Six Nations: talking points from a weekend of potent wing play

Wales’ and England’s wide men finished clinically during their wins while France’s passing game remains supreme

Jonny May of England scores an outrageous try.
Jonny May of England scores an outrageous try. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/NMC Pool/The Guardian
Jonny May of England scores an outrageous try. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/NMC Pool/The Guardian
Paul Rees

Last modified on Mon 15 Feb 2021 11.30 EST

1) Wales and France pass with distinction

When a few England passes went to ground early on against Italy, it explained Eddie Jones’s preference for a kicking game. Space was not at a premium against the weakest team in the tournament, but the champions were often too mechanical to exploit it. At Murrayfield a couple of hours later Wales showed, for the second successive week, that deficiencies at forward can be masked by opportunism. Their passing was more natural than England’s and helped them to win a match that at one point looked beyond them. The two sides meet in Cardiff in the next round and Wales are again likely to need to pass their way out of trouble. France, who are at Twickenham in the fourth round, remain supreme in passing at the point of contact, their first-half try in Dublin after they had soaked up pressure was a gem.

2) Clear out the clear-outs

A clear-out at a ruck attracted a red card for the second time in six days. If Peter O’Mahony invited the sanction for planting his elbow in the face of Tomas Francis during Ireland’s defeat against Wales, Zander Fagerson’s challenge on Wyn Jones was less flagrant. He kept his arms down as he tried to clear the Wales prop as Scotland looked to recycle possession and the referee ruled that shoulder contact was made with the lower part of the head. His television match official was not so convinced but at Twickenham, when Owen Farrell was reviewed for a (late) challenge on Stephen Varney, it was the TMO who was the more inclined to think the head had been impacted. As the breakdown becomes more of a contest for possession, so clear-outs will increase. And when the non-offending players are low to the ground, heads can be hard to avoid. Clear-outs need to be cleared out.

3) Willis left in limbo by crocodile roll

Jack Willis was on the field at Twickenham for only 10 minutes. The back-rower scored a try at the end of his first minute but spent the final five receiving treatment for a knee injury which looks as if it will end his season. He was hurt after being tackled as he stood over a ruck by his opposite number Sebastian Negri in what has become known as a crocodile roll. The authorities have a zero-tolerance approach to challenges that involve contact with the head, but they have been slower to react to those that are potentially career threatening but targeted elsewhere. The wording of the relevant law is clear: players may only be active at a ruck if they are on their feet. Negri wasn’t.

Wales’ Louis Rees-Zammit dives in to score his side’s fourth try against Scotland.
Wales’ Louis Rees-Zammit dives in to score his side’s fourth try against Scotland. Photograph: Jane Barlow/PA

4) Wide men show benefit of winging it

Louis Rees-Zammit and Anthony Watson scored two tries and Jonny May went for the spectacular by vaulting over his opposite number and touching the ball down before he went out of play. With Monty Ioane and Liam Williams also scoring, it made a successful Saturday for the wide men and James Lowe was denied the following day by a lick of paint before Damian Penaud crossed for France’s second. Rees-Zammit made it three in two matches after his stunning finish against Ireland, a match he started because Williams and Josh Adams were suspended. The Six Nations, Italy apart, is not regarded as a breeding ground and defence would not rank high on Rees-Zammit’s cv, but what is counting is his ability to turn matches, the prime requirement of a wing.

5) How long have Italy got?

“I was really happy,” said one head coach on the weekend. Not Wayne Pivac, who will not have to field questions about his future for a while, nor Jones but Italy’s Franco Smith after his side had taken their points conceded to 91 this championship. It was their 14th appearance at Twickenham and in six of their previous defeats they had conceded more than 41 points. They sculpted two tries against a notoriously mean defence and trailed 20-11 nine minutes into the second half when they tried to work an overlap only for Watson to intercept Paolo Garbisi’s pass and settle the contest. “It is negative but also positive,” said Smith. “We need to improve technically and tactically, but physically we are getting there.” How long have they got?

6) France show set piece still has value

The scrum is a symbolic part of rugby union, something that distinguishes it from league, but it has fallen into disrepute having been seen by some as a source of penalties rather than a profitable means of restarting play with backs having to stand five metres back. France are an exception and in Dublin they looked for quick release from scrums in their own half. Their second try came from the set piece when they set initially for a drive and at a time when the breakdown has become blighted by directives and changing interpretations, set-pieces provide the opportunity for backs to both take on their opposite numbers and do so in space. Les Bleus are operating at a higher level than the other five, but their flat attacking line in Dublin gave Ireland the chance to counter-ruck and remain in the game until the end.

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