The warm-up games are well and truly in the swing of things now, with each match affording fans and coaches glimpses of the big picture – both good and bad.
Winner: England’s attack
This is the eighth time in ten games that England have scored 32 or more points (the two exceptions being away to Wales in Cardiff). Eddie Jones has always been keen for them to score off first phase ball and they did, three times. He has wanted them to use their power runners to create space, and they did, with Manu Tuilagi in particular causing havoc in Ireland’s defensive line. And he has emphasised the need for pace in the back three in Japanese conditions, which England have shown in abundance. There’s still plenty to work on for England but the attack is looking in very good shape.
Loser: the mounting injury lists
The warm-up games are an obvious Catch 22 for coaches, fans, and players – you can’t truly replicate match conditions in training so you can’t fully test fitness, systems, or partnerships. But an injury picked up in these games can rule you out of the world cup. We’ve already seen a number of high-profile players go down and this round of games added Cian Healy, Conor Murray, Tommy Seymour, Sam Skinner, Blade Thomson, and Mako Vunipola to the list of doubts. It’s a hard circle to square but that doesn’t make it any easier for the players who miss out.
Winner: hopes for a Scottish Plan B
It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t enough to ease the fears that have developed over the past 12 months or so. Scotland again conceded in the first two minutes, for the third game in a row. But they showed some dog, improved at the scrum and the breakdown, and got their defence going eventually. Hamish Watson was superb, deservedly winning Man of the Match, and he was ably assisted by the pugnacious Ryan Wilson. It might not be a Plan B yet but there were signs of the bark Scotland will need to go far in Japan.
In the last round, there were no real positives for Scotland to take away. This round, Ireland were the team to finish their match without much optimism. They are a week behind in their warm-up schedule and they looked rusty, as you’d expect, but this was more than just rust. The lineout was woeful, there was no aggression in defence (they missed 34 tackles), and, yet again, they had no answer when they came up against a team who kept the ball away from them. A side further from the team who swept all before them in 2018 is hard to imagine. There’s plenty of time for Joe Schmidt to right the ship but it looks to be listing.
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Winner: Maro Itoje
He came storming out of the blocks and maintained his intensity throughout. As usual, he was a pest on the floor and a threat at the lineout, used his athleticism around the field, and ran a lovely line for his try. His stats showed three defenders beaten, three offloads, two turnovers, five lineouts taken, three disrupted or stolen, 39 metres made, and 14 tackles completed – That’s some showing.
Loser: Ben Youngs
His England teammate, however, did not have a day to look back on fondly. In fact, he was the only England starter who didn’t impress. Youngs is not everyone’s idea of the perfect scrum-half but, when he’s in form, he does exactly want Jones wants, especially with his contestable kicks. This was not one of those days. Every facet of Youngs’ game was poor and an attempted miss-pass that went both forward and out on the full summed up a frustrating afternoon for him. England’s dominance was such that it didn’t matter and Jones’ has trusted him throughout his regime but Youngs will want to make significant improvements.
Winner: Damian Penaud
France might not have won the return fixture but Penaud impressed on the wing again. He bagged a brace, including a 50-m run-in following an intercept. He couldn’t keep it up in the second-half, as Scotland tightened up, but it was his second impressive showing in a week. He had a blistering season for Clermont and was of the highlights of France’s underwhelming Six Nations campaign and looks like he will head into the world cup as a winger to be reckoned with.
Loser: Peter Horne
In the week that Horne expressed some frustration that he continues to be considered second-choice for Scotland, and as competition among the centres in the Scottish squad heats up, throwing yet another intercepted pass was not what he needed. There is no doubt that Horne brings intelligence, versatility, and a huge work-ethic, but that may no longer be enough. Outside him, Chris Harris had a strong game and has been impressive in camp. Rory Hutchinson covers 10, 12, and 13, Duncan Taylor is finally back from injury, Huw Jones may well be deemed to offer enough in attack to make up for his defensive weaknesses, and Sam Johnson offers a physicality that Scotland could do with. There are still two games left for Horne to show his worth but time is running out.
Winner: Ireland’s underdog status
It’s a slim silver lining but it’s worth remembering that Ireland have never seemed truly comfortable with the favourite’s tag. Their record loss to England at Twickenham has prompted another shuffle of the rankings and Ireland are now in fourth. Two potentially difficult games against Wales, home and away, remain and they could slip further still. By the time they kick off in Japan, Schmidt’s men could have a very serious point to prove. For all they’ve disappointed this year, a snarling Irish pack should still be a very alarming prospect. Schmidt says their confidence isn’t dented but it may be that they find they still relish the underdog tag.
Loser: concussion protocols
After failing an HIA, Murray came back on the field for a few minutes before half-time, with Schmidt later blaming a breakdown in communication. With the (necessary) increased focus on concussion protocol and player safety, that is a worrying event. At Murrayfield, Seymour continued to play for six or seven minutes before the medical officers removed him from the field. He too failed his HIA. The world cup is an opportunity to set the standard in this area to a huge audience and officials need to be sharper.
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