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Ireland’s Slam success – Six Nations 2018 Review

The Guinness flowed in London on St Patrick’s Day as Ireland defeated England at Twickenham to win the Six Nations and complete a Grand Slam, only the third in their history.

Italy, meanwhile, pushed Scotland all the way in Rome, but a late Greig Laidlaw penalty edged a 29-27 victory for Gregor Townsend’s side.

And in Cardiff, Wales defied expectation to finish second in the Championship courtesy of a 14-13 victory over France.

Before the tournament there were plenty of questions yet to be answered ahead of next year’s World Cup in Japan and many were addressed during this year’s tournament.

6th: Italy

Another Wooden Spoon for the Italians, but this was to be expected. The Azzurri gave Scotland quite a fright on the final day but otherwise provided little threat throughout the tournament.

Head coach Conor O’Shea and his staff could not spring any more surprises like they did against England in 2017, but one particularly positive note was the breakthrough of Matteo Minozzi.

The full-back only made his first start for Italy against England – having made his debut last November – but was a constant nuisance to opposition defences with his pace and handling proving difficult to stop.

Following the tournament opener against England, the 21-year-old scored tries in four consecutive matches – the first Italian to do so – and was deservedly nominated for the player of the tournament.

While Italy may have progressed as a team, so has everyone else. And with Scotland’s strong performances this year the Italians have been left behind as the only ‘easy’ game in the fixture list.

Next year will be their 20th appearance in the Six Nations, so they must disrupt those at the top of the table if they are to quash the on-going calls for promotion and relegation.

5th: England

On paper, it appears that England are in a crisis.

This was their lowest finish for 35 years in a tournament that included a first loss to Scotland in 10 years and a first Six Nations defeat at Twickenham since 2012.

Head coach Eddie Jones had only lost once with England before the tournament and confidence was high with a young, talented squad capable of beating anyone.

So what went wrong?

Damage was done in the first game against Italy. Ben Youngs limped off and the scrum-half was ruled out for the rest of the Championship with damaged knee ligaments.

His replacement, Danny Care, is a firecracker of a player but most effective when brought on for the final 20 minutes. When playing from the start the 31-year-old tends to fizzle out, such are the demands of international rugby.

England no longer had their metronomic No.9 to keep the forwards and backs ticking to the same rhythm but the problems go deeper.

Injuries did play a part. The absence of No.8 Billy Vunipola was noted, and while Exeter Chiefs pair Sam Simmonds and Dom Armand, along with Sam Underhill, performed admirably they did not have the same devastating effect as the Saracen with ball in hand.

Jones said following the Ireland defeat “some players may struggle to participate in future”. After a succession of losses, perhaps change is necessary, but worryingly there are few players demanding to be brought into the squad.

Back row James Haskell and Richard Wigglesworth seem to be nearing the end of their international journey, but they are not integral players.

This could well be another lesson in man-management from Jones, that no player, no matter how experienced, is assured of caps.

The captaincy debate will linger and this needs to be sorted quickly. Jamie George continues to pressure current skipper Dylan Hartley for the No.2 shirt, but whether Jones will pull the trigger and ask the Northampton man to step down, relinquishing both the captaincy and starting hooker position, is a question only the Australian can answer.

Owen Farrell seems a likely replacement for the captaincy, so a contingency plan is in place. Now it is up to Jones to make a decision. Soon.

4th: France

One positive that France can take away from this year’s Six Nations is that in the opening match they took eventual Grand Slam champions Ireland all the way.

Celebrations in Dublin would have been very different had Johnny Sexton failed in his last-play drop goal attempt.

A win in Le Crunch against England will always satisfy the demanding French supporters, but there were undertones of discontent.

Fans fondly remember the days of Didier Camberabero and Phillipe Saint-Andre, whose individual sparks would combine and explode into attacking moves that few teams could defend.

Even Freddie Michalak could get the Stade de France on its feet with his extraordinary vision and passing play.

But the Les Bleus seemed to neglect these qualities for which they were so revered. They seem unwilling to be daring or as brave as French teams have been in the past. The victory against Italy in Marseille highlighted this. Two opportunities to kick deep into the opposition 22 were overlooked with the three points being seen as the better option.

