After three rounds of the 2019 Six Nations it is fair to say that not all of our original tournament predictions are going to plan.
Wales have emerged as the only unbeaten side, Scotland look like they would rather be anywhere other than on a rugby pitch and France, well, are just doing what the French do best…
With two big weekends of rugby remaining, we are taking a look at the big talking points for each nation and wondering what they need to do to push further up in the final standings.
England: the new defensive kings?
That 25-13 defeat to Scotland last February now seems a distant memory. In that crucial first round fixture against Ireland, new defence coach John Mitchell was finally able to showcase his new system which succeeded in giving Johnny Sexton’s backline no space to attack.
Against France, a reborn Jonny May looked unstoppable but flaws in the system appeared amidst the noise of Cardiff and a steadfast Welsh side.
The clever kicking game that tore up the French was quickly contained, yet England never really seemed to have any plan B. A potential championship title is still in their grasp but first of all, they will need to spark some imagination into their half backs.
England never really seemed to have any plan B
France: same old, but is youth the answer?
Only France in reality could throw away a 16 point halftime lead to Wales in the way they did. When Jacques Brunel threw in experience for a trip to Twickenham, he seemed to neglect their positions by selecting two centres on the wing. It was no surprise therefore to see the English backline have a field day finding gaps in every attack.
But the visit of Scotland showed the future potential. Romain Ntamack – one of our players to watch – in his first start at fly half looked every bit the creative organiser that French teams are usually built on. If Brunel can resist the urge to select his old favourites in favour of the bright sparks, France may have a successful end to this tournament.
Ireland: keep calm and carry on
Perhaps expectations were too high on Ireland; victory over the All Blacks in November would lead to a Grand Slam in March which would lead to potential World Cup glory in November. One of the best England performances in recent years put the brakes on this – for now.
Ireland need to do very little between now and the start of the World Cup in September
In reality, Ireland need to do very little between now and the start of the World Cup in September. Their reliable systems in attack and defence still appear to be in good working order and Joe Schmidt’s strength in depth is envied across the rugby world. However, a good victory over the French next weekend will set up a tasty final decider in Cardiff. Does anyone remember what happened in 2009?
Italy: ready for life in a post-Parisse age?
His last Championship… probably… maybe. In the first two rounds he continued to lead from the front, although seemed to lack the energy and drive he was once renowned for. Stuck on the sidelines for the Ireland match, however, and it did not appear as though Italy really missed him as they for a moment took the lead.
It may have looked like a disappointing tournament so far for the Azurri but remember this is the side that were humiliated by Ireland and the All Blacks in November. The first half against Scotland aside, Italy’s slow and steady growth appears to be going in the right direction. If France fails to build on their momentum from the Scotland game then they may be there for the taking come the final round.
Scotland: too many injuries or a lack of ideas?
In the autumn, Scotland played with real imagination but suffered from too many unforced errors. So far in this tournament, the same problem with errors has maintained but that attacking threat that excited so many Scottish fans last season looks fleeting.
There is the easy argument to make that the sheer number of injuries makes this no revelation. Nonetheless, there is the worry that Scotland no longer has the element of surprise in attacking play and teams are shutting it down from the start. A difficult final two rounds against Wales and England risks making this a Championship to forget for the Scots.
Wales: the sleeping giant?
Pre-tournament and Wales were largely written off because of their lack of impressive rugby played in the previous year. Fast forward and after an astonishing comeback against France and then that victory over England, Wales are suddenly the only team still in search of a Grand Slam.
Wales are suddenly the only team still in search of a Grand Slam
It certainly won’t be easy – particularly that final game against the Irish – but they are certainly in a great position coming into the final two rounds. With Warren Gatland leaving after the World Cup, this could be the ideal swansong.
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