Against the lively backdrop of coronavirus angst, ‘out there’ refereeing decisions and selection wailing, the Six Nations farrago must go on.
Round four of the esteemed tournament pits all-conquering Wales against emerging Italy to raise the curtain on the weekend’s fixtures. At Twickenham, an England side troubled on the field host a French squad troubled off it, while a spree of Lions contenders lock horns at Murrayfield when Scotland, without a game in exactly a month, tackle Ireland.
These are The XV’s talking points and storylines for a seismic rugby treble…
Wales will march on
From bereft in the autumn to brilliant in the spring, this has been a searing start to 2021 for Wales and Wayne Pivac, who must feel deeply vindicated after the pasting he took in his first year at the helm.
It seemed to be lost in all the gnashing of teeth and stamping of feet that Pivac has a squad full of champions and Lions, and a burgeoning crop beginning to motor in the Test arena. Callum Sheedy, Wyn Jones and of course, the V12 Ferarri himself, Louis Rees-Zammit, are fabulous talents and each has added immense value to the established core.
Wales are showing the ambition and elan that so many of their fans craved when Pivac succeeded Warren Gatland. Their set-piece – especially a line-out that combusted in 2020 – is an area of huge strength, and their big, go-to men – the Justin Tipurics, Alun Wyn Joneses, Taulupe Faletaus and George Norths – are roaring into form.
You can pick holes in Wales’ procession, of course. They played against 14 men for 66 minutes against Ireland and 27 minutes against Scotland, then benefited from some quite astonishing refereeing a fortnight ago, but none of that is Wales’ fault.
Rees-Zammit had to be sharp enough to scorch away for that magnificent second try at Murrayfield. Dan Biggar had to be clever and accurate enough to plant his cross-kick on Liam Williams as soon as Pascal Gauzere’s whistle blew. These are acts of razor-sharp side, tokens of a team that has found its groove. Expect a commanding win over Italy, and an unlikely, intoxicating shot at the Slam in Paris.
Green shoots for Italy
Italy still feel like a perennially maddening team, but at last, despite three heavy defeats, the green shoots are there and they are real. This squad is young, and it will take time to grow and gel together, but crucially, there are enticing options across the paddock.
No longer do they have a monstrous pack with little out the back. No more do they have a couple of rapier wingers but nobody capable of feeding them ball. There is depth building, overseen by the canny Franco Smith, and spearheaded by Paolo Garbisi, their mesmeric young pivot. Like all fledgling 10s, Garbisi will err and infuriate, but he is, emphatically, the Azzurri future.
They have thoroughbred specimens up front in the shape of Danilo Fischetti and Niccolo Cannone, who starts against the Welsh. They have great, dynamic backs such as Marco Zanon, Federico Mori and the newly-capped Monty Ioane.
The game management will come with time in the saddle. The potency will rise when the irrepressible Jake Polledri and Braam Steyn return from injury. The raw materials are there, and it is up to Smith and his leaders to find the winning formula. Just don’t expect it be on Saturday.
England pay the penalty
We’ve devoted screenfuls of text to Eddie Jones’ apparent truculence, his loyalty to the stalwarts and refusal to pick those tearing up the Premiership. We should lay aside those frustrations for now, and focus on what those who are playing on Saturday must do better.
Discipline has been a monumental problem. Rob Vickerman, in his terrific quickfire breakdown of round three, noted that England’s average penalty count per game has rocketed by nearly double its tally of 7.2 in 2019 to 13.6.
Referees are wise to Maro Itoje, who up until fairly recently, seemed to act like a 6ft 5in ninja at the breakdown. Does Owen Farrell have the guile of an effective referee-whisperer – kudos to BBC Sport’s Chris Jones for coining that magnificent term – and can England curb their collective indiscipline?
There have been a heap of transgressions and too many have led to points. Ceding possession and territory to this French team will end badly – very badly.