France won the game but could not muster a fourth try that would have given them an extra bonus point.

Head coach Jacques Brunel inherited a team lacking confidence and an identity of how they wanted to play. The use of electric runners such as Teddy Thomas clashed with midfield brutes like Mathieu Bastareaud, but the 64-year-old has at least found a way to win big games.

This ability to beat top teams will be very useful in 18 months time.

3rd: Scotland

Gregor Townsend’s side were seen as the wildcard going into the tournament.

Stunning victories, both home and away, came against Australia in 2017, and Murrayfield nearly collapsed last autumn when Stuart Hogg’s dash to the line in the last play against the All Blacks was cut short to deny them an astonishing win over the world champions.

But Scottish optimism was severely tested during their opening match against Wales. 14-0 after 13 minutes in Cardiff, and the away supporters forgot previous successes. The match ended 34-7 in the hosts’ favour, a flattering scoreline when you consider Scotland scored their try and conversion in the 79th minute.

However, as the tournament progressed, Scotland’s central players took responsibility. Captain John Barclay was magnificent as his side beat England to win the Calcutta Cup for the first time in 10 years.

His work at the breakdown was similar to that of Richie McCaw or Michael Hooper as England simply could not force penalties or achieve the quick ball needed to unleash the backs.

When 10-6 to Scotland, England were launching an attack into the opposition 22 but Barclay dug, forcing the turnover which ultimately lead to Huw Jones breaking the line once again and floating a pass out wide for Sean Maitland to score.

Jones was another who made a difference and is becoming the prolific try scorer his country has lacked. 10 touchdowns in 15 international appearances does not flatter him.

And when tries were not available Greig Laidlaw kicked perfectly whenever called upon. Against France his kicking was flawless, notching eight from eight including six penalties. The 32-26 scoreline in favour of Scotland was almost entirely thanks to their scrum-half.

The Scots certainly made their presence known having been slightly anonymous in previous years. If they continue to take down tournament front runners, soon enough they will become one themselves.

2nd: Wales

2018 was always going to be a year of experimentation for Warren Gatland’s side.

No longer could their previous style of narrow, forwards-based rugby be used as effectively as in the past. Change was necessary.

And this change required reinforcement. Hadleigh Parkes provided the oomph in midfield that has been missing since Jamie Roberts’ departure from the international scene.

Meanwhile Steff Evans gave a good account of himself as he continues to find his feat in Test rugby. Five tries in nine appearances so far – including a stunning one-handed finish against Scotland in the first round – put him on scoring parity with the great Shane Williams. Still a long way to go however…

The winger, and those inside him, were put to good use as Wales’ more expansive play got results, but fortune was integral to their success.

Wales were gifted all of their points in the 14-13 victory over France, and Francois Trinh-Duc’s missed penalty handed the Welsh a fortunate win in Cardiff.

However, no conversation regarding Welsh rugby can omit the forwards. Captain Alun Wyn Jones inspired his team once again, commanding the line-out with few problems, while back row Aaron Shingler caught the eye, combining ease with ball in hand whilst also doing the dirty work at the breakdown.

Gatland will be satisfied with his team’s work this year but the New Zealander will demand much more before he leaves his role after the World Cup.

Champions: Ireland

Under Joe Schmidt, Ireland are the real deal.

The Kiwi’s side have overtaken England and are now second in the world rankings, and can now expect to be present during the latter stages of next year’s World Cup.

They entered the tournament with a settled squad – only one uncapped player was included – but it was the relatively new Jacob Stockdale who lit up Championship.

The winger scored seven tries – a tournament record – in his first Six Nations campaign, and now has as many tries as he has caps 10 matches into his international career.

But the entire team welded together, all doing exactly what was required to win. While Stockdale was crossing the whitewash, Keith Earls provided invaluable experience on the other wing, and his try-saving tackle on Elliot Daly – tapping his heels – denied England a near-certain try.

Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton showed their usual class.

This was expected but they still had a job to do. Murray marshalled the Irish forwards for over 40 phases before Sexton lashed over a drop-goal from 40m in the final play to defeat France in the first round. Very few half back combinations in the world could replicate that.

