The Six Nations can feel very different on home soil, particularly with crowds back. Which is why France should not start celebrating any title wins yet, with trips to Murrayfield and Cardiff set to test whether they are indeed the real deal. Let’s just say, though, that the signs are ominous for their remaining opponents. Unlike some past France sides, the current group do not fade in the closing stages and are way more organised defensively. Their first try against Ireland, scored by Antoine Dupont and beautifully created by Romain Ntamack’s offload, was a classic example of the presence of mind and smart support the half-backs offer each other. Gabin Villière on the wing has been outstanding, Damian Penaud has not been far behind and Melvyn Jaminet looks unlikely to miss too many goal-kicks over the next month. And we haven’t even mentioned the inexhaustible Gregory Alldritt and the dynamism of the front five in front of him. A lesser side than Ireland would probably have folded completely.
The flickers of attacking sharpness shown in Rome offered some succour to England’s supporters after their Murrayfield disappointment. Marcus Smith again seized the chance to impress and there is obvious potential in the 10-9-8 axis of him, Harry Randall and Alex Dombrandt. But to watch England score seven points in the final 35 minutes against inferior opposition was to be reminded how far they still have to go to become a consistently tip-top side. In perfect conditions New Zealand would have scored 60 plus points: so much for the ruthless “finishers” adding second-half oomph. On the other hand England’s next two games are at Twickenham where they take a bit of beating and with Manu Tuilagi and Courtney Lawes due back they will also have some added crunch available. The big decision is what to do at scrum-half against Wales on Saturday week: does Eddie Jones start Ben Youngs for his record-breaking 115th England Test appearance or stick with Randall, a former Wales age-group international? A delicate call but, in all respects, now is the time for England to look forwards.
There is no shame, clearly, in losing narrowly to a very good side in Paris. In many ways their gallant fightback also underlined how tough they remain to put away. But there is a broader question: how are they going to beat France at next year’s World Cup if they are falling just short now? With or without Johnny Sexton on the pitch, it never really felt as though France were likely to lose and Mack Hansen’s brilliantly taken try will not be allowed to happen every week. With Italy next up at home, it surely makes sense to give James Hume and Robert Baloucoune a run and do whatever is necessary to ensure that Sexton, Tadhg Furlong, Tadhg Beirne and Josh van der Flier are in the best possible nick for the visit to England next month. Win that and a final weekend title surge will be perfectly possible.
Scotland’s season goes to show how tight the Six Nations has become. Just as a couple of well-executed pieces of skill can turn a game, as England found to their cost at Murrayfield, a lacklustre 20 minutes can also lose one. Everything was set up for Scotland to put Wales away in Cardiff but, for whatever reason, nothing happened when they put their foot to the floor. More dynamism is required up front before they can think about blowing France away at Murrayfield and Cameron Redpath could give their midfield an extra dimension. On the plus side, Darcy Graham’s footwork has been one of the joys of ttournament and Finn Russell rarely has two quiet games in a row. As an aside, is there a way to enhance the deliberate knock-on law? We have all seen enough of Russell – remember the 38-38 draw in Twickenham? – to know he was going for an interception in Cardiff in the incident that earned him a yellow card. The cynical, deliberate slapdown is a totally different beast but, either way, Wales fully deserved their win.
Gloom one day, elation the next. Just another normal campaign for Wayne Pivac’s side who were clearly motivated to show there is more to them than their opening game flop in Dublin suggested. The question is whether they can bottle the same spirit and transport it along the M4 for the game against England. They have enjoyed one or two great days at Twickenham but have not won there in the Six Nations since 2012. Much will depend on the impact their back-row make with and without the ball, the ability of Tomas Francis and friends to hold fast in the scrums and Dan Biggar’s tactical nous. Louis Rees-Zammit has had a quiet tournament and is due a fizzing contribution at some stage; less flashy but increasingly valuable has been the hard-working Nick Tompkins in midfield. England are unlikely to have victory served up on a platter.
The good news is that England scored their fewest number of points against the Azzurri since 2013. And Italy’s under-20s beat England, a result that will help to restore some much-needed faith. The bad is that the scoreboard does not lie. Italy have never previously been rendered scoreless in this fixture and must now go to the Aviva Stadium, one of their least happy hunting grounds. Their young side are developing but this looks to be another punishing tournament. World Rugby officials are trying to set up November fixtures that will give Italy the chance of winning a game or two but the Six Nations remains an unforgiving playground.