With the first two round of the Six Nations behind us, here are some notes on individual performances, injury updates, and squad changes ahead of the next set of matches.
WELCOME TO THE BIG SHOW
Four players have made their international debuts so far, and all have done pretty well.
Billy Twelvetrees made his long-awaited bow in the first game and has looked very much at home in the English midfield. His combination of size and footballing nous is something his country has missed since Will Greenwood departed from the scene. For all Brad Barritt’s defensive qualities, the prospect of a Twelvetrees-Tuilagi midfield is an exciting one.
Wales has enjoyed exceptional depth at second row for the last couple years, but looked to be in real trouble heading into the tournament as their top four locks were injured and emergency alternative Ryan Jones wasn’t looking likely either. Thankfully Ian Evans recovered sufficiently to fill one spot, but who would have pegged journeyman Andrew Coombs to excel in the way that he has? His workrate has been outstanding and he has held his own in the set piece despite his lack of bulk. It’s unlikely that he’ll be a fixture in the side long-term, but he can be proud of his performances in the red jersey.
The other emergency call-up was honorary Welshman Olly Kohn, who managed to win his solitary cap in a 7 minute cameo at the end of the Irish test. Strangely Lou Reed replaced him on the bench against France, and with Alun Wyn Jones returning to fitness it looks as if King Kohn will go down in history as a one-cap wonder. No slight on Kohn, but you have to wonder why Rob Howley bothered if he was just going to play Reed later anyway.
Essentially an international from the moment he signed on the dotted line with Glasgow, former Crusader flyer Sean Maitland is the latest in a long line of “kilted Kiwis” to run out at Murrayfield, and it has to be said he could prove to be the best since John Leslie controlled the Scottish midfield. While it might be too early to call him a Lions contender, if one were to pick a side exclusively from the opening two matches, it would be very hard to leave him out of the squad.
Glasgow hooker Pat MacArthur looked set to win his first cap against Italy, but the need for Ross Ford to get game time means that he’ll have to wait at least another fortnight before his first senior appearance.
ALL HAIL THE NEW JONNY
Well, maybe not quite, but it’s hard not to see similarities between the legendary Wilkinson and new wunderkind Owen Farrell. His poise and calmness particularly with his kicking has him at the top of the points scoring chart with 30 from two games. Second on the list is Wales fullback Leigh Halfpenny with 23, with Greig Laidlaw just behind on 22 points. Stuart Hogg is the one and only player to cross for two tries so far in the tournament.
All six teams could make changes as we quickly approach the mid-point of the tournament. How time flies! Injuries, form, and possible suspensions could all play a part in squad selection.
Stuart Lancaster isn’t the type to make changes willy-nilly, and in all likelihood will retain much of the same side to face France. On the injury front Ben Morgan’s ankle looks certain to keep him out until the Italian match on March 10. Freddie Burns remains on the shelf with a bad shoulder, and Ben Foden is still short on game time with Northampton. There is no sign of Alex Corbisiero at all and it’s probable that he’ll miss the entire tournament with his damaged knee. Courtney Lawes suffered concussion on the weekend and could be a doubt for the French test, with Mouritz Botha the most likely to replace him. Two areas of tight competition are hooker and centre, with both Dylan Hartley and Manu Tuilagi itching to return to the 1st XV.
France coach Philippe Saint-Andre has already chopped and changed after back-to-back subpar performances from his charges. Yannick Forestier, Fulgence Ouedraogo, and Maxime Mermoz are the biggest casualties, with reserves Romain Taofifenua and Damien Chouly also receiving their pink slips. Summoned in their stead are Thomas Domingo, Yannick Nyanga, Vincent Clerc, Christophe Samson, and Antonie Claassen. Captain Pascal Pape remains sidelined with injury. South African-born Claassen is somewhat of a strange selection given any number of young French back rowers available, but one can’t argue that he’s a strong player and adds leadership to a squad that appears to be suffering from a lack of it.
Ireland have lost Simon Zebo for the remainder of the championship with a broken foot, while Jonathan Sexton looks to be out for a couple weeks with a dodgy hamstring. There is no word of Paul O’Connell returning to action any time soon, and Stephen Ferris is still at least a couple weeks away. Cian Healy might also find himself in the stands after being cited for a needless stamp on Dan Cole. It’s not enough to even remotely threaten his Lions chances, but he should know better. The probable absence of Sexton means that Declan Kidney will have to choose between Ronan O’Gara and Paddy Jackson for the no10 jersey. With their Six Nations hopes diminished after the loss to England at the weekend, now seems a good time to blood the new man rather than recalling “Radge”, who is surely (surely…) in his final days of national duty.
Despite receiving a sound thrashing at the hands of Scotland, the Italians are unlikely to change much. Robert Barbieri has been recalled to the squad after recovering from injury and might oust Paul Derbyshire from the bench. Alberto Sgarbi’s ankle injury will keep him out of the Welsh match and Luca Morisi has been called up in his place, but Gonzalo Canale is expected to continue in the no12 jersey for now. Starting halfbacks Tobias Botes and Luciano Orquera are under threat from Edoardo Gori and Kris Burton after a poor outing in Edinburgh.
It’s hard to overstate the incredible difference in form of Scotland from week one to week two, though it’s similarly difficult to gauge how much of that was due to a woefully ineffectual Italian side. In any event, things are looking much brighter for the squad which makes selection a bit easier for Scott Johnson and Dean Ryan. The only likely change is the reserve hooker spot, where Dougie Hall could return if his knee strain has healed in time, though one wonders if Pat MacArthur might be a better selection anyway. Alasdair Strokosch got good news from the doctor and might yet be fit in time for the final two matches of the tournament, but it would take a brave coach indeed to drop Robert Harley after his excellent run-on debut. Peter Horne has regained his fitness, but again both Matt Scott and Sean Lamont played well enough to retain their spots in the midfield. John Barclay has returned to club duty with Glasgow but will need to impress mightily to get a recall, though his club mate Jon Welsh appears to be very much on the radar as a reserve prop. Neither Chris Cusiter nor Ross Rennie, both recovering from shoulder injuries, have returned to club duty as of yet.
Rob Howley has decided to stick with his winning lineup and will retain the same starting XV for the match in Rome. Sam Warburton and Alun Wyn Jones have returned to fitness but will both settle for spots among the reserves, taking the places of Aaron Shingler and Lou Reed respectively. No other changes are expected.