England and Wales inched closer to a potential 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.
Good: The Red Rose’s ruthless edge is back and they followed up a comprehensive win over Ireland in round one with a 44-8 hammering of France on Sunday. Their imperious win at Twickenham was highlighted by a flawless kicking game that saw Owen Farrell stretch the back three at every opportunity. Man-of-the-match Jonny May was one player to benefit from the well-executed tactics with a hat-trick of tries inside the opening half hour.
Bad: It’s hard to find any weakness in this team after two Grade A performances over the last two weeks.
Good: For all the lack of fight and enthusiasm they showed, Les Bleus improved in the second period with the introduction of youngsters Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack. Two superb players who need to start against Scotland. But, in general, they are clearly a team without a plan, short or long-term.
Bad: France’s defence, particularly kick defence, was comical and they conceded four of the six tries from a combination of poor reading and just a general lack of commitment to the contest. Basic skills are below par and the fitness is poor – something that again underlines how far behind the TOP 14 is. Any time a club team in France is struggling, the answer is to open the cheque book for a southern hemisphere star rather than honing a quality young academy prospect. Widespread changes are needed in France.
Good: An improved showing by Joe Schmidt’s men. Although it was far from a captivating performance, the Kiwi will be happy to have returned to winning ways. The set piece was solid – 100 per cent success rate at line out and scrum time – and the displays of Rob Kearney, James Ryan and Sean O’Brien were all the more impressive.
Bad: Talisman Johnny Sexton failed an HIA (Head Injury Assessment) in the first half and that could rule him out for three weeks. And the Men in Green are already without primary line-out caller Devin Toner for the remainder of the tournament.
Good: Dominated the Irish during the first half with 60 per cent territory and 50 per cent possession, but were only able to put 10 points on the score board. An improved showing against France will be crucial to their prospects and confidence for the rest of the campaign.
Bad: Too many mistakes. Although Ireland were guilty of making plenty of errors, Scotland had their fair share too, gifting Conor Murray an early try following a defensive mix-up. After the break, the slack defending was evident when Allan Dell and Rob Harley failed to tackle Joey Carbery and the Munster man paved the way to send Keith Earls in from close range.
Good: The Dragons are riding their own wave of momentum, equalling the longest unbeaten run in their Test match history. An 11th successive victory in Rome – an unconvincing victory – gives them the chance to break the record against a powerful England side on February 23. A win would be the perfect lift towards the Six Nations title.
Bad: Lacked ruthlessness at times during the first half against Italy, but with ten changes from the triumph over France, it was always going to be difficult to play some consistent and attractive rugby.
Good: It’s difficult to pick out many positive points when Italy play these days. Lagging behind the other five teams, the sole shining light from the weekend’s display was the performance of back-rower Braam Steyn.
Bad: The Azzurri followed their 33-20 defeat to Scotland in round one by extending their losing streak in the competition going back to February 2015. The ability in the team is there, but unfortunately the confidence isn’t. Losing to a second-string Wales side will not improve it either.
England head coach Eddie Jones turned his sights to the “greatest Welsh side ever” after a resounding mauling of France gave his men two wins from two Guinness Six Nations games.
England backed up their victory in Ireland with a 44-8 defeat of Les Bleus at Twickenham, falling one point short of the record margin of victory of 37 points, set in 1911.
Jonny May scored a first-half hat-trick and there were tries for Henry Slade, Owen Farrell and a penalty try as England kept hapless France scoreless in the second half. Farrell kicked an additional 14 points.
Next for Jones’ men is a trip to Cardiff on February 23, with Jones apparently having forgotten the great Wales sides of the 1970s and the Grand Slam winners of 2005, 2008 and 2012 in his assessment of Warren Gatland’s men.
“There’s a lot more in this team and we understand that and we’re committed to being the very best we can be,” Jones said.
“When we get back together on Wednesday we’ll start the process of how we can get better again.
“We’re playing the greatest Welsh side ever; we’re going to have to be at our absolute best.
“You know you’re playing against a Warren Gatland side. He’s been at the top of the tree in European rugby for the last 15 years, through his club and country and the Lions.
“You’re playing against a tough, physical team. They contest hard at the breakdown. You’ve got to earn every point against them.
“We’re looking forward to going down there. Should be fun.”
England led 30-8 at the interval, with four tries earning a bonus-point victory, but Jones insisted the second-half performance was even better.
“I think when you put yourself in a position where after 30 minutes you’ve got a bonus point against a top team you’ve done pretty well,” he added.
“And the second half I thought our performance was even better. Even though we didn’t score as many points, our focus and our discipline to keep France scoreless was outstanding.
“But we just had a quick chat in the room there and we felt we probably left 15 to 20 points on the field.”
Jones reserved particular praise for May, who took his Test tally to 22 tries in 42 appearances, with two of his scores coming as reward for chasing kicks.
Jones added: “Jonny May’s like when you go to the park and you see someone with a tennis ball and they throw it, the dog runs 100mph and chases it and brings it back. He does that pretty well.”
England have enjoyed success through their tactical kicking game in Dublin and now against Les Bleus, but Jones hinted at varied tactics to come at the Principality Stadium.
