The tournament is in full-flow; fast-paced intense matches, die-hard fans lighting up stadiums across Europe, and enough controversy to keep the IRB officials on their toes for a while to come. With all the mayhem that has ensued on the pitch, this break offers us a chance to catch our breath, take a look at how the sides have fared thus far, and see what we can expect in the weeks to come.
England – 1st place
Expectation was high in the English camp coming into this tournament and they have not disappointed. The autumn series losses to New Zealand and South Africa are a distant memory, completely dwarfed in light of their start to this year’s championship. A win in the backdrop of an intimidating and expectant welsh crowd was the perfect way to silence Lancaster’s critics and to set the tone for England’s campaign. England’s aggressive carrying game proved too much for the Welsh defence to cope with in the second half and the kicking game for Wales was ineffective with Mike Brown looking comfortable under the high ball and setting up one of England’s tries. Although they started slow against Italy, they soon hit their stride and made light work of a struggling Italian side. The English defence has held relatively strong thus far and their ambitious attacking style has proven to be tough to cope with as is shown by their vastly superior points difference.
It’s only two matches into the contest but England are one of only two teams alongside Ireland that can still contend for the Grand Slam. By this stage in the 2013 tournament England were the only side left that could win the Slam, and the same goes for Ireland in the 2014 edition of the championship. With both teams having recently missed their opportunities at grabbing Grand Slams, this makes the encounter this Sunday all the more enticing. England have a point to prove having consistently let championships slip through their grasp. Strong performances from the likes of Haskell, Ford and Joseph will have to repeated this Sunday if England are going to overturn their main challengers who themselves are looking for their first outright back-to-back championship wins since 1949. As it stands, England still have their destiny in their own hands and are in the driving seat; if they overcome their toughest test and win on Sunday, then England and Lancaster will have few excuses if they are left with yet another runners-up medal to their name come late March.
Ireland – 2nd place
Joe Schmidt has rejuvenated an Ireland side that was worried what life would be like without their inspirational talisman, Brian O’ Driscoll. Ireland have been in transition for a while now and whilst there was more than a little hesitancy in backing a side that is comparatively inexperienced to the Ireland teams of the late noughties, their record in the past two years rivals that of any around the world. Wins against South Africa and Australia, a six nations championship, and a world ranking of third to shout about. Ireland have become a force in World Rugby that cannot be taken lightly. Ireland were, have been, and still are favourites for the title this year and are more than capable of going one step further and laying claim to the Slam; not many people would have believed that before O’ Driscoll’s departure.
The new face of the Ireland side and the man at the epicentre of Ireland’s charge is the adept Jonathan Sexton. Sexton played second-fiddle to Ronan O’ Gara for a lot of his early tenure in the Ireland squad but the notion of him repeating that role any time soon is absurd. Sexton is a world class fly-half and has proven it time and time again. Whilst he is only recently back from injury, he showed no signs of anytime away against France and looked as comfortable on the pitch as a fish in water. He displayed an expertly precise kicking performance and controlled the game from the get-go. This matched with a dominating forwards performance from Ireland in the first half and solid defence from the backline for the majority of the second ensured a well-fought win. However, Ireland will have to be wary of the attacking threat that England will pose on Sunday. They can ill-afford to take their foot off the pedal as they have against Italy and France, England will punish them if they do. Sunday will be a titanic tussle for the title for sure, and the man to bring it home for Ireland will be Jonathan Sexton.
France – 3rd place
The French rugby philosophy is all about flair and outrageous feats of skill and style in their performance. Unfortunately, the French national side is a long way from living up to this reputation and have been for quite some time now. Most fixtures in the six nations involving France nowadays are preceded with a looming question of ‘Which French side will turn up today? `. France have been known to pull off shock results against the southern hemisphere teams in the past and put on sensational performances against all of the home nations but these have been matched by some abysmal ones as well. Losses to weaker sides like Italy and Scotland go to show just how erratic the French can be. Consistency is their big issue and when head coach Philippe Saint-Andre has a record of choosing 80 different players for the French squad in 32 tests, it is a problem that is not likely to be solved in the near future. This year is no different for the French with several new additions to the squad and with the same results. Although they got the win against Scotland on the opening weekend, it was a mediocre performance at best with no tries to speak of and few promising offensive moves either for the French crowd to cheer. The following week, an improvement, but yet again a very slow start and a better second half saw the French cut the final deficit to 7 points against Ireland. Whilst France are responsible for the majority of upsets and the unpredictability of the championship which has become the trademark of the contest year-on-year, when that unpredictability comes at the cost of entertaining free-flowing rugby, the fans are the ones who lose out. France themselves will be aware of the issue and will have to address it if they are to once again become viable contenders for the title.
