What have we learned from the 2016 Six Nations so far?
Jamie Clark, Sports Editor | February 16, 2016
Two matches into the 2016 Six Nations and the start of a new Rugby World Cup cycle, and already so much has changed in the Northern Hemisphere elite competition.
New coaches, retired legends, so nearly stories, rare results and more help to make international rugby union in Europe all the more compelling.
What have we gleamed, then, from this Six Nations Championship so far? Coral’s rugby writers ponder that very question…
Have Red Rose bloomed under Jones?
Always pegged as tournament favourites, despite their pool stage exit from the Rugby World Cup last autumn and even before Eddie Jones was confirmed as taking over from Stuart Lancaster, it is England who top the Six Nations table.
Things got off to a frankly underwhelming start under their first foreign manager, with the Red Rose keeping up their recent dominance in Calcutta Cup clashes, courtesy of a 15-9 win north of the border at Murrayfield against the Auld Enemy.
Controversially chosen captain Dylan Hartley has been keeping his nose, and notably his shirt against Scotland, clean with a couple of disciplined displays that somewhat belie the bad boy reputation that had so many concerned about the hooker.
Jones – “the Tasmanian Devil” as some tabloids refer to the ex-Australia and Japan boss – backed up that far from convincing debut by masterminding a second-half surge that annihilated Italy.
Joseph back on song
When in Rome, England centre Jonathan Joseph, voted best player of the 2015 Six Nations, made a stunning return to form with a hat-trick in a 40-9 demolition of the spirited Azzurri.
Now installed as the 7/4 favourite to be tournament top tryscorer, Joseph took just 18 second-half minutes to thrice profit from and punish Italian errors as the hosts tired.
It is all the more remarkable, given Joseph’s lukewarm performances at the Rugby World Cup when so many with the Red Rose on their shirt had the extra weight of expectation, but this competition seems to suit him.
You can’t read too much into Red Rose rout
Centre partner Owen Farrell, also adept at fly half, has been far from peerless with his kicking, missing three conversions and a penalty across the two outings, yet he is the joint-top points scorer on 22 thanks to his late converted try.
Are wins over the traditionally weaker Six Nations opposition of Scotland and the Azzurri enough to justify England’s status as odds-on at 4/5 to win the tournament for the first time since 2011, though?
The jury is out, but the bookmakers are taking no chances with Jones’ team. If the Red Rose are worth backing to be Six Nations champions, then why not take a Triple Crown triumph at 11/10 or even the Grand Slam with an tempting 2/1 price?
Irish injuries taking their toll
Dual defending Six Nations champions Ireland are winless in the post-Paul O’Connell era. Their legendary lock and former skipper was on hand as a television pundit to witness Joe Schmidt’s side lose by a single point in the Stade de France.
O’Connell, whose own career came to a close by being carried off at the Rugby World Cup, saw recently returned flanker Sean O’Brien, plus winger Dave Kearney, forced to follow suit with a recurring injury midway through the first-half of that 10-9 defeat by Les Bleus.
Schmidt isn’t seeing much luck for the Irish this term, with a number of other experienced internationals already on the treatment table, and their walking wounded once again increases thanks to a physical French outfit.
Stats tell story of struggles
Thanks to some pretty dirty tactics from their hosts, ill-discipline slipped into Ireland’s play. Schmidt saw his side conceded 13 penalties to eight from Les Bleus, while France forced them to make almost 100 more tackles than their hosts, missing more than three times as many.
Given these stats, defeat in Paris was perhaps not all that surprising but, coupled with a first draw in 40 years against Wales, it has left the Irish campaign in tatters. Their bid to land a Six Nations hat-trick once stood as short as 12/5, but is now a substantial outside shout at 40/1.
Ireland must now rely on results elsewhere going their way, with only England still to come from those above them in the table. Defeat at Twickenham next time out will end their slim hopes, and that may just simply open things up for Les Bleus to triumph.
