After a riveting opening phase of Six Nations action, we now have a weekend to draw breath and contemplate what the remainder of this year’s tournament is likely to throw up.
At this juncture, pre-tournament favourites England are best placed to fulfil the bookmakers’ faith in them, after winning two absorbing contests that they could so easily have lost.
What we now know is that, in differing circumstances, England could well be zero from two. Both France and Wales pushed them all the way in two brilliantly competitive games but England displayed admirable composure and resilience to remain the only unbeaten side in the championship.
Of the six games played in the campaign, four were thrilling contests. The remaining two both featured Italy who, sadly, are well off the pace compared to the rest of the field. In recent years the tournament tended to be a two-tier affair with England, Ireland and Wales contending for top honours with Scotland and France trying desperately to avoid a battle with the Italians for the Wooden Spoon.
The step-up in performance by France and Scotland is such that, while they might not win the tournament outright, they will have a massive say in who does. Indeed the narrow margin separating the top five countries at present is highlighted by the fact that, Italy apart, the defeated team in every contest managed to secure a losing bonus point by finishing within a seven-point margin of the victor.
England sit pretty on top of the table and, while they have yet to be seen at their best, have displayed remarkable doggedness in winning both of their opening encounters.
Having just about hung on to defeat France in their opening game at Twickenham, the manner with which they fought back to beat Wales in such an electrically charged cauldron as the Principality Stadium is a testament to the belief Eddie Jones has instilled in the side.
He stands unbeaten in 15 contests at the helm since taking over from Stuart Lancaster after the World Cup and has transformed them into a side that has become very difficult to beat. That said, it took a horrific mistake from the otherwise excellent Jonathan Davies, when failing to find touch after his forwards had manufactured an invaluable turnover in their 22, for England to rescue this one.
Huge credit attaches to George Ford and Owen Farrell for their composure and ability to execute under pressure in exposing the space out wide on the Welsh flank on receipt of that wayward kick.
Farrell delivered a sumptuous pass to release Elliot Daly outside the flailing Alex Cuthbert to copper-fasten a win that didn’t look like coming.
Farrell deserves even more credit for cementing the win with a nerveless touchline conversion that meant Wales had to hunt a converted try to win rather than a penalty or drop goal to salvage a draw, an outcome that would have suited Ireland perfectly.
With two home games on the trot before arriving in Dublin in March, England are in pole position.
They host Italy next with Jones announcing that he will make some changes for that game to freshen up his side.
Italy face a major challenge in avoiding an even bigger humiliation than they suffered on their home patch last weekend.
After that, Scotland visit London and, on current form, are capable of pushing England all the way.
They could so easily have won in Paris last Sunday for the first time since 1999 but coughed up too many penalties, especially at the scrum. That said, the TMO ruled against a French try by Remi Lamerat in a very tight call at a vital stage.
In the two subsequent phases, South African referee Jaco Peyper penalised the French from an attacking five-metre the scrum when it was clear that Scotland’s replacement tight head, Simon Berghan, was under so much pressure, he could not hold his feet.
From the resultant lineout, Scottish hooker Ross Ford delivered a blatantly crooked throw but was not penalised. That crushing sequence of events would have caused recent French teams to throw their toys out of the pram but, on this occasion, this side displayed uncharacteristic composure to work their way back into scoring positions. Their reward, two kickable penalties, proved sufficient to win the game.
In the absence of their two regular starting props WP Nel and Alasdair Dickinson, the Scottish scrum is a major liability. As I highlighted here last week, they dodged a bullet against Ireland with only six scrums in that game. With 18 at the Stade de France, they were never going to get away with it again as the massive French pack shredded the visitors’ scrum. That was to prove the difference between winning and losing.
Ireland bounced back impressively from their opening defeat and rectified all the areas that left them down in Edinburgh. It was clear from the outset that the team was spot on mentally, physically, and tactically, and the hosts were never allowed to get any foothold in the game.
With the four-try bonus point secured well before half-time, the outcome was never in doubt. The most striking statistic to emerge from this one was the fact that Ireland made 16 offloads. That figure was far in excess to what they would normally attempt and also appeared to catch the Italian defence in two minds.
There are so many good carriers in this team that building in the facility to keep the ball alive in the tackle will add an extra dimension to our attacking play. Under Guy Noves, France are offloading with refreshing regularity — 12 times in the opening half alone against the Scots — and are being rewarded accordingly.
Of even more surprise was their ability to stay the pace over the entirety of an incredibly intense physical game. The net result of all this is that France will arrive in Dublin in fine fettle, confident that they can push Ireland all the way.
Of even more concern, they are more comfortable playing at the Aviva Stadium than travelling to Twickenham where the consequence of defeat to their greatest rivals often serves to fry their brains.
Joe Schmidt is well aware that the level of competition now goes up immeasurably from here on in. Ireland are capable of winning all three of their remaining fixtures, two of which are at home, but could conceivably lose all three to France, Wales, and England.
Trips to Cardiff have never been easy and the Welsh don’t fear us. The fact that it is being played on that dreadful Friday evening slot is also likely to mean that less Irish will be in a position to travel which will feed into the raucous home support even more.
Those issues can be parked for the time being, however, as all the focus switches to dealing with the increasing variety of threats posed by the French in what is sure to be, yet another, Six Nations cracker.
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