 19 point lead. I don’t agree with Gregor Townsend’s assertion that “we made enough chances to win that match”. Chances don’t win matches, points do, and France scored enough of them to triumph. While Scotland’s spirit and skill in fighting their way back into Sunday’s nail biter was exemplary, this was the first time this Championship that they have faced a world class defence and that much vaunted attack struggled just a little. Three tries in Paris sounds like a decent return but three tries from 22 entries into the opposition red zone is a little less impressive. Scotland have been posting brilliant figures of over 4 points per entry into the oppo red zone but that figure fell to 1.99 on Sunday with 17 handling errors offering a clue as to why? And I still think Scotland might well have won had that line-out gone to hand!
4. Whence Owen Farrell?
England v Wales was hard work for everyone, players, spectators and officials alike. Wales tackled themselves to a standstill, desperate to end a miserable week with a win that would have silenced the critics … at least for the moment. That they stayed so close to a side that was obviously and ominously superior to them says a lot about their spirit. The fact that England were unable to shake off Wales until late in the game says heaps about England’s chronic lack of confidence. It may take Steve Borthwick the entire tournament and more just to undo the damage inflicted on these players by the last regime. We will know more when they play France at Twickenham a week on Saturday but England’s slow recovery, in addition to a soft draw, should see them through to the World Cup semi-finals. And am I alone in wondering what Owen Farrell is doing at ten, apart from gumming up the works? He did some good things on Saturday, with some deft touches, but the occasional case of smart handling on the gain-line such as the inside pass to Max Malins to set up the first try, only highlights the relative paucity of them. He isn’t even kicking off the tee very well with his current Championship stats at 44.3 percent. Marcus Smith would ignite England’s exciting back line … and convert a few more to boot?
5. If Bundee Aki is Ireland’s second choice 13?
Ireland have had strength for some time now and they have now developed serious depth as well. The performances of Ulster prop Tom O’Toole has been astonishing given that he would not even be in the squad if Tadhg Furlong were fit and functioning. When Andy Farrell is able to replace Peter O’Mahony with Jack Conan you know Ireland’s forwards are well set. The exception to this rule is Bundee Aki who looked as slow as molasses in the thirteen shirt after Garry Ringrose injured himself. He didn’t play badly, took his try well and made his tackles, but you have to think that South Africa, England and especially Scotland would target him relentlessly in a crucial defensive position which needs both time in the saddle and sheer speed to do it properly. It may be that Robbie Henshaw (also injured) would slot into the thirteen shirt if he was available but perhaps Farrell should take a second look at Munster’s Antoine Frisch just in case?
6. Mike’s alright
I have always thought Mike Adamson is a better referee of 7s than 15s and I do wish he would smile from time to time. He isn’t nearly as grumpy as he looks on TV. Anyhoo, I thought he had a good game in Rome with one exception. When Ireland’s scrum-half Craig Casey kicked ahead and ran immediately into Italy’s lock forward Niccolo Cannone. It looked bad but it will always look bad when a little fella bounces off a big one. The point is that Cannone didn’t move and he is allowed to stand his ground. Adamson awarded a penalty but no card but he very obviously made a mistake. If Cannolle has moved to impede Casey it’s a straight yellow. If he hasn’t you play on. Now every little guy in every game that Adamson is reffing is going looking for big guys to run into because why wouldn’t you? Incidentally, Cannone’s young brother, number eight Lorenzo, looks like the real deal and at the age of 22 he has a lot of growing still to do.