New boy Noves has French winning ugly
A hallmark of title-winning sides is the ability to grind out results, and that is precisely what much-changed Les Bleus have done under new head coach Guy Noves.
France’s points difference is just +3, so they have won their first couple of Six Nations matches by the narrowest margins possible. Results would’ve looked more comfortable had Noves trusted Jules Plisson with kicking duties from the start, instead of former Toulouse charge Sebastien Brezy.
Handing out seven senior international debuts during the tournament to date, including scrum half Brezy and rugby sevens tryscoring ace Virimi Vakatawa, Noves’ nouveau Les Bleus lineup looks a tempting price at 9/2 in the outright betting.
How will the Tricolours travel?
Yet the French’s mettle is yet to be tested away from home. Wales welcome them to Cardiff next in a game that looks certain shape the destiny of this year’s Six Nations.
Les Bleus have one competitive win in the Welsh capital since 2006, so that explains why they are 9/1 chances to go on and complete a competition Grand Slam.
Entering the Dragons’ den, France are not the only ones yet to put in a convincing performance…
Wales well-placed despite draw
Warren Gatland’s charges are yet to show their teeth, but came through a topsy-turvy Test against Celtic cousins Scotland 27-23 to remain unbeaten after drawing with Ireland in Dublin.
First-choice kicker Dan Biggar’s recovery in time to keep his starting XV spot for the visit of the Tartan Army was nothing short of remarkable. As predicted before the tournament started, the Dragons’ half back duo have once again demonstrated deadly credentials.
Davies and North both deliver
Gareth Davies has six tries in his last seven caps, making him the most in-form scrum half in international rugby. Crossing five times in as many Rugby World Cup outings in the autumn, he has stretched that purple patch from autumn to spring.
For punters looking for a dark horse in the top tryscorer market, look no further than 14/1 shot Davies, whose impressive burst of pace to land the Scotland opener shouldn’t be downplayed despite a hint of offside.
George North’s try drought came to an end last time out too, and that stands him in good stead for the winger has multiple tries against upcoming opponents France on his CV. Gatland will want to use home advantage to throw Les Bleus off their physical approach and take the game to them.
As 2/1 tournament second-favourites, Wales look well-placed to regain the Six Nations with their injury crisis of 2015 seemingly behind them.
Hard luck story continues for Scotland
Remember the date, February 22nd 2014? That was the last time Scotland won a Six Nations game. They will pass the two-year mark before getting their next chance to address this with the Tartan Army travelling to Rome.
Head coach Vern Cotter and replacement full back Ruaridh Jackson have both issued rallying cries, following a four-point loss to fellow countryman Gatland’s Dragons that made it nine successive defeats for the Scots in the competition.
Tartan Army deserve better than another sixth place slump
Italy is indeed must-win, but Cotter’s crew could be missing both Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour for their Eternal City encounter, so there is a real danger of another wooden spoon, which the Tartan team are 4/1 to receive again.
Scottish potential remains huge, so them coming good cannot be ruled out, especially as there has been real heart shown in agonising defeats to Rugby World Cup runners-up Australia and Wales.
The Tartan Army need to witness a result, and their team start as odds-on 1/2 favourites to get a favourable one away to the Azzurri.
Could Canna be Brunel’s Italian legacy?
Who receives that unwanted wooden spoon usually hinges on the outcome of matches between Scotland and Italy, but outgoing boss of the latter, Jacques Brunel, has been bold enough to blood a new fly half.
Carlo Canna sits alongside Farrell at the top of the Six Nations points scoring charts on 22, having crossed against the French and six successful penalty kicks, conversions and even a drop goal in total.
In fact, Canna scored in every way possibly against France as the Azzurri came up just two points short. Based on that evidence in Paris, Italy may not be worthy of being overwhelming odds-on 1/6 favourites to finish last, but their subsequent second-half collapse against England was a more familiar tale.
At 13/8 to beat the Scots, who just can’t buy a win for love nor money, Brunel’s boys could give him a relatively successful send-off with another fifth-placed finish.