By Jake Goodwill
- We pause to give the six teams a bit of a shake down and pick our stand-out players
RBS SIX NATIONS – With just two more rounds to go, who look the likely winners and who have been the players who have impressed us the most.
It is hard to argue with three wins from three. Yet, in many ways, England have not lived up to expectations. They stuttered against France, improved against Wales but were then bamboozled by Italy for a good portion of the game.
The most impressive facet of England’s game is their ability to win. The players seemed to have an unshakeable confidence that no matter the situation, they will be victorious with the Wales game being case in point. This All Blacks-esque ability to pull a victory off is remarkable.
However there are issues. Nathan Hughes has not been able to suitably replace the immense Billy Vunipola. Mike Brown is no longer performing at the level that cemented him a position as England fullback. These problems has been countered by the sheer brilliance of Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury. England now have four serious Lions contenders in the second-row. Additionally Owen Farrell, putting his shocking performance against Italy aside, looks genuinely world-class.
England have struggled to put together a complete performance, but they have two great opportunities to rectify this against in form Scotland and Ireland. England have been solid, but need to improve if they are to retain the Six Nations title.
Stand out player: Elliot Daly – the Wasps back has settled in on England’s wing impeccably despite little playing time in that position. Daly’s kicking game has been superb and his finishing has shown he can be a top level international winger, even if fullback looks his likely destination.
Guy Noves’ side have had a promising tournament thus far. France have had three tough games, and although they have been victorious only once, they have competed vehemently throughout. The half-back combination of Baptiste Serin and Camille Lopez is the best axis that France have had for a number of years which bodes well going forward. The backrow has also been impressive. Putting the imperious Louis Picamoles aside, the performances of Loann Goujon and Kevin Gourdon have been impressive and finally provided a French backrow with some balance.
A win over an excellent Scotland side demonstrates the talent of this French side and victories over Italy and Wales in the last two rounds would result in a good tournament for a French side who are rediscovering their flair.
Stand out player: Louis Picamoles – the Northampton No. 8 was the best player on the pitch against England and has continued his domineering form. Not only has he carried brilliantly but his defensive work at the breakdown against Ireland was excellent. Serin has also had a strong competition so far.
A disappointing tournament so far given the strength of Ireland’s performances against New Zealand in Chicago and Dublin. A routing of Italy and a win against France have redeemed Ireland for an opening round loss to Scotland but fluency in Ireland’s attack has been lacking, the Italy game aside.
Nevertheless, Ireland are still in the hunt for the tournament if they can beat Wales and England in Rounds Four and Five respectively. It should also be noted that although the performance against France was far from glittering, the ten point margin was Ireland’s largest win over France since 1975 which puts that result into context. Johnny Sexton being fit again as a huge plus for Ireland and his importance was demonstrated against the French. This will stand Ireland in good standing for the rest of the tournament.
Stand out player: CJ Stander – the South African born backrow has got through a phenomenal amount of work and his volume of carries has been invaluable. He was simply too hot to handle for the Italian defence in Round Two scoring a hat-trick. Conor Murray is worthy of a mention as he was superb against France and is returning to top form.
Conor O’Shea’s side have been castigated and, in the minds of some, demonstrated that they should no longer be part of the Six Nations. Yet, Italy played well against Wales. It was a tight first half and although Wales ran away with it they were still denied a four-try bonus point. Against England, a tactical masterclass put them ahead at half-time and showed that they were worthy of their place in the competition.
Despite the horrific performance against Ireland, there has been promise shown. The performances of 23 year-old flanker Maxime Mbanda and young fullback Edoardo Padovani show potential for growth and improvement. Most importantly, the England match showed that the coaching team of O’Shea and Brendan Venter are prepared to be unorthodox if that is what it takes to make Italy competitive.
Italy are in desperate need of a win, but it seems unlikely at this point.
Stand out player: Michele Campagnaro – the Exeter centre was left as an impact substitute for the first two games which was baffling. However, when on the pitch he has been excellent and his individual try against England demonstrated his pace, power and footwork. Campagnaro is head and shoulders above the rest of the Italian backline. Sergio Parisse has played well and continues to perform world-class moments.
Scotland have been the stand out team of the tournament. They banished their run of first round defeats with a brilliant win over Ireland, they ran France close in Paris before deservedly beating Wales without captain and kicker Greig Laidlaw.
The only blight on Scotland has been the scrum, but that was to be expected with WP Nel out of the tournament and 21 year-old Zander Fagerson filling the tighthead berth against strong opposition. However, this has been countered by the scintillating Scottish backline led by Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg, the indefatigable work rate of the Gray brothers and the breakdown work of the Scottish backrow.
A huge game awaits Scotland at Twickenham, but even if they were to fall to England, a win against Italy would secure an excellent tournament that transitioned Scotland from plucky losers to genuine contenders. The progress being made is extremely impressive and raises the question that, although Gregor Townsend is an excellent coach, will Scotland regret releasing Vern Cotter before the 2019 World Cup?
Stand out player: Stuart Hogg – it simply had to be the Glasgow fullback. He has been outstanding. What has stood out the most is his skill level. Hogg has used the deft touch of his handling to create opportunities for others and a delicate kick through whilst running at full speed showed he is playing at the next level. If there was any doubt about the Lions No. 15 shirt, it has been eradicated. Hamish Watson has also had a very impressive tournament and is one to keep an eye one.
Rob Howley’s stewardship of the Welsh side is going awfully. They lost at home to England and away to Scotland. Wales’ only win was against Italy and even then they failed to pick up a four try bonus point. Although Wales performed well against England, the argument that Wales losing at home to England constitutes a good showing reveals a worrying shift in mentality from a side who expected to win the tournament only a couple of years ago.
There have been bright spots, namely the back-row. The performances of Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric and Ross Moriarty have been outstanding and put all three of them into Lions contention. However, there are problems elsewhere.
There is a lack of depth on the wing, as demonstrated by Alex Cuthbert’s selection. The front row is average and the backline is struggling to fulfil its potential. A side with Rhys Webb, Dan Biggar, Scott Williams, Jonathan Davies, Liam Williams and George North must do better.
Wales have the opportunity to salvage the tournament if they can beat Ireland and France but there is serious possibility that Wales could end the tournament with only one win.
Stand out player: Rhys Webb – the scrum-half has been superb providing tempo and a threat to opposition defences. He has nudged himself ahead of the competition for the third Lions scrum-half spot and will surely tour alongside Murray and Ben Youngs assuming he can stay fit. Liam Williams deserves a mention as does Moriarty for the remarkable 50 minute shift he put in against England.
The RBS 6 Nations returns on Friday 10 March.
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