Who’s hot and who’s not: Ireland and Johnny Sexton make history, superb French