And up front, Tadgh Furlong held the Irish scrum firm, allowing CJ Stander to carry from No.8. His 96 carries throughout the Championship was the second most in tournament history, only behind the 104 the Munsterman himself made last year.

Both led the pack along with captain and hooker Rory Best to make Ireland one of the most complete teams in the world right now.

Japan 2019 can’t come soon enough.

Ireland rugby image courtesy of Liam Moloney via Flickr Creative Commons under Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

AUDIO: The Elephant Sport Podcast – Varsity Edition

As Varsity 2018 approaches, the Elephant Sport Podcast brings to you a special edition from the LCC studios.

Hosted by Sam Taylor and Harry Dunning, the boys preview the upcoming games whilst chatting to a few prominent figures at UAL Sport.

All making their final Varsity appearances, Danny Olashore, Ed Kraurup and George Mitchell feature in the discussion. Each contributing to paint the Varsity picture.

Unbeaten Hatfield reap benefits of Phillips’ relaxed approach

Hatfield Queen Elizabeth RFC head coach Gary Phillips said his side’s unbeaten run came from the massive improvements made after their narrow 19-18 opening day success over Tring 3rds.

The Roe Hill club have gone all season unbeaten in the Herts and Middlesex Merit Table 3, a run stretching to 11 league games and counting.

At any level of sport, going unbeaten is incredibly impressive, and the club have turned a massive corner on the pitch since Phillips came in during the summer. After edging to victory over Tring, Phillips went about making his team unbeatable.

Tactical improvements

He recalled: ‘’Our defensive line was static, we gave Tring so much time. We didn’t pressure them enough, so the first thing we did was work on that. Even if you’re shattered at the end, just two steps forward and it will put the scrums and fly halfs under pressure.

‘When we play Tring away [in the last game of season], I expect us to bloody kill them because we’ve come on leaps and bounds’ – Gary Phillips

‘’Another thing we learned from that game was that we weren’t observing what was going on ahead of us. So as they flooded forward we had nine defenders up against three or four attackers and four of five defenders up against nine or ten attackers, so that was the other major thing we learned.

“We needed to look up and observe what was going on better, and the lads took to that really, really quickly and now our defense is far harder to get past.’’

For 1st XV captain George Stone, now in his third year as skipper at the club, it’s all about what Phillips is doing off the pitch that has improved the side.

‘’I think it’s down to planning, communication and the players that came in. We worked a lot with regards to player retention and getting everyone on board. Everything has just come together at the right time for us.

“Gary is very good. He breaks things down very well and if things are going well he will tell us, but if not, he isn’t afraid to let us know.”

Learning and improving

The club has a fantastic campaign so far and sit top of the table, but Phillips says the team are hard on themselves as they strive to be better. ‘’We are self-critical but you can’t argue with an unbeaten start to the season.

‘’The games against Hendon and Enfield (which they won 12-38 and 47-0 respectively), there’s nothing you can take from them and you don’t really learn too much because the opposition didn’t really give us a game.

‘I think it’s about how you address the players and getting their belief up’ – Hatfield skipper George Stone

“The Tring game, in all fairness, they should have beaten us. Their kicker missed quite a few and we were lucky to scrape by. That was a huge learning curve for me as a coach, to see where we needed to make strides.

“We could see from the off where we needed to get better, but we were fortunate. When we play them away [in the last game of season], I expect us to bloody kill them because we’ve come on leaps and bounds.

“When you’re beating teams 30/40-0 you don’t learn anything. It’s pleasing as a coach to see a few things come off, but you don’t learn much.’’

Skipper Stone says: “I hoped that we would hold our own and give a good account of ourselves. I say to the boys every week, it doesn’t matter who we come up against, as long as we give our best and show what we can do.

“Personally, I haven’t done anything differently. I think it’s about how you address the players and getting their belief up. It doesn’t matter if we make mistakes or we don’t have the best players, it’s about that belief and carrying on.’’

International help

Phillips also runs his own coaching company outside of the club, something that he says is benefiting the team this season.

International coaching has helped Phillips

“I get to work with coaches from New Zealand, Samoa, South Africa, Fiji, Tonga etc. So I get an eclectic approach to the game. I’ve picked up loads from these guys who have coached at international level and as a coach you’re always learning.

