England’s search for a Six Nations hat-trick started on a predictably winning note as they eased to a 46-15 victory over Italy, but the Welsh know they have several weaknesses to probe at Twickenham on Saturday.
Below are the four key takeaways from the Stadio Olimpico …
NO SCARE WITH CARE
Knees aren’t supposed to bend that way. A stray body at the base of a ruck ended Ben Youngs’ game prematurely and, it has to be feared, his entire Six Nations campaign. Luckily England have a ‘finisher’ who many argue should be the starter at scrum-half in Danny Care.
In 23 Tests under Eddie Jones, Care has emerged from the bench 17 times – not quite Jamie George levels, but enough to frustrate the Harlequin all the same.
After coming on in the 10th minute this was as a good as a start and he sparked the move that led to Owen Farrell’s try, while his box kicks – a much-improved attribute – looked sharp and he’s always been ultra-dangerous around the fringes.
The question is, who is England’s third-string scrum-half? Youngs and Care have been Jones’ scrum-halves for all but three minutes under his watch.
The stats will tell you England’s defence was solid enough – making 149 out of 163 tackle attempts at a success rate of 91 per cent. But a fair slab of those tackles were made as Italy made great in-roads after stretching a rush defence that was simply not firing on all cylinders.
The likes of Chris Robshaw and Maro Itoje struggled to slow the ball down enough for it to work effectively and Italy, with a new-found verve under head coach Conor O’Shea, were accurate enough to take advantage of this in fits and starts.
It’s difficult to imagine England won’t bring more energy against Wales at Twickenham next week but they are likely to be troubled out wide by the jet-heeled Steff Evans and Josh Adams.
A NEW No8 GREAT?
Okay, it’s not quite the time to anoint Sam Simmonds as England’s new hero, but he brings an intriguing skillset different to that of hulking No8 monsters Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes.
The Exeter Chiefs back-rower is more than 20kg lighter than Vunipola and Hughes – you’d rather he run into you than that duo. But if you can’t hang onto him he’s past you in a flash.
The streamlined Simmonds showed brilliant burst to finish off both of his tries and when Vunipola is back, it’ll be interesting to see whether Jones trusts him enough to play him as a flanker – namely to do all the necessary dirty work – to be that speed complement as a ball-carrier.
O’Shea has clearly moved Italy’s attacking game up a notch – it’s not just stick-it-up-your-jumper, Sergio Parisse smashball anymore. Parisse was given a helping hand by Seb Negri in the carries department – the blindside flanker was playing in the third tier of English rugby a year ago – but there was some genuine invention too.
Tommaso Allan’s final pass for Tommaso Benvenuti’s opener for Italy was inch-perfect, relegating Jonny May to a spectator on the wing.
There were further promising moments in the broken field, too, but what good is that for Italy if they’ve blown their gasket at the hour-mark? Three tries in nine minutes gave the England scoreline an undeserved sheen yet we’ve been here so many times before with the Azzurri.
Last year? 17-15 to England until the last 10. 36-15 at the final whistle.In 2016? 11-9 to England at half-time. 40-9 at full-time. O’Shea won’t do anything until Italy develop depth, and it’s not an overnight fix.
As impressive as Wales were in Cardiff, and for periods they were very impressive, they are still well behind England and Ireland in the Six Nations pecking order.
And I fully expect them to come down to earth with a thud next Saturday at Twickenham.
Against an error-riddled Scotland, Wales had plenty of time and space to use the ball and punish the visitors. But against England and Ireland they will simply not be given that latitude.
Wales were never challenged up front by the Scots who were determined to swing the ball from side-to-side Barbarians style. When the formidable English and Irish packs start to put the squeeze on Warren Gatland’s eight the Welsh pack will need to be at their very best just to hold their ground and will get none of the easy go forward ball they got against Scotland.
When the Welsh backline is forced to live off scraps it will be a very different Rhys Patchell and Hadleigh Parkes than those seen on the weekend.
Yes Ireland toiled for long periods against France, who defended manfully, but the way Joe Schmidt’s side put together their final 40 phase drive to set up Johnny Sexton’s winning drop goal showed a side who have a deep belief and considerable composure.
The other thing not in Wales favour is they must travel to both London to play England, and Dublin to face Ireland. Without those thousands of Welsh voices urging them on, as in Cardiff, Wales will begin to feel (and look) decidedly human.
Their brave youngsters did man up against Scotland, coupled with the flawless boot of Leigh Halfpenny, but when they come up against the Irish and Lions halfback duo of Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton pulling the strings they will feel far less assured.
