Six Nations: Weather the winner as France and Ireland lead the way

Photo: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

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Week two of the 2020 Six Nations was more a story of the conditions the three games were played in, than the wins for Ireland, England and France that eventuated.

With Storm Ciara wreaking havoc across northern Europe over the weekend, the chances of a repeat of some of the attacking flair that was on display in week one was fanciful. So it was that Ireland outmuscled Wales in a windy Dublin, and England outlasted Scotland with a smarter game plan in almost unplayable conditions in Edinburgh on Saturday, while France and Italy did their best to let the ball sing in improved circumstances in Paris on the Sunday.

The upshot of which leaves France and Ireland still unbeaten, England and Wales with one win apiece, and Italy unfortunately still being Italy and propping up the table. Here’s how all three clashes played out…

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Playing with the swirling breeze at a windswept Aviva Stadium, it was all Irish pressure to begin with. Johnny Sexton was getting his backline clicking but every time they got close to the opposition 22, the well-drilled Welsh rearguard came up with the big plays required to force a turnover or penalty.

A half break from Jacob Stockdale got the home side within range again on 15 minutes, and they gave further proof of their proactive intentions under Andy Farrell when Sexton eschewed a shot at the posts for a kick to touch. This time their bravado didn’t pay off, Wales wrapping up the lineout drive and winning another crucial turnover, much to the disappointment of captain Sexton.

But pressure on the exit forced Dan Biggar to kick out shorter than he would have liked, and when Ireland shifted it infield off the ensuing lineout, they managed to work the space for Jordan Larmour to step inside Nick Tompkins and pump his legs to the line past another three red jerseys.

Wales then copped a major setback when last week’s hat-trick hero Josh Adams was forced from the field with injury. But if there were any positives for the visitor’s, it was the fact that they had enjoyed hardly any ball and been largely under the pump for the first 25 minutes, but were only 5pts behind on the scoreboard.

That scenario was brought to bear when they did get their hands on it, and made it pay with immediate effect. Veteran warhorse Alun Wyn Jones is more renowned for his insatiable work rate and commitment to the cause than any offloading talent. But when Biggar popped him through a gap just over halfway, he showcased his soft hands as well with a delightful pass off the floor back to his flyhalf, who had Tomos Williams on his inside for a clear run to the posts.

Ironically, it was the try-scorer who went from hero to zero within a matter of minutes, dropping it cold five metres from his own line to gift Ireland the put-in in prime position. And they didn’t waste it either, demonstrative centre Bundee Aki on a crash ball to soften the line, before the burly figure of Tadhg Furlong was driven over with a little help from his friends. Having horribly shanked his first effort, normal service resumed off Sexton’s boot, and the home side led 12-7.

Andrew Conway with Johnny McNicholl on his way to scoring a try 8/2/2020

Winger Andrew Conway had a stellar game for Ireland – Photo: INPHO/Gary Carr

That’s how it stayed at the break, and when the sides returned it was Wales who now had the wind at their backs and hopes of a revival. But the home side had the bit between their teeth, and when the Welsh infringed near their own line in the 46th minute they pounced, taking a quick lineout and setting up a maul that had already powered over through Josh Van Der Flier before Wales had fully set their defence.

The visitor’s came again, building multiple phases inside the Irish 22 with pick and go’s before a terrific line from Hadleigh Parkes saw him surge from deep to hit a pop pass and stretch for the line. Unfortunately for those cheering back across the Irish Sea, replays confirmed that the centre had just lost control of the ball as he grounded.

A scrum penalty in favour of Ireland was then celebrated as much as a try, such was the significance of quelling the danger at that point. And that was just about that as far as Wales being an attacking threat went, as Ireland’s aggression and physicality choked them across the park.

The screw was fully turned in the last five minutes, a George North knock-on coughing up a scrum and Ireland going coast-to-coast for the deserving Andrew Conway to cross in the corner for the bonus point. There was still time for a late consolation that will no doubt frustrate Farrell and his coaching team, Wales mauling a lineout for Justin Tipuric to cross. But they had gained some decent payback for last year’s nilling in Cardiff, and maintained an unbeaten start to the competition.

