Six Nations Chat: What the teams need as the finale draws closer

Six Nations Chat: What the teams need as the finale draws closer
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The Six Nations is now past the halfway stage with Wales sitting top of the lot and on course for a Grand Slam showdown with France on March 20. What better time than to continue our Six Nations chat series.

With two rounds of matches, and France and Scotland’s rearranged clash to come, there is still room for plenty of twists and the very real possibility that when 14 of the 15 matches completed are finished, we still won’t be sure who the actual champions are.

With that in mind, Last Word on Rugby looks begins our Six Nations chat on what each team needs to do over the last two rounds.

Wales – Let Sheedy off the leash

Wales coach Wayne Pivac has a good headache ahead of his team’s visit to Rome on 13 March, whether to stick with Dan Biggar as starting fly-half or twist and see if Callum Sheedy can control a match from the first minute.

For the past two matches, the 25-24 win against Scotland and the 40-24 triumph over England, Sheedy has come off the bench in the second half to give his side a lift when they needed it most.

Against Scotland, it was to give the backline greater energy, while against England the challenge was to turn the tide as the reigning champions threatened a memorable fight back in the last 20 minutes.

On both occasions, the Bristol number 10 has taken his chance to shine.

Against Scotland Pivac’s side were trailing 17-15 when the 25-year-old came on, but within three minutes they had the lead for the first time, then against England in Cardiff, he received the plaudits for kicking three penalties and a conversion that took the match away from England after they had clawed their way back at 24-24.

“I thought he [Callum Sheedy] was fantastic, after missing a couple in Edinburgh, to come on in that situation, a very tight game at that stage, they weren’t easy kicks and all three of them he hit very well,” Pivac said.

If it been anyone else but Italy in Round four, then it is highly unlikely Pivac would make a change, however, Wales’ form and Italy’s losing run opens the possibility of giving the young pretender a chance to show he can lead from the front, rather than just ride to the rescue. From that outcome, expect the best XV to be fully prepared for the anticipated finale match, France v Wales on March 20.

France – Stay healthy

It was going so well for France, two wins from two and the world singing their praises, but then head coach Fabien Galthié goes out to watch his son play and in doing so breaches Les Bleus bubble in the worst way possible when he returned carrying Covid-19.

Within a week 11 players, including captain Charles Ollivon and star man Antoine Dupont, were diagnosed with the virus and their match against Scotland was postponed. It comes on top of reports that players went out for waffles in Rome before their first match of the tournament away to Italy.

French Rugby Federation (FFR) president Bernard Laporte has offered his backing, but with French health minister Roxana Maracineanu having already shown that she doesn’t care one iota what sporting event she disrupts, were France’s squad to slip up again then don’t be surprised if she pulls Galthie’s team out of the competition.

“If we do not get an explanation for all this, authorization to play in the Six Nations can be withdrawn,” she said.

Were that to happen then France’s build-up to their hosting of the 2023 Rugby World Cup would take a big hit.

With a potential Grand Slam showdown against Wales on March 20 in Paris now out of their control, Galthié has lost a big chance to see how his team would react to the pressure when winning a trophy is on the line. Now he and his squad will wonder how the Six Nations committee views this breach and how it will affect their ruling on whether or not to find a place in the calendar for their re-arranged fixture against Scotland.

Ireland – Hold your nerve

Ireland nipped their losing run in the bud with their 48-10 defeat of Italy in Rome, and their job right now is to use it as a springboard to better results against Scotland and England.

Sure, Italy were ripe for the taking and the result never looked in doubt once Garry Ringrose scored the first of their six tries after 10 minutes, but Andy Farrell was right to praise his team’s adherence to their game plan once the match was over.

“We talked about it as a test of character and they’ve stayed strong and they’ve stayed very united together and as a group they’ve all pulled together and shown their leadership in different ways,” he said.

“I thought we earned the right to score some points with the way we approached the game in the first half, I thought our attitude was top class, we approached the game in the right manner.”

It has been a tough first year in charge for the former England defence coach, but now that they have their first win of 2021 under their belts it is vital that they don’t go off script against two opponents who will be decidedly harder to break down.

