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Six Nations: what we learned from a wet and wild second weekend | Sport


Outstanding Stander excels in defence

Coaches talk about winning the collisions as a prerequisite to victory and Saturday showed why. Ireland controlled the gainline against Wales in defence and attack, although their one disappointment would have been giving away the greater number of penalties against opponents who were on the back foot. Ireland contested the breakdown where Wales missed Josh Navidi. CJ Stander has made his reputation as a strong ball-carrier, but he ensured victory over Scotland with a late turnover penalty and he was again prominent in defence, slowing down possession and paving the way for turnovers. Ireland did not overplay their dominance at forward, looking to spread the ball wide. Their forwards carried for a total of 74 metres, fewer than Jacob Stockdale on the wing, with Ireland scenting defensive weakness wider out.

Townsend’s quandary over playmaker Russell

England got the better of Scotland physically when it mattered, defending their line and scoring the only try from close range on an evening when the overwhelming winner was the weather. England’s chariot was wobbly but the wheels stayed on, unlike the Sunday before. As if defeat was not bad enough for the hosts’ head coach Gregor Townsend, he was treated to a different splash in the morning with his out-of-favour outside-half Finn Russell saying in an interview that the two had never got on. So clearly deep-rooted are the differences that there appears to be no way back for the Racing 92 playmaker as long as Townsend remains in charge. After the backstep that was last year’s Six Nations campaign and a poor World Cup, the trip to Italy in the next round assumes the category of must win. He could do with Russell back, but to make the call would be to weaken his position.

Forwards packing the bench is catching on

South Africa’s ploy of naming six forwards on the bench in the World Cup, when the so-called Bomb Squad allowed the Springboks to pretty much maintain momentum at forward for 80 minutes, is catching on. England, whose coaching team includes Matt Proudfoot, who was in charge of the World Cup winners’ forwards, adopted the ploy against Scotland and it paid off while both France and Italy confined themselves to two backs on their benches in Paris on Sunday. World Rugby’s chairman Sir Bill Beaumont has called on the number of replacements to be cut, although three front rowers will have to remain because of safety concerns. It’s hard to see the number falling below six.

France must blow hot and not cold in Cardiff

And there were France, cruising against Italy six days after their victory over England when, as they do, they became over-excited and their opponents found a way back. They were at their most dangerous against England when focused, carry out the game plans in defence and attack while allowing themselves a pinch of initiative. They went 13-0 up quickly against Italy and, for a while, reverted to the France of old, all over the place defensively and individual in attack. They snapped out of it after conceding 10 points only to lose their way again when the game was won, but their progress will be measured in Cardiff next week, where they have not won for 10 years. Shaun Edwards returns ‘home’: expect his charges to be as fired up as him.

Italy threatened by Springboks and Blossoms

Italy have long become used to having their presence in the Six Nations questioned and in a week which ended with their 24th consecutive defeat in the tournament, there was speculation that South Africa would leave the Rugby Championship in four years and make it the Seven Nations. That move would have to be endorsed by World Rugby because it would mark an expansion of the tournament, although the Springboks changing hemispheres would make room for Japan to take their place. Their commercial value is estimated to be worth four times more than South Africa’s, which is why some in Europe prefer to woo the Brave Blossoms. A championship played on six weekends would require the agreement of clubs in England and France, as well as World Rugby. Unless Italy were sacrificed.

Could a post-match pint temper the trash talk?

After the war of the worlds in Asia last year comes the war of the words in Europe. Words like brutal and hate have been exchanged in the last couple of weeks and Ellis Genge, England’s try scorer at Murrayfield, after the match referred to England’s critics as ‘sausages’, presumably because they had noticed that in Paris in the opening round the chariot had been exchanged for an old banger. It’s not as if trash talking is needed to sell tickets, unless Italy are in town and then the words would not have much of a target. As the former Scotland second row Peter Brown said last week, players from opposing sides should socialise after matches. They used to, but now they are whisked off for warm-downs or handshakes with sponsors. Tea and antipathy.

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