There has been Blood

With two rounds of the 6 Nations left to go, where do the home nations stand?

Analysis by Andy Barnham

Three rounds down and two to go, it is clear this will not be a vintage 6 Nations in regards to quality of rugby; few of the games have had moments of inspiration with much of the rugby being attritional at best. For those hoping for fluid and running rugby after the Rugby World Cup, the tournament has reverted to type with suffocating defences ruling the roost. The two new coaches have had mixed results; England under Eddie Jones are unbeaten so far, while France, with Guy Noves, have won two out of three but appear utterly directionless and out of sorts. What is clear is that the tournament remains well supported with tribalism between the countries ever present as shown by the swathes of away supporters. After the success of Friday night games at the Rugby World Cup, the tournament organisers are looking at scheduling mores games outside of the regular Saturday/ Sunday slots (Wales have regularly played one Friday night since 2009)  despite the outcry from the (away) fans, who are the reason behind the robust health of the 6 Nations.

Wales have continued with their style of ‘Warrenball’ and for every neutral lamenting the death of running rugby, there is a Welsh fan delighting in having a winning side. Pretty is it not, pretty effective it is. The current tournament seems to favour running into contact to try and suck in players and create space out wide in later phases as opposed to trying to find and run into space, which is at a premium given the quality of the defences. Needless to say the risk averse games played thus far, and their close score lines, have all been incredibly tense with fine margins between the teams. Perhaps this is the reason why so much time has been spent on resetting the scrum, with teams looking to use the scrum to earn a penalty and a potential 3 points, rather than a means to restart the game. Clear from last year’s final weekend, when 27 tries and 221 points were scored in the three matches, all the teams are capable of attacking rugby, though the 6 Nations have ruled out the idea of bonus points to try and enliven games. Running rugby, this is not and there has been very little to scare the Southern Hemisphere teams, if they’ve even bothered to tune in.

 

England

Odds of winning Grand Slam:  was 10/3, now Evens

Odds of winning 6 Nations: was 13/8, now 4/9

World ranking: 8th

Record: 2015: 2nd, 2014: 2nd, 2013: 2nd, 2012: 2nd

Fixtures: Scotland 6th Feb (A) W9- 15, Italy 14th Feb (A) W9- 40, Ireland 27th Feb (H) W21- 10, Wales 12th Mar (H), France 19th Mar (A)

The fixture list has been kind to Eddie Jones and England starting with matches against two of the weakest opponents before then heading home to Twickenham before a final trip to Paris. In terms of results, so far, so good and the banana peels of Scotland and Italy sidestepped and a ‘W’ earned against last year’s winners Ireland. Jones has been cautious in blooding new caps with all the newcomers spending time on the bench as substitutes before earning starting honours. The plasters over the back row and the midfield combination have held thus far though who knows how they will fare against the very physical Wales and France. Don’t forget it was against Wales that the previous regime lost their nerve and chopped and changed the back line during the RWC. Though Jones must, at some stage, choose between Ford and Farrell at No10, is the middle of the 6 Nations the time to disrupt a working (even if not perfect) centre partnership and bring back Manu Tuilagi who has only just returned to club colours? It would seem not as Jones has announced an unchanged starting XV, keeping Manu on the bench, presumably for a 35 minute cameo. Although England are keen to exact revenge for their RWC exit, for long periods of the tournament they have been sloppy and indisciplined, committing too many penalties, giving the opposition the chance to either kick for 3 points or releasing hard earned pressure. Win and England have momentum against France and a potential Grand Slam. Lose and… well there’s the summer tour Down Under to look forward to.

 

Ireland

Odds of winning Grand Slam: 9/1, now N/A

Odds of winning 6 Nations: 10/3, now N/A

World ranking: 6th

Record: 2015: 1st, 2014: 1st, 2013: 4th, 2012: 3rd

Fixtures: Wales 7th Feb (H) D16- 16, France 13th Feb (A) L10- 9, England 27th Feb (A) L21- 10, Italy 12th Mar (H), Scotland 19th Mar (H)

What a difference a year makes. Winners in 2014 and 2015, so far Ireland have yet to register a win in 2016 and their hopes of the first ever 6 Nations hat- trick of titles are over. In order to succeed, Ireland need all their first choice players available, hence rushing back players (Sean O’Brien) to the team from injury which unfortunately has led to added injury. Tenacious and spirited in all they’ve done, Ireland are noticeably missing the technical skills of Paul O’Conner in the forwards and need to ensure playmaker Johnny Sexton remains fit. While fly halves are no strangers to be targeted, Sexton has received more than his fair share of off the ball incidents and Ireland play much better when he is controlling the strings. Matches against Italy and Scotland will be tough with all three teams looking not to be awarded the Wooden Spoon.

Wales

Odds of winning Grand Slam: 7/1, now N/A

Odds of winning 6 Nations: 5/2, now 17/10

World ranking: 4th

Record: 2015: 3rd, 2014: 3rd, 2013: 1st, 2012: 1st

Fixtures: Ireland 7th Feb (A) D16- 16, Scotland 13th Feb (H) W27- 23, France 26th Feb (H) W19- 10, England 12th Mar (A), Italy 19th Mar (H)

Notorious slow starters to the 6 Nations, Wales started with a draw against Ireland but, yet again, could win the tournament with two rounds to go. A young front row is offering Wales a firm set piece from which to launch ‘Warrenball’ with winger George North finally ending his try drought. Following five scoreless games the flyer has now crossed against Scotland and France and sets his sights against England this weekend. The aggressive defence organised by Shaun Edwards has meant opposition face a concrete and impenetrable red wall which is the basis of Welsh play and while not attractive, is yielding results. With a final match at home against Italy, a win against England virtually assures Wales of this year’s title and no matter fans think of the current style of play, that’s all that matters. With an unchanged team facing England, Wales have the more established squad and know how to win at Twickenham. Wales No8 Taulupe Faletau packs down against his cousin England No8 Billy Vunipola who gained virtually as many metres in the first half as the entire Ireland team two weeks ago. It is going to be battle of the giants on Saturday.

Scotland

Odds of winning Grand Slam: was 33/1, now N/A

Odds of winning 6 Nations: 14/1, now 500/1

World ranking: 9th

Record: 2015: 6th, 2014: 5th, 2013: 3rd, 2012: 5th

Fixtures: England 6th Feb (H) L9- 15, Wales 13th Feb (A) L27- 23, Italy 27th Feb (A) W20- 36, France 13th Mar (H), Ireland 19th Mar (A)

Guilty of throwing away chances against England, Scotland’s losing streak was extended to 9 against Wales, with a win over Italy finally ending their run of poor scores. Having played a lot of positive rugby with little payoff, fans will hope this win will be the catalyst for better results. Scotland face France this weekend and not only do they have home advantage, but the players have had the benefit of being ringed fenced from their domestic duties compared to 15 of France’s 23 strong squad who returned and played for their clubs last weekend. Scotland have a capable scrum and will have to go toe to toe with not only an equally physical French pack, but also their larger (if you can believe it) replacement bench. However France have yet to find an identity under new coach Noves and should Scotland neutralise the assault up front, they have little to fear from the French backs who while talented, are spluttering. riddle_stop 2

 

 

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