Jones gets roundly pilloried for omitting the Premiership’s form players when making his picks, so it is encouraging to see him give Max Malins a first Test start at full-back. Elliot Daly is one of several big hitters underperforming, and in Malins, Jones has a willowy, elusive and red-hot alternative. This is a huge opportunity for the Bristol Bear to stake a claim beyond the weekend.
France have survived the mayhem and malcontent of their alleged Covid-19 bubble breaches without forfeiting a game. Their points haul is intact, but what of their morale? There is chat that the players, who have lived under Fabien Galthie’s autocratic, demanding and hugely effective regime for a year, are distinctly unimpressed that their leader fetched up to watch his boy playing espoirs rugby, masked or not. This is perhaps the first great test of Galthie’s premiership.
His preparations will have been disrupted, even if the bulk of his personnel are fit and healthy again. Antoine Dupont, the best scrum-half in the world, and Charles Ollivon, the galloping captain, are outrageously effective players and each has recovered from contracting the virus.
And while his squad waited out their isolation period, two of Galthie’s finest talents have recovered from injury. Romain Ntamack is on the bench at Twickenham, but Virimi Vakatawa is back in midfield, and what a barrelling danger he poses.
Vakatawa is extremely clever in identifying space and promptly thundering through it. He has unbelievable dynamism and footwork and is honing a smart off-loading game too. France will involve him over and over and the results could be spectacular.
Scotland have had three weeks to stew on that head-wrecking loss to Wales, a defeat that should never have been visited upon them, even allowing for Zander Fagerson’s red card. That it came so quickly after the euphoria of Twickenham was deeply wounding.
Now is their chance to prove that tangible progress is being made, that results are being backed up, and that the Six Nations pecking order is shifting.
Ireland have long been a brutal foe. Scotland have beaten them three times in the Six Nations era (and once in a World Cup warm-up); the Irish stretching away in their thunderously successful running of professional rugby, Scotland stagnating and going round in circles.
Much grist has been added to the mill down the years. The “targeting” of Conor Murray’s standing leg when Munster played Glasgow when Gregor Townsend was head coach. The choking allegation levelled at Nathan Hines. The nasty no-arms shot by Peter O’Mahony that ended Stuart Hogg’s 2019 championship but went unpunished.
The latest dollop of rancour was ladelled on by Eddie O’Sullivan, the punchy little former Ireland coach, in December. In the wake of a painfully familiar Scottish loss in Dublin, and a Hogg interview where the captain spoke of how his team had controlled much of the contest, O’Sullivan got the machine gun out.
“We’ve seen all this before,” he said on Irish television. “They always talk themselves up. They have some deluded notion that they are better than they are.
“They talk themselves up, come in and then they implode. We’ve seen this time and time again.”
The implosion allegation is fair comment. You’d struggle to look at the litany of Scottish capitulations and self-destructions against Ireland and conclude otherwise. But deluded? That’s a barb that will needle Scotland’s players, a driven and humble group of men.
These are games that they should and must win, if they are ever to silence O’Sullivan, and more importantly, to reach greatness under Townsend.
Lions places on the line
At the centre of Sunday’s showdown will be a thrilling duel between Finn Russell and Johnny Sexton. Ireland’s captain is the oldest player in the championship at 35, and Andy Farrell continues to back him to lead and conduct.
Sexton was top-drawer against Italy but, alas, that is no marker of excellence. There are few more competitive and ferocious men in the game and though he turns 36 as the tour begins, he will yet have designs on being a Lion for the third time.
Russell is such a different customer. His short kicking game is unrivalled; his hands dazzling and his Lions credentials burnished by the week. Who can best grab the game by the scruff and run the show?
These mini-battles will be colossal. Rory Sutherland against Tadgh Furlong at scrum time. Jonny Gray taking James Ryan in the boiler room. Jamie Ritchie and Hamish Watson against Tadgh Beirne and Will Connors. Ali Price versus Jamison Gibson-Park Murray. Chris Harris opposite Garry Ringrose. Tour berths, and a precious victory, are at stake.
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