Phew! Everybody have a week off – this year’s Six Nations is the highest quality tournament in years.
The first weekend brought us the highly entertaining Scotland v Ireland encounter whilst England v France – if not as fluid – provided its own level of theatre.
However, the second round of games proved that the intensity in this year’s Championship is likely to be sustained – apart from when poor old Italy are involved.
France v Scotland was a pacey if brutal affair but the stand-out game to date was the epic Cardiff encounter between Wales and England.
It was edge-of-the-seat stuff. Just when you thought one team was out for the count back they would come.
England could – and perhaps should – be nil from two after the opening rounds. The fact that they are not – and retain a perfect record – owes much to their collective resolve and heavily on the repeated class of Owen Farrell.
Against France he was the player to create the opening for the late winning try by Ben Te’o. In Cardiff it was the delivery of one of the best passes you can hope to see on a rugby field to put Elliott Daly away for a late clincher.
If Farrell gave England their composure and sprinkling of gold dust, it was the industry of the heavy artillery such as Launchbury and Lawes who kept England in the physical battle. There are still question marks around parts of this England team that will need to be answered if they really are to become the main contenders for World Cup glory in 2019.
I’m sure Eddie Jones won’t hesitate to remove those players that he feels cannot meet the standards he demands. To that end he has a problem with his current captain Dylan Hartley.
It is clear that Jamie George is fast becoming the best hooker in England with his high work-rate and technical excellence showing up his more experienced rival. George offers pace around the park – Hartley does not – and is the kind of ball handling forward that the game now demands.
Also it is becoming more important by the tournament that England decide who is going to be their open-side and what impact that player can have in adding fluidity to the England attack and controlled decision making at the breakdown.
There are plenty of 6, 6.5 and 8s in this England set up but no one is really an out-and-out 7. The introduction of the hugely promising Sam Underhill cannot come quickly enough.
In Cardiff, the England back row were schooled at the breakdown by their Welsh counterparts and it should have come as no surprise. Itoje is a world-class lock but on current showing is not a real contender to oust a fit Robshaw on the flank, whilst it took a rejuvenated Haskell to get England back into the game in the final quarter.
England also had the rub of the green with a couple of key refereeing decisions. Haskell’s cynical killing of the ball on his own line denied a sustained Welsh attack just as the home side threatened to apply the killer score. That moment in any other game, at any other level on any other match day would have resulted in a yellow card.
Given the evenness and ferocity of Saturday’s match then a sin bin could have been a crucial turning point in the outcome.
However, referee Garces chose only to award a penalty and England will care not a jot. You have to create your own luck in this game and England have done just that.
In the end, what separated the teams was the coolness of the decision making under intense pressure. Wales turned down penalty points, England did not.
Wales panicked when the stakes were at their highest, whereas England did not.
England had greater control in their game. They won the kicking battle when it needed to be won and refused to allow Wales easy territory.
When an opposition full-back is one of the top metre carriers in a match yet didn’t make a line break then it doesn’t take a genius to realise he has had easy opportunity to carry the ball.
England had the detail in attack. If Farrell’s pass had been even slightly off the mark to check Daly’s stride, then the chance would have been lost.
England now have a straightforward run into the final game in Dublin. Two home games against a quickly disintegrating Italy and a brave Scotland team that could be seriously depleted by the time they arrive at Twickenham should be formalities.
The tournament is giving real hope that Northern Hemisphere rugby is on the up. Others will now have to take the standard to an even higher level if they are going to deny a second consecutive English slam.