Stuart Barnes’ Six Nations talking points


Stuart Barnes assesses the main talking points from the opening weekend of the 2019 Guinness Six Nations and looks ahead to the second round of matches.

1. England’s controlled display in Dublin has to be first up, simply because of the nature of the opposition. Ireland, Grand Slam champions and conquerors of the All Blacks, beaten and beaten conclusively on their home patch.

It was a stunning effort but it has to come with a few health warnings. Ireland did not seem comfortable as favourites whereas England relished being told they were underdogs.

Eddie Jones told us as much pre-match. Against France at Twickenham, England will be overwhelming favourites with France written off as the no-hopers after throwing their 16-point lead against Wales in Paris. Tactically and psychologically, it will be a very different game this Sunday in south west London.

2. Jones gave high praise to the performance of his front five and the sheer commitment of Jonny May, who was again magnificent.

I don’t know that I like or even know what the casually flung about phrase ‘world class’ means any more but it certainly fits the prolific try scoring and aerially dominant Leicester winger. With the untapped potential of Joe Cokanasiga and the hoped-for return of Anthony Watson there has never been a time of such riches in the England back three.

3. Maybe Elliot Daly didn’t answer all the questions that will be asked him as a full-back in the months ahead but he has class and will, in time, master the high ball.

And even if he continues to spill the odd one he provides so many answers, they eclipse the questions. The vision, the kicking game that lead to his own try, his passing game that played a part in May’s, given time to pick his play he is devastating.

I’m not sure whether he is a better winger or full-back but it’s the back three where he belongs. A lot of people thought different, perhaps Daly himself; credit to Jones for sticking to his guns.

4. The excellence of Henry Slade at 13 is another reason why Daly isn’t the man to wear the No13 shirt. The extra ‘love’ as Jones describes his decision to give him an extended run at 13 has changed the Chief.

He looks comfortable with the ball in hand, the deft kicking game was spot on Saturday and he has flourished under John Mitchell’s defensive work to date.

Also the balance of Manu Tuilagi helps; both the threat and reality of his power inside, opens opportunities for those around him. The two centres appear a natural partnership. Let’s see what happens Sunday.

5. Ireland’s pick and drive game withered under the sustained physical fire of England. They lost the front foot and with it the platform from which Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton usually operate (it is worth pointing out both half-backs have been coming back from injuries and appeared far from their usual selves, front or back foot ball). France are not far from being the opposite.

They are bigger than Ireland up front and willing to off load. Arthur Iturria’s slip for Yoann Huget’s try was a classic illustration.

England’s game plan, so sure against Ireland, will need tweaking ahead of the French match. So might Ireland’s against a Scotland team who have a fine winning record at Murrayfield in recent Six Nations.

6. Scotland’s performance divides critics. The three late Italian tries convinced plenty in the press room in the bowels of the Aviva Stadium that Ireland would have few problems. Others, put me in this camp, thought Scotland appeared a good team with an outstanding back three and a creative midfield.

Last year England went to Edinburgh, intent on a physical game and Scotland unpicked them at the breakdown. There’s no Hamish Watson but nor is there is a shortage of know how at the point of contact.

I’ll be intrigued to see whether Ireland play with a little less restraint and a little more off loading ambition than has been their way through their winning run of games. Does Joe have a Plan B? That’s the big question for Saturday afternoon.

7. Wales did what they had to do. Win. First up on a desperately wet Friday night in Paris. Forget the marks for style, it was only about the winning. A few have argued France lost it and there’s no doubt the angle is a fair one but even so, Wales still took their chances and fought back for a fantastic win if not fantastic performance.

There’s much more to come. Gareth Anscombe and Tomos Williams did not control proceedings and it would be something of a shock were Gareth Davies and Dan Biggar not to return for the Italy test.

Wales had a sturdier shape when the bench was utilised, especially in the case of Biggar. If you wonder how to evaluate Scotland after Italy’s late flourish what about the Italians themselves?

8. An Italian fightback or Scotland taking their foot off the pedal? I am in the latter camp. It is why I believe Scotland have a great chance of upsetting the odds and inflicting a second defeat on Ireland while giving Italy little to no chance against a Welsh team with plenty of room for improvement and the confidence to go with it.

9. A few star performers from the weekend; Eddie Jones for the creation of a superb game plan to nullify Ireland, John Mitchell for making such a strong start to his career as an England defence coach and responding with grace to some belligerent criticism (myself included high on that list.)

To Liam Williams whose game was inspiring even while his team-mates were damp first-half squibs, and Stuart Hogg who was simply spectacular.

10. A few predictions for the weekend. The bookmakers (I haven’t had a look but am pretty sure) will have Wales, England and Ireland favourites in that order of expectation to win their round two matches.

Wales could and should win by a wide margin. England have it in them to beat France well so let’s take a diverging view in Scotland and tip Gregor Townsend’s Scottish team to inflict what many might view as a shock on an Ireland side under pressure.

Either way it’s a major test of both these nation’s credentials. I am looking forward to the trip north for my pick of round two games.

(c) Sky News 2019: Stuart Barnes’ Six Nations talking points

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