England – Hook the offenders

England have a problem with discipline. That cannot be argued against after conceding 15 penalties against Scotland, 11 versus Italy and 14 in the loss to Wales. Eddie Jones likes his team to play on the edge but, it is becoming apparent that they are having difficulty ascertaining where the line is, especially when they are trailing.

Maro Itoje was the main offender with five, but there were brainless offenses from Jonny Hill, Charlie Ewels, and Dan Robson at key points. Captain Owen Farrell conceded that his team’s discipline “wasn’t the best,” but there doesn’t seem to be much being done about it.

Hills’ especially grated, with Kieran Hardy immediately scoring from it. Might it have put the rest of the team on notice of what might happen if Jones had immediately ‘hooked off’ Hill off as a sign to others, to tone things down a bit? Something like that needs to be done because those three offenses in eight minutes allowed Wales to wrest back control of the match, after England had fought back to 24-24.

France are up next for the 2020 champions, and they will be equally unforgiving if England can’t reign themselves in.

Scotland – Get back on the horse

Gregor Townsend’s outfit went into the tournament full of confidence and they lived up to the hype on the opening weekend with an 11-6 win over England that ended a wait of 28-years to win at Twickenham.

They looked good a week later too, despite losing 25-24 to Wales, with much of the blame for that loss laid at the feet of Zander Fagerson after he was sent off with 27 minutes left. The Scots just needed to continue their positive play but sadly for their supporters, the Coronavirus stalled any continuity.

Now the question of ‘if and when’ their match against France will be rearranged has to be put into the background. If not, there is the chance that inertia could set in. Not from a lack of play but, that many players have been involved in domestic club games in the meantime.

Fortunately, they are back at their fortress of Murrayfield in the next round, Ireland’s buoyant players will be putting their feet up this last weekend. Scotland’s stars mind you, will be back on club duty. It means Townsend will be watching Stuart Hogg and Jonny Gray with Exeter Chiefs, Finn Russell for Racing 92, and James Lang with Harlequins – all with fingers crossed that they make it through this weekend unscathed. Because if they don’t then there is the strong possibility that a tournament that promised so much could unravel quickly.

Italy – Switch on, and stay focused

Italy showed no sign of ending their losing run in the tournament and their 48-10 loss to Ireland in Rome stretches their losing run to 30 matches.

It is all well criticizing Franco Smith’s team for that run, and while the points difference makes for tough viewing, what else should we expect from the sixth-ranked team who are without their best back, Matteo Minozzi, and best forward, Jake Polledri.

“I think we put our bodies on the front for our country, for the jersey,” captain Luca Bigi said afterwards. “We conceded two easy penalties, we didn’t control our attack and we have to learn from that because it’s tough to accept at the moment”. Giving their all is a minimum requirement, which means what is missing is the quality to close the gap.

Italy had no problem getting into the right positions. They spent three minutes, 30 seconds in their opponent’s 22, seven seconds less than Ireland, and while they made six offloads to Ireland’s five, they made nine handling errors to Ireland’s eight.

In defense, they need to tighten up too. They missed 25 tackles to 12 and made one turnover to Ireland’s six, which underlines a lack of intensity in their play, and a lack of organization as bodies begin to tire and the match opens up.

Six Nations chat: Azzurri could import specialized coaching assistance 

Former captain and scrum-half Alessandro Troncon is the defense coach, but maybe it is time to follow their trans-Alpine rivals and bring in a fresh voice to stir things up. Someone who might utter a strong word or two to players who fail to match the intensity required of a Six Nations side.

Paul Gustard who revolutionized Saracens defense is due to start work with Benetton Treviso in the summer, might he be persuaded to extending his remit on to the national team? Something the Azzurri have to consider, as questions build more pressure on whether that team should be a part of future 6 Nations planning.

An upset in Rome would be welcome but is also highly unlikely and while the match between Scotland and Ireland at Murrayfield will provide pointers to the final denouement it will not immediately affect either teams’ prospects of glory in the tournament.

As such all eyes will be on Twickenham, a place where France have struggled to make an impression in recent seasons. A win there would show that they are a team that can seize the day, a defeat and the recriminations of what happened in Rome and what Galthie got up to on his day off will be open for discussion again.

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Guinness Six Nations – Round Four; March 13-14 | Round Five; March 20

 

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