We have reached the first break in the 2021 Six Nations tournament, and that means it’s time for a quick look at all six teams, picking out the good and bad of each one. In this roundup, we will look at their tactics, whilst the analysis will also suggest which teams are in the title fight, and which are already out of it.
Undoubtedly, France have been the best team in the competition so far. They have played quick rugby, moving the ball around well, and have created plenty of opportunities. The last couple of seasons has seen them carry more of a threat, mainly down to the half-back pairing of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack in the middle.
However, with Ntamack missing this year’s tournament, there has been more pressure on Dupont to deliver, which he has done. Ntamack’s replacement Mathieu Jalibert has struggled to fill the gap, but there have been plenty of other good players in the team doing their bit, so this hasn’t mattered too much. The back line in particular has been really threatening, with wingers Gabriel Villiere and Damian Penaud using their pace to get forward and gain metres for the team, whilst centre Arthur Vincent has looked to run through gaps as often as possible.
Their result against Italy doesn’t really tell us anything in the long run, because it was against an Italian side that lacked confidence and left too much space open. Their win in Dublin gave us more of an indication of how good they are, because they had to really fight for the win. They created plenty of opportunities, but what they need to do is take them, otherwise they leave themselves open to being punished by their opponents.
We knew this tournament needed to be a good one for Wales, and they have shown some really good form so far, picking up wins against Ireland and Scotland. However, in both games, they have been facing 14 players, with Ireland flanker Peter O’Mahony and Scotland prop Zander Fagerson both receiving red cards in their teams’ respective games against Wales. Therefore, we still have yet to see how Wales will fare when playing against a full XV, so there are still a few questions for them to answer.
However, there is no doubting that they have played well, looking more confident overall, and the return from injury of back row Josh Navidi has in no small way helped that. Against Ireland, he came on as an early injury replacement, and was the one driving Wales forwards and looking to gain ground, as we know he likes to do.
Wales’ next game is against England, and that will be the match that gives us a lot of answers about just how far Wales can go this year, and whether they are genuine title contenders.
The defending champions have yet to really hit top form in this year’s tournament, and have looked worryingly short of ideas at times. Against Scotland, they resorted to kicking over the top of the Scottish defensive line, which played right into Scotland’s hands. Eddie Jones has been brave with his team selections so far, such as leaving influential Leicester Tigers fly-half George Ford out of the starting XV against Scotland, and naming Worcester Warriors centre Ollie Lawrence instead.
However, this selection would have made more sense against Italy in their second game, because Lawrence, as an inexperienced player, would have got more out of that game, whereas Ford would have given England a new direction when they needed fresh ideas against Scotland.
The other thing that has confused a lot of England fans is that they are continually picking Saracens players who have not played since the end of last season. Number 8 Billy Vunipola in particular is a good player, able to drive forwards, and is difficult to stop, but is he better at the moment than Exeter Chiefs’ Sam Simmonds, or Harlequins’ Alex Dombrandt? That is what has left most people scratching their heads and wondering what those players have to do to get in the team.
If we were to name the most surprising team so far, Scotland would get that award. They have been really impressive so far this tournament, playing with a general lack of fear and a great mentality. Their best player so far has probably been their captain and full-back Stuart Hogg, who is easily one of the best players in the world at the moment, but the likes of fly-half Finn Russell and winger Duhan van der Merwe have been equally as good, helping to get their team attacking forwards as often as possible.
Scotland were very unlucky to lose against Wales, but can take confidence by how many chances they created, and the fact that they were on the front foot throughout; these are things that we have not associated with Scotland for a few years now.
They face France this weekend, before playing matches against Ireland and Italy. They will definitely fancy their chances against the last two, whilst France will be without many of their key players, due to an outbreak of COVID-19 in their camp. Therefore, there is every chance that Scotland could win that game too, so there is lot for them to be confident and happy about at the moment.
With Wales looking more confident this year, the spotlight has turned on Ireland, who didn’t have the best tournament last year, but were perhaps saved from more scrutiny by how poor Wales were. They are also under still relatively new management, with former England assistant coach Andy Farrell taking over from Joe Schmidt at the end of the 2019 World Cup, and have yet to really hit the ground running so far.
Their last game gave us a much better indication of what they might look like when long-serving half-backs Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton hang up their boots, and it left a lot of questions that still need to be answered. Jamison Gibson-Park and Billy Burns lacked a bit of creativity against France, and Ireland didn’t seem to be the same without Murray and Sexton on the pitch. This is something that Andy Farrell will need to look at going forwards, not just in this tournament, but in the next year or so, with Sexton now 35 and unlikely to carry on in an Ireland shirt for more than the next two or three years.
Ireland are out of the title race, so for them, they need to ensure they win as many games as possible out of the next three, and play well in each one. Failure to do that will increase the pressure on them, and, like with Wales last year, they will become the “talked about” team.
After their opening game collapse against France, many feared Italy would just step aside in all five games, allowing their opponents to score with every forward attack. However, in that game, there were also a few good signs, such as their desire to move the ball quicker, and this is where they are dangerous. As soon as they slow the ball down, that is when they allow other teams to close them down and stop them creating space. They also lost their confidence when they started conceding penalties, which was the other reason France were able to take control of their game, and ultimately win.
However, against England, Italy caused plenty of problems, and looked much more like the Italy of old. They are missing several of their key players, such as Gloucester flanker Jake Polledri, Benetton utility back Edoardo Padovani and Wasps full-back Matteo Minozzi, but they do have winger Luca Sperandio instead, and he is very quickly making a name for himself in attack and defence.
It is still not perfect from them, and they do still look very likely to finish bottom of the table again, but there have been some signs so far that they are on the up – finally.
In conclusion, there have been many surprising results in the tournament so far. Not many would have thought that Ireland would lose their opening two games, and be out of the title race by now, or that Scotland would be arguably the second-best team at this stage. However, whilst France are now the frontrunners for the title, there is still a long way to go, and their coronavirus issues could be what costs them the trophy, despite playing really well and causing plenty of problems for their opponents. The Six Nations resumes this weekend, and there is plenty for us to keep an eye out for.