Six Nations Recap: RWC Hangover, New Tactics And A Second-Half Frenzy
Six Nations Recap: RWC Hangover, New Tactics And A Second-Half Frenzy
A recap of Round 1 of the 2024 Guinness Six Nations Championship, as Ireland defeats France, England beats Italy and Scotland services a Welsh comeback.
Rugby’s greatest annual international rugby championship returned to our screens on a perfect Friday evening in Marseille.
It's the 2024 Six Nations Championship!
Starting the tournament with a bang, reigning champion Ireland dismissed its hosts with a record 38-17 victory, sending a clear signal that the men in green had turned the chapter on their gut-wrenching Rugby World Cup quarterfinal exit, while Les Bleus looked to still have their minds on the cold October evening in Paris.
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Building on the platform that had been laid the evening before, England traveled to Rome to face a vastly improved Italian side.
In what would prove to be a nip-and-tuck affair, Steve Borthwick’s charges would keep their unbeaten streak against the Azzurri alive by the slenderest of margins with a 27-24 victory.
In reality, England had the fixture sewn up, but a late try and, with it, a bonus point for Italy, was just a reward for their endeavor, as they scored three truly sublime tries.
Closing out the weekend’s action was a helter-skelter affair in Cardiff, in which Scotland appeared to have the result sewn up by the 43rd minute with a 27-0 lead.
Being resigned to defeat is never something a Warren Gatland-coached side can be accused of and, on a wider scale, is not the cloth from which the Welsh are cut. Instead, a rampant charge of 26 unanswered points had the Dragons on the verge of an all-time comeback.
In the end, Scotland held on and finished the stronger of the two sides, as Duhan van der Merwe was just about denied his third try due to being held up.
🏉 @sageuk Play of the Round— Guinness Men's Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) February 11, 2024
🙌 Maxime Lucu threw a 5.2m pass at 37kph to Cyril Baille
💪 Baille with the 0.4s reload time and 1.5m pass to Matthieu Jalibert
🤩 The fly-half then threw the 19.2m pass at 38.5kph to his centre Gaël Fickou who raced clear to score the try… pic.twitter.com/7aLyMXkptN
As the focus begins to turn toward Round 2 of the 2024 Guinness Six Nations, here are five key takeaways from the opening round:
Ireland’s Journey Is Far From Complete
For all the talk of a World Cup choke, this Ireland team looks more like a side in the middle of its journey, rather than one that peaked too soon.
There can be no getting away from the fact that their four-point loss to the All Blacks in the quarterfinal of Rugby World Cup 2023 was bitterly disappointing, but if the past three years are anything to go by, this is just the beginning for Andy Farrell’s team.
In a mirror reflection of the All Blacks of 2007, who promised so much only to see their campaign come crumbling down in the quarterfinal, this team is built around a squad of players young enough to be at their peak in 2027.
Driving the team forward are a bunch of players who, despite accomplishing significant milestones today, have the capacity to build on what has gone before them.
Front and center are the spine of the squad: Dan Sheehan (25), Ronan Kelleher (26), Andrew Porter (28), Tom O’Toole (25), Joe McCarthy (22), James Ryan (27), Caelen Doris (25), Jack Crowley (24), Mack Hansen (25) and Hugo Keenan (27) - just a handful of players who will be in their prime in four years.
Throw into the mix several of the veteran players (Tadhg Furlong, Tadhg Beirne, Garry Ringrose, etc) and the otherworldly young talent coming through (Sam Prendergast, Brian Gleeson, Ruadhan Quinn, Edwin Edogbo, Paddy McCarthy, etc.), and Ireland should have a squad capable of sustaining the physical and mental toll of Rugby’s biggest tournament.
French Trauma Runs Deep
The tails to Ireland’s heads, French Rugby clearly still is reeling from its quarterfinal exit at the hands of eventual 2023 Rugby World Cup champion South Africa.
Mimicking their Six Nations rivals, the French came within a whisker of a very winnable semifinal, only to see it all go up in flames against a battle-tested and knockout-specialist Springbok side.
Post their Friday night shellacking, all of the conversation shifted toward the void left by the departed Antoine Dupont, who has put on hold his XV career in search of an Olympic medal with the 7s team.
Yet, the bare bones of the situation are that a national side should not be solely reliant on one player, even if he is the best in the world.
Losing Paul Willemse to a mental meltdown that saw him receive two yellow cards did not help, but in truth, Les Bleus were so far off the mark that playing with a full complement of players would not have changed the outcome.
Spearheading their issues was the lack of control from the halfback axis of Maxime Lucu and Mathieu Jalibert. The Bordeaux pairing both are classy operators but were found wanting in the face of a relentless green wall of Irish defenders.
Lucu, in particular, was hassled as the Irish forwards wreaked havoc with his ruck ball, while Jalibert could not wrestle back enough control to launch enough meaningful backline attacks.
Exasperating their issues further was head coach Fabien Galthie’s press conference, which bordered on embarrassing, as he refused to offer any analysis, while looking utterly dejected.
As concerning as his press conference was from an optics standpoint, the bigger concern for French fans will be if Galthie is the man to turn the fortunes of this team around.
Unlike his Irish counterpart, Farrell, who addressed the World Cup, serious questions must be asked if Galthie did the same.
Now set to travel to Edinburgh, Les Bleus have no option but to respond, though they'll face a Scottish team that will be sharpened by the second-half assault it received in Cardiff.
A New Don In Town
Dressed like Don Corleone, Italy’s new head coach, Gonzalo Quesada, struck the right chords in his opening fixture in charge of the Azzurri.
