By Max Mathews

  • England get Six Nations bid back on track with victory over Scotland at Murrayfield
  • Wales handed first Six Nations loss in nine games by bonus-point Ireland
  • Five-try France cruise past outclassed Italy
EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND – All the talking points and analysis from the second weekend of the 2020 Six Nations as England scraped past Scotland while Ireland and France powered past Wales and Italy respectively

 

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England win ugly in atrocious conditions

When George Ford sent up a booming garryowen only for the ball to barrel back towards him, it became clear Storm Ciara was less an inconvenience to sodden supporters than the defining factor of the whole match. As it turned out, Ciara far outshone the tempest brewing beforehand amid inflammatory comments from England flanker Lewis Ludlam as he talked about ‘hate’ and coach Eddie Jones’ classic wind-up tactics.

A final scoreline of 13-6 reflected just a quarter of the points scored in last year’s Calcutta Cup clash and one try to last year’s 11, with even then most of the points coming in the latter stages. As the two bordering nations battled in supremely inhospitable conditions, a surprisingly gripping spectacle played out.

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Metronomically reliable hooker Jamie George sent lineouts high and long while opposite number Fraser Brown fared no better, as wind whipped around the Edinburgh amphitheatre. Passes outside the 10 channel were dreams sold to wishful thinking backs. Kicking the ball back started as a useful choice but developed into the only option.

It was territorial warfare, battleships by boot, with neither side trusting the squirming bar of soap enough to keep it for longer than a moment before sending the ball downfield again. In the first half-hour, Scotland lost half their 10 lineouts, turned over the ball 10 times and made seven handling errors – those numbers across a whole game would signal a skills coach warranted with the sack; here it signified just a 3-0 deficit when last year 38 points had been scored by this point.

Kicks at goal were myths; Owen Farrell hit three in the first half, which all began on the same line but ended one left, one right, and one straight. Just after half-time Adam Hastings – who in cruel reference to absent star Finn Russell had shed the number 10 from his shirt – squeezed through a reply from much closer.

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With Ciara’s vicious wind now at their backs, England through Willi Heinz (twice), Ford and then Elliot Daly kicked it out on the full, each looking more baffled than the last at the wind’s power. The hosts tried to play rugby as if it were cloudless and breeze-less as Cape Town in August, and predictably suffered. Finally Ben Youngs, dropped from the starting team, came on and showed everyone what to do with five or six measured, low, scudded box kicks which wrested the match’s momentum permanently towards the visitors.

Sixty-nine minutes gone, three-all. A rare moment of quality and finesse then ensued from the  quietly positive Ford via a low, testing grubber and maligned full-back Stuart Hogg grounded the ball over his own line but crucially, had carried it over himself – meaning a five-metre scrum to England rather than a 22′ drop-out to Scotland. The six-two split of forwards and backs on the bench – used to great effect by South Africa against England in the World Cup final – had refreshed the pack and following the scrum, big bad Ellis Genge piled over to open the scoring to 10-3.

Hastings, who finally started to play the conditions but not the situation, bizarrely kicked the ball away with Scotland needing a converted try and Genge almost gave it straight back with a sideways step-heavy sprint away from his support. A penalty apiece garnished the scoreline and England had a win. Not beautiful but wholly necessary after last week’s poor showing.

 

Gritty Genge demonstrates Rose’s ferocity

Loosehead prop Genge admitted post-match how important the victory was in setting the record straight after Paris, as he imbued in his BBC Sport interview with a fiery composure which shone through on the pitch.

 

“We’re obviously buzzing, happy to win but there’s more to come, that’s what we’re excited about. We had a bump in the road last week and everyone was writing us off, saying we weren’t good enough and our coach should be sacked. [The criticisms] don’t sting but you’ve got a lot of sausages saying things which come into their head and what are they on about?

“We’re onto the next job, I’m sure we’ll have more critics. It happens every week, doesn’t it – you lose a game and suddenly you can’t play rugby any more. We shut all the critics up and I hope they watched that game as well!”

