Monday, February 15, 2016

Six Nations Week 2 Recap

By Henry Best

Change is inevitable, except when it isn't.  The Winners are still the winners, the Losers are the still the losers, and the Inbetweeners are still stuck in the middle (although the Welsh outlook is significantly brighter than that of the Irish).  While week to week the standings haven't changed, the games this weekend showed that a lot can change from half to half.  On Saturday, both Ireland and Scotland entered the break with a lead.  Both proceeded to then lose.  Italy went into half-time down by two points.  They went home down by 31.  Despite this each team has reason to believe good things are in their future, with the distinct exception of Ireland.

France: 10
Ireland: 9

At times, many many times, this game felt like it was man vs nature rather than man vs man.  Both the French and the Irish played an often timid game, more afraid of making mistakes and losing than making plays and winning.  The French still managed to spend most of the first half dropping the ball and conceding large amounts of territory and possession to the Irish.  Still, Ireland failed to score a try managing only three penalties  for a six point half-time lead.  Ireland could have and should have put this one away early.  Thanks to a few mistakes, the weather, and some clutch French defense they didn't.  For the second 40 the French played on the front foot.

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A more expansive game played into their strengths, even with Danty's confusion over whether or not they were playing hot potato.  Were it not for Andrew Trimble channeling his inner Thierry Henry and deploying the hand of God to prevent a French try the story of the game would be the work of guys like Vakatawa (19 runs, most of them in the second half)  and the rest of the French backs.  Instead, this one belonged to the bigs.  Trimble's tip led to an extensive series of the French eviscerating the Irish scrum leading to a penalty against Ireland: rinse and repeat about fifty times (long enough to negotiate peace in the Middle East and listen to the Lynyrd Skynyrd classic “Free Bird”) before fullback Maxime Medard went in for the deciding score.

France In a Word:  Composure 

In a tight game with tough weather, the back to back champs and most experienced roster is supposed to win.  That didn't happen.  Despite having shown few signs of life early on France rallied to take control of the match and refused to give it up.  It wasn't pretty, but a French team with grit is a force to be reckoned with.  Remember France's decision not to go for points at the end of this game.  With the Welsh on the rise a three way tie is not inconceivable.  Next Up: Wales.

Ireland In a Word: Regrets

Somewhere Joe Schmidt and the great philosopher Dennis Green are sharing a beer.  The French were who the Irish thought they were, and they let them off the hook.  While injuries played a big part in Ireland's struggles, this is still a team that is supposed to have a killer instinct.  Two weeks in a row they couldn't put an opponent.  As the only team in this year's comp that hasn't embraced a younger roster there is reason for concern with these performances.  Not enough to hit the panic button, but the Irish faithful could be forgiven for checking to see where they left it.  Expect to see more Connacht boys in the group for the next game.  Next Up: England

Wales: 27
Scotland: 23

This was fun.  At times it seemed Gatland and Cotter had conspired to play a game of Aussie Rules without telling us.  Each team's opening try came off the boot of a No. 10.  The first was for Wales, Biggar to—eventually—a maybe, probably, offside Gareth Davies and then for the Scots it was Finn Russell chipping to the corner for Tommy Seymour in what was my favorite sequence of the weekend.  By the way, of the four players I just listed the oldest is Tommy Seymour: a whopping 27 years old.  The kicking slowed down after Stuart Hogg left with a first half injury.  But in the 58th minute chaos returned.  After a scrum the Scots appeared to be in business until they lost the ball in tackle.  Tom James scooped the ball off the deck and appeared to be off to the races.  Unfortunately for James, when Duncan Taylor was 15 he paid attention in Geometry class and took the perfect angle to hunt James down.  Seven minutes later Taylor went from national hero to silver-lining as the Welsh scored a try to take a lead they would never look back from.  Still, an incredible piece of entertainment that begs the question, can we please get more retractable roofs?

Wales in a Word: North

George North had nine runs, including an impressive piece of work against some unimpressive tackling for a try late in the game.  Nine runs might cut it against Scotland at home.  However, long run the Welsh have to do a better job of getting North involved in the game.  He's their most dangerous player.  Like all great players he has a natural gravity that causes defenses to lose their shape in order to cover him.  In other words, when George North has the ball the opposition has to decide whether to stop him and create space for someone else or get posterized.  Scotland was not forced to make this choice often enough and managed to look the better team for most of the game.  Next up: France- a team that knows about getting dangerous players the ball.

Scotland in a Word: Hope

It's unfortunate that Murrayfield is often reduced to a pig sty, because these guys are fun to watch.  Two weeks in a row they've gone toe to toe with a superior opponent and almost pulled out a win.  More than that, they've done it with a young squad and in two vastly different kinds of games.  They still don't have the killer instinct to put their opponent to the sword when they have the chance, but there is reason to believe that this will come with time.  This group has the potential to beat each of their final three foes and throw European rugby upside down.  Next Up: Italy

Italy: 9
England: 40

Remember when I said George Ford and Owen Farrell don't seem to be able to coexist?  The first try of this game makes me look pretty stupid.  The match wasn't as lopsided as the score indicates.  As mentioned above Italy were only down by two at the half.  One stupid pass and a Jonathon Joseph interception for a try later the Italians folded like paper in an origami class.  For England the last thirty minutes of the game looked like a lot of fun.  This was a team that needed a good romp after a sad World Cup and disappointing display against Scotland.  However, this is still England, and those first fifty minutes didn't look all that great.

Italy in a word: Composure

The Italians have everything they could possibly want to build a competitor.  They have young talent getting playing time in a high-level professional league.  They have fan support for the national team.  And they get a chance to measure themselves against some of the best teams in the world on an annual basis.  What they don't have is a winning culture.  The national team plays not to win the Six Nations, but to win a Six Nations game.  Zebre and Treviso, home to most Italian players, are consistent losers in the Pro-12.  This team believed early on.  However, it seemed like after the interception they remembered they were Italy and this is England and they were supposed to get crushed.  Biggest priority for Italy is to make sure their next coach breathes fire.  Next up: Scotland.

England in a Word: Skeptical

This is England.  Those were the Italians.  This was the expected scoreline.  Anything less and the sky would officially be falling.  The creativity between Ford and Farrell on the opening try is exciting to watch and the tempo of the final 30 gives English fans lots of reasons for optimism.  But, these are English fans so they are well aware of all the reasons for pessimism.  Nothing Eddie Jones does means scat until he does it to a better team.  Whatever the final score the first 50 minutes still happened.  This squad has a long way to go before they can claim European dominance and consider themselves capable of dancing with the best of the south.  Next up: Wales.  Beat them handily and I'll be a believer (probably not).

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