From England’s kicking kings to Ireland’s pick-and-mix styles, Paul Williams reflects on round two of the 2018 Six Nations
Six Nations 2018 Round Two – Six things we learnt
England’s kicking masterclass
Sometimes rugby isn’t about hands, it’s about feet. The opening 30 minutes of England v Wales in the Six Nations were as fine a showing of tactical kicking as you’ll see this season.
With Leigh Halfpenny forced to withdraw because of a foot infection, Owen Farrell moved Gareth Anscombe into the sort of awkward positions that you’d usually see on a yoga mat and his kick through for Jonny May’s first try was worthy of the Ballon D’or.
Be it high balls or short angled ‘rollers’, Farrell and George Ford made sure that the Welsh back three simply couldn’t maintain their orthodox positioning.
But the effectiveness of England’s tactics didn’t end with their kicking alone, it also had the effect of polluting Wales’ kicking game. Struggling under the high ball, there was no time for calm and composed kick returns.
The aim of a good kick return is to find grass, not a player, but when Wales were trying to find green, they often hit Mike Brown, who was simply magnificent and well worth his Man of the Match award.
No way through for Wales
Apparently, it can take up to 450 years for plastic to degrade in the ocean. If you lobbed England’s defensive line from the Wales game into the sea, it would arguably take longer to breakdown. It was awesome.
Blitzing the 10-12 channel meant that Wales weren’t able to pass to the second and third receivers as they did against Scotland. The flick-on passes that we have recently seen from Wales weren’t an option and the Welsh carriers were forced to cut back inside towards contact.
With Wales set up for their new passing game, the body angles were often not right to take contact and we witnessed even Alun Wyn Jones going backwards in contact – seeing AWJ doing rugby’s moonwalk is a rare sight indeed.
As Wales retreated in contact, the back row were reduced to running lateral, almost backward arcs, into the breakdown. And with the resulting slow ball, Wales found themselves running into a defensive line that was as tightly packed as an old box of Sugar Puffs.
Wales shouldn’t be overly despondent. They were hugely competitive against the second best team in the world, who are currently on a winning run that even All Blacks coaches dream of. Wales may have lost, but they are moving forward.
Related: England 12-6 Wales match report
A perfectly balanced Ireland
Ireland delivered a wonderfully balanced performance against Italy. There was no over-reliance on any one aspect of their game.
Eight tries scored is normally an indication that the back-line were offloading the ball like traders ditching crypto-currency, but that wasn’t the case at all. This was a performance built on the symmetry between backs and forwards.
The rolling maul was as effective, and beautiful, as Jordan Larmour’s lateral movement. Peter O’Mahony’s lineout work was as aesthetically pleasing as Jack Conan’s inside angle to create an overlap for Conor Murray’s try.
All of which was wrapped up in another classic Johnny Sexton performance where his simple loop, which should be as easy to read as Harry Potter, became as difficult to interpret as Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
The ability to pick and mix their style will be hugely important as the tournament reaches its finale – an ability that is, so far, seemingly lacking in the other nations.
An inverted Italy
With Italy, the result is rarely in question, so we are merely left analysing the manner of the defeat, which in this instance was peculiar.
We’re used to seeing Italy being blown away in the last 20 minutes of a game. It is the cruel reality of Test rugby that the lower nations simply don’t have the squad depth on the bench to compete for the full 80 minutes.
But this loss was different. Italy weren’t shredded in the last 20 but the first. They were 21-0 down after just 22 minutes, 28 nil down after 40 minutes and forced Ireland into making just 60 tackles after 60 minutes – that’s only one hit a minute.
Having lost the game before many people had finished chewing their match pie, Italy then went on to score three neatly-executed tries in the final 25 minutes – the total opposite of the Test rugby narrative we are used to.
The question of whether Italy are progressing quickly enough to justify their position in the tournament won’t dissipate until they are at least capable of winning one Six Nations game every season, but at least on Saturday they lost ‘differently’, although I doubt that will please Conor O’Shea.
Related: Ireland 56-19 Italy match report
Greig Laidlaw adds calm to chaos
Scotland are a different team with Greig Laidlaw at nine. Against France his calm helped control Scotland’s wonderfully effective chaos, which they simply weren’t able to do against Wales.
With a selection of ‘ballers’ in the back-line, Scotland really benefitted from the consistency that Laidlaw provides. He may not scorch many back-row forwards or deliver 40-yard breaks, but you know exactly where he is going to be and where he is going to pass the ball.
The Huw Jones try is a prime example. Many scrum-halves would have spotted the broken defensive line and tried to exploit the gap themselves. Laidlaw didn’t. He spotted the gap and passed the ball into the hole and Jones flew through unopposed.
Nowhere was the calming effect more evident than with the goalkicking. A 100% completion, eight from eight, which was invaluable when you consider that Finn Russell was having one of his more erratic games.
Laidlaw’s inclusion proved that whilst it is fantastic to have a back-line that has the wonderful unpredictability of a loose hosepipe, sometimes you need someone to grab hold of that hosepipe and point it in the right direction.
Teddy Thomas is on fire
Whilst France as a team are serving up vin ordinaire, Teddy Thomas delivered another vintage Six Nations performance. His tries against Scotland, as with the one against Ireland, were worthy of a place on any Six Nations DVD.
Thomas’s style of wing play is a stark difference to that of fellow wing Virimi Vakatawa and many others in the Top 14, where muscular, contact-seeking finishers are in vogue.
The ability to step sharply from his right peg seems to have caught the Six Nations defences off-guard, with defenders regularly showing him the inside.
Thomas’s performance wasn’t solely a lesson in attacking wing play. He regularly crossed from his wing to sweep up the ball as part of the French kick defence. Well played Teddy – and anyone who selected him in their fantasy teams.
Related: Scotland 32-26 France match report