Monday 22 January 2018

Five things we have learned after two rounds of the 2015 Six Nations

Paul O'Connell is tackled by Rabah Slimani, left, and Bernard Le Roux during the Six Nations victory over France.
Paul O'Connell is tackled by Rabah Slimani, left, and Bernard Le Roux during the Six Nations victory over France.
Declan Whooley

Declan Whooley

After two intriguing weekends of the 2015 Six Nations, here is what we have learned thus far as Ireland and England sit pretty top of the table.

Champagne rugby it most certainly isn't

Two rounds in and there won't be many viewers describing this year's championship as one of free-flowing rugby.

At the moment that will bother Ireland and England supporters little as both teams head into a potential Grand Slam and championship showdown at the Aviva Stadium next weekend, but line breaks and expansive back play has been in short supply.

The demise of the traditional French game has been plain for all to see, while Warren Gatland's Wales are yet to fire on all cylinders.

Rory Best tackles Rory Kockott as a host of French players join in
Rory Best tackles Rory Kockott as a host of French players join in

England's demolition of hapless Italy has boosted their scoring difference, but the other five teams are finding the tries hard to come by.

The average for the five other countries after two rounds is just 2.5 per game and Jonathan Joseph already looks to be in pole position as top try scorer with three to his name.

Top 10 performances

If anyone was under any illusions just how important the role of the out half position is, then the opening rounds of the Six Nations is the clearest example of how the number 10 can simply be the difference between winning and losing.

Ian Keatley acquitted himself well in his first Six Nations start in Rome, but will have few qualms over keeping the seat warm for Johnny Sexton. He said so as much himself post-match.

His exemplary performance against Les Bleus, despite serious hits from old foe Mathieu Bastareaud and a stray elbow from Thierry Dusatoir, contrasted to that of his counterpart Camille Lopez who coughed up a couple of very scoreable kicks in what was a game of fine margins.

Across the channel and George Ford looks like he may be more capable of injecting invention into the English attacks that Saracen's out half Owen Farrell. He led the rejuvenation after the interval against Wales in Cardiff and while not as strong as Farrell in defence, is more adept at picking holes in the opposition defence.

Meanwhile Italy's Kelly Haimona is the latest in a long list of sub-standard Italian 10s that have struggled since the retirement of Diego Dominguez. He is not to blame for their lack of guile, but he is contributing little to Jacques Brunel's side at this point.

End of Italian 'golden era'?

While 'golden era' is perhaps a little generous – they are currently on a run of 19 successive away defeats – the task of replacing the likes Sergio Parisse, Martin Castrogiovanni, Alessandro Zanni, Andrea Masi and Leonardo Ghiraldini is proving difficult for Brunel.

Sergio Parisse, Martin Castrogiovanni and Andrea Masi of Italy sing the national anthem during the RBS Six Nations match between England and Italy at Twickenham Stadium (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

While Luca Morisi and Leonardo Sarto give more of a cutting edge in the backline than they have perhaps ever had at this level, the pack on the other hand is not quite as formidable as it once was.

Parisse was perfectly correct when he hit back at critics who suggested that they aren't worthy of a place in the championship, but defeat in Murrayfield next time out and they are likely to become cannon fodder in the final two games if France and Wales show any degree of ambition.

Jekyll and Hyde Wales

If ever there was a game of two halves – cue cliché klaxon – it was the opening game of the tournament when England left Cardiff with two points.

The result looked most unlikely in the opening 40 minutes as Warren Gatland's side bossed proceedings in front of a packed house. However, the second half was a complete role reversal and the Welsh scrum, so often a mainstay, has come in for major scrutiny.

They got their campaign back on track, just about, by sneaking victory in Murrayfield last Sunday.

"A win is a win...but this was underwhelming," was how one Welsh paper described it afterwards.

Dan Biggar of Wales is taken out in the air by Finn Russell of Scotland during the RBS Six Nations match between Scotland and Wales at Murrayfield

It may have been only a small step in the right direction, but with Ireland travelling to Cardiff in round four, Joe Schmidt will have been impressed by the defensive work on show by the men in red.

Wales won the physical battle hands down, with some of their defensive work, particularly at the end of each half when they repelled some furious Scottish attacks, a testament to Shaun Edwards.

If Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar can unleash the power I the backline, Ireland's credentials will get a stern test on March 14.

No home rule

Few sports surpass rugby in the importance and benefits of home advantage. From ridiculous French home records – admittedly helped by a relaxed attitude to away games – to the scrapping for home advantage in the Champions Cup quarter-finals, teams on the road always face an uphill struggle.

The Six Nations generally is no different, but this year there have been a few surprises.

On the opening weekend, a rather flat second half performance saw the majority of supporters in the Millennium Stadium return home disappointed as England exacted a degree of revenge for their harrowing defeat two years previous.

England's Jonathan Joseph (C) celebrates scoring a try during their Six Nations Championship rugby union match against Italy at Twickenham

A day later, the Italians offered very little at home to Ireland despite all the talk in the build-up of the dangers of facing the Azzurri in the opening fixture.

Scotland were tipped by many to lower Welsh colours last weekend and fell just short.

Ireland's second and final home game takes place Sunday week and while they will be hoping to use Lansdowne Road in their favour, the last two weekends have shown that home advantage may not count for as much as before.

Read more: England represent significant step up, warns O'Brien

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