From that Johnny Sexton drop-goal to speedster Sam Simmonds – Paul Williams wraps up the talking points from the first round of the Six Nations
Johnny Sexton drop-goal sees him join rugby royalty
The drop-goal has become a bit of an afterthought in professional rugby, reduced to a ‘roll of the dice’ when the comfort blanket of a penalty advantage has been draped over the posts. But as Ireland fly-half Johnny Sexton showed in the opening round of the Six Nations in Paris, nothing quite seals a win like a last-minute drop-goal.
The kick itself was immaculate, 43 metres of end-on-end beauty that allows Sexton to pull up a chair alongside Jonny Wilkinson, Ronan O’Gara, Stephen Larkham etc.
Watch the Johnny Sexton drop-goal below
As beautiful as the actual kick was, the build-up was equally exquisite: 41 phases of perfect short carries and neat cleanouts – modern humans evolved from Australopithecus in fewer stages than that.
It must be said that Sexton’s drop-goal did disguise a below average Irish performance and zero clean breaks in 80 minutes will be as concerning to Joe Schmidt as the drop-goal was impressive.
Injuries improve Wales
The scoreline of 34-7 contains the numbers that really matter. But if you dig a little deeper, there are three sets of numbers that are arguably as important to Wales as they head towards the 2019 Rugby World Cup: 18 clean breaks, 16 defenders beaten and 13 offloads.
It may have been injury-induced, but the selection of form players, being allowed to play contemporary rugby, showed that the Welsh coaches really have changed their ethos. The impact of the triple kick-pass-run threat of Rhys Patchell, added to the upright, offload-ready body angles of Aaron Shingler, Rob Evans and Josh Navidi, allowed Wales to attack at will. But to look for CSI-quality evidence of Wales’ attitude change you need look no further than Samson Lee flicking a one-handed pass away from contact in midfield.
It would be naïve to think that the Welsh performance was driven simply by Hollywood offloads and line breaks; it wasn’t. The Welsh set-piece was near-perfect and Ross Moriarty, Cory Hill and Alun Wyn Jones delivered swathes of heavy carries. But when the platform was created, the thump into the 12 channel was ignored and the wider spaces exploited – resulting in Leigh Halfpenny running in two well-deserved tries.
Wales won’t be able to play as freely against England and Ireland, but it shows that they can and, more importantly, are now allowed to.
Counter-attacking isn’t enough for Scotland
For those who have loved watching Scottish rugby in recent seasons, their performance against Wales was a real kick in the windpipe. Pre-game, Scotland’s perceived weakness was deemed to be in the front row, but that wasn’t the case. In fact, Gordon Reid and Jon Welsh were very effective and helped deliver a scrummage completion of 85% – six from seven.
The major problems occurred with the ball in hand – both wide and narrow. The Scottish back row carried just 21 metres between them, which is a remarkably low number. Even in Test rugby you’d expect a No 8 to carry that distance alone. With the pack struggling to get over the gain-line, Scotland became overly dependent on their back-line swinging the ball from extreme left to extreme right – it was like watching Jeremy Corbyn having a tussle with Jacob Rees-Mogg.
But even this failed as Hadleigh Parkes and Scott Williams shut the midfield down and stopped Scotland from executing their offloading game. It was a difficult day for Scottish rugby, and a reminder that having only one style of rugby often isn’t enough at Test level.
France and their ‘mid-table rugby’
It is obviously too early to judge France’s long-term prospects under Jacques Brunel – other than selection he’s had little time to affect anything meaningful. However, their performance against Ireland reeked of the mid-table rugby that we see in the Top 14. Rugby that will win nothing, but will also stop the drop into Pro D2.
The problem is that there is no relegation in the Six Nations, meaning that the prosaic, predictable ‘one-out’ carries from the French forwards are largely pointless.
The French plan seemed at odds with the selection in the forwards. Brunel picked a pack weighing just 865kg, which is very light for Test rugby, where packs tip the 900kg mark. Yet having selected a lightweight pack, France proceeded to use lighter forwards in the same way that you would use their heavier counterparts. Surely you pick lighter forwards to play wider and faster, not just in the narrow channels – otherwise you might as well pick 19st monsters. We obviously can’t ignore the fact that France nearly won, but they have stacks of work to get through.
HIA cases raise questions
The Head Injury Assessment (HIA) procedure is there to protect players and any cynicism derived from misuse of the protocol can only have a negative impact on player safety. The grey matter in player’s heads shouldn’t be endangered by the grey areas in rugby’s laws.
It is impossible to prove but neither of the France half-backs who went for HIAs against Ireland – Matthieu Jalibert and Antoine Dupont – appeared to have any contact made with their heads, although it was the independent match doctor who made those calls. Both players have since been ruled out of the rest of the championship with knee injuries. The Six Nations have stated they are investigating the HIA incidents and the findings of that investigation will be awaited with interest.
Diminutive No 8s can be great
England No 8 Sam Simmonds was awesome against Italy. Two tries, 80 metres carried, three clean breaks and 23 tackles are remarkable numbers. But the weirdest stat by far, particularly for those who haven’t seen much of the Exeter player, is that he is a ‘Rizla’ under 6ft tall – a rarity in Test rugby.
The benchmark height for international No 8s is 6ft 3in tall. It just is. But why? Unless the eight is utilised as a jumper there is no logical reason to be that tall, quite the opposite. Simmonds’s pace, with his shorter levers, regularly caught the Italian defence off-guard.
With Simmonds, there is no long build-up to top speed; he isn’t reliant on long strides and hits full tilt within a few steps. When Billy Vunipola is fit, he will obviously come straight back in at eight, but Simmonds gives Eddie Jones some exciting new options, options that a traditionally-shaped No 8 cannot.