Wales – 4th place
Wales have been the most successful team in the six nations in recent years with 3 titles out of the last 6 championship, two being Grand Slams. It was imperative that Wales got off to a good start yet again and use it as a building block to the world cup later this year. It didn’t turn out that way. Despite Wales, and particularly Biggar and Halfpenny, playing superbly in the first half, they could not hold off the England comeback in the second; the victory eluded them. There were signs of promise in the game though, the Welsh defence held out for long periods of time; if it weren’t for the remarkable ball-carrying of Attwood and Haskell getting England over the gain line, it could well have been a different story come the final whistle. A similarly strong defensive display was repeated against Scotland the following week. The Scots may have scored two tries but they came 70 minutes apart from each other. Roberts and Davies were outstanding in attack with noticeable performances from Webb and Williams to match. However, the victory wasn’t without its controversy. Two yellow cards, two disallowed tries, penalties galore (31 in total), and a somewhat hostile Edinburgh crowd. It was not an easy game by any means, Wales were worked hard by a resurgent Scotland, and the third quarter proved too much for the home side and took the game away from them. Wales are still alive in the championship. They have the squad to match any one of the sides in the championship, but they are far too erratic throughout the game; recently, a consistently good performance for the 80 minutes has been very rare and Gatland needs to address that if his side are to not only remain in the hunt for the title, but to progress out of their tough World Cup group later this year.
Scotland – 5th place
Vern Cotter has been responsible for what can be considered rugby’s fastest rehabilitation of an international team in the professional era. Under 1 year ago Scotland were being taken apart by Wales in Cardiff with a demoralising result and embarrassing end to Scott Johnson’s unpopular and unwelcome tenure as Scotland Interim Coach. Fast forward a year, Scotland are a completely different team; off the back of a superb autumn series which saw them come close to beating New Zealand, Scotland came into this championship with a lot of high hopes and showing promise that has been lacking since 2006. However, for all the promise, the results have not come as of yet. Scotland’s performance in France was plagued with ill-discipline and a lack of prowess when finishing off brilliant attacking moves. It was the feature of Scotland’s game that allowed France the opportunity to build a lead and take the game away from the Scots. With the set piece, particularly the line-out, working well for the Scots, they showed the sort of free-flowing rugby that has been missing from the side for far too long. Scotland looked like the more ambitious of the two teams and had more attacking intent than the home side as is evidenced by Hogg’s and Bennett’s superb performances which they repeated the following week against Wales.
Defensively, the Scots held up well in Paris, stopping the French from scoring a try against them for the first time in the tournament’s brief history. The same cannot be said of the performance in Edinburgh where poor discipline from the get-go gave wales’ talisman halfpenny opportunities at goal and handed the Welsh territorial advantage which they capitalised on. Whilst the Welsh that day conceded more penalties than the Scots (17 to Scotland’s 13), Scotland were unable to gain any sort of territory in the second half due to silly errors from Finn Russell who is finding his feet in the Scotland shirt. Two matches and two losses; it is easy to sympathise with the Scots because of their obvious improvement but they need to cut out all the penalties in key areas if they are to gain any sort of momentum and get that first elusive win. Italy is a prime opportunity for Vern Cotter to get his first six nations win but the time is fast approaching where Scotland need a win irrespective of whether they are performing well or not.
Italy – last place
There is not a lot of hope for the Italians this year or anytime soon in the near future in this competition realistically. Wins are too few and far between that they are almost certainly nailed on for the wooden spoon this time round given Scotland’s improvements. They have been known to cause an upset in the tournament but there is little chance of them pulling off one this time round. There have been brief sparks of life from the Italians though. Kelly Haimona is the heaviest fly-half in the game today at 18 stone but has very nimble feet and a keen eye for gaps in the defence making him as much of a running threat as a centre as he displayed briefly against England. However, his kicking desperately needs improvement, especially considering he is a fly-half but a prospect for Italy in the future for sure. Luca Morisi is another man in the Italians’ ranks who could prove a very useful asset; he made several yards against England and showed expert finishing with 2 tries to his name. Sergio Parisse as always has been the driving force behind the Italian team; if there were 15 Sergio Parisses on the field then Italy wouldn’t have a problem. Their next game is their best chance at a win this championship, and I doubt that they will be able to get the win in Murrayfield this Saturday. The worst team in the championship that is bound for last place yet again to add to their collection of wooden spoons that is beginning to resemble a kitchen drawer.
So there you have it, the breakdown of all the first two weeks’ six nations action. Another hugely anticipated instalment of the tournament lies ahead this weekend as there is still everything to fight for with two teams competing for the holy grail of European rugby, the Grand Slam. All eyes on what is being built up as the Dublin decider. Saturday: Scotland vs Italy 14:30, France vs Wales 17:00. Sunday: Ireland vs England 15:00.
Winners: Ireland – Grand Slam winners
Runners-up: England – 4 wins
3rd Place: Wales – 3 wins
4th Place: France – 2 wins
5th Place: Scotland – 1 win
6th Place/Wooden Spoon: Italy – 0 wins