 

Coach Jones meanwhile, admitted immediately afterwards that Genge was a great character and fully deserved his place in the squad despite Joe Marler waiting in the wings.

 

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“He’s a project player”, Jones told BBC Sport.

“We brought him into the squad in 2016 and he’s developed remarkably well. He’s such an important part of our squad now.”

 

After fierce criticisms last week, Jones’ tactical changes largely came off. Mako Vunipola was a constant carrying threat, George Kruis did as much as he could with a faltering lineout, Ludlam was explosive and dynamic while Heinz and Jonathan Joseph in the backs didn’t do much wrong. Even George Furbank – who Jones stood by despite a troubled debut in Paris last week, looked more assured.

The fighting spirit shown by Jones’ charges, most notably Genge – on and off the pitch – shows a commendable comeback after last week’s disappointment. The Grand Slam is gone but the title could be theirs if they come through possibly their greatest challenge this year next time out in the Farrell derby; father and son meet in a fortnight with the visitors two wins from two in what will prove a mouth-watering match-up to potentially decide this year’s Championship.

 

Farrell’s Grand Slam bid rolls on

On the subject of Ireland’s new boss, Farrell senior inflicted Wales’ first defeat in nine Six Nations games – ending their successive Grand Slam hopes in the process – a sizeable setback for Wayne Pivac’s side but a big statement of intent from Ireland.

A 10-point deficit flattered Wales like the seven-point deficit in Paris flattered England. This was a deserved loss, for all the Welsh whingeing about the referee, and Ireland merited their bonus point after four well-taken tries.

A creative Ireland attack, cleverly manoeuvred by wing Andrew Conway, were turned over thrice in the opening nine minutes – is water boy Sam Warburton showing his worth already? – but made the breakthrough as Jordan Larmour slipped through two poor attempted tackles from Nick Tompkins (targeted throughout in defence) and Tomos Williams, wriggling over.

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Williams, who kept his place at scrum-half ahead of usual first choice Gareth Davies, profited from Alun Wyn Jones’ silky offload to level the scores at 7-7 but dropped the ball on Wales’ line and inadvertently handed Tadhg Furlong a close-range score after the resulting scrum.

Despite Ireland flanker Josh van der Flier’s try after a robust rolling maul, Wales were on top and only 10 behind, but that momentum was squandered as Hadleigh Parkes knocked on before he touched down and Wales collapsed a scrum on the Irish line. Late tries from Conway and Wales’ Justin Tipuric gave Ireland the bonus point but Wales just a consolation. No need for soul searching just yet, but Wales have a resurgent France next and will need to improve.

 

Half-backs show Les Bleus the way

As France finished off the second weekend of action at the Stade de France, Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack, with a combined age of just 43, are making French fans question why the likes of Maxime Machenaud and Camille Lopez were afforded so much game time over the last few years.

A cute Ntamack grubber set up Teddy Thomas, before Dupont weaved his Gallic magic with a break before Charles Ollivon’s close-range try and a sumptuous floated pass to assist Gregory Alldritt’s score. Even their replacements looked good, as scrum-half Baptiste Serin scored a classy individual try and Matthieu Jalibert at outside-half looked composed to boot.

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Ntamack scored off a fine set-piece move in between brief flashes of life from Italy with Matteo Minozzi’s try in the corner and replacement hooker Federico Zani’s clever finish against the post. Wing Mattia Bellini scored a well-deserved consolation try late on, marking a semi-successful transition to an attacking style of play under new coach Franco Smith.

For Italy, that will mean precious little with defeats again piling up – their 24th loss on the bounce now. France will rue the lapses in concentration leading to those scores and coach Fabien Galthie will know they will be heavily punished against teams like Wales if they make the same mistakes when Les Bleus travel to Cardiff in a fortnight.

 

The next games in the 2020 Guinness Six Nations take place in a fortnight, with England hosting Ireland, Wales entertaining France and Italy facing Scotland in Rome.

 

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