The dust has settled again. Everyone has calmed down. Eddie is back in his box. So, what really happened over the weekend and what can we learn.
Ireland v Italy was entirely predictable. Ireland dominant up front and the backs stretched their legs, with run ins for the developing centre pairing of Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki, plus the speed merchants, Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale. Italy’s three tries, whilst all impressive in their own right, only came when they were over 40 points down, by which time the men in green were thinking about the black stuff. No need to comment further.
Scotland v France was also entirely predictable. In the manner of their coach, Gregor Townsend, Scotland like playing at home in front of their bagpipe-playing kilt-wearing noisy supporters at Murrayfield. They picked a proper team too, ‘out’ with the inexperienced, back ‘in’ with the experienced in the form of Sean Maitland, Peter Horne, Greg Laidlaw and Ryan Wilson. A completely different ball game to their woeful performance in Cardiff of the previous week. To many Scots and Gloucester supporters, Laidlaw is something of a legend and he did nothing to dispel that notion, rather he enhanced it, striding into Murrayfield like a knight in shining armour, controlling the match, putting his side on the front foot, kicking all his goals for a 100% return and then even filling in at outside half for the inconsistent Finn Russell for the past 15 mins. Such was his influence that it would have been no surprise had he walked across the Firth of Forth unaided. This performance will give them huge confidence ahead of England’s visit next week.
For the French, entirely predictable. Some decent running rugby showing what they are capable of, with Teddy Thomas simply electric, yet countered by their fragility of playing away from home. Weakness of mind, lack of experience, poor game management and indiscipline, all compounded by collective and individual errors. Twice they were 10 points ahead in the first half but once the Scots had garnered some momentum there was only going to be one winner.
England v Wales was a different matter and all post match discussion has focussed on the rather heated post match comments from Eddie Jones, who was extremely prickly. His reaction must surely be a result of the disappointing nature of his team’s performance.
England started like an express train, Owen Farrell kicking low into acres of unguarded space after only two minutes for Jonny May to hurtle down his wing and slide in for the opening score. Twenty minutes in and Farrell again showed his vision with a looped pass to Joe Launchbury who somehow offloaded out of two tacklers to present May with a simple touchdown. But that was that for England. There followed sixty minutes of slow ball, largely pedestrian back play with little flair or class to open or create gaps and at no stage did they threaten the Welsh line again. Let it not be forgotten that England were largely at full strength, bar Billy Vunipola, whereas the Welsh were missing ten British Lions, including Leigh Halfpenny pulling out on the morning of the match.
Granted it was a wet and drizzly Twickenham day but if England have any pretentions of winning the World Cup they need to do better than this and be far quicker, more creative and clinical. The selection of Richard Wigglesworth as the replacement scrum half sent out all the wrong messages, for if ever there was a player to slow play down then Wigglesworth is your man. So much for Jones saying that he wants to play a quick game. It is hard to criticise Jones too much due to his outstanding record to date but he must be slightly concerned at his team’s inability to put the match away.
All the plaudits went to Mike Brown who, everyone knows is a solid, brave, wholehearted ‘will never let you down’ sort of player but he is hardly a world beater and will never be so. He is strong defensively but is seriously lacking from an attacking perspective where he adds very little, lacks in pace and rarely looks to pass. Going forward Anthony Watson must be the better bet. Interestingly Brown was nowhere near making the Lions tour, which tells its own story.
For Wales, this was a very creditable performance and, on another day, they could quite easily have come away with the spoils, as they came within inches of scoring a try in the closing minutes. Added to that the ‘potential’ try that was not given by the TMO in the first half, then they can feel rightly aggrieved. They hassled England and more than matched them up front with the back row of Aaron Shingler, Ross Moriarty and Josh Navidi all making their presence felt. Gareth Anscombe at full back also came of age on the international stage.
In the end, England just held out yet they will seriously need to up their game when they come up against the rejuvenated Scots in their own back yard next week.
Wales will most certainly face another difficult afternoon against the Irish in Dublin, the Irish having got their mojo back after that stuttering afternoon in Paris of the previous week, whilst the French should stroll to a comfortable win against the beleaguered Italians.