Five talking points from Round Three
A shortened round three of the 2021 Six Nations got underway in Rome with Ireland picking up their first win of the tournament over a struggling Italian side. The only other fixture of the weekend saw Wales fending off England in an entertaining clash that was marred with controversy.
What round three lacked in fixtures it more than made up for in talking points, many of which World Rugby’s officiating team will not enjoy reviewing.
So, let’s get into this week’s five talking points.
Galthie and France in the Hot Seat
Although France didn’t feature in this weekend’s action, the reasons for their absence could be far-reaching.
In what has become a series of finger-pointing, French media outlet rugbyrama.fr have disputed claims from Galthie that he has stuck to the protocols put in place stating: “The numerous testimonies arriving from Marcoussis, however, serve another version.”
With 12 confirmed cases of infection within the squad, Galthie and his squad are now not only in hot water with rugby administrators, but also with the French government.
With French Minister of Sport Roxana Maracineanu particularly incensed leading her to write a letter to the President of the FFR, Bernard Laporte, demanding that an internal investigation be conducted to source how the infection began within the squad and whether there has been a breach of protocol.
The saga is worrying for all involved and could lead to Les Bleus playing no further part in this year’s competition which would have far-reaching ramifications for the legitimacy of the tournament.
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Bad weekend for officials
Whilst the French playing contingent were forced to isolate away from the action, the French officials had what can only be described as a shocking weekend. Starting in Rome with Mathieu Raynal and Romain Poite’s refusal to double-check what was a clear score from Irish second-row Iain Henderson, instead opting to rule it a knock-on.
It was Raynal’s reaction to Sexton’s pleas to check the grounding that could land the referee in further hot water as his dismissive approach was unexpected and disappointing. “You can ask me questions and I will give you the answer. We checked in the background. My TMO has checked and he says he (Henderson) has lost control of the ball. Thank you very much. End of discussion.”
As if Raynal’s contentious afternoon wasn’t going to be enough of a talking point, compatriot Pascal Gauzere’s awarding of Wales’s first try will be discussed for years to come.
In a rather strange turn of events, Gauzere calls England captain Owen Farrell over to discuss his sides discipline in the wake of numerous penalties, the last of which Farrell himself conceded.
With his microphone being picked up by the broadcasters, Gauzere clearly tells Farrell he has time to talk to his team.
What followed was a quick cross-field kick from Welsh fly-half Dan Biggar to winger Josh Adams that caught England napping as the majority of the team were still under the posts with water bottles in hand.
Once again, the referee’s response to a national captain left a lot to be desired as Gauzere dismissed Farrell’s protests in a manner that will likely lead to further irritation when Eddie Jones has his next discussion with the World Rugby officiating bosses.
This was not to be the last in a series of strange calls from Gauzere and his team as Welsh wing Louis Rees-Zammit appeared to clearly knock the ball on in the build-up to Liam Williams try that put Wales into a commanding 17–6 lead.
At half-time, there was a level of stunned silence in the analysis studio with former Welsh captain Sam Warburton saying Farrell and England could feel “hard done by”.
With the first try appearing to be a clear-cut mistake from the officiating team, the second try was more contentious with debate about whether the ball coming forward off Rees-Zammit’s hands onto his body constituted a knock-on.
In this department, there is no better to comment than former International referee Nigel Owens who in an interview with Wales online said “You see situations sometimes where a player loses control of a ball and then kicks it before it hits the ground. Well, that’s still classed as a knock-on.
“What the law says is if a player loses control of the ball forward, he must regain possession of it before it touches the ground or anybody else.
“So, in this case, Rees-Zammit definitely touches the ball and it travels forward on to his calf, then goes backwards and then comes off an England player. So it has travelled forward off his hand first and he fails to regain possession of it, which means it’s a knock on,” Owens concluded.
English discipline unravelling
There are few more polarising characters in the game than Eddie Jones. The Australian is a maverick in his approach to both his interactions with the media and his approach to the game.
After three rounds England finds themselves in the unfamiliar position of having two losses including a historic loss at Twickenham to a rising Scottish team. A key area to their fixtures thus far has been a lack of discipline which was never more apparent than this weekend’s fixture in which the Red Roses conceded fourteen penalties, three of which came when England had clawed their way back into the fixture to even the scores at twenty-four a piece.
What followed was three Callum Sheedy penalties in succession which took Wales more than a converted try clear.
Central to this lack of discipline was second row Maro Itoje, a man many including myself has felt is a genuine prospect to be a future captain. His concession of four penalties in the final twenty-eight-minutes proved to be crucial in allowing Wales some breathing room and forcing England to chase the game.
