Jacob Whitehead reflects on the big talking points from the opening round of the 2020 championship
Nick Tompkins is a better centre than George North
I’m not saying that George North had a bad game for Wales against Italy in the first match of this year’s Six Nations. He carried hard, made no defensive errors, and showed his experience by not shooting up against the tricky Carlo Canna. He even added a late try.
But wow, what a debut for Nick Tompkins. There was more fizz on his first-half pass to put Leigh Halfpenny away down the left wing than an explosion at a Champagne factory.
Having returned to the bench after Johnny McNicholl’s HIA, he came on again for Hadleigh Parkes with 30 minutes left. Saracens fans have seen his swerving runs and his shoulder-dip sidesteps for years, and Tompkins duly obliged with a brilliant 40m score.
Setting up a try for North – later disallowed for a knock-on – the centre showed that he could star in Dublin against Ireland on Saturday.
Time to think of reasons why Georgia should be in the Six Nations
After their lopsided 42-0 defeat by Wales, Italy have now lost their last 23 Six Nations matches. It’s not a pretty stat and has led to calls for Georgia’s inclusion, possibly through a play-off against the bottom-placed team each year.
However, every time this suggestion gets mooted, people immediately find reasons to argue against Georgia’s inclusion. “It’s too far away.” “They’d just become the new whipping boys.” “TV revenue won’t be high enough.”
Ignoring the fact that both Italy and France were afforded long periods to improve once they joined the tournament, it feels as if people look at Georgia’s inclusion in an extremely negative light. Why not focus on what they could offer the Six Nations?
Italy imploded in Cardiff, whilst back in 2017 Georgia lost only 13-6, albeit against Wales’ reserves. Nevertheless, have they not earned a chance to show how good they are? Their inclusion would shatter a glass ceiling placed on Tier Two nations – how are they meant to improve by regularly thrashing Spain and Romania?
In any case, a formal pathway between the Six Nations and the Rugby Europe Championship would benefit those countries. Let’s say that Italy were relegated – the teams in that second division would then have a chance to test themselves against a famous rugby nation, comparing where they are to a Six Nations regular.
Back-row competition for the Lions tour will be frightening
The first thing that struck me when watching the Ireland v Scotland game was how well the Scottish back row played. Hamish Watson was like a honey badger wearing a tartan No 7, a rip on opposite number Josh van der Flier the highlight. Jamie Ritchie was a lone bright spark in the World Cup and carried on that rich vein of form, while debutant Nick Haining gave Scotland a ball-carrying option they’ve missed.
And yet Scotland lost. And the Irish back row was the primary reason why, popping up with a crucial turnover almost every time Scotland entered their 22.
First there was van der Flier, whose centre of gravity is lower than a snake’s belly, followed around the pitch by a rampant Peter O’Mahony, smarting from being left out for the unfortunate Caelan Doris, who had to leave the field after just a few minutes.
Another Lions tour may be a bridge too far for O’Mahony, but CJ Stander is always capable of a big-game moment, as his crucial final turnover demonstrated. Don’t be surprised to see him return home to the Western Cape for the first match of the 2021 tour to South Africa.
France are back – and much earlier than we thought
It wasn’t meant to happen this quickly. The 24-17 win over England was the best French performance since the 2011 World Cup final, and in the intervening eight years they’d given precious little joy to their fans, producing neither results nor style. Indeed, the only joy had come from the U20 team’s back-to-back World Championship wins.
Yet that all changed against England in Paris. Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont and Gregory Alldritt were at the heart of France’s sensational victory. Half-backs Ntamack and Dupont both had brilliantly controlled displays, setting up the first and third tries respectively, while Alldritt outshone much-lauded counterpart Tom Curry around the breakdown.
France play Italy at home next week before facing a tough trip to the Principality Stadium. The question now on everyone’s lips is whether a fancied France can pull out a performance under the weight of expectation.
The World Cup hangover is real
England played much worse against France than in the World Cup final defeat by South Africa, with the seven-point losing margin flattering the men in white. George Ford and Jonny May emerged from the game with some credit, but with a coach as ruthless as Eddie Jones most of the squad will need to produce far better performances – and quickly.
George Furbank and Charlie Ewels deserve further starts, whilst other England stars guilty of poor games – such as Kyle Sinckler and Owen Farrell – surely have enough credit in the bank to start against Scotland in Edinburgh. But it will be interesting to see how Jones deals with Manu Tuilagi’s expected absence too.
The game against Scotland suddenly takes on major significance: win back the Calcutta Cup against a bruised Scotland and they are back on track; lose and their aim to be ‘the greatest team rugby has ever seen’ will lie in tatters.
The March 2020 issue of Rugby World magazine – a Six Nations special – is on sale now.
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