In a week that saw me leave the comfort of my lovely suburban, Cheltenham flat to live directly opposite the Principality stadium, it's fair to say I was pretty darn hyped for the Six Nations to commence. I know every year, us Rugby commentators try to make out like its a completely even contest that can't be simply predicted, but I have to admit, I can't pick out any certain winners in 2021. Each side is at different stages of a long World Cup transition. Whether its new coaches, new players, new camps or COVID - throwing curveballs, each side has had their work cut out for them. It doesn't get better than an opening weekend, Calcutta Cup clash though, does it?
That Scottish Pack
Every pundit has been raving about the dominance of the English pack for the last year or so for good reason; they have smothered and destroyed some heavyweight opposition with ease previously. However, I think we need to stop the commentary on the English frailty in this game, and instead focus on the sheer class emerging in that Scottish front eight. That Scottish Front Row is genuinely up there with the best in the world; Sutherland in particular is now a clear Lions' starter with Fagerson not too far behind him. They're dynamic, they're spirited, they have great match intelligence and they are incredibly fit. They can carry well around the fringes, clear out breakdowns efficiently and make hit after hit if called upon. It's like having a couple of extra flankers on the pitch who can also dominate at scrum time. The crowning glory for that side has to be Jonny Gray. We've been under fire previously for pushing him as a starter for the Lions' and yet again he's put in a barn-storming performance against world class opposition. His work rate, physicality and tackle completion stats contribute to a terrifying presence that feels opposition fans with dread. His gas tank is frightening too; having such a big guy who can be so mobile around the pitch for such extended periods is priceless. Sure, England were missing a couple of key players in their starting pack, but even if they were there, I can't say the story would have played out differently. For this style of physically dominant, collision - based, abrasive ball, you'd struggle to find a collection of forwards who can do it better than this Scottish side.
Form, form, form...
I can't even claim to be captain hindsight on this one as I, like many others, really lambasted this English coaching setup for their picks heading into the Six Nations. Look I get it, keep the same players together, keep growing bonds, cohesiveness is better than individual brilliance and yaddy - yaddy - yada, but players being picked on reputation alone is something plaguing Rugby Union across the globe. It's not just an international problem, as we see the same thing happening at club level too (i.e. Lima Sopoaga at Wasps), but the importance of form still trumps any players built around yester-years reputation. Let's run through the players in that England starting side that haven't played well in their last five international games: Hill, B Vunipola, Youngs, Farrell, Watson, Slade and Daly. That's nearly half the side in one go... Then if you start to pick at the players who are either out of form in their domestic league or haven't played in the last two months you have: George, Hill, Itoje, B Vunipola, Youngs, Farrell, May, Watson and Daly... Look how many crossovers there are there! Players who haven't played in two months, if they have played, they've played poorly domestically and if it's not on domestic form, they've played poorly internationally... I agree that you have to keep the sides core alive and that international experience is priceless, but you can still do that by picking players who have earnt their spot. You can keep people like George and Itoje who you know are excellent test match titans, but folks like Farrell and Billy Vunipola who aren't close to match fitness and are riding off of a shaky 2020 reputations should be dropped.
A Story of Four Centres
Ollie Lawrence didn't touch the ball until just shy of the hour mark. That is a harrowing fact. Slade kicked aimlessly, looked woefully out of position in attack and didn't close the outside channels off at all. It was clearly a partnership with no chemistry and no service from their half backs. Lawrence didn't put a foot wrong in defence, as he's proven previously too, but Farrell literally gave him nothing. Then you look at the Scottish centres. Redpath put in a stunning performance, carrying well, defending competently, mopping up stray balls that spurted into the midfield and looked really sharp. Harris, although not game-breaking, also looks to have translated his great club form onto the international stage; that partnership might be the best we've seen in the last decade. There isn't much to say outside of what we've already hinted towards, two centres had great service, a stro
ng platform and could excel, two centres had no service, no platform and put in poor performances.
Hamish Watson - Another guy who's been overlooked in Lions' prediction, Watson is the attritional s***house you need in your side. He's an absolute work-horse too!
Jonny Gray - Gray is becoming a potential World XV player and looks to be in the form of his life, our MOTM on the day.
Stuart Hogg - Hoggy made 68 metres and marshalled the back field expertly. His leadership qualities rang through in this game, proving the doubters wrong.
Tom Curry - Regardless of the result, Curry is still pure quality. A beast with ball in hand, aggressive and feisty in the tackle, he was comfortably England's best player.
Duhan van der Merwe - Struck the devastating blow that killed England's comeback chances. Took his opportunities well and looks like a real powerhouse in that Scottish backline.
Owen Farrell - For a record shattering third match in a row, Farrell is in our negative category. Clearly out of form and potentially even lacking confidence, he needs some time outside of the international spotlight to re-find his spark.
Anthony Watson - We said that Watson surely had no chance of making this England side, we were proved wrong. We then said, he is incredibly out of form and needs a lot of domestic game-time before he re-enters the England setup and we were proved right. Another howler from Anthony.
Billy Vunipola - I just cannot see what he adds to this side. They already have big bulky ball carriers and tackle sponges; it didn't help that he looks tremendously unfit at the moment.
Ben Youngs - Youngs seems to be getting praise for not having a howler (for a change), but his sluggishness and indecisiveness around the breakdown brought England's attack to a grinding halt. He was still the worst performing half back on the weekend and he can't seem to pass the ball directly off of the deck.