With another weekend free of Six Nations action, it’s a good opportunity to look at where each of the sides are.
Wales. This is a tricky one. There had been so many positives from the first couple of games but the Ireland game brought things back down to earth a little bit. I don’t know if there had been too many plaudits, because they were just off the pace a bit in Dublin.
International rugby often comes down to a will to win – wanting to put in that big tackle or smash a ruck and we didn’t see a lot of that – and I think the coaches have to take some of the blame there. Wales allowed Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray to have a free ride and they bossed the game.
Wales should have been in their faces from the start, getting them on the ground, blocking runs – nothing dirty but just a professionalism that doesn’t allow these very good players to dominate a game.
Wales have done some very good things but, in those bigger games, need to be street-wise and give as good as they get – I sometimes think we’re too nice, but there has to be a balance between aggression and control that they need to find; expect some changes now for the Italy game.
Ireland have been Ireland. They have been very well drilled and do the basics of the game well. Against Wales they comfortably won the battle up front and that set the platform for their win. You look at that side and every player is comfortable with the game-plan, they know their jobs and execute very well – and that’s hard to play against.
At no point did they lose their control and that’s so important in international rugby. It is very difficult to go from playing aggressively in a tackle or ruck and then have to put in a delicate pass or use soft hands but they are doing it well and it will continue to help them as the competition goes on.
England came unstuck at Murrayfield and I think their issue is some of the players being picked are simply not good enough. The breakdown against Scotland was an absolute disaster and Chris Robshaw has to have a massive question mark over his place now.
I just don’t see any dynamism from him. He’s not winning ball on the floor and not making strong carries so I wonder what he’s doing there. Someone like Sam Underhill would be a much better option. Here’s a young, hungry guy who is fast and powerful, great in defence and has made an impact off the bench.
I’ve spoken about it before but again, I don’t know how Dylan Hartley is in the side, and I’d also drop Jonny May too. I’m not sure he’s got the greatest rugby brain and when you have Denny Solomona in the form he’s in I would be picking him every time.
I’ve been critical of Scotland in the past, but it was great for them to get that win over England – and it was much deserved too. The thing for them is now backing it up. There’s no point having one big performance and everyone being happy about it. Scotland have to string wins together if people are going to take them seriously on the world stage. The starts next weekend in Ireland and that isn’t going to be easy.
I have given France a lot of stick over the tournament, but it was good to see them get a win over Italy last time out. The interesting game for me though was their under-20 game. That is the side they should be putting their efforts into right now. They need to make sure those players are getting the opportunity to really develop and become the France side of the future.
Their league structure isn’t helping with this as a lot of these U20 players should be featuring for their club sides but can’t get into teams because of foreign imports. I know this first-hand because I was one of those imports.
Unless the players coming in are international class then it’s harming those young players – and those even younger who see these great players not getting a break, it can be massively disheartening, and is something that needs to be addressed.
I’m really struggling with Italy. At the start of the tournament I was really hoping to see them do well, and even if they didn’t get results, I just wanted to see some development and we are not getting that. I know a lot of people have talked about Georgia coming in and being the sixth team in the competition, but I wonder if we would be better going back to the Five Nations.
Games would all be competitive and, in a time when there is a call for players to play less, it would take a game out. Let’s see what happens next weekend.
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England coach Eddie Jones has sprung a surprise naming 19-year-old Harlequins’ duo Gabriel Ibitoye and Marcus Smith in a 33-man squad to prepare for France in Paris on March 10.
Both winger Ibitoye and fly-half Smith, who are considered ‘apprentice’ players by Jones, are among those added to the 24 players who were involved in the snow-affected training camps staged across the country last week.
Wasps winger Elliot Daly is also included as he continues his bid to prove his fitness after suffering ankle and calf injuries that have prevented his involvement in the Championship to date.
England were heavily criticized after their shock loss to Scotland in Edinburgh for a lack of spark and ideas – hence Jones’ injection of young blood for Paris.
