Six Nations 2017

Six Nations’ Chapter 3 Brews Intrigue

On another fascinating weekend of this years edition of the Six Nations each team played their part. Questions were raised – mostly by England’s bemused pack – and some were answered as Scotland produced another exhilarating performance.

Murrayfield, it’s becoming a place you fear to visit once again. And for all the right reasons. With no disrespect to yonder years it often held a dread of labour, that to win there would cause you resolve, toil and perseverance certainly not invention; now all has changed. Scotland have come so far in the last eighteen months and in this campaign they’re starting to have some spoils to show for it. If you want to win now at Murrayfield you had better change your mindset, new times are emerging.

A glance at the statistics would tell you this game was fairly even. Metres made: Scotland 302, Wales 330. Carries Scotland 124, Wales 93. Possession: Scotland 58%, Wales 42%. What the statistics don’t tell you is how well Scotland utilised those carries, where their metres were made and how they valued their possession. Scotland are finding ways of scoring tries and are doing so with such ruthlessness.

At the heart of it is Stuart Hogg. He is transforming the way they play and creating a belief in the others around him that they can match his creativity and willingness to experiment. He threatened early on with a grubber through for Tim Visser out on the right wing and never looked back. He delayed the pass which led to the Tommy Seymour try but it was his speed of flick which allowed Visser to charge over the line which put them out of sight in the second half. Swirls of ink, if not already, were penned next to the number 15 on Gatland’s Lions sheet.

Whereas Scotland were brilliant, Wales were ordinary. A pattern is forming and one they would not wish to make permanent. Start well, fade badly. In two rounds of second halves they have accumulated just 3 points. At any level that is just not good enough. Having led at half time – you’re not having deja vu don’t worry – they fell away in the second half. This time no points scored to Scotland’s 20. After such an impressive performance for 76 minutes against England this latest installent of Wales’ stalling was concerning. As Scotland were busy answering questions – one in particular 10 years in the making, Wales were too occupied in adding to their own.

To Ireland and to Dublin. Their championship hopes continued with this hard-fought but well deserved win over France. It was never pretty really but Jonny Sexton, returning to the side, did try his best. The Sexton loop was in full flow and he showed signs of what Ireland have been missing. You never know what you’ve got until it’s gone was never so apt for Ireland and for Sexton.

In open play defences are so organised now that spaces have to be forced and manipulated. Sexton’ interplay allows this and opens crevices for him to release his backline. Though France hit them back with aggression and some fluent moves of their own Sexton and man of the match Connor Murray were able to run the show. And it was by no coincidence they were both involved in the try. Sexton eluded Gael Fickou to chip to the corner forcing Nakaitaci to concede a 5 metre scrum. With Murray burrowing over from the following attack. Though their performance wasn’t dazzling, it was certainly commanding, potentially more ink added to Gatland’s team sheet.

From then on Ireland controlled the game, Sexton adding points through a drop goal and penalty with his replacement Paddy Jackson adding another to seal the victory. The win allowed Ireland to keep looking ahead to the final fixture of this year’s campaign to which everyone is waiting. Wales next but with their half back pairing back Ireland should dominate.

So last, but certainly not least, Sunday’s meeting between England and Italy. Much has been said, arguments caused but we await as yet whether world rugby has any plans to amend Law 16.1, which we are now so familiar with.

First of all clarity. What were Italy doing? Italy tackle an England player, they choose not to form a ruck by not contesting for the ball.  No ruck is therefore formed and no offside line. Italy used this to add players amongst England’s backline, legally, to disrupt their play. They did not go to tackle Danny Care, England’s scrum half, because unless the referee deems the ball to be out they would infringe and be offside. This is because the scrum half is protected by a one metre invisible line whilst the ball is fed out from the ruck.

So that’s the mechanics, what’s the art, what’s the meaning? Well first of all a salute and applaud to Italy for working within the rules to manipulate a different approach and game plan that would frustrate the opposition, nullify their threat and allow themselves a way into the match. What is has exposed however is the limited resources Italy have in the player department at the minute to go and beat teams, their tactics are to prevent the other team beating them.

But imagine a world of rugby where this was allowed to continue. Attacking backline numbers are just as numerous as the opposition defenders joining them. Rugby would become less a spectacle of dazzling running and more a procession of crawling and stuttered spurts. We have seen it before and we could certainly well see it again but World Rugby may prevent any of that with a slight tweak of the wording to the law.

To the hosts. Should England have reacted quicker? Yes. The tactic baffled the players and for too long. No more than Hartley and Haskell. Haskell twice in conversation with the referee. ‘I just want to clarify the ruck thing…’ said Haskell in one exchange. He was sent back to school by Romain Poite, the French referee, ‘I’m a referee, not a coach.’ Shakespeare would have been proud.

In the end England’s dominance ran out and they worked it out. Drive through the middle. Carry through the ‘ruck’. Offload. Speed up the tempo. But this was not a beautiful performance by any stretch of the imagination and a buoyant Scotland will prove a stern test in two weeks fourth chapter.

In the end this weekend’s fixtures just showed what a great tournament this is. With the championship open to three potential victors, hopes of triple crowns and grand slams still to be quashed or revelled, a championship that has already provided so much looks set to deliver more. We await the next turning of the page.

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