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Is the Six Nations balance of power shifting?

By Nick Bishop
Le point de bascule

We are at the virtual halfway point of the Six Nations. For some, it will be all downhill from now on; for others it will be a struggle to post one or two wins and gain respectability.


‘The Probables’ [Ireland, France and England] have won six of their nine matches, and their only loss to one of the ‘Possibles’ occurred on Saturday at Murrayfield. The result of that match means Scotland once again look the likeliest to emerge from ‘The Possibles’ and make a run at the title.

The Probables – Ireland [3-0], rising from the World Cup dead!

Ireland have stuck to script and risen again after World Cup disappointment. The men in green have barely skipped a beat in the first two rounds of the 2024 tournament, with many of their KPI’s holding steady, or even improving:

  • Increased average time-in-possession. Up two minutes from 20.5 minutes per game in 2023 to 22.5 minutes in the first three rounds of 2024, with the proportion of possession up 5% from 52.5% to 57.7%. That kind of ball is milk and honey to the men from the Emerald Isle. Give Ireland enough and they will hurt you – a five-try average so far in 2024, compared to four in 2023.
  • Lower tackle count. Defence is made easier because the opponent has less time with ball in hand. Ireland only make an average of 152 tackles per game, 60 fewer than Italy at the foot of the table [212]. It is like keeping a good snooker potter away from the green baize; the fewer chances they get, the more they will tend to snatch at their opportunities.
Ireland Wales
Ireland have recovered from World Cup heartache to mount a compelling charge for a second straight Grand Slam (Photo by PA)

  • Extended range of final quarter dominance. Ireland’s points differential in the last 20 minutes was 50-10 in 2023, it currently stands at 40-0 one year later. Compared to the World Cup, their lineout has been a rock, with a 92.5% retention rate providing a lethal platform for 13 of their 15 tries so far.
  • Discipline is the one real caveat. Ireland have been on the receiving end of the penalty count in all three matches, with an overall of balance of 29 awarded and 37 conceded. Loosehead prop Andrew Porter has been the major target for officiating ire with six penalties given up.
  • Key players for have been evergreen new lineout captain Tadhg Beirne, with a tremendous all-round performance – 22 carries with four clean breaks and two tries, 10 lineout takes with two steals apiece at lineout and at breakdown – and the imperious James Lowe, with his 33 carries for 265m and seven clean breaks sitting neatly alongside his true point of difference – the longest kicking game in the tournament from the left wing [27 kicks for 1226m].

The Probables – France [1-1-1] in freefall?

Les Bleus are one of two sides falling away from the high standards they set at the same tournament in 2022 and 2023. There is some evidence of both deterioration at the lineout and in try-scoring capacity outside set-piece.

  • France’s ratio of possession always tends to run low at around 45% because of the amount of ball they kick away – typically 30+ times per game. They want to win the long kicking duels between the 22s and set up their lethal kick-returners Damian Penaud, Thomas Ramos and up until the end of 2023, all-world scrum-half Antoine Dupont from the back.
  • The Dupont-less difference lies in a diminished capacity to counter in ‘unstructured’ situations outside set-piece: the Tricolores scored a massive 57% of their tries in 2023 [12 of 21] with the Toulousain nine in harness, at a rate of 2.4 ‘unstructured’ tries per game. Without him in 2024, they have scored only one of five tries from turnover counters or kick returns [0.33%].
  • Miscellaneous offensive contractions. Offloads have slipped slightly from 1 every 12 carries in 2023 to 1 every 14 one year later, dominant gain-line carries are 11% down and France’s try-scoring ability has plummeted from over four tries per game to a mere 1.25 in the space of 12 months. Les Bleus only averaged a measly 0 point per visit to the Italy 22 in the third round. Can it really all be down to the influence of one single player?
  • The absence of two ‘talismanic’ players illustrates a lack of continuity between club and country. Centre Yoram Moefana was originally preferred to Louis Bielle-Biarrey on the left wing against Ireland. The ridiculously-talented 20-year-old already had three clean breaks and a game-clinching try to his name after only one game versus Scotland, only to be sidelined with injury for the third-round clash with the Azzurri. No 8 Greg Alldritt had shown signs of returning to his best form with 21 carries, five tackle busts, 27 tackles, and three breakdown pilfers before he was cruelly injured at Murrayfield. The coaching staff urgently need to get the French rugby public back onside, and committing to attack will be a key criterion in selection for Fabien Galthié in the last two rounds of the tournament.