England’s lineout is one of their strongest facets and with Courtney Lawes, Maro Itoje and Joe Launchbury tag-teaming Alun Wyn Jones, Wales will get very little good ball off the top, again making it harder for their young backs to play.
Wales enjoyed their day at the top – but that day has passed.
Ireland fly-half Johnny Sexton’s match winning drop goal against France in Paris on Saturday night has already gone down in Six Nations folklore. But the 40 Phases that led up to the winning kick, which came 82 minutes and 42 seconds into the match, was almost as extraordinary as the kick itself.
Here we break down the extraordinary last drive from Ireland that started with a drop out on their own 22 and finished five minutes and 13 seconds later with Sexton’s drop goal sailing over the cross bar.
77.17 Anthony Belleau’s penalty attempt scrapes the outside of the post, leaving the door open for Ireland.
77.29 Johnny Sexton takes the 22 drop out. He kicks to the left where Iain Henderson takes the ball uncontested and sets up a ruck. (Phase 1 – Ball on Ireland 25 metre line)
77.48 After a couple of tight phases Conor Murray spreads it wide to Bundee Aki who is well tackled by committed France defence (Phase 4 – Ball on Ireland 30 metre line)
77.59 Murray passes to Sexton on the left who interchanges with CJ Stander. Sexton then collides with Stander but referee Nigel Owens lets the play go on. Sexton is wrapped up near the Ireland 40 metre line. No8 Kevin Gourdon is down injured for France near the halfway line. (Phase 5)
78.12 Rob Kearney bobbles a pass but holds on. The ball goes wide to Aki who again makes ground, up to the Ireland 45 metre line. (Phase 6)
78.39 CJ Stander is going backwards and France are over the ball through Dany Priso. But somehow Stander manages to re-cycle. (Phase 9 – ball on Ireland 42 metre line.)
79.01 The ball goes loose on the ground from Dan Leavy but Owens says backwards. Play on. (Phase 12 – ball on Ireland 40 metre line.)
79.26 Ireland going backward. Aki takes it up for the third time in the move but is stopped on the Ireland 40 metre line. (Phase 15)
79.41 Ireland get some quick ball. Murray feeds back to back phases to Sexton who finds Robbie Henshaw out on the left. The Leinster centre makes good yards almost to the halfway line. (Phase 17)
80.05 The clock ticks into the red as replacement hooker Sean Cronin is tackled right on half way. Any mistake now and the game is over. France will win. (Phase 20)
80.17 Aki takes it up again but the French defence swarm and he is brought down back near the 40 metre line. Ireland are starting to look bunched. (Phase 22)
80.35 Sensing something needs to be done to break France open Sexton audaciously kicks across the field for Keith Earls. The Munster winger leaps high as opposing winger Virimi Vakatawa gives him space, not wanting to be penalized for playing the main in the air. Earls takes he baall cleanly and jinks inside taking it down to the France 40 metre line – inside drop goal range. (Phase 23)
80.51 France lying in the ruck but Owens is down on his haunches making sure it comes back. Ireland are almost in drop goal range but Sexton is down with cramps. He stretches his right leg, his kicking foot, and scrambles back up. (Phase 26 – ball on France 40 metre line.)
81.28 Very slow ball for Ireland. Four phases where they make zero yards with Devin Toner, Peter O’Mahony, Jack McGrath and Stander all being scythed down. Priso is lying in the ruck again but Owens calls play on. (Phase 30)
81.41 Good defence from Cedate Gomes Sa. Owens warns Murray on the run: “Don’t look for the penalty. I’ll deal with it.” Ireland go wide with Sexton finding Aki for the fifth time but they are going nowhere. They are now back on the halfway line. (Phase 33)
81.56 Murray tries a quick interchange with Fergus McFadden close to the ruck. The Leinster winger gives them a little zip and together they make a few precious yards. (Phase 34 – ball on France 40 metre line.)
82.04 Leavy takes it up again, his third time in the move, but the ball is very slow. O’Mahony gets a good leg drive on but Ireland can’t get past the France 40 metre line, still a few good metres out of drop goal range. (Phase 36)
82.16 Sexton passes inside to Henderson but the big lock is chopped down. Still on the France 40 metre line. (Phase 37)
82.31 Henderson again but this time he skips through the tackle of reserve hooker Adrien Pelissie and makes five crucial metres. Ball on the France 35 metre line – field goal range. (Phase 39)
82.35 Now in drop-goal range Murray passes infield to Stander who sets the ruck up in the centre of the field. Sexton drops back. (Phase 40)
82.38 Murray hits Sexton with the pass 45 metres out right in front. The Leinster fly half drops it on to his right boot.
82.42 The ball sails through the air for a never ending four seconds, just clearing the cross bar – Ireland have won.