We’re two rounds into the 2018 Six Nations, which has already thrown up some epic encounters as well as a fair amount of controversy too.
England and Ireland lead the way – with all eyes on a probable title decider on March 17 at Twickenham. The next round of fixtures feature two mouthwatering clashes as England visit Murrayfield to take on the Scots and Wales travel to Dublin to tussle with Ireland.
The third round of games is two weeks away, so until then, it’s time to assess each countries performances so far.
Who’s the teachers’ pet and who’s the class clown?
Put Italy to the sword last time out although it was their struggles in the opener against a young French team clinging desperately to the coattails of the Six Nations’s elite for the last few years that will have raised more eyebrows.
Yes, Jonny Sexton’s drop goal was brilliant, but it also glossed over glaring cracks in Joe Schmidt’s side.
Yet, in Sexton and Conor Murray Ireland have the best half-back pairing in the tournament and anything is possible with this duo dictating the play. Even in trying circumstances against the French, that Sexton had the audacity to try a cross-field kick to Keith Earls with the game on the line shows both his enduring quality and the flair that proves Ireland are capable of anything.
Add in a fearsome pack and a smattering of emerging youthful exuberance in Jordan Larmour, the men in green will only grow.
A tough test awaits against Wales at home, although it is a place where the Irish have not lost a championship game under Schmidt in five years.
We all thought before the tournament it would come down to a Twickenham showdown, and there’s been little to deter us from that view early on.
Predictably at the top of the class early in the school term. England stormed into the tournament by blowing away Wooden Spoon favourites Italy and in the face of a determined, youthful and injury-ravaged Wales, Eddie Jones’ men still got the job done.
They might be dealing with the fall-out of Trygate but even if Gareth Anscombe’s try had stood, there is no guarantee Wales would have gone on to win. In the first half 59 per cent of the play was spent in Wales’ half. That rose to 60 per cent in the second period. Wales defended doggedly and were always in with a shout, but England were clinical when they needed to be.
Their potent back line looks in ominous form and the strength in depth and quality of their young players coming through is a frightening prospect.
They were gritty and resolute against the Welsh and were entertaining without being explosive against Italy. We haven’t seen the best of them yet, which is a worry for their opponents.
Utterly mesmeric as they beat Scotland in a pulsating opening game under the cavernous roof of the Millennium Stadium cauldron, Wales will rue the fact they did not take their chance to build on that display at Twickenham last weekend.
Forget Trygate, Wales need to try a little more at getting the basics right, as even with an injury-plagued and inexperienced squad, they showed enough grit and guile against the Red Rose to suggest something special could be ready to blossom for Welsh rugby.
Warren Gatland’s men made more passes (224-177), runs (163-162), offloads (11-6), metres (501-411), conceded less penalties (2-10), missed less tackles (18-23) and made less errors (36-44) – yet still ended up on the wrong end of the scoreline.
It hardly gets easier as a trip to Dublin is next up, but they will be boosted by the likely return of star players Leigh Halfpenny, Dan Biggar and Taulupe Faletau who can guide the new wave of talent.
Win at the Aviva Stadium and Wales might just still have a stake rather than merely a say in the destination of the championship.
They scampered into last year’s tournament with an air of expectation surrounding them following victory against Ireland in their opener before hopes were dampened after defeats to France and England.
There is no doubt the Scots are much improved and expectations were raised further following the glorious autumn win over Australia. But they received a rude awakening when they were trounced 34-7 by Wales on opening weekend, in stark contrast to 12 months ago.
However, they recovered well and just about did enough to beat a wounded France side, thanks to a second half revival and the boot of livewire scrum-half Greig Laidlaw.
It hardly gets easier for Gregor Townsend’s men with England and Ireland up next, although you can be sure the Murrayfield crowd will create a deafening atmosphere for the visit of Eddie Jones and Co.
If they’re looking for a defining moment to stand up and be counted, a stirring performance against the favourites would certainly make them teachers’ pet in Ireland and Wales’ eyes.
Trying to figure out the French when it comes to the Six Nations has become about as easy to predict as playing a game of rock, paper, scissors.
In fact, the only thing that does seem predictable is that wherever they go, controversy is never far away. This has subsequently been proved correct by Jacques Brunel’s decision to drop eight players following their conduct on a night out in Edinburgh after defeat to Scotland on Sunday.
Perennial underachievers, it has been seven years since Les Bleus last lifted the Six Nations title, while Ireland and Wales have won two and England three in that period.
They have been all over the place in the intervening years, finishing runners-up to England in 2011 – their best finish since that 2010 triumph. They’ve finished fourth three times, fifth once – they even became the first side other than Scotland or Italy to earn the Wooden Spoon in a decade in 2013 – before securing their highest spot in six years of third in 2017.
Brunel’s new-look squad were warriors against Ireland, victory was cruelly robbed beyond the 80 minutes by Sexton’s sublime clutch play, but on course for victory against the Scots last weekend they capitulated in the second half.
In many ways, they have the simplest job when the Six Nations rolls around, try to avoid their annual beating with the Wooden Spoon. But after sizeable defeats to England and Ireland in their opening two games, confidence must already be at rock bottom with the Azzurri surely feeling blue facing a -68 points deficit, having shipped 102 points in those two defeats.
