From young guns making an impact to old heads rediscovering their mojo, Jacob Whitehead reflects on the latest championship action
Ben Youngs still has an international future
I think Ben Youngs would be the first to admit that his form for England hasn’t been the best since the World Cup. However, an excellent performance in the Six Nations against Wales on Saturday showed that there is still plenty of class left in the scrum-half, who is 30.
Excellent box-kicking throughout negated the dangerous Welsh aerial threat – a backfield of Dan Biggar, Liam Williams and Leigh Halfpenny are a frightening set of bomb-defusers – but Youngs’s accuracy led to England retrieving their fair share of ball and denied Wales any clear counter-attacking opportunities.
He showed a sniping threat that has been seen less and less in recent seasons, but which is a potent weapon – just look at his performance against the Springboks back in 2017, in which he had current World Men’s Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit on toast.
Indeed, it was this running threat that put the Welsh defence on their heels four minutes in, Youngs taking advantage of this to fire the ball inside and the strike move working perfectly as Anthony Watson provided an excellent finish.
Unfortunate to now be stranded on 99 England caps after the postponement of their final Six Nations game in Italy, he has expressed a desire to reach the 2023 World Cup. Should he achieve that goal, he will surely become England’s most-capped men’s player.
Yes, Eddie Jones did miss out on Nick Tompkins
Alex Sanderson revealed this week that Nick Tompkins was told by Eddie Jones he was too small to play international rugby. But would England’s loss be Wales’ gain?
There were doubts after his first three matches. Tompkins did impress off the bench against Italy, but then struggled slightly against Ireland. Last time out against France was another promising performance, but one tainted by throwing a crucial interception to Romain Ntamack.
However, Tompkins was superb against England, the standout Welsh back. He’s made 296 metres, the most of any player in the championship, including 93 against England.
His role in Justin Tipuric’s first try, just after half-time, was crucial. He took the kick-off, traded passes with Josh Navidi, and offloaded to a speeding Tomos Williams moments before being levelled by Manu Tuilagi, with Williams assisting Tipuric for the score.
England are of course exceptionally strong at outside-centre, boasting Manu Tuilagi, Henry Slade and Jonathan Joseph in their ranks. But when an England-qualified player performs that well against his country of his birth, Jones’s failure to cap Tompkins is shown in a stark light.
Sam Costelow is a future star for Wales
An injury-hit Wales staying in the game against England thanks to the form of a brilliant fly-half? A late three-pointer to win the game? No, this is not the 2015 World Cup match between the two sides, but Friday night’s U20 meeting at Kingsholm.
Sam Costelow dealt with England’s line speed brilliantly, on two occasions ducking back inside and taking advantage of forwards in the defensive line to make a break. He’d score a try from the first of these himself, brilliantly rounding the full-back, and offload the ball to set up the second for Bradley Roderick.
England came back into the game in the second half, as Jack van Poortvliet, Costelow’s half-back partner in the Leicester Academy, showed impressive pace to score from range. Yet Costelow would win the game for Wales, his successful drop-goal from 40 metres out sealing a 23-22 victory.
Excitingly for Welsh fans, Costelow has agreed to join Scarlets next season, where he will compete with Rhys Patchell and Dan Jones for the starting fly-half shirt. By the looks of Friday night, we’ll be seeing a lot more of him soon enough.
France are not yet world champions in waiting
France’s disappointing performance in their 28-17 loss to Scotland was bound to happen. Obviously there were mitigating circumstances. Romain Ntamack went off injured after seven minutes and Mohamed Haouas’s hare-brained haymaker reduced them to 14 men for the entire second half. But in reality, France were being outgunned long before this moment.
This France team is immensely talented, with an outstanding spine beginning to develop in the shape of Marchand/Chat, Alldritt, Dupont, Ntamack, and Bouthier, but no young team will ever sail through a World Cup cycle without losing games.
That Scotland match will be an incredibly formative game for their side. Charles Ollivon’s leadership skills were tested like they’ve been in no other game. Matthieu Jalibert was thrust into his first extended foray in the No 10 jersey and showed some impressive flashes.
Forwards like Gregory Alldritt and Julien Marchand showed that they were capable of mammoth performances even when the game wasn’t going their way. Antoine Dupont was expected to bear the brunt of the tactical kicking with inexperience outside him… the list goes on.
Impressive Hastings making Townsend’s job more difficult
Poor Gregor Townsend. There are rumours of a reconciliation between the Scotland coach and Finn Russell following the fallout of that “breach of team protocol”, but Adam Hastings has played so well that dropping him would seem extremely harsh.
Hastings ran the show for Scotland on Sunday against France. Up against two prodigious young tens in Romain Ntamack and Matthieu Jalibert, Hastings put in a consummate performance. He kicked excellently, whilst his half-break was the catalyst for Sean Maitland’s vital try at the end of the first half.
Four minutes after half-time and he would turn creator again – his flat cut-out pass beating the lurking Antoine Dupont to put Maitland in the corner. Jamie Ritchie was a deserved Man of the Match, but Hastings can’t have been far behind.
So what are Townsend’s options? He could jettison Russell completely, viewing the Racing 92 man as too large a distraction, especially with a ready-made replacement in the wings. But to lose such a talented player seems a waste.
He could return Hastings to the bench – but performances like Sunday only demonstrate that Hastings has arrived on the international stage and he needs game-time now to keep improving.
Or could we see a move to the dual-playmaker system favoured by England and Italy this Six Nations? Scotland’s centres are constantly rotating – could shifting Hastings out to the 12 jersey, where he has performed well for Glasgow when called upon, be a left-field answer?
Townsend still needs to mend his relationship with Russell – but Hastings’s performances have shown that he will not give up his starting shirt without a fight.
The April issue of Rugby World magazine – focusing on a new generation of Six Nations stars – is out now.
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