Losing his first fixture was not exactly the start he wanted, but the shift in tactics and mindset was evident from the off.
Incorporating the exceptional attacking patterns left by his predecessor, Kieran Crowley, Quesada shifted the Italian attack ever so slightly to great effect.
Utilising their powerful centers early in conjunction with the backrow, Italy targeted the heart of England’s rush defense pattern. Enveloping the English defenders in the first 3-5 phases before looking to go wide, Italy had great success with finding mismatches.
Italy's first try was the perfect example of a midfield barge, as Ignacio Brex clattered into the English defensive line, before finding Lorenzo Cannone, who in turn found Alessandro Garbisi, for the try.
At the heart of their second try once again was Brex, who splintered the English midfield, before setting free his outside backs, with Tommy Allan finishing things off.
If you feel like you are beginning to see a pattern here, it is because you are, as Italy’s third try once again came from an initial Brex charge, before Monte Ioane scuttled off to secure the bonus point.
Complimenting this scintillating attacking shape was a more hard-nosed approach to the defensive side of things.
Conceding just two tries against an England team packed with game-breakers will please Quesada as much as the three tries his team scored.
Outside of the rampaging Tommy Freeman, England’s backline struggled to make in-roads and will be thankful for George Ford’s metronomic kicking, which kept the scoreboard ticking over.
In all, Italy will feel it is making progress, even in these early days under Quesada, and will fancy causing an upset in their remaining fixtures.
New Blood Driving England Forward
Saturday’s first round will be remembered as a so-so outing for Steve Borthwick’s side, which looked caught between two stools.
On one hand, new defensive guru Felix Jones looks to have already left a mark on the way England is looking to turn defense into an attacking weapon, ala the Springboks.
Yet, on the other hand, the question will be whether they have the players to employ the Boks style of play.
In the midfield, Fraser Dingwall and Henry Slade were found wanting when confronted by the Italian’s direct approach, and in this respect, one feels that the injured duo of Ollie Lawrence and Manu Tuilagi would be more suitable to this style of play.
Still just 24 years old, Dingwall has more than enough to adjust and has shown with the Northampton Saints his prowess, so he certainly will improve with more time in the saddle.
Slade, while already 30 years old, is an uber skillful operator and also should adapt. The question is, whether he's the player they'll want to build around.
In the Springboks lineup, the two key outside centers, Jesse Kriel and Lukhanyo Am, were hard hitters who cut off the inside backs' ability to get the ball wide, thus daring the opposition to take a risk.
Slade is more of a facilitator than a hard-hitting strike runner like the two South Africans, so from the outside, it does not feel like a prototypical fit for this scheme. Time will tell, but one feels that the 24-year-old Lawrence likely will come back into the No. 13 shirt sooner rather than later.
Joining the Bath center in the new-look England squad are the dynamic back row Ethan Roots, silky playmaker Fin Smith and exhilarating winger Tommy Freeman.
These three players are exactly what English Rugby fans have been crying out for, while also being able to facilitate the traditionally pragmatic Steve Borthwick game plan.
It all starts with Exeter’s Roots, who is a former Jiu-Jitsu champion who knows how to make his presence felt.
The 6-foot-2 and 110-kilogram flanker has the feeling of a new-age Richard Hill who gets to go forward for the English pack, while also causing havoc at the opposition’s breakdown.
Northampton duo Smith and Freeman are two key Jenga pieces, whom Borthwick and attack coach Richard Wigglesworth can build around.
Smith will, of course, face a challenge from his namesake Marcus, who is in the driving seat but showed his aptitude throughout this season as a match-winner.
Finally, Freeman is a power winger England has been crying out for, who is capable of shredding defenses in open play, while also creating valuable meters in the close quarters.
Summing up, his game is relatively simple; he is a do-it-all winger who looks for work, which is a flylee's best friend.
🤩 Duhan Van Der Merwe just doing what Duhan Van Der Merwe does best 🙌— Guinness Men's Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) February 6, 2024
Vote for him as your winner of try of the round here⬇️
🗳️ https://t.co/Q4KiwsACJN#GuinnessM6N @Scotlandteam pic.twitter.com/jWpMDwUfbH
Daffodils Ready To Blossom
Across the Severn Bridge, daffodils are beginning to bloom from the compost of mismanagement at the higher levels of the game.
Despite seeing their professional regional sides hitting an all-time low, it would appear as though the Gatland factor remains alive and well within in Welsh Rugby.
If one was to watch the first half of their opening encounter against Scotland, this statement would have appeared to be more a fallacy. Yet, as the famously loud Welsh crowd fell silent as Finn Russell converted Duhan van der Merwe's second try to ease into a 27-0 lead, someone within the Welsh squad hit the bright red panic button.
Apt it was that all four of the Welsh tries were scored by players very much at the beginning of their test careers.
Starting the fracas was Botham, who barged over the Scottish line to crack open a previously barred door.
As if inviting a bunch of rabid of party goers to a free-for-all bar, Botham’s pals Rio Dyer, Alex Mann and Aaron Wainwright all stampeded over to bring their team within one point of the latest in a long line of Warren Gatland Welsh comebacks.
Alas, it was not to be, as the earlier scintillating performance of Scotland was enough to secure a first Six Nations win in the Welsh capital since 2002.
Despite the loss, the previously dark outlook for Welsh Rugby received a much-needed ray of sunshine ahead of what will be an interesting trip across the bridge to Twickenham.
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