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THE BREAKDOWN, STEVE SCOTT: A French Grand Slam, Eddie’s shoogly peg, card blizzard solved? The 2022 Six Nations so far

The Auld Alliance Trophy was not the only silverware lifted by Antoine Dupont and his French Grand Slam-winners.
The Auld Alliance Trophy was not the only silverware lifted by Antoine Dupont and his French Grand Slam-winners.

In this year’s Six Nations more than most years, the old adage of NFL legend coach Bill Parcells comes to mind. No matter how good you think you are, you are what your record is.

This especially applies to Scotland, of course. We are regularly told from within the squad that the “best version of ourselves” will make the Scot contenders for the championship.

But over the balance of the 240 minutes played so far, you have to believe Scotland are actually a little fortunate, if anything, to sit in fourth place.

A grand slam in plain sight

France, at 3-0, have been all that was advertised. Possibly more, because only occasionally in their win over Ireland and Saturday’s dominant performance at Murrayfield did they look to go through the gears.

Nevertheless, a Grand Slam is in plain sight.

Ireland, at 2-1, were unable to bend France to their will the way they did Wales and Italy. But you imagine they’re set up for any unlikely French slip.

England at Twickenham will be a task for them, but you’ve seen nothing in England so far to think that the Irish can be denied there.

There’s certainly no indication whatsoever that recent Irish dominance over Scotland is going to end.

Wales’ best performance so far was the second half at Twickenham, when they had to have a lash and did. You’d expect France to win in Cardiff. That will leave Wales’ home game against Italy the likely difference between finishing fourth or fifth.

The Italians…well it hasn’t been the compelling case against those who wish to see them dumped for South Africa, at least so far. Keiran Crowley has the self-same problems Franco Smith did.

It’s a young team with some promise, but who play with their hearts in their boots once they’re invariably two or three scores down at half-time.

Here’s the main trends and pointers from the championship so far…

France have proper strength in depth

Strength in depth, Scotland? You feel that, Antoine Dupont apart, France could stick out a 2nd XV and win most of these games.

The bench is as formidable as the starting team, and the injured list is especially sobering – they’ve been without Charles Ollivon, Mathieu Jalibert, Teddy Thomas among others and there’s no place for a fit-again Virimi Vakatawa.

If I was French I’d be a little concerned that the team is peaking now rather than the World Cup they’re hosting in 18 months. But they keep turning up exceptional young players like Cameron Woki or Peato Mauvaka or Yoram Moefana.

Seriously, shouldn’t New Caledonia actually be Scottish?

Ireland finally ready for life without Johnny?

The Sexton sweep – guessing how long Ireland’s veteran stand-off and captain would go in the championship before something went twang – was won at just one game. The skipper has played only 250 minutes for Leinster this season and 216 for Ireland.

The 35-year-old is already “rested” so often these days that he barely qualifies as an actual pro rugby player.

After 2021’s unhappy championship with Billy Burns covering, Ireland have welcomed back Joey Carberry and they also have Connacht’s Jack Carty and Munster’s Ben Healy (who was cheekily courted and rebuffed by Scotland).

A long-term injury to Carberry probably postponed the succession plan but he’s been solid in this championship and before. Ireland have everything else in place. A new stand-off, which they will definitely need for the World Cup, is the only thing that’s missing.

The next two games are crucial for Eddie

Could England really fire Eddie Jones just 18 months out from a World Cup? There will definitely be calls for it if they lose their last two games to Ireland and France, the two best teams in the championship so far.

Mind you, there’s always a groundswell from some people to fire the England coach for either being too conservative or not conservative enough.

But it’s indicative of the desperation in the English camp that the oft-injured 30-year-old Manu Tuilagi is regarded as the cure for all ills.

Interestingly, this year the team has continued their habit under Jones of being oddly fragile late in games. It cost them against Scotland and nearly against Wales.

Eddie has continually made a big noise about shoring up the mental side of England’s game – remember after the Calcutta Cup game of 2019 – but it still keeps happening.

Fewer cards, even if one got all the headlines

After last year’s record blizzard of red and yellows, we’re mercifully back to normal. There have been five yellows and just the one red, to Italy’s Hame Faiva against Ireland.

That opened a huge can of worms with Italy forced to go two men down. But despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth that resulted, I’m fairly relaxed about it.

That rule’s been in the books since 2019 and it’s the first time this has happened. Tough on the Italians – and lord knows they have it tough enough – but let’s not overreact.

The reasons for sanity largely prevailing? Good coaching, players being more aware of dangerous contact, sympathetic referees.

We’ve had a couple of nit-pick cases where TV footage suggested a card might have been shown, but nothing egregious.

Some still believe that TMO intervention should only be used on scoring situations. But I don’t see how you can not stop the game to look at foul or dangerous play.

It’s a charter for cheap shots if it’s only dealt with by post-match citations.

But…too much faffing around

Brian Moore, newly released from duties in the BBC commentary box, sat in the crowd for England-Wales. From this different perspective he realised just how much time was wasted on getting the game basically organised.

Scrums re-set multiple times. Pre-lineout huddles for no good reason. Seemingly water on for everyone, all the time.

One of World Rugby’s task forces of the great and good is required to get a proper handle on this, and quickly.