A week is a long time in sport and that old adage feels especially relevant during a Six Nations fallow week. Yes – there was European domestic and Super Rugby to scratch the itch, but any fan or player involved who tells you they didn’t have at least one eye on the return of the competition is having you on. After the first two rounds there has been a lot to discuss, with not a great deal going along with the general consensus of three weeks ago. To whet your appetite before the weekend, below we take a look at each nation and asses where they stand heading into round 3:
After the first two games, England are looking like they have timed their run at 2019 perfectly. Excellent performances in Dublin and at home against France have seen them righty installed as Grand Slam favourites. Some pundits are saying that they’re the best team in the World right now – but Eddie Jones will know that World Cup’s aren’t won in the spring! Not in this hemisphere at least… This weekend’s showdown with Wales is seemingly all that stands between them and the title. However, the atmosphere in Cardiff won’t be as flat as Dublin and they’ll surely be facing a back three that knows where they’re meant to position themselves. Passing this stern test could well be a big step along the road to Japan. They’ll back themselves physically, but can they hold out if the Welsh bring width and pace?
If this weekend’s match is a crossroads for England’s year it is certainly the same for Wales. The men in red have failed to live up to the pre-tournament hype, both internally and externally. But from their point of view, they are two from two and are in the middle of an 11-game unbeaten run, all good teams know how to win when they’re not firing on all cylinders. Their front line players will have benefited from two weeks off following an energising second half performance against France and they will be rearing to go against the old enemy. Shaun Edwards has the tools to muster (yet another) heroic defensive performance, which they’ll need if they’re to prevail. The Welsh will certainly have the confidence and will not be perturbed by the underdog tag. This could be a sliding doors moment for both teams and this for me, along with the last game they play in Japan, will be the biggest match for either team this year.
The injury crisis north of the border goes from bad to worse, after losing Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell has failed to meet the return to play protocols. It’s beginning to feel like that anyone arriving at Murrayfield with a pair of boots will get a game. It doesn’t get easier for the Scots who will be preparing for a French backlash in Paris and a daunting trip to Twickenham as well as hosting a dogged Wales. They could still fulfil their promise but equally end up near the bottom of the pile again. Whatever happens between now and mid-March, Gregor Townsend will remain calm knowing full well that his squad will be replenished in time for the World Cup and his fringe players will have picked up valuable exposure to top level test Rugby.
Fresh from their exploits over New Zealand in the Autumn, Ireland were much fancied to retain their title. But as statistics show, it is very tough to win back-to-back Grand Slams and this year won’t be any different. There was an air of expectancy going into round one, but the way England started and played with intensity took the wind straight out of the Irish players and fans sails. Having stuttered back to life against Scotland there is no better game than against Italy to regain a swagger and depending what happens in Cardiff on Saturday, they may still have a say in this title race. Ireland will certainly learn from the mistakes they’ve made early on and come the end of the year they will be better placed and are still likely to be in the mix to take the World crown.
The old cliché of “which French team will turn up” was easily addressed in round one – when both did. Chaos and disharmony shroud the French camp, but when is it ever not thus? After a woeful second half against Wales and worse against England; there is talk of a rebellion in the ranks amidst lack of direction, leadership and consistent selection. Scotland’s injury woes will give them a glimmer of hope, but unless they get some pride back in the jersey a wooden spoon showdown could await against Italy on Super Saturday. Given all of that, if anyone is capable of turning it around in a short period of time – let alone in the months before a World Cup – it’s the French, just don’t bank on it.
Italy may well be the only team to have performed as expected – which unfortunately for them is not great. It must be difficult for Conner O’Shea because a resurgence against Scotland was put down to them taking their foot off the gas and a gritty showing against Wales was a blamed on a poor Welsh showing – as opposed to the Italian game-plan. Tough games await against Ireland and England, but an upset may be on the cards against a French side in turmoil. O’Shea is slowing exerting his influence on the system, the U20’s are showing well and domestically they are firing and persevering with the Irishman may yet bear fruit.
Written by James Jones