IRELAND 24 (Jordan Larmour, Tadhg Furlong, Josh van der Flier, Andrew Conway tries; Johnny Sexton 2 cons) defeated WALES 14 (Tomos Williams, Justin Tipuric tries; Dan Biggar con, Jarrod Evans con) HT 12-7 at Aviva Stadium, Dublin

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If conditions were tricky in Dublin, they were virtually unplayable in Edinburgh, with the treacherous conditions playing havoc with any attempts to construct anything resembling a cogent attack. 14 phases from Scotland from the kick-off kept England on the backfoot, only for the long levers of Maro ltoje to spoil opposition ball and relieve the early pressure.

A harsh penalty against Scottish lock Scott Cummings for not rolling away gave Owen Farrell a first look at the posts a few minutes in. But with the wind against him, the ball fell wide and short. However, he correctly adjusted his radar shortly after when Scotland strayed offside, and the visitor’s drew first blood to lead 3-0.

The home side had a couple of chances to hit back, botching a five-metre lineout before seeing a driving maul legally sacked by Tom Curry. But with the savage gale blustering around Murrayfield and straight into England’s faces, they were struggling to find the exit plays to clear danger for any significant period of time.

A game of kicking chess ensued, England happy to go to the air for contestables if in range, or get as much distance as possible if not. Conversely, Scotland were struggling to control the distance they required, with several Stuart Hogg missiles going too far and over the dead ball line. An enthusiastic kick-chase and work over the ball from Lewis Ludlam earned another shot at the posts for Farrell on 25 minutes, but the lottery of the Edinburgh gust was again against him.

With precious little rugby to speak of, you could only appreciate England’s ability to play wet weather rugby conditions, as Scotland’s eight handling errors in half an hour illustrated where they were going wrong in trying to play too much. The visitor’s even worked themselves into a drop goal opportunity, only to see George Ford’s attempt drift wide. Lineouts too were a waste of time, with neither hooker able to throw a straight dart, and when the teams trudged to the sheds with no further score, it was a blessed relief for all concerned.

Owen Farrell kicks a penalty 8/2/2020

Accuracy off the tee was a lottery for Owen Farrell and co. – Photo: INPHO/Billy Stickland

If England thought they had done the hard part facing into the wind in the first half, they were in for a surprise. Scotland duly served up a taste of their own medicine, as an up-n-under spilt by Ford fell back into Scottish hands, and loosehead prop Rory Sutherland emerged from traffic to show some impressive pace to race into the 22.

Forcing a penalty from the scrambling English defence, skipper Hogg turned down the chance to level the scoreboard and kicked to touch, but his forwards were unable to find a hole in a well marshalled white wall. When they were offered a second opportunity from right in front however, discretion proved to be the better part of valour, and Adam Hastings made it 3-3.

Despite the supposed weather advantage, England were somehow finding it harder to get out of their own half, not helped by scrumhalf Willie Heinz over-egging a box kick out on the full – twice, and Elliot Daly following suit.

The stalemate remained, England unable to get in the attacking zone, Scotland unable to create anything worthwhile when they did. With 15 minutes to go, the visitor’s pack went to work and won a scrum penalty, but even with the wind now at his back, Farrell couldn’t edge his side in front. Weather 3 Farrell 1.

Given his brain freeze the previous week in dropping the ball over the line against Ireland, the last thing Stuart Hogg needed was another dose of humble pie. But he oh-so-nearly ended up as the fall guy once again when he tried to ground a grubber in-goal under pressure, only to see the ball squirt out from underneath him and be dotted down by Farrell. Thankfully for Hogg, and his chances of ever being served a drink in his homeland again, the TMO ruled that he had managed to get enough downward pressure on the ball before losing control.

What that did leave though was a five-metre scrum, and with England having enjoyed the upper hand at the last couple of engagements, they sniffed blood in the water. Scotland stood firm, replacement tighthead Simon Berghan doing a good job in particular to hold Ellis Genge. But the Leicester prop had the last laugh, latching onto the ball a couple of phases after Ben Youngs had cleared it from the back, and driven over the line with no little help from ltoje.