Sure, they’ve put points on the board and Conor O’Shea’s men have actually scored more tries (five) than Wales, Scotland and France this year, so there is actually plenty to be positive about.
The major concern, however, is that in their 19th year of competing in this tournament, they’ve failed to make any real progress as they count their collection of 12 Wooden Spoons – with two fourth-place finishes (2007 and 2013) the highlights.
It leads many to wonder whether or not it is time to introduce a promotion and relegation play-off and give the likes of Georgia a shot to step up.
The sport’s global governing body announced on Tuesday that television match official Glenn Newman made an error by ruling out a try for Gareth Anscombe when Warren Gatland‘s men trailed 12-0 in the second quarter.
Gatland later described the decision as a “terrible mistake” and his view has been supported by World Rugby, who said in a statement that “Wales should have been awarded a try as the Wales player grounded the ball”.
Jones is uncomfortable when calls made by officials are subsequently corrected, as happened in the quarter-finals of the 2015 Rugby World Cup when it was admitted referee Craig Joubert made a mistake that effectively cost Scotland a place in the semi-finals.
“They (World Rugby) have a record of doing it. They’ve done it before,” the England head coach said.
“I’m on a good behaviour bond so I’ve got to be careful what I say, but I just think that once the game’s done and dusted that’s the game.
“You can’t have retrospective refereeing of decisions being done. The game’s done and dusted, so we’ve got to trust the referees and respect their integrity.
“When I say respect the referee, that’s the TV process as well. You leave it at that, and then you get on with it. One side’s won, one side’s lost.
“In Japan they have a great saying: ‘At full-time there’s no side’. That’s one of the traditions of Rugby, you get on with it, you respect the decision.
“If you haven’t got the rub of the green then you know you probably get it in the next couple of games. The TMOs do an excellent job. They make a decision.”
England’s Six Nations title defence resumes against Scotland at Murrayfield on Saturday week amid mixed fortunes on the injury front.
Sam Simmonds will miss at least the next two matches with a shoulder injury but off-setting his loss is the availability of Nathan Hughes, who Jones confirmed will start at number eight after recovering from a knee problem.
Anthony Watson and Owen Farrell are expected to recover from the unspecified knocks they sustained against Wales, but Elliot Daly has now suffered damage to his calf having completed his rehabilitation from an ankle complaint.
England performed a live scrummaging session against Georgia in west London on Tuesday as part of a two-day visit by the Eastern Europeans designed to put the Six Nations champions’ pack through their paces.
“Georgia were just the sort of scrum we needed to scrum against – strong, scrummaged in a different way,” Jones said.
“The boys learnt a number of different things. They had the superiority early on and we came back well. It was an excellent session for us.
“Georgia use their head and shoulders in different ways. There are different ways of exerting pressure in scrums – some of it’s old-fashioned, some of it’s new.
“They do different things. They scrum for a living and our guys have learnt a number of different things.”
England and Ireland inched closer to a Six Nations title decider by extending their 100 per cent records at the weekend.
Here, we break down the good and bad points from the weekend’s action.
One good: Ireland’s attack was more innovative than against France two weeks ago and it’s clear the dry conditions allowed the team to play on the front foot. Quick ball and good options in terms of stretching the Italians’ line made Ireland look a threat every time.
One bad: Ireland lost two key players to injuries and leaked 19 second half points from a position of dominance. Their inconsistency late in the game means their championship hopes won’t be clearer until later in the tournament.
One good: Scored 19 points in the second half against Ireland – the most they’ve ever scored in Dublin. In try scorer Matteo Minnozzi, they possess one of the most exciting young players in the competition.
One bad: Conor O’Shea’s men were never competitive for long spells against Ireland and they followed up last week’s 56-19 defeat against England by conceding eight tries to Schmidt’s men.
One good: England’s ability to implement a quality game plan quicker was the decisive difference in this contest, capped off by two superb Jonny May tries in the early going.
One bad: Although they are unbeaten after two games, the Red Rose have yet to light up the championship like some expected. Injuries to key men may be a reason, but a vast improvement is needed if they are to lift a third Six Nations title.
One good: Warren Gatland’s side looked sharp when using quick ball from the breakdown – but were simply not as accurate as they were against the Scots in round one. The two week break presents a chance to build on mistakes before they face Ireland in a crunch tie in Dublin.
One bad: A game that got away from Wales. Being slow out of the blocks for the first 20 minutes – in which they shipped 12 points – essentially cost them the match. A clear disallowed try will add to their frustration when the squad sits down to review the match this week.
One good: It’s a shame that teams don’t get points for flair and tries – only results. France were impressive at the breakdown and showed style with two well-constructed tries.
One bad: Despite leading at the break, Les Bleus couldn’t maintain the intensity, and tired out during the second half. Their defeat poses another question as to how the Top 14 doesn’t prepare French teams to play consistent rugby for a full 80 minutes – only 40 minutes at a decent level.
One good: The Scots showed character to close out the victory after being behind for so long in the contest. Greig Laidlaw will deservedly take the headlines by kicking 22 points on his return to Test rugby after fracturing his leg in October.
One bad: Gregor Townsend’s men showed a way to win in the second half, but haven’t produced a consistent performance for 80 minutes since beating Australia in November. Defensive mistakes need to be tightened up if they are to win another game in this championship.