Wales’ leadership issues
Whilst Ireland played very well on Saturday and thoroughly deserved their win, they were helped by an abject Welsh performance. Wayne Pivac’s side looked lost in the first half, with the Irish players able to carve their way through them with little problem, as demonstrated by Leinster centre Garry Ringrose’s bonus point-sealing try late on.
However, whilst there are obvious on-field problems that need addressing, there are also issues off the pitch that can’t be fixed, such as their immense injury list. If we look down it, we see names like Alun Wyn Jones, Ken Owens, Taulupe Faletau, Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric, George North and Leigh Halfpenny, all of whom have an impact during games. Without that experience, Wales don’t currently have a player that they can turn to who can get the players all moving in the same direction, which resulted in the lack of leadership and organisation that we witnessed in Dublin.
It will be interesting to see how Wales look to shore up their defensive fragility ahead of next week, but there is no doubt that the number of key players missing from their squad could be a major problem going forward.
Can England win the title?
On the face of it, no, but then this is not necessarily what Eddie Jones is focusing on. He did this last time, with a couple of poor Six Nations campaigns preceding England’s charge towards the 2019 Rugby World Cup final, so it is highly likely that England are going down the same route ahead of France 2023. They played OK in Edinburgh, with a good level of energy and a determination to limit the spaces that Scotland could play in, and it looked as if they would scrape a win until the penalty try for Exeter Chiefs hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie’s deliberate knock-on. However, that was the moment at which they fell apart, making error after error which allowed the home side to take control and come back to win the game.
However, despite the immediate disappointment of back-to-back Calcutta Cup defeats, we need to remember that England are a team currently in development, with new and returning faces in the squad, so it will take time for them to find their rhythm. We can expect improvement as players become more used to each other, and there were plenty of good signs that they can take from Saturday’s performance. One thing they can be pleased about was that they identified key Scottish players to keep quiet, such as flanker Hamish Watson, but they need to ensure that they don’t let others exert a greater influence as a result, with fellow back rower Matt Fagerson Scotland’s best player on Saturday.
This shows how there will be good and bad in every England game during this tournament, but as long as we are seeing progression, we will know that their build-up towards the World Cup is going in the right direction.
Déjà vu for Italy
It is difficult to predict what to expect from Italy this year, because they are under new leadership and have a different look to their squad, with notable exclusions and new names brought in. On Sunday, they looked really strong defensively and limited France’s attacking threat, and were still in the game at half-time; a big achievement against one of the teams fancied to win the title. That is not to say that they had been flawless, as both of France’s first half tries had come from mistakes, but it had been a good half overall.
Their second half showing was much more like the Italy we have come to know over the last few years, with France exploiting the gaps that appeared in their line and almost scoring early on through Stade Français centre Jonathan Danty. They also lost their self-discipline as the game went on, making plenty of individual mistakes, and this has been a concern with them for a while now. France must have known at half-time that they didn’t need to panic, and only needed to wait for the chances to come their way, so simply lasting a full match has to be Italy’s main priority right now.
Overall, there were positives and negatives for the Italians in this game, but this is what we were saying at this stage of last year’s tournament too, as they looked like finally getting closer to the other five teams before then tailing off as the competition progressed. They need to ensure that this does not repeat itself this year, and build on the early positives in this match, starting with the visit of England to the Stadio Olimpico this weekend.