The third round of the Six Nations wasn’t short of storylines but the headlines see Ireland still on for the Grand Slam after their 34-20 win in Rome against an ever-improving Italy side. England dispatched Wales 20-10 in Cardiff after a turbulent week for Warren Gatland’s side and on Sunday, France and Scotland played out a classic in Paris with both teams playing with 14 men for much of the match after each had a red card early on. In the end it was France who managed to get through, winning 32-21 to keep their title hopes alive.
The state of play with two rounds left
The clean sweep is Ireland’s to lose. Despite Andy Farrell shuffling the pack against Italy with six changes, they navigated that tricky trip without playing particularly well, managing without Garry Ringrose and Jonathan Sexton, and steering themselves through the dodgy rendition of their anthem.
That is, conversely, the mark of a good side who can win despite not hitting their best form. But it’s that depth which is going to be so effective come World Cup time with both Craig Casey and Ross Byrne playing well in their first Six Nations starts at half-back.
And the scary thing? They have Tadhg Furlong, Robbie Henshaw and Jamison Gibson-Park all returning from injury — each world-class in their position. With Scotland at Edinburgh and England in Dublin, they have an incredible shot at the Grand Slam.
Kieran Crowley’s side must be the most-improved nation in world rugby over the course of the last year. They ran Ireland so close on Saturday, after narrowly being edged out by France in round one and losing the arm-wrestle against England in the second weekend.
Many, including ex-Wales captain Sam Warburton, have them down to beat Wales in Rome on March 11 and their performance against Ireland showed they are far more than the team of yesteryear who would put in a couple of decent performances in a Six Nations and collapse in their other matches.
Their box office fullback Ange Capuozzo is getting plenty of praise, but take a look at their No. 8 Lorenzo Cannone’s performance against Ireland — he was magnificent. And they also have Paolo Garbisi back at No.10 — he makes such a difference to the team.
One thing they must correct is their slow start as they conceded three tries in the first 20 minutes against Ireland. But with Wales up next, Crowley’s Italy will be hoping to get their first victory of the championship tied up.
Gregor Townsend said Scotland played their best rugby of the championship in defeat in Paris, some praise given they’d already won at Twickenham and hammered Wales in Edinburgh.
He’ll be pleased at how his team regrouped after their early red card in Paris, with Grant Gilchrist dispatched for dangerous play after just seven minutes, and they could have won the tie had they just improved some of their accuracy.
Finn Russell is the standout 10 in the world at the moment (though Sexton will have something to say about that) and they have a settled side with players like centre Huw Jones in their best form. They have Ireland and Italy remaining and given where they are in terms of confidence, will be aiming for two from two.
On the horizon though is uncertainty, with Townsend’s contract up after the World Cup. Given their gradual improvement, surely it’s time to tie him down for another quadrennial cycle.
Is the pressure of a home World Cup getting to France? It looks like it’s starting to chip away at them after their defeat in Ireland and nervy performance against Scotland.
Romain Ntamack is coming under scrutiny after a couple of inconsistent showings at fly-half while they face a tight-head conundrum against England in round 4 with their first and second No. 3s suspended. Townsend said in the build-up to the match in Paris that France have the best depth out of any rugby nation in the world and he’s probably right, but depth means nothing without momentum.
They’re conceding more tries than Shaun Edwards would be comfortable with, while they seem to have erred away from the gameplan which has steered them so well of a contestable and territory-based kicking game, a focus on turnovers and then scoring through their box office players. But given they played 70 minutes with 14 men after Mohamed Haouas’ mindless charge, and managed to secure the bonus point late on through the outstanding Gael Fickou, France are a class outfit.
Two wins from three and the chance to continue that run against France. Steve Borthwick’s England are showing steady improvement under their new boss and their first win against Wales in Cardiff since 2017 is reason to smile for those of red rose persuasion.
Their defence is solidifying under Kevin Sinfield, while their attack is showing glimpses of promise, as seen through the way they carved open Wales’ defence for Anthony Watson’s first-half try. Ollie Lawrence is a welcome addition to the centres while there are other standout performers like their flankers Lewis Ludlam and Jack Willis.
With the outstanding Freddie Steward at fullback, you’re seeing the spine of Borthwick’s team peaking through. But there are still those who argue England are kicking too much and squander overlaps — something Max Malins countered post-match Saturday.
“There’s purpose to our kicking, it’s all in the sense of getting better returns elsewhere,” Malins said.
Owen Farrell’s kicking from the tee was wayward against Wales which is something they’ll need to sort ahead of France, but there is gradual improvement under the new regime with France and Ireland to come.
It’s been a grim championship for Wales. They are 0-3 with defeats against Ireland, Scotland and Wales to their name so far. But the hope is this will be a transformative Six Nations for Warren Gatland’s side.
He has rung the changes from match to match as he gauges his team’s strengths. Both centres Joe Hawkins and Mason Grady who started against England are 20 years old and have huge promise, but the make up of their team against England showed there is a split of generations with the team divided between the experienced heads and the youngsters.
So after a fortnight where Wales came within hours of going on strike, they can take heart from aspects of their performance against England on Saturday but they now desperately need to win in Rome on March 11 as Gatland well knows.
