England put the icing on the cake of their RBS Six Nations Championship win by sealing the Grand Slam, while Ireland and Wales also finished with a flourish. Who made all the right moves and who stepped out of line?
Good job, Jones
A new generation of players has joined the list of England’s Grand Slam winners – the first to do so since 2003. Dylan Hartley has become just the tenth England captain to lead his team to a clean sweep in the championship and credit deserves to be shared among all the England players who took part in this year’s RBS Six Nations Championship.
But top Saint among this successful group is head coach Eddie Jones, for discovering the missing ingredient which turned England from nearly men in the Six Nations in the past couple of seasons to champions this time.
Former England boss Stuart Lancaster played a huge role during his tenure, nurturing and blooding many of the talented players who make up the team of 2016. He did so much right, until the wheels came off at the World Cup, then Jones then stepped in and made what turned out to be a few critical changes which enabled England to beat all-comers this spring.
Jones’s man management skills and confident attitude have brought the best out of the team. He has kept some things the same, freshened some things up, given leadership responsibility to some different faces and brought in one or two new players. It all adds up to a job very well done so far. Now for the next test – Australia, Down Under.
Eddie Jones’s decision to start Danny Care at scrum-half instead of Ben Youngs paid dividends in the 12th minute of Saturday’s game against France when Care spotted a yawning hole in the defence around the fringes of a ruck and sprinted in from half-way to score a try. Yes, it was poor defence, but Care saw the opportunity and backed himself to capitalise and his try put England 10-3 up in Paris and settled their early nerves as they went in pursuit of their Grand Slam.
It wasn’t only try-scoring which won the day for England in Paris. They had plenty of defending to do too and Jack Nowell put in a crucial try-saving tackle on Virimi Vakatawa, chasing back to haul the powerful wing down after he had missed him the first time. England were 17-12 up at the time and although France kicked a penalty soon afterwards, they were still trailing thanks to Nowell’s effort.
Princes of thieves
By luck and judgement, with the help of a few injuries, England have stumbled upon a terrific second-row pairing, in the shape of Saracens club-mates George Kruis and Maro Itoje.
Not only are they secure on their own lineout ball, but they are excellent at stealing opposition throws too and did so at some crucial moments in Saturday’s 31-21 England win.
Kruis pinched a ball in the 54th minute after France had kicked a penalty to touch on the England 22 and were looking to overturn a 20-18 lead. Just after the mid-point of the second half Itoje stole French ball from another attacking lineout to again snuff out the home side’s hopes of setting up a try-scoring chance.
Kruis managed two more steals at the Stade de France and was also England’s top tackler with 14, while Itoje made ten. Add to that eight carries and two turnovers won by Itoje and six carries from Kruis, plus a 100% record on their own lineout ball, and you see what a valuable asset this pair are.
Four in a row
George North scored a try in his fourth consecutive Six Nations match on Saturday, something only Shane Williams had managed for Wales before now.
North had previously gone five Tests without scoring but the big wing is back in top form and was named Man of the Match in Wales’s 67-14 trouncing of Italy. As well as scoring his own try, he put in a beautiful back-handed offload to create a try for Jamie Roberts and made a scorching break out of defence which ultimately led to Jonathan Davies scoring a cracker.
Back row to the fore
Jamie Heaslip and CJ Stander both had outstanding matches for Ireland in the 35-25 win over Scotland. Heaslip was named Man of the Match for his 17 carries, 11 tackles and a try assist, when he popped a scoring pass to Devin Toner during the second half.
Heaslip must have just pipped Stander to the award as the No 6 had an equally eye-catching game, making 21 carries and nine tackles. The two of them helped Ireland boss the breakdown and that proved to be a key area in their victory.
Hogging the limelight
There is a danger I may need a weekly “Stuart Hogg Corner” in my Saints and Sinners column, as the Scotland full-back seems to feature almost every time. He is here among the Saints again this week for scoring a sublime try in Scotland’s 35-25 loss in Dublin.
With 19 minutes on the clock, Hogg collected a kick from Conor Murray just inside his own half and ran to the right, looking to offload. Then, with the Ireland defence looking for the pass, he ghosted through a gap between Mike Ross and Rory Best, switched on the afterburners and headed for the try-line. Keith Earls had a go a tap-tackling him, but Hogg was too quick and his try took Scotland from 9-3 down to 10-9 up and was a stand-out moment in the match.
The future’s bright
It wasn’t only England who had a Grand Slam to celebrate at the weekend, as Wales U20 completed a clean sweep of their own – their first in this age-group. They secured the trophy with a 35-6 win over Italy in Colwyn Bay on Friday evening, scoring four tries in the second half, including two by No 8 Harrison Keddie.
Skipper Tom Phillips has played a key role in the back row and proved himself to be an outstanding leader. He said: “We have been confident from the start of this tournament and we have pushed ourselves on and off the field. I couldn’t be prouder and the crowds in Colwyn Bay for all three games have been phenomenal.”
Next stop for all the U20s sides is this summer’s World Championship in Manchester and Wales will go into that with high hopes after such a successful Six Nations.
Johnny be good
Scotland centre Alex Dunbar was sin-binned for an unnecessary dump tackle on Johnny Sexton during the second half of the clash at the Aviva Stadium. Sexton was over the ball, battling to win it after Duncan Taylor had carried into contact, and Dunbar grabbed the fly-half around his midriff and flipped him over sideways, with Sexton landing on his side and shoulder.
It was reckless from Dunbar, but Sexton also appears to be a villain here as when he hit the deck, his first action was to sit up and wave his arms at the referee in protest, before grabbing his head theatrically, as if in pain, and laying down on his back.
Yes, it was a jarring tackle, but Sexton’s delayed reaction and initial appeal to the referee strongly suggests he was trying to exaggerate his injury in order to get Dunbar into trouble. Too often now we see players waving their arms at the referee asking for penalties and cards to be given against opponents. With so many officials now involved in keeping the game clean and legal, and with TV replays aplenty too, there really is no need for players to behave in this way.
Not called for
Stuart Hogg (yes, him again) and Scotland wing Tommy Seymour got themselves into a muddle which cost five points just before half-time in their clash with Ireland. Johnny Sexton put a kick down the left for Keith Earls to chase, Hogg came racing across from the middle of the park to cover it, while Seymour raced back down his wing in pursuit of the ball. Unfortunately neither player seemed to call for the ball, or if they did they didn’t shout loudly enough, and they bumped into each other, which stopped either of them gathering the ball. That task was left to Earls, who pounced and scored a simple try, which helped give Ireland a 21-13 half-time lead.
There are, shall we say, some strange names on the list of nominees for the RBS Six Nations Player of the Tournament award, and some even stranger omissions.
There can be no complaints about Billy Vunipola, George North, Stuart Hogg, Duncan Taylor, and Guilhem Guirado being on the list of 12 players, but where is George Kruis, or Jamie Roberts, or CJ Stander?
The list was compiled by a panel including Phil Vickery and Gareth Thomas, “with expert analysis from Accenture, Official Technology Partner of the RBS 6 Nations” says the press release. The winner will be decided by a public vote, but rugby fans have been denied the chance to vote for some of the real stand-out performers from the last two months.
Below the belt
Why did Mike Brown put his Six Nations winner’s medal down his shorts during the presentation ceremony and celebrations, instead of round his neck? Keeping the precious metal safe alongside the crown jewels perhaps? Let’s hope the England full-back thinks of a better, more respectful and appropriate “safe place” if he ever gets an MBE.