After what has been a thoroughly enthralling month of action, the 2023 Six Nations is now firmly on the home straight, with the penultimate round of fixtures taking place at the weekend as each of the six teams looked to solidify their positions in the table and give themselves the best possible chance of achieving their pre-tournament goals this coming Saturday.
As ever, Total Rugby Analysis has been keeping a close eye on all of the action and has put together some thoughts on what the latest round of matches has shown us, with it becoming increasingly clear where each team is in their progression and development and who needs to improve what before the World Cup.
Italy their own worst enemies against Wales
So much of what has been said and written about Italy during the last 12 months has been very positive, with many recognising that they are moving in the right direction and that there are definite signs of revival after so many years of constantly hitting rock bottom.
However, Saturday’s game against Wales demonstrated that reviving a team who had been low on confidence will not be a short-term process and that there will be snags along the way, because it was clear in Rome that, whilst they were trying to do the right things, there is still a general lack of quality in so much of their play.
The thing that will frustrate them the most about this latest defeat is that they did have chances to score more points and to potentially win the game, with it not being rare to see them getting into Wales’ 22. However, when they did look like scoring, mistakes were made and the play broke down, with the ball either being dropped on the goal line or a pass not being sent in the right direction, and those are the sorts of things that decide matches and which Italy need to be executing correctly if they are to start winning matches more regularly.
It wasn’t just in attack that they made errors though, because their defensive play was also found wanting at times, with them guilty of giving away too many penalties across the game for collapsing mauls (one of which led to a penalty try for Wales) and tackling players off the ball, so, even though they have turned a corner over the last year in terms of performances, there is still a lot of work for them to do, and they will no doubt view this game as one that got away when looking back at it.
France’s hard work at the breakdown will give future opponents nightmares
Anyone watching England’s home game against France on Saturday evening will agree that it was the very definition of a one-sided affair, with the hosts putting on a shambolic and dismal display and the visitors looking determined and focused on the task at hand.
Whilst England will have to suffer a week of criticism after their collapse at Twickenham, a lot of credit does need to be given to France, because some people wrote them off after they had struggled past Italy on the opening weekend and then suffered a defeat to Ireland, and yet they have fought back since then to show that, as is traditional with Les Bleus, they cannot be counted out until the final whistle has been sounded.
Yes, Fabien Galthie’s side were assisted in no small part by England being so poor, but there were several elements of their game plan that showed how they had been working hard on the training ground to make themselves such a difficult side to play against, and one area that particularly stood out was their hard work at the breakdown.
Time after time, they managed to get over the ball and either secure possession or win a turnover, and they had a determination to constantly dominate this area of the game to the extent that they never gave up when England did manage to get there first, with their counter rucks being executed superbly, and having this ferocious power and determination was a key reason that they were able to keep England on the back foot.
It was also clear that every player had bought into this game plan, with every one of the 15 players on the field and the replacements that came on during the game working hard to continually secure possession on the ground and put their hosts under constant pressure. Powerful centre Jonathan Danty looked sharp and determined on his return from injury, fellow centre Gael Fickou was excellent with and without the ball yet again, Gregory Alldritt made his usual dominant carries and Thibaut Flament continued to demonstrate why he has been catching the eye.
Overall, as a team, they looked well-drilled and knew what was expected of them, and, even though full-back Thomas Ramos was named as the eventual Player of the Match, any one of their squad could have been given the award.
Scotland have finally found the right partnership at centre
It has always been mentioned by rugby fans and analysts that a lot of what a team does well comes down to them having the right combination of players at inside and outside centre, as it can have a big say on how quickly they can move the ball around the field and how effective the initial phases after set pieces is.
It is certainly an area of the team that Scotland have struggled to get right in recent years, with several different partnerships being tried out and the likes of Sam Johnson, Mark Bennett, Cameron Redpath and Chris Harris all being given chances to claim the positions.
However, head coach Gregor Townsend has this year opted to give Glasgow Warriors duo Sione Tuipolotu and Huw Jones the opportunity to shine in those roles, banking on the fact that they play together in the midfield for their club and therefore already have a strong understanding of each other’s games.
It has proven to be a masterstroke as the tournament has gone on, because they now have a physical presence directly alongside Finn Russell, meaning that they have been able to create dents in opposing defensive lines, and an agile and nimble option on the other side who is capable of exploiting the spaces created by that initial drive.
When looking at why Scotland have looked so confident when moving up the field this year, this is undoubtedly something that has to be taken into consideration, and there is no doubt that getting this partnership settled now will give Townsend’s players a lot of confidence going into their final preparations before the World Cup gets underway.