“The last thing you want to do is get the wooden spoon do you?” Gatland said on Saturday. “And that’s got to be or focus from that. A part of this Six Nations is about us thinking about the next six or seven months as well. It’s not the opposition hurting us at the moment, we’re hurting ourselves. We’ve got to keep improving the decision-making under pressure.”
Sinckler’s Cardiff redemption
Kyle Sinckler didn’t sleep much the night before England’s match in Cardiff. His stomach was rumbling, he hadn’t managed much food during the day. As he lay there, open-eyed, he replayed the memories he’d tried to forget from his last outing in front of a packed Principality Stadium. The familiarity of Cardiff was painful.
“I’m not going to lie I had some demons coming back to the Principality,” Sinckler said on Saturday evening.
That match in 2019 was a transformational moment for Sinckler. England were ahead at the break 10-3. It was going to plan. But then in the early stages of the second half Wales pulled the match back thanks to England’s ill-discipline. Sinckler conceded three penalties in 10 minutes, tried to fight Alun Wyn Jones and was substituted. England would go on to lose 21-13. Sinckler blamed himself.
“They won in the end due to my ill-discipline,” he said, looking back on it. It was a harsh assessment; the defeat was far more than Sinckler’s fault, but the scars and memories have run deep.
When he crossed the bridge on Thursday evening from England into Wales, he felt those familiar emotions creep back, a sort of rugby PTSD.
“[It felt like] Literally adrenalin, it’s fight or flight,” Sinckler said. “My stomach’s turning, shortness of breath.”
The Sinckler four years ago would’ve channelled this into fight. But this time, the processes he’d built over the past four years by working on his mental health helped. He spoke to his mentor at Saviour World and said: “Look, all these feelings are, literally as soon as we crossed the Bridge, I was like ‘what is going on? I can feel all these emotions bubbling up inside’. He gave me the awareness that today is a big game, it’s you versus you and you have to beat your old self. I felt like I did that today.”
Sinckler was outstanding against Wales on Saturday. He scored England’s second try and helped them win the physical battle. There were moments where Sinckler could’ve snapped. Back in 2019 he remembers Warren Gatland’s pre-match comments getting to him, with the Wales coach saying Sinckler was a “bit of an emotional time-bomb.” It riled him.
“In 2019 I was a totally different person,” he said. “I had a lot of anger, a lot of resentment, probably towards a lot of people. I remember that was a really big week. Gatland said something that made headlines and that hurt, if I’m being honest.”
On Saturday he instead walked towards the confrontation, rather than looked to punch it. He laughed at the Welsh fans’ hand gestures as the bus pulled into the stadium, rather than get wound up by the fingers and rude hand gestures. He was focused. During the match there was the usual front-row chat, the moments where the game momentarily looked like it’d boil over. But instead of picking confrontation, he went for consolidation. He’d collect himself, and then refocus.
“Today was a very pivotal moment not only in my career but in my life,” Sinckler said. “Looking back on the experience I had in 2019 my career could have gone one of two ways. I remember sitting on those stairs [inside the stadium] in floods of tears, can’t remember who I was on the phone to, probably my mum. I know we were playing Wales today but for me it was a Test match between who I am today versus the person I was in 2019.
Freddie Steward and Hugo Keenan: It’s Steward vs. Keenan in the battle to be the world’s best fullback. Keenan was again sublime against Italy but Steward’s showing against Wales was arguably the performance of the weekend. Aged just 22, how good can Steward become?
“I don’t tend to predict how good they can be, because I don’t like to put ceilings,” Borthwick said post-match in Cardiff. “You have a young man there who is consistently every day trying to get better. You see a mature young man who speaks well, communicates well, thinks about the game, thinks about how he has to be and he’s got huge growth in him.”
Nika Amashukeli: The referee in France-Scotland got his communication spot on for both red cards, and came to the correct decision. For Grant Gilchrist’s illegal hit, he talked it through well with his assistants as the group came to a group decision and the same happened with Haouas. On this occasion Amashukeli was erring towards a yellow, but was rightly talked around by the TMO.
Player power: Wales lost on Saturday, but registered a victory during the week for the country’s players. The match was in danger of never happening until a deal was struck between the players and the powerbrokers, but that they got some of the changes they demanded is a victory, and timely reminder to the suits that it’s the players who hold the power in the sport.
French tight-heads: Three matches, two tight-heads unavailable through indiscipline. First Uini Atonio was cited after the Ireland match and handed a three-week suspension, and now Mohamed Haouas will join him on the sidelines after losing his head against Scotland. Step forward Sipili Falatea.
The Cardiff atmosphere: It was eerily quiet in the Principality Stadium on Saturday. In full voice, it’s the best place to watch rugby in the world without doubt. But the first half was dominated by songs from the England fans with the atmosphere and it was unnerving to hear it so quiet.
What to watch out for in the fourth round:
The weekend starts with the Wooden Spoon-decider between Italy and Wales in Rome before attention shifts to Twickenham for England’s clash against France. On Sunday, Ireland will hope to keep their Grand Slam ambitions alive with a trip to face Scotland in Edinburgh. All three will be full-throttle clashes and not to be missed.