Smith is the highest-paid teenager in world rugby after he penned a new contract from next season that will see him earn £230,000-a-season, representing an increase of more than £200,000.
The Manila-born youngster has started 11 of Quins’ 13 Premiership matches this season, and is being seriously considered as a candidate for Jones’ England squad for the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Powerhouse Ibitoye started the initial three games in the 2017 Six Nations at U20 level and was England’s leading try-scorer, with five, in the subsequent World Rugby U20 Championship in Georgia.
His performances won him the accolade of being shortlisted for the player of the tournament award.
A third Quin, who were boosted by the announcement of a new partnership with the All Blacks during the week, has also been added with prop Kyle Sinckler returning to the national squad.
In total Harlequins, who sit in ninth place in the Premiership, have seven players in the squad while top of the table Exeter Chiefs have just three.
After beating Italy 46-15 and Wales 12-6 in the tournament, England lost 13-25 to Scotland last time out to sit second in the table behind Ireland going into round four.
England face Ireland on March 17 at Twickenham on the final day.
England squad to prepare for France in Paris on March 10
Mike Brown (Harlequins), Danny Care (Harlequins), Elliot Daly (Wasps), Owen Farrell (Saracens), George Ford (Leicester Tigers), Gabriel Ibitoye (Harlequins)*, Jonathan Joseph (Bath Rugby), Alex Lozowski (Saracens), Jonny May (Leicester Tigers), Jack Nowell (Exeter Chiefs), Marcus Smith (Harlequins)*, Denny Solomona (Sale Sharks), Ben Te’o (Worcester Warriors), Anthony Watson (Bath Rugby), Richard Wigglesworth (Saracens)
Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers), Charlie Ewels (Bath Rugby), Jamie George (Saracens), Dylan Hartley (Northampton Saints), James Haskell (Wasps), Nathan Hughes (Wasps), Maro Itoje (Saracens), George Kruis (Saracens), Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints), Joe Launchbury (Wasps), Joe Marler (Harlequins), Zach Mercer (Bath Rugby), Chris Robshaw (Harlequins), Sam Simmonds (Exeter Chiefs), Kyle Sinckler (Harlequins), Sam Underhill (Bath Rugby), Mako Vunipola (Saracens), Harry Williams (Exeter Chiefs)
The British and Irish Lions wing has missed the opening three rounds of the title defence with ankle and calf injuries but is in contention for the trip to Paris on March 10.
Should he emerge unscathed from the practice run-out at Twickenham, Eddie Jones will know he is available as England look to revive their tournament prospects in the wake of a comprehensive defeat by Scotland.
“Hopefully he’ll be able to train with us and if he trains with us, then he could well be in consideration for France,” head coach Jones said.
Having established himself as a starting wing under Jones, Daly was in danger of missing the entire Six Nations because of the high ankle sprain sustained on club duty for Wasps in mid-December.
The 25-year-old made a quicker-than-expected return, only to then be afflicted by a minor calf issue.
“The calf thing was nothing major, but it set me back a week. I was coming back early from my ankle so it’s probably turned out even,” Daly said.
“The calf just felt a little bit tight at the back end of the week at Wasps. It wasn’t anything major but it just had to be managed for a week.
“I feel really good. I did a lot of stuff to come back from my ankle and I’ve only been a week out with my calf so I’ve maintained most of that.
“It’s just about getting up to speed with the boys now. I’m pretty much there.
“The training here with England is suited to getting you back quicker. We’re at match intensity all the time pushing yourself to the limit.
“If you can do that, then you can do it in the game.”
Under Jones’s guidance England have excelled at winning tight matches in the latter stages until their 25-13 loss at Murrayfield, but Daly insists they still retain a sense of indestructibility despite the setback against Scotland.
“I think so because of the way we train. We want to cover absolutely everything in training,” Daly said.
“Eddie chucks us the ball and usually it’s a ‘one shot, one kill’ scenario. If you drop the ball you’re defending. The way he trains is really good in that regard.”