‘’On a Saturday I don’t do too much. My job is in training, and when it comes to the matches, it’s down to the boys. In truth, the lads now have a lot of confidence. We played Luton 2nds after Christmas and for the first 40-50 mins we forgot how to play.

“We had a word, calmed down and then when back to what we do best. There was no panicking and there was a steel to the guys. They have huge confidence now.’’

Positivity

Chairman Toby Garrett brought the head coach in during the summer and said he has brought a great deal of positivity, which is not only reflected on the pitch but during training, too.

‘’I didn’t know I had brought any!” Phillips laughs. “I’m just a very positive person, that’s how I am. When I met Toby and George I said it’s all about enjoyment at this level, so I wanted to make training fun and have a laugh. We’re not going to be world beaters, we know our limitations.

“I tried to bring through a brand of through-the-hands rugby which is a break from the Hatfield tradition. We try to have a giggle at training, have fun and get dirty. We try things and if they don’t work it doesn’t matter. We have fun, which is the main thing.’’

Fitness

A ‘fair few’ beers are drunk after training

In sport, fitness is key. It means you can last the whole season and not fade, can last longer in matches, and pre-season is a core element that brings success. So for a team at the top of the table how key is it for Hatfield?

‘’Fitness is a major fault at this level. The fitter teams normally do better, but it’s hard,” Phillips said.

‘’A lot of the guys have families and children and the uni lads have a lot of work on, so we can ask them to go and do as much as we like, but we know our restrictions. We’re not out marching every night, it’s what you can do. The social side is doing well rather than running five miles and doing bleep tests.

‘’Mark Crystal is a fantastic club secretary and he puts in a lot of hard work. It’s a fantastic social club and at this level it’s all about having fun. They go down the pub after matches and training and a fair few beers are drunk.

“If fitness isn’t one of our strengths we will find a way around it. I’d love to go out and do a bit more – but it isn’t going to happen!’’

Stone added that it is more about squad unity than fitness and says they just control what they can.

‘’Whatever happens come April happens, we can only control what happens the hour and half on game days, from the moment we meet until the final whistle.’’

Belief

Hatfield play Tring in the final match the season, and with the two teams locked in the top two, it could be a winner takes all.

Phillips is confident they can win the league, whilst Stone says, no matter the final outcome, they have achieved this season.

The skipper said: ‘’I think we can win it. With the players we’ve got, the belief, the structure of the club right from the top with the committee to the fans we have the belief and we have a great feel good factor around the club.

“All we can do is keep performing. Win, lose or draw on the last day we’ve achieved and had a great season.’’

Phillips added: ‘’We’re confident we can win all the games. The last game of the season v Tring is a possible winner takes all. I’m trying to get the fellas to understand how to win games and how to exploit the opposition.

“The fitter teams normally do better at this level, but we have some great defenders and attackers. We want to win the league and we are hungry to do so.’’

Hatfield Queen Elizabeth RFC are on Twitter @HatfieldQEII

George Ford celebrates with passion after scoring a try against the Springboks. (Credit: Laurence Griffiths)

England look to build on win over Boks

Last weekend saw England emerge 37-21 winners over a slightly lackadaisical South Africa side.

They know they could have performed better, but let’s not take that away from the result. England were determined to dominate, and they did.

It was the first time England had beaten the Springboks in over a decade. The list below shows the past 10 results between the sides before Saturday’s clash.

  • Nov 2014: England 28-31 South Africa, Twickenham
  • Nov 2012: England 15-16 South Africa, Twickenham
  • Jun 2012: South Africa 14-14 England, Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium
  • Jun 2012: South Africa 36-27 England, Ellis Park
  • Jun 2012: South Africa 22-17 England, Kings Park
  • Nov 2010: England 11-21 South Africa, Twickenham
  • Nov 2008: England 6-42 South Africa, Twickenham
  • Oct 2007: England 6-15 South Africa, Stade de France
  • Sep 2007: England 0-36 South Africa, Stade de France
  • Jun 2007: South Africa 55-22 England, Loftus

England were slow to get out of the blocks, going 0-6 down within the first 10 minutes. However a swift and free-flowing counter-attack allowed Jonny May to do what he does best and finish in the corner.