“There’s always space, because you’ve only got 15 players,” Jones added.
“At the moment we’re having a great deal of success with our kicking, but that could create opportunities in the next game somewhere else.”
Prop Mako Vunipola was replaced and required the application of ice to his left ankle, but Jones was uncertain of the severity of the injury.
France replied through a Morgan Parra penalty and Damian Penaud try in an error-strewn performance which does not bode well in World Cup year. The teams meet again in Yokohama in October.
France head coach Jacques Brunel said: “Obviously I’m very, very disappointed. I’m most of all disappointed with what happened in the first half.
“We were really under pressure from the English side, especially from their kicking game and we were not able to overcome that.”
France captain Guilhem Guirado added: “It’s very painful when they score try after try.
“The pressure was constant and we never managed to get out of that.”
Jonny May scored a hat-trick of tries as England continued their stunning start to the Six Nations by hammering France 44-8 in their biggest win against their old rivals since 1911.
May completed his treble inside half an hour, capitalising on a brilliant kick from Chris Ashton for his 22nd international try.
Owen Farrell and Henry Slade completed the scoring as the Red Rose made it two wins from two in the championship.
Here’s our report card from a one-sided contest.
England game plan: Although many would prefer to see a bit more ball-in-hand running, England’s kicking game were seriously impressive for the second week in a row.
With Farrell and Slade pulling the strings, the little kicks through stretched the opposition back three at every opportunity and exploited the space with the lightning pace of Elliot Daly, Ashton and man-of-the-match May.
They may have been clinical in all aspects, but the kicking prowess and fast defensive line is a serious threat, and will undoubtedly put title rivals Wales – far off their best against Italy – under immense pressure in two weeks time.
Farrell world’s best right now: He was labelled hotheaded for his style of leadership in the build-up to the Six Nations but has stayed at room temperature so far.
His kicking from hand was exceptional against France and constantly exposed the visitors’ positioning with his clever kicks, vision and solid distribution.
His communication in defence is also sublime and adds another attribute to his vast array of skills. On form, no one can currently rival him.
France lack spark: In a first half where England had 63 per cent of possession and 71 per cent of territory it was going to take every ounce of France’s commitment to keep the Red Rose in check. But France showed no organisation and energy in their defence and conceded four tries. Although the stats may only point to 16 missed tackles overall (94/110) in comparison to England’s 31 missed tackles (148/179), France looked devoid of any spark with or without the ball.
Poor Bastareaud: Not an international quality standard centre. The Toulon man brings absolutely nothing to the table and was caught out on countless occasions against England. His fitness, discipline, positioning and general influence on the game is limited and it’s a joke to see the 30-year-old still getting game time at such an elite level. If Jacques Brunel wants more imagination from his midfield, he needs to bring Gael Fickou off the wing to partner Wesley Fofana in the centre. With the way Bastareaud played at Twickenham, he wouldn’t make Dubai Eagles’ second XV.
2 minutes – Guirado knocks on at halfway line, and England spread the ball wide. Daly slips through a ball and May touches down (5-0).
7 minutes – Farrell converts a penalty to make it 8-0.
10 minutes – Les Bleus are on the board through Morgan Parra’s penalty (7-3).
12 minutes – Farrell lands another kick to stretch the advantage (11-3).
24 minutes – England power forward and Farrell weaves a long pass out left and May steps inside Penaud to score from close range (16-3).
30 minutes – The Leicester man completes his hat-trick on the half way mark. Parra knocked on and Ashton sends a grubber forward, with May running clear to dive over. Farrell converts (23-3).
35 minutes – France come fighting back. Camille Lopez slips a pass to Yoann Huget. The Toulouse full-back bursts past three defenders before passing the ball to Penaud who dances over in the right corner (23-8).
40 minutes – Slade crosses for his third try in two matches just before the break to increase the scoreline. Farrell converts (30-8).
50 minutes – England are awarded a penalty try after Ashton, who had a clear run to the line after a clever kick from Slade, was brought down by Fickou (37-8).
54 minutes – May sends a kick through and Farrell runs in support to dive over. Referee Nigel Owens goes to the TMO but the try is awarded. Farrell makes no mistake with the conversion to make it 44-8.
TACTICAL TALKING POINTS
England looked so comfortable and in control at Twickenham. Their excellent defence, kick-contest, and kicking into space had France on the ropes all afternoon. In fact, any time the home side opted to kick in behind the France back three, they looked like scoring. May will hog the limelight for his hat-trick, but in Tom Curry, Courtney Lawes, Slade and Farrell, they had key performers who look a class apart on their day. France, for all their lack of creativity, did improve in the second half – with 66 per cent possession – but failed to put any points on the score board.
This was nearly the complete performance from the Red Rose and continues their superb start to the Six Nations. There were a few handling errors and Farrell may have missed three of his six conversions but this is as close to perfection as you can get.
The visitors were outplayed right from the first moment to the last. They showed better in the second period with the introduction of Dupont and Ntamack, but they are clearly a team without a plan, short or long-term.