The Probables – England [2-1], holding steady or treading water?

Steve Borthwick has a healthy record of eight victories from his past 10 matches. It has bought him precious time to re-engineer England’s defence under ex-Springbok coach Felix Jones, and streamline the attack. The big question is whether it is a false position, with probably England’s two toughest assignments [home to Ireland and away in Paris] yet to come?

  • Defence has clearly been one of the main areas of interest, with world champion Jones arriving to instil the Springbok version of blitzing mayhem. Thus far the signs are promising. A 76% tackle completion rate in 2023 has risen slightly to 79.5%, while the average of four tries per game given up last season has dropped to 2.7. Although they only have seven breakdown pilfers in three rounds of play, Jones’ charges do enjoy the lowest ratio of lightning quick ball [1-3 second ruck ball] allowed to their opponents at 38%, and that stat will be an important weapon against the Irish.
Immanuel Feyi-Waboso
Immanuel Feyi-Waboso looked dynamic and dangerous as he notched his first Test try off the bench at Murrayfield (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

  • The attack has shown signs of flatlining, because England are now investing most of their time and energy on the other side of the ball. Twenty minutes of active time-in-possession in 2023 has fallen to 18.5 one year later, with the 2023 average of 96 rucks set per game dropping to 82.
  • The increased emphasis on defence now poses the ‘big issue’ for Steve Borthwick. With Marcus Smith due to return to action after injury, Henry Slade back at 13 and promising new blood such as Northampton’s Tommy Freeman transfused successfully [five dominant tackles, most run metres [167m] and offloads [3], second in clean breaks [3] by an English back], Borthwick has a choice to make. How does he add offensive punch with defence eating so much energy and focus? How can he make best use of young thrusters like Freeman, Smith and Ben Earl, with his class-leading 42 carries and 12 tackle busts? The visit of all-conquering Ireland will be telling.

The Possibles – Will Scotland [2-1] be kicking themselves?

Scotland will rue failing to put away France in round two, a match they should have won comfortably. That would have set the Scots up nicely with a 3-0 record, for a true tilt at Ireland in the final round of the championship. When Gregor Townsend and his staff look at the raw stats, they may also be kicking themselves they are putting boot to ball so much, and neglecting the strengths he has built into his team.

  • Bloat in the kicking game! As a goalkicker, Finn Russell is top of the charts with 15/15. The real question is why the Scottish kicking game has ballooned from an average of 26 kicks for 826m per game in 2023, to a massive 39 kicks for 1226m one year on, with their half-backs Russell and Ben White the top two kickers in the competition. Scotland dropped below 1000m for the first time against England at Murrayfield, and they looked all the better for it.
  • Up until the third round, the emphasis on the kicking game largely neutered the threat of giant wing Duhan van Der Merwe, scorer of one of the great long-range kick return tries at Twickenham in 2023. The naturalised South African averaged 10 carries for 96m with 1.6 breaks and 7.0 tackle-busts per game last year, but after two rounds in 2024, he sat on far less impressive figures: eight carries for 62m with one break and 1.5 tackle busts per game. The hat-trick against England rescued those stats somewhat, pumping the tyres back up to seven carries for 78m, with 1.3 breaks and 3.0 tackle busts per game.
Duhan van der Merwe has scored five tries in his past two matches against England, and six in four Calcutta Cup games overall (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

  • The tilt towards Scotland’s kicking game means although the ball is in play for long periods, they enjoy less of a share in that ‘active time’ – 18.5 minutes of 39 total ball-in-play [47.4%] compared to Ireland’s 22.5 minutes from 39 [57.7%], a whole four minutes less.
  • Townsend will also be concerned his charges are currently losing the final quarter of games 29-3. Does that stat represent a mental or a physical fragility? Is the kicking game taking more out of Scotland than it is their opponents? Either way, the Scotland head honcho will want to get back-three talents such Van Der Merwe, Blair Kinghorn and newcomer Kyle Rowe [146m run, three breaks and nine tackle busts] into the game with ball in hand.