From then on, England kicked on and were superior to the Springboks in nearly every aspect – not something which is normally seen in games between northern and southern hemisphere sides.

Key stats

In terms of attacking statistics, England made 451 metres throughout the match, compared to the Springboks 395m. England also made nine clean breaks, to South Africa’s four, the pick of the bunch being Ben Youngs’ dummy passes to set up both George Ford and Owen Farrell.

England also displayed a great defensive mindset; something that head coach Eddie Jones is keen to implement throughout the XV, the most important thing being that you have to put your body on the line for the team.

A key statistic in this respect was England’s nine turnovers at the breakdown compared to South Africa’s four. Watching the game, you could see that the team in white would do everything and anything to get the ball back.

 Discipline

However, the only visible downside to England’s game was the penalty count they racked up, conceding 11 in total. It’s something that Jones evidently wasn’t pleased about, as shown by his post-match comment that England can get a lot better.

Skipper Dylan Hartley backed up the Aussie, saying: “There’s plenty to work on, so that keeps us grounded. We conceded six penalties in the opening 20 minutes and that isn’t good enough.”

Man of the match

The standout performer was Youngs; he was everywhere he could possibly be on the pitch and had the vision to spot the break in the line not once, but twice to set up Ford and Farrell.

 A new week, a new challenge

This weekend brings a new challenge in the form of Fiji, regular so-called whipping boys who will be wanting to make an impression in front of 80,000 fans at Twickenham on Saturday.

 Draining the talent pool

One of the many reasons that Fiji, Tonga and Samoa haven’t managed to excel as much as they would have wanted is that their talented pool of players is often raided by other rugby nations.Mike Brown in action during the last clash between the teams in 2015. (Credit: Rugby News)

Take Manu Tuilagi; when fully fit and on the top of his game, he is unstoppable, showing this against New Zealand a couple of years ago.

Although he and a few of his brothers had dual nationality, playing for England would be a much more lucrative opportunity than a Pacific Island team.

To put into perspective why many of these players adopt other nations over Fiji for example, just look at how much players are getting paid for this match in the Autumn internationals series.

Nathan Hughes, who was actually born in Fiji, will take home £22,000 playing for England, while his former countrymen receive just £400 each.

 Olympic glory

But it’s not all doom and gloom for the Fijians.Fiji celebrating with their Olympic gold medals (Credit: Associated Press)

They have had something to be ecstatic about this year, winning their first-ever Olympic medal – gold in the rugby sevens tournament, beating Great Britain in the process.

It wasn’t a tight game in the slightest, with Fiji trouncing GB 43-7 in the final in Rio.

Although sevens is a very different game, Jones will be wary as to what could potentially unfold over 80 minutes.

Fiji’s danger men

Centre Vereniki Goneva should be well known to England fans, having played for Leicester Tigers between 2012 and 2016and scoring 205 points in the process.

In the 2015–16 European Rugby Champions Cup, he scored a try in every game finishing with six in five matches in the knockout rounds, making him the competition’s joint top try-scorer alongside Thomas Waldrom.

Lock Leone Nakawara currently plays for Racing 92 in France, and was one of the players who won an Olympic sevens medal at Rio 2016, scoring a try in the final in a one-sided 43-7 victory over Great Britain.

During his time at Glasgow Warriors, Nakarawa was named man of the match for in the 2015 Pro12 Grand Final in Belfast. He had the most offloads in the 2014–15 European Rugby Champions Cup with 25.

Fly-half Ben Volavola is, perhaps surprisingly, the youngest player in the current squad at 25. He signed for the Crusaders in the 2016 Super Rugby season to replace a number 10 exodus at the New Zealand club, with Dan Carter, Colin Slade and Tom Taylor having moved to play their rugby in Europe.

During his three-year stint at the Southern Districts side, he racked up 248 points in 36 appearances.

Overall record 

In the six matches the teams have played against each other, England have never lost to Fiji, racking up 245 points to their 94. The largest win came in 2012 when England demolished them 54-12.

Jones knows all about upsets though, pulling off arguably the biggest one in international rugby history when his Japan team beat South Africa at the 2015 World Cup.

