Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

What did we learn from the first round of the 2021 Six Nations?

Posted on 8 February 2021 by Alex Bidwell

Co-written by Xander Chevallier

Although the stadiums were not rammed and the pubs were not filled, Round one of the Six Nations offered up the intriguing storylines expected from what the organisers’ dub Rugby’s Greatest Championship‘.

France ran riot in Rome, England floundered in their first defeat against Scotland at Twickenham since 1983 and Wales edged it in Cardiff. 

Ill Discipline Loses Matches

Conceding too many penalties is a sure-fire way to lose games in test match rugby. On Saturday both sides who conceded more penalties lost and this was particularly pertinent at Twickenham. 

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England conceded 15 penalties to Scotland’s six and never got a foothold in the game. The consistent infringements meant they hampered their own attacks, allowed Scotland to gain easy territory and had a man sin-binned for their repeated offences.

England play on the edge of the law and have previously succeeded in doing so, but they must learn to adapt to the referee and consider the risk-reward at the breakdown. England won two turnovers but conceded seven penalties here, while Scotland won three turnovers and were only penalised twice.                                    

As for Italy, their ill-discipline undid their hard work in attack. Their concession of penalties when attacking meant after 42 minutes the Italians had visited the French 22 seven times but only came away with three points.

Discipline also affected the tense Wales v Ireland match on Sunday. Peter O’Mahony’s early red card meant Ireland were always fighting an uphill battle and they performed admirably to limit that impact. Instead, the match ebbed and flowed with periods dominated by whoever stayed on the right side of the law as both sides were penalised eleven times.

Scotland executed their game plan and gave their young star licence to thrill, unlike England

In the post-match analysis on ITV Jim Hamilton said that was the best Scotland performance he had ever seen, and it is hard to argue otherwise. They played with a swagger that suggested they were the defending Six Nations champions.

From the off they dominated every aspect of the match. They had more possession and territory than the hosts, won more turnovers and lineout steals, and showed great resolve when Finn Russell was sin binned for a deliberate trip.

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Despite the early pressure on Ali Price’s box kick they won the kicking battle and maintained an excellent kick chase throughout. Testament to that was Sean Maitland’s recovery of a Russell punt in the build-up to the only try of the game.

Their attacking play was what inspired though. Gregor Townsend gave his side a blueprint that allowed them to show ambition and variety in attack and utilise all the weapons in their arsenal. They made five line breaks to England’s none.

Debutant Cameron Redpath was trusted by his coach and used to great effect to make 52 metres. Comparatively, Ollie Lawrence, England’s young midfield star, had his attacking abilities ignored and made just two metres from his single carry. Eddie Jones took full responsibility for not getting his players right for this game and he could learn a thing or two about attack from his opposite number.

England’s dogmatic attack

During the autumn England were criticised for lacking creativity in attack but it was widely brushed over because they were winning. Now they are not.

On Saturday, England refused to deviate from their pre-agreed plan, repeatedly choosing to kick possession away despite having good platforms to attack from. To make matters worse, Henry Slade spoke in the week of how England were improving their attack and that the new system was much more suited to his game. Either Slade feels his game revolves around a good kick chase, or the new system misfired.

Not sticking with the Ford-Farrell axis was a mistake and Farrell again struggled creatively playing as an international flyhalf without Manu Tuilagi outside him. Ollie Lawrence tried to fill the void but defences are not as susceptible to his dummy lines. 

Lawrence only made one carry in 69 minutes and the Worcester Warrior did not threaten the Scottish defence, meaning Slade was often double tackled. Had England noticed this then Lawrence could have been put through the gap, but again England refused to stray away from their predetermined moves.

Ford was eventually brought on, but it was too little too late and England now need serious strategic changes ahead of the Azzuri next weekend.

Antoine the Great

 ‘Le petit general’ is an inherently French belief of how to play rugby. Les Blues have spent the best part of a decade way below par and it is perhaps not a surprise that since Antoine Dupont entered the fray, France’s resurgence has begun. Despite his diminutive 5’8” stature, Dupont’s pace and marshalling of his forwards around the pitch perfectly encompasses everything wanted from ‘the little general.’

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Not even playing a full hour against Italy, Dupont dictated proceedings exquisitely. He kicked for almost 300 meters, ran for 80 meters, broke two tackles, assisted four tries and even crossed over once himself. His no-look offload for Arthur Vincent’s try was particularly outrageous, leaving the ball almost motionless in the air as he was tackled to the floor, only needing the centre to catch the ball and dot it down.

Dupont was rightly given player of the match during his side’s rout in Rome, but as his captain, Charles Ollivon, said: “As usual he put in a great performance but it’s no longer a surprise to us.” A sure sign of a world class player is when a phenomenal performance is not a shock, it’s the norm.

Wayne Pivac fortunate to have X factor both old and new

Wayne Pivac was under immense pressure coming into this Six Nations. He had an underwhelming start to his time in charge with just three wins from the first ten games, including recent defeats at the hands of Ireland and Scotland in the Autumn Nations Cup.

Winning one of their two opening fixtures, against those same opponents, was therefore crucial to Wales bettering their fifth place finish in last year’s Six Nations. Fortunately for Pivac he has X factor in his side, both old and new.

Despite only being 28, George North is set to win his 100th cap next weekend. The Osprey was playing out of position, at outside centre, but finished his try with a winger’s quality. He outpaced Iain Henderson on his inside before his dummy left James Lowe at sixes and sevens. After that it was a simple footrace, and of course the ‘veteran’ powered over.

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Wearing North’s usual shirt was 20-year-old Louis Rees-Zammit. The winger received the ball five meters out and accelerated well before expertly diving to finish in the corner with his legs aloft to avoid the touch line and the ball grasped firmly in his outside hand. The finish was so exquisite that it received an audible groan of delight from the BBC’s Eddie Butler during the TMO replay. If the Gloucester man continues to score in the same style, Rees-lightning will be here to stay.

Cover image credit: Marco Iacobucci Epp: Shutterstock.com