The Possibles – Wales [0-3], finally turning a corner?

Wales have lost their opening three matches but results have belied some strong performances and a transformed approach in Warren Gatland’s second coming as national coach. All three matches have given rays of hope, and Wales offered the most determined opposition to Ireland’s relentless advance on the Grand Slam in third round in Dublin.

  • Wales have had one of the more significant statistical turnarounds of all in 2024. A total of 18.7 minutes active possession time and 49% overall possession in 2023 has been upped to 20.7 minutes of active possession time and 52% possession one year on.
  • From being a team of kickers and kick-chasers in the opening 40 against Scotland, for their past five halves of play Wales have suddenly transformed into a team of ball-keepers and ruck-builders: 109 average rucks built at a 99% retention rate, increasing from 92 rucks at 95% in 2023. It is an impressive leap of faith from the previous Gatland game plan for the men in red.
  • The set-piece remains rocky – the lineout is currently operating at a lowly 79% retention rate, and the starting front-row creaked and groaned against Ireland. Wales also lack the cohesion to be a genuine multi-phase attacking threat, with only one try occurring after fifth phase so far. But their management of the breakdown has been so outstanding it gives them a fighting chance against all comers – the penalty count sits at 35-20 in their favour, a sure sign of excellent breakdown control.
  • It is no coincidence Wales’ two standout players both start in the back-row: Gatland has finally found a natural, worthy successor to Taulupe Faletau at No 8 in the shape of Aaron Wainwright [38 carries for 149m with seven tackle-busts, plus 15 lineout takes in three highly-energised 80-minute performances]; openside Tommy Reffell has improved his offensive production [25 carries, two clean breaks and five tackle busts] to add to his tournament-topping seven breakdown pilfers.

The Possibles – Italy [0-2-1], any new shoots of growth?

It remains tough to foresee a significant improvement in results on the horizon for the Azzurri. They improved from a 31-14 defeat at Twickenham in 2023 to a narrow 24-27 loss in the first round 2024, but then dropped off in the second round, from a combative 20-34 loss to Ireland in 2023 to a 36-0 procession against the same opponents. In the third round against France, a red card to centre Jonathan Danty gave them an opportunity to win the game at the death, with the game ending in a 13-13 draw. The Azzurri are trying to play a tighter, more controlled game under Gonzalo Quesada, but they are bleeding away some of their attacking promise under Kieran Crowley in the process.

Italy France
Paolo Garbisi’s last-gasp penalty struck the post, denying Italy a famous win on French soil on Sunday (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

  • The attacking stats do not make for comfortable reading. Nineteen minutes of active time in possession in 2023 [50% possession] has dropped to only 16 [and 43%] in 2024. Ninety-six average rucks per game set per game in 2023 – with a 60% ratio of lightning quick ball, just behind Ireland – has fallen away to 72 average rucks one year later. Some 5.8 clean breaks per game in 2023 have fallen to 3.7 per game. The result is the Azzurri tend to be pinned to defence, averaging 212 tackles per game in 2024, even though they played one half against 14 men.
  • Two individual glimmers of light are flanker Michele Lamaro with his class-leading 55 tackles [including five dominant hits], and stalwart wing Monty Ioane [263m run with three offloads, three breaks and nine tackle busts], but at present it remains uncertain how Quesada will replace the evident attacking drop-off from the Crowley era. The worry is Italy’s best chance of victory may already have passed, with that squandered last-minute opportunity against the French.

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