A repeat is unlikely on Saturday, but Jones is too wily and experienced a coach to take anything for granted.

Jones eyes more England progress

This time last year, Eddie Jones had just done the unthinkable. He had led a cast of nobodies (no disrespect intended to Japan) to victory over South Africa in the World Cup – arguably the biggest shock in rugby union’s history.

Japan celebrating a momentous win over South Africa. (Credit: Gallo Images)
Japan celebrate their win over South Africa (Credit: Gallo Images)

Now he finds himself with the best winning percentage as an England head coach since Sir Clive Woodward, with a 100% record.

Who would have thought England, a team who capitulated as World Cup hosts under Stuart Lancaster, would begin a new era under Jones with nine wins out of nine.

It is time for England fans to truly believe something big is happening.

With England still the only Northern Hemisphere team to have won the World Cup, beating Australia in their own backyard in 2003, many thought that finest hour was unrepeatable.

Fair enough, that they made the final in France 2007, but they were humbled by Saturday’s opponents South Africa. However, this clash has a build-up that’s completely different to that game nine years ago.

Time to take advantage

England come into this game looking like one of the best teams in the world right now.

Ireland’s sensational 40-29 win over New Zealand in Chicago last weekend showed the All Blacks do actually have some weaknesses, and it’s time for England to take advantage.

England go into the autumn internationals ranked the second-best team in the world, and it is up to them to make the biggest statement possible.

This will be one of Eddie Jones’ biggest tests.

The build-up to these matches has certainly been a tough one, and England’s summer whitewashing of Australia down under has created great expectations.

Injury crisis

Jones will be without Manu Tuilagi, James Haskell, Sam Jones and Anthony Watson – all out of the picture with long-term injuries.

Let’s also not forget that player of the year last year, Maro Itoje is out too, as are Jack Nowell and George Kruis. It’s nothing short of an injury crisis, for sure.Itoje & Jones chatting at an England camp. (Credit: PA)

Although England have amazing depth in many positions, there is no denying that the players out injured would have had a key role this autumn. Watson, for one, has scored 70 points in 24 games.

Jones has had to rethink his strategy, drafting in Wasps’ Elliot Daly for his full Test debut at outside centre, Jonathan Joseph being dropped in the process. This is a clear statement from Jones, who who has previously said he will do what is necessary to get the win.

Ideology

Jones has also said in the buildup to Saturday’s Twickenham clash: “I told the players…. If you are not physical you need to play volleyball – rugby is a physical sport.”

It’s clear to see what Jones expects from his players in the face of the famed brute force of the Springboks.

Mako Vunipola has voiced the ideology that Jones has enforced, saying: “The biggest message is not being happy with where we are at the moment, we have to keep improving every time we go out on the pitch. We want to improve every day.”

This just goes to show how much has happened with the team since the dreadful World Cup campaign just over a year ago.

This is a different England side that are not afraid to be physical, who want to be the best, and know they can achieve their aim.

Jones has instantly made his mark, bringing in experienced faces to his coaching staff, something that made a big story under Lancaster’s reign, for the wrong reasons.

He has had short-term input for his backs from Australian legend Glen Ella, George Smith has been helping out the back rows, and the fly-halves from England legend Jonny Wilkinson.

Quality

The effect that both Jones’ strengthening of the England team, and the success of clubs such as Saracens, has seen an amazing improvement.

Take into account that only two English players were shortlisted for the IRB’s World Rugby Player of the year in the past 12 years; this year there are three alone.

“With South Africa in a fragile state of mind, England can get off to a flyer”

Itoje, Billy Vunipola and Owen Farrell have all been nominated, following their stellar performances at international and club level.

The matches against South Africa, Fiji, Argentina and Australia are the perfect opportunity for England to show what they are really about, that the Jones honeymoon isn’t over just yet.

With South Africa in a fragile state of mind, England can get off to a flyer.

Many fans will be licking their lips at this clash, and it’s clear that England fans finally have something to smile about.

Depending on the outcome of these matches and next year’s Six Nations, people will be starting to ask whether 2019, when Japan host the World Cup, could be England’s year.

But let it sink in that when that World Cup comes around, it will have been 16 years since we triumphed over Australia.