They were similarly two wins from two at this juncture a year ago before their jaw-dropping three-loss collapse, but there is no indication a repeat cave-in is on the cards this time around. They’re impressively behaving like a squad transformed.
The tournament’s opening two rounds are traditionally the toughest to be ready for due to the limited preparation time impacting on the quality of play we get to see. But England are the sole side heading into the two-week break with a clear spring in their step.
A Test team head coach is massively reliant on his assistants to help negotiate the huge body of training ground work involved in trying to instil consistency, and Eddie Jones’ staffing alterations during 2018 now appear to be paying a rich dividend in comparison to the effectiveness of some assistant coaches elsewhere backing up their main man.
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Here, RugbyPass takes a team-by-team look at each of the six countries and identifies what lieutenants are top of the class and who must do a ton of remedial work before the competition resumes on February 23.
ENGLAND – Up one place, same amount of points
2018 – Second
2019 – First
Eddie Jones demanded pre-tournament that he wanted to see England’s cohesion back as soon as possible and he will have left Twickenham on Sunday night delighted with the progress witnessed across the opening two rounds.
The back-to-back title winners of 2016 and 2017 have got their mojo back, competing brutally in all the contest areas.
New defence coach John Mitchell and attack coach Scott Wisemantel, appointed last May, are deserving of plenty congratulatory back-slaps for the improvement, along with long-serving forwards coach Steve Borthwick who has helped reinvigorate his pack’s physically bullying capabilities.
England might have missed a tournament high 67 tackles across their 160 minutes in Dublin and London, but their ability to scramble and keep their line mostly intact is a credit to Mitchell who arrived in time for the November internationals.
NEXT STOP: CARDIFF ?
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) February 10, 2019
Jones had watched his team conceded 13 tries during their five-match losing streak in 2018, but the fight in them not to yield has been restored by the promptings of Mitchell as they have only leaked nine tries in his six-game involvement. The New Zealander didn’t come cheap, but he appears an excellent value-for-money recruitment.
The re-emergence of a fit Billy Vunipola has allowed Borthwick to instil a fresh sense of life into what England’s forwards are getting up to. They had their fill of being a distant second best on too many occasions in 2018 and have responded accordingly.
However, it’s the influence of Wisemantel that marks the South African out as currently the most impressive assistant coach in the tournament. Only Ireland (10) have made fewer linebreaks in 2019 than England’s 15, but their attack is dominating the skies.
They have incredibly kicked 81 times in two matches, 24 more than Ireland whom they labelled as boring, but their ability to turn the Irish and Frence defences and have them racing towards their line through canny use of the boot has been very profitable.
It helps Wisemantel that Henry Slade looks the real deal at the heart of England’s ball-carrying creativity alongside Manu Tuilagi. Slade has been a joy to watch so far in a team’s whose stock has rapidly risen through the roof thanks to on-point coaching by Jones’ revamped assistant line-up.
WALES – Up one place, up two points
2018 – Third
2019 – Second
Wales have the same number of early-tournament wins as England, but the optics of those two victories is very different to the sheen applied by Jones’ backroom staff.
This doesn’t mean the Welsh, whose tally of 16 penalties conceded is only topped by Scotland’s 18, can’t manufacture a winning game plan when they host England in Cardiff on February 23.
They definitely are capable of concocting something but their team’s play has been pedestrian and laborious so far, an impression that doesn’t reflect well on Warren Gatland’s familiar-looking stable of assistants.
Forwards coach Robin McBryde in particular needs to get a more positive reaction. Wales dubiously top the turnovers conceded chart after the opening rounds with 37, a figure that must be tackled if they are to fully challenge for a first title success since 2013. They have also yet to steal on opposition lineout.
— Welsh Rugby Union ? (@WelshRugbyUnion) February 10, 2019
Rob Howley is another assistant who needs to up the ante. Only for George North’s opportunism in Paris, that opener would have had a losing outcome.
It also took them a whopping 54 minutes to score a try against Italy, an attacking malaise compounded by them going on to score just one more to see them exit Rome without a try bonus point. That mishap could be crucial to the end-of-tournament placings.
Shaun Edwards is a Welsh assistant who hasn’t fared as badly, but even he won’t be satisfied by his team’s defence knowing that the all-swinging English are next on their schedule.
SCOTLAND – Up one place, up one point
2018 – Fourth
2019 – Third
The one consistency with Gregor Townsend’s Scotland is their inconsistency. They build themselves up into a head of steam, suggesting they are about to become genuine title contenders, only to wind up falling on their faces.
Their back-to-back Murrayfield matches at the start of this tournament was an opportunity to open the tournament with two wins for the first time since 1996. However, the defensive unreliability that smudged the gloss of their win over Italy was compounded by some give-aways versus Ireland.
They should be doing better and their inability to do so leaves defence coach Matt Taylor in the dock, particularly as their missed tackle count of 42 is the second worst in the tournament.
