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The Marcus Smith Show, French add a new edge and Scotland fail again: 6N Talking Points

After a weekend off, the 2022 Six Nations continued with round three and some thrilling performances that delighted stadia full of crowds for the fist time in two years.

With only two matches left in the competition a number of outcomes are still on the cards for who will win and will stumble, but while France are definitely favourites, wins for England and Ireland mean that Les Bleus still have plenty of work to do. There’s plenty to talk about from the weekend’s clashes so let’s get stuck in.

Boy do England miss Manu Tuilagi

Once England announced that Manu Tuilagi was going to start for England against Wales, there were many, many excited fans who thought they were going to get to see Marcus Smith get the partner at inside centre that he really needs and the punch that England’s attack has been missing. 

The excitement and confidence levels shot through the roof and almost reached worrying levels – surely it’s not healthy for England to be this reliant on one player? But worries be damned – he was back and Wales were in trouble!

When the impressive centre then pulled up injured just a couple of days before this weekend’s Test, hearts and hopes were broken. England managed to scrape the win without Tuilagi but it is scary how much they miss this one player.

Eddie Jones admitted after the game that England are struggling when going forward.

“Our attack is still a work in progress,” said Jones after the match and even with a Man of the Match performance from Smith at fly half, England could only score one try at home and two clean breaks all game. This lack of penetration isn’t a one off – they only managed three clean breaks against Scotland despite having 54% of the possession and 62% of the territory. 

Tuilagi is not just a key part of England’s attack because of his power and punch, but also because he brings confidence to the whole team and has that position in the set up where just his presence makes his teammates feel better. Marcus Smith is playing well for England (more on that later) but he needs that centre partner if England want to become a side that can tear opponents to pieces.

Winning is one thing – and let’s not forget that England did win against Wales – but as former England scrum half Matt Dawson said, England must be delivering so much more with ball in hand.

“England have to start gelling and creating some momentum where they are ruining sides. England are just not quite there,” said Dawson on the BBC Rugby Union Daily podcast. With England 17-0 up just after half time, it felt like Wales were going to be ruined. But a final score of 23-19 shows that England have a long way to go.

Do England really want Owen Farrell back?

As we discussed just above, Marcus Smith is playing well for England right now. He’s picked up three Man of the Match awards in eight games and is handling the pressure moments as well as Jonny Wilkinson. 

The compliments about his performances and his potential are coming from England coaches past and present with Clive Woodward commenting in the Daily Mail that “He’s a world-class, nerveless, high-percentage kicker and every side looking to win Six Nations tournaments and World Cups need such a player,” and Eddie Jones saying earlier this week that “There’s no ceiling to how good he can be.”

When it was announced that Owen Farrell was going to miss the whole Six Nations through injury and recovery, there were many who were excited about the prospect of Smith getting all five games to lead the side his way – and it seems to be working pretty well so far. But he needs the right people around him to allow him to live up to his potential and Owen Farrell doesn’t fit into that picture. 

Smith has shown that he can direct England, can handle pressure moments and is able to lead the backline. What he needs is three things – the right scrum half, the right number eight and the right number inside centre. Farrell is none of these.

Tuilagi has already been identified as the right centre partner and even in his absence, Farrell is not the next best option. Unfortunately neither are the other options that Jones has been trying out but going back to Farrell would be a backwards step.

It’s France’s Grand Slam to lose

France made Scotland look like a very ordinary side this weekend and now have just Italy and England standing in between them and the Grand Slam. A Grand Slam they richly deserve as they seem to improve with every game they play.

Scotland did test them at moments but as Yoram Moefana crossed for France’s second try in the 13th minute at Murrayfield, it was clear that the home side were not going to offer any serious resistance. 

It wasn’t just that the French scored six tries in the match, or the fact that those tries included some contenders for score of the tournament, but also the fact that they did all this with just 42% of the possession and only conceded nine penalties away from home. It was a complete performance that showed a maturity and ruthless nature that few teams can cope with right now and that still has the potential to be improved upon. 

France have always scored delicious tries but they’ve added control and the type of measly defence that opposition coaches fear and envy in equal measure.

They hadn’t given away a penalty at the ruck in this year’s tournament until this game and you can see the comfort and trust that flows within Les Bleus when their opposition have the ball. 

Two years ago, the French lost to Scotland when it seemed that a first Grand Slam since 2010 was on the cards. The 2022 vintage has many of the same players, but is playing with such confidence, maturity and ruthlessness that there is nothing that can stop them this time. 

With this group still so young as well, they look to be on the perfect track for a home World Cup in 2023.

Are Scotland and Finn Russell the biggest disappointments of the tournament?

It might seem harsh to ask this question after pointing out that they were beaten by a very good French side, but the quality of the opponent this weekend shouldn’t hide the reality that the Scots are having more trouble delivering than a DHL driver without GPS.