England’s discipline issues weren’t exclusively down to Itoje, Jones’s side has amassed a whopping forty-one penalties across the first three rounds for an average of 13.6 penalties per match.
For a side as experienced as England, the clear lack of adaptation to the adjustments in the laws is dumfounding. The refereeing of the off-side line has been a real area of focus for the referees thus far as World Rugby continues its drive towards a more free-flowing game. In this area, England and Itoje, in particular, have not adapted.
Ireland gain confidence against weak Azzuri
Ireland coach Andy Farrell will be a much happier man this week as his side easily dismantled an unorganised and passive Italian defence on the way to relatively straightforward 48–10 bonus point victory.
Whilst the result has put Ireland back on track in terms of log points the match itself offered little in the way of analysing where this current Irish team are. Following back-to-back opening round losses, the Irish game plan was a major talking point due to its apparent lack of direction and ability to break the defensive line.
Key to this discussion was Ireland’s offloading game or lack thereof, with a total of six offloads thrown Ireland ranked last in the competition coming into round three. Against a passive Italian defence that missed a total of twenty-six tackles, Ireland still struggled as they completed just four offloads.
Defensively concerns around Ireland’s inability to win dominant tackles was ever present as Farrell’s side counted for just three in this department. More concerning however was the twelve missed tackles which could be costly against higher quality opposition.
On a positive note, for Ireland, they did manage to make eight significant line-breaks but again Italy’s passive approach to this area of the game makes quantifying this statistic a challenge.
Across three fixture Italy has now conceded one-hundred and thirty-nine points for an average of forty-six points per game with nineteen tries conceded.
The gulf in class has made this fixture a tricky one to analyse, Italy are clearly a level below the other teams in the Six Nations. Despite all of their endeavour, there is a long way to go for Franco Smith’s side in nearly every facet of the game.
The Azzuri conceded a significant eighteen penalties in the fixture and missed twenty-six tackles which ensured they remained on the back-foot at most periods of play.
At scrum time, a traditional strength of Italian Rugby saw just a 66%-win rate on their own feed further starving themselves of front foot possession.
Italy’s role in the Six Nations
The Azzuri’s annual struggles against Europe’s other tier-one nations is becoming a real area of concern for the legitimacy of the tournament.
Frequently on the receiving end of significant losses and with a clear regression in their ability to be even remotely competitive Italy’s position as one of Europe’s elite will continue to be called into question.
Franco Smith’s team are on a thirty-game losing streak in the Six Nations with their last victory coming against Scotland at Murrayfield in 2015. In the intervening years, the gap between Italy and the other Six Nations sides has continued to grow at an alarming rate.
With just two truly professional sides competing in the Pro14 the cards are stacked against a country where football is king. Both Benetton and Zebre have made no real impact on the competition and have been on the receiving end of some big scores over the years.
A solution for this issue is tough to come by, but to start with the club structure needs to be looked at in great detail. A suggestion that has been thrown out has been that instead of competing in the Pro14 where they have no real rivalries, the Italian clubs should look into the feasibility of joining the French league ProD2.
Starting in the ProD2 and competing against competition that is of a similar standard will allow them to develop and work their way towards the French Top 14 which would signal a level of competitiveness that warrants opportunities at Champions Cup and Challenge Cup level.
At international level the prospect of a promotion and relegation with the Six Nations and The Rugby Europe Championship is exciting but essentially a non-starter. This situation would present far too great of a risk for the home nations and France if they were to slip up against the Azzuri.
Thus, presenting a difficult situation with few satisfactory outcomes for all involved. Having Italy in the competition in their current form devalues the competition as sides know they can run up the score whilst trialling second string players, all the while distorting the log points difference.
Whilst Italy remains a stronger side than Europe’s next best side Georgia, the margin could well be closing based on Georgia’s performances in the Autumn Nations Cup against both Wales and Ireland. The calls for Georgia’s inclusion will continue to grow and may well lead to seven nations tournament in the not-so-distant future.
Combining Georgia’s call for inclusion into the competition with South Africa’s apparent intentions to break away from the other Southern Hemisphere nations at the conclusion of their current agreement. Could the possibility of an Eight-Nations Championship be a possibility in the future?
From a logistically stand-point it makes sense on a number of fronts, financially both South Africa and the Six Nations would benefit. Georgia would be included, and Italy would be able to face at least one side they are competitive with.
There wouldn’t even need to be any added games as the tournament could run in two groups of four style with each team playing the others in their group once before a final’s series where each team plays the team who finished in the same position as them in the other group.
How the groups are decided could be done in a number of ways, either by world rankings, random draws, home-nations and mainland Europe/Africa? All possibilities and perhaps a way to shake up the calendar.
By Philip Bendon