It’s still early days, but it very much looks like England are going to be the team to beat. They've come through two very tough tests, and though they're clearly still not at their best, having been outplayed by Wales for large parts of the game on Saturday, they're still finding ways to win. The character of this young team is hugely impressive.
Eddie Jones has been focusing on ensuring that his team are fitter than ever and that they have the ability to make good decisions when fatigued and under pressure. A couple of years ago, these tight games would have gone the other way. Although England do not look unbeatable, it is going to take an excellent performance from Ireland to get past them.
It’s clear that England are desperately missing the big ball-carrying Vunipola brothers. Despite standing at 6ft 5in and weighing in at approximately 125kg, Nathan Hughes – Vunipola’s replacement – is simply not as effective. If England are to continue their unbeaten run, they will need to ensure that they get more front-foot ball.
For a 10-minute spell in the first half, they played some outstanding rugby – as good as they have been under Jones. Their carriers were getting over the gain-line, giving Ben Youngs and George Ford the opportunity to vary the play and bring in exciting runners, culminating in Youngs’s try. If they can play like that for 80 minutes, they will be unstoppable.
But from then on, Wales managed to tighten their defence, and England’s ball carriers struggled. The introduction of Jamie George, James Haskell and Ben Te’o made a huge impact in the second half, though, and England finally started to regain the ascendancy.
That said, their inability to get out of their own half at the end of the first 40 minutes is a concern. Wales repeatedly turned down the opportunity to kick for goal from penalties, and England repelled them each time, either by forcing an error or winning a penalty of their own. But each time they tried to clear their lines, they failed to get the ball into Wales’s half. This gave Wales far too many opportunities, resulting in Williams’s try. Of course, Wales made the same error in the 76th minute, which England clinically converted into a try, courtesy of Owen Farrell and Elliot Daly.
Wales also completely outplayed their opponents at the breakdown. In fact, England’s first and only turnover of the game came in the 79th minute. Their inexperienced back-row – who had a total of four starts between the three of them going into the game – were badly shown up by Warburton, Tipuric and Moriarty. This is another reason why Haskell must start the remaining games.
Wales played brilliantly at times, particularly in defence, while their set move for Williams’s try was executed to perfection. Dan Biggar did a lot to silence his critics, and combined very well with Rhys Webb, who also looked back to his best. It is a puzzle, though, as to why Moriarty was taken off. He had been Wales’ best player by some way, with some ferocious tackles and carries, and it is no coincidence that England managed to find a foothold in the game once he had left the field. Wales’ ability to utilise their bench was simply not as effective as England’s, and proved a critical point of difference.
Equally critical was Wales’ inability to be clinical at key moments: their failure to score points when dominating, and the missed touch in the 76th minute particularly stand out. They don’t yet have the precision and winning nous of their old enemy, but this was without doubt their best performance for some time. A fantastic test match.
Scotland vs Wales at Murrayfield next week will be fascinating. Wales will be spurred on by the disappointment of last weekend, while Scotland will also look to bounce back from a disappointing outing in Paris, knowing that they beat Ireland on home soil a few weeks ago.
An exciting game was played out at the Stade de France between two teams who have made great improvements over the last year. The quality did deteriorate somewhat in the second half, though, and Scotland will be kicking themselves that their indiscipline towards the end cost them the match. Of greater concern, however, will be the injury to their captain, Greig Laidlaw, who's been ruled out for the rest of the campaign. After he departed, the team greatly missed both his kicking and marshalling ability – it will be interesting to see how they cope without him.
France, meanwhile, are clearly benefiting from consistency in selection. They are starting to gel as a team and looked dangerous at times against the Scots. They are a long way from being the finished article, but their clash with Ireland next week could be a cracker.
Ireland will go into that match buoyed by their ruthlessly clinical victory over Italy last weekend. They had wrapped up the try bonus point within 40 minutes – the first to be recorded in Six Nations history – and made it nine tries in total by the final whistle. Flanker CJ Stander and replacement back Craig Gilroy both bagged hat tricks, as Ireland truly put Italy to the sword.
England will look to replicate such a high level of performance at Twickenham when Italy visit, while Conor O’Shea will be hoping that his team don’t capitulate in quite the same way that they did here. For the good of the tournament we must hope that they can instead build upon the first 40 minutes they played against Wales. If not, calls for relegation may resurface.
In all, it was another weekend of high-quality rugby, as the tournament proves to the rugby world that the game will no longer be dominated by the Southern Hemisphere giants. If Ireland pick up from where they left off in Rome, and England continue their winning ways, their clash in Dublin on the final weekend could be one for the ages
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