After an emotional victory against England in round one, Scotland have lost two in a row and have frustrated fans and coaches alike in the way that they have failed to execute when the opportunities present themselves. 

Against the French, the Scots had plenty of ball – over 58% of it in fact. They made 135 runs amassing almost 600 metres but with all that possession, they managed just three clean breaks. Three!

When they did create a chance, they struggled to convert it. Just before halftime Chris Harris had the ball after a great break by Duane Van der Merwe but then threw a big speculative miss pass that went to ground instead of staying calm, taking the easier option and allowing his teammates to finish the move off with what looked like an almost certain try.

If they had scored that the score at half time would have been 17-12 to Scotland. Instead it ended up being 10-19 to France who took full advantage of the messed up attack by the Scots and scored themselves. That was a huge moment in the game and, just like big moments in the game against the Welsh a couple of weeks ago, the Scots failed.

When they had to do some defending, they struggled again, missing over 22% of their tackles, giving away 12 penalties and turning the ball over 16 times. 

It’s not all Finn Russell’s fault but for someone who has evolved so much at club level and started to live up to his potential, he has been very average in this year’s Six Nations. 

Scotland coach Gregor Townsend brought the fly half off after 61 minutes against France as it became clear that Russell was not going to be able to cope with the French game plan. An example of Russell’s poor play was his kick down the middle of the field in the 8th minute. It was a nothing kick that not only didn’t create pressure on France but gave Antone DuPont time and space to counter. 90 seconds later the French had scored their opening try and Scotland were in trouble.

There are plenty of cliches in sport and the phrase “doing a Scotland” has now become a common part of the rugby fans’ repertoire. With games against Italy and Ireland still to come – both of them away from home – the Scots will at best end up with two wins this year and will know that more than ever, they have failed to live up to expectations. That win against England feels a long way off now.

Ben Youngs proves he stills has plenty to offer England

Against Wales, Ben Youngs became the most capped man to have ever played for England as he played in his 115th Test. In recent times there has been plenty of debate about how much longer he could or should keep playing for his country but in round three he showed that he could be a very useful part of the Eddie Jones plan for 2023.

While Marcus Smith scored most of the points, in the 20 minutes that he was on the field, Youngs was crucial in helping England get the win. As Wales were mounting their comeback, Youngs was able to bring some calmness to his team mates and not only helped England regain some control but he also earned his side two invaluable penalties that helped keep England out of reach.

With Harry Randall playing a pretty good but not great game, the experience of Youngs was just what Jones needed at a time when England just couldn’t stop the Welsh dragon from chasing them down.

As England look towards 2023 the Randall – Youngs pairing at scrum half could become quite compelling. Randall has the ability to bring some exciting pace to the English attack and is a busy man who will keep defences guessing. He needs to work on some of his game management and his box kicking but that will come with more game time and practice. Youngs can then add experience and control when needed. One issue that England might find if Youngs is coming off the bench is can he help England chase down a game when they are losing with 20 minutes to go?

Ireland vs Italy farce keeps pressure on France

Ireland beating Italy 57-6 isn’t a ridiculous scoreline but the fact that the game was over from the 19th minute spoiled what could have been a much more interesting contest.

Ireland were always the firm favourites but when Italian replacement hooker Hame Faiva was sent off before a quarter of the match had been played and Italy had to play with 13 men for an hour and scrums were uncontested, the match became pretty much pointless.

Ireland ran in nine tries and Italy tried their best but coaches, fans and pundits alike learned very little about either side in such circumstances.

The one positive from the match – besides some nice stories about debutant Michael Lowry picking up two tries – is that France still have plenty of pressure on them as England and Ireland will keep trying to hunt them down over the next two weeks.

From an Irish point of view they will be happy enough at the scoreline and also at the fact that the uncontested scrums will have reduced some of the wear and tear from their pack and none of their side had a really brutal day out. They now have two tough games ahead of them where they will have to take on England and then Scotland. They need a slip up from France as well but with a decent bonus point win against Italy they are just three points behind France.

But the game was a frustrating one for both sides and Ireland captain Peter O’Mahony was disappointed that his side’s lack of killer instinct. “We want to be ruthless but we weren’t,” said O’Mahony in a post match interview.

There are now just two rounds left and the competition has another week off this coming weekend. France are in control for sure, but they will know that they can’t afford a mistake. A trip to Cardiff to face Wales in round four should be straightforward enough but if Wales find a way to get over their current slow start issues, then it could be a difficult outing for the champions elect. Round four will also see England welcome Ireland to Twickenham – the winner will be able to keep up the chase on France while the loser will know that their 2022 Six Nations is over. Exciting times ahead!



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