Buoyed by their new-found ascendancy, England kept their foot on the throat of their hosts, fronting up physically and probing for errors. And when Scotland erred at the breakdown, Farrell struck the hammer blow from in front for a 13-3 advantage.

The surprise was that they then went back up the other end and conceded a soft penalty to allow Hastings to immediately cancel out the 3pts. But time had run out for Scotland, and while they won’t reflect on this 80 minutes as a high watermark in their history together, England needed this win and they got it. And any time you return from north of Hadrian’s Wall with the Calcutta Cup back in your possession for the first time in three years, the performance takes a backseat.

ENGLAND 13 (Ellis Genge try; Owen Farrell con, 2 pens) defeated SCOTLAND 6 (Adam Hastings 2 pens) HT 3-0 at BT Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh

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No doubt buoyed by last week’s victory in Le Crunch, and an expectant Stade de France crowd as a result, France started firmly on the front foot against an Italian side coming in off the back of a 42-0 shellacking at the hands of Wales. Eleven phases off a turnover in just the second minute had the visitor’s scrambling, and a penalty for offside gave Romain Ntamack the chance to open the scoring.

The talented flyhalf then illustrated his vision with a delightfully placed grubber for Teddy Thomas to race through and dot down to make it 8-0 inside eight minutes. And when skipper Charles Ollivon powered over from a metre to finish off some powerful work from his fellow forwards and extend the lead to 13-0 by the end of the first quarter, you worried for Italy’s ability to keep it under 50.

But staring down a 55-0 deficit after just 100 minutes of Six Nations rugby in 2020, the Azzurri suddenly stirred into life. A nice play down the short side ended with speedy winger Matteo Minozzi sliding home, and Tommaso Allan adding the extras from the sideline, before the flyhalf stepped up to convert a penalty and get the visitor’s within 3pts by the half hour.

Back came France, livewire scrumhalf Antoine Dupont pulling the strings and pulling the Italian defence apart with his pace and elusive running. Ntamack slotted another penalty for 16-10, and on the strike of half-time, persistent pressure paid off again with Dupont firing a wonderful pass out wide for Gregory Alldritt to run in.

Antoine Dupont 9/2/2020

Antoine Dupont ran the show again for Les Bleus – Photo: INPHO/Billy Stickland

Italy made some further inroads after the break, managing to find some holes in a home defence not quite as impressively cohesive as it had been against England. But they couldn’t quite find the breakthrough they needed, and after a third quarter where they had been forced to fight for every inch they gained, Les Bleus turned it on again just after the hour to strike another blow. Tidy hands down the line punished a fractured Azzurri rearguard, and the dashing Ntamack skipped his way through the middle for try number four.

Just as they looked to have strengthened their grip on proceedings however, Italy caught the French napping with a five-pointer of their own. Failing to procure a path through their backline, it was the forwards who stepped up to the plate this time, Federico Zani driven under the posts with a little help from his friends to make the score 28-17 with 15 to play.

The sight of Dupont departing to raucous applause would have been welcomed by Italy, such had he tormented them. But coach Fabien Galthie is in the enviable position of being able to bring on another precocious talent in his place in the shape of Baptiste Serin. And it was a case of ‘anything you can do l can do better’ within a minute of the replacement halfback’s arrival. Taking a quick tap just inside the Italian half, he jinked his way past a couple of lazy runners before grubbering in behind, regathering the bouncing ball and diving home in style.

Given the positive’s in their performance, it was still somehow very French for the home side to switch off in the final moments and allow the visitor’s the final say as Le Marseilles began ringing in their ears. And it is those lapses of concentration – Jayden Hayward cutting apart a disjointed defensive line to send Matteo Bellini into the corner – that may still prove to be their undoing in their search for a first Grand Slam since 2010. But two from two will definitely do for starters.

FRANCE 35 (Teddy Thomas, Charles Ollivon, Gregory Alldritt, Romain Ntamack, Baptiste Serin tries; Romain Ntamack con, 2 pens, Matthieu Jalibert con) defeated ITALY 22 (Matteo Minozzi, Federico Zani, Mateo Bellini tries; Tommaso Allan 2 cons, pen) HT 23-10 at Stade de France, Paris

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2020 Six Nations Table Rd 2

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