— Scottish Rugby (@Scotlandteam) February 9, 2019
The Scots have also conceded a tournament-high of 18 penalties so far, indiscipline that undermines their general ability at the breakdown where they have managed 10 steals.
That at least is a number which forwards coach Danny Wilson will take some solace from, but the other area that is greatly hampering the Scots is their blunt attack.
Townsend put the blame on himself in the wake of the Irish loss, but skills coach Mike Blair shouldn’t escape criticism as his players need to deliver higher quality play against the better teams.
IRELAND – Down three places, down five points
2018 – First
2019 – Fourth
Ireland are the table’s biggest movers when the 2018 ladder after two rounds is compared to 2019. Falling from first to fourth is no joke and while their defence managed to look more co-ordinated in Edinburgh, the unease about the Andy Farrell way hasn’t gone away.
The soon-to-be head coach has been subject for much praise for conjuring defensive game plans that New Zealand have difficulty coping with, but it has to be a concern to Irish hopes of a successful title defence being following by a successful World Cup that the rearguard remains capable of drastic malfunction.
Seeing England leave Dublin celebrating a try bonus point was bad for business and it was the 12th time in Farrell’s 29 games with Ireland (41%) that the team have leaked three or more tries in a match. That can’t be allowed to continue.
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) February 10, 2019
The other major worry for Ireland, who have been involved in two of of the tournament’s busier games (the ball was in play for 42:01 against England and 40:30 versus Scotland), was how timid their forwards were in that English defeat.
They did step up to the mark against the Scots, but the fact they weren’t up to scratch the previous weekend and lacked physicality and aggression was a serious black mark for the reputation of Simon Easterby as forwards coach. A game should never be lost on those terms.
Ireland remain the Six Nations’ most disciplined side, their concession of just 10 penalties over 160 minutes eight fewer than the law-breaking Scots, but their ponderous kicking game hasn’t been a good look for Richie Murphy’s influence. The skies are usually an area of potency, but they have struggled this February.
Elsewhere, generating only 10 off-loads in the tackle illustrates how the attacking shackles are yet to come off, boss Joe Schmidt maintaining his traditional preference for not risking the ball in contact.
FRANCE – Same place, down one point
2018 – Fifth
2019 – Fifth
The French aren’t bottom of the table, but they are by far the tournament’s poorest coached side. Similar to how he looked during his torrid last few years in charge of Italy, Jacques Brunel has the air of a dead man walking about him.
It’s obvious from the low quality of France’s play that he isn’t getting the necessary input from his assistants to put a stop to the rot that is 10 defeats in 13 matches on his watch.
Their meek first-half surrender at Twickenham suggested they are a squad of individuals that aren’t playing for each other.
Dave Ellis, their defence coach when they were winning titles under Bernard Laporte, is someone they should really think about engaging quickly to help unconvincing defence consultant Jean-Marc Bederede tighten up a rearguard that has leaked nine tries, seven more than at this juncture last term.
— FF Rugby (@FFRugby) February 10, 2019
Their inability to score more than three points in each of their two second-halves in this championship is also a damning lack of finishing that backs coach Jean-Baptiste Elissalde should be blamed for.
France continue to be the tournament’s leading team in terms of off-loading (38) and line-breaks (14), but there doesn’t appear to be an overall plan to turn this threat into a finished product. They also kick way too aimlessly when they run out of ideas on how shift the ball.
Brunel’s coaching ticket, which includes Julien Bonnaire and Sebastien Bruno, never struck people as the solution to France’s ills when unveiled in January 2018 and their 2019 results have only added fuel to the fire that this is a staff not good enough for Test level.
ITALY – Same place, same no points
2018 – Sixth
2019 – Sixth
On the surface, Six Nations 2019 has been nothing different than 2018 for Italy. Their two defeats have added to a winless run that stretches as far back as 2015, but to dismiss the Azzurri on the basis of results alone would be unfair.
Defence coach Marius Goosen has been an invaluable influence so far in helping to make Conor O’Shea’s team more competitive than they were a year ago when taken apart in the opening rounds by England and Ireland.
A whopping 15 tries were conceded in those two outings, but their defence has looked better connected on this occasion, conceding only seven tries in the defeats to Scotland and Wales.
— Italrugby (@Federugby) February 9, 2019
It’s still too high a rate of leakage if Italy are to turn the tide and finally win a match, but at least they can suggest there has been an improvement to one facet of their play. They have only turned the ball over on 23 occasions, a statistic that reflects well compared to Wales’ 37.
Their enthusiasm to play ball in attack hasn’t been curbed. Their 20 off-loads is second only to France, but you can’t but feel there should be more of a potency about them than they are currently producing in the early parts of matches.
It’s only after they gone behind to teams that they muster a response, so the onus must be on attack coach Mike Catt to tune the Azzurri up with a plan to better manage an opening 20 minutes, to be proactive rather than reactive. If not, O’Shea will finish this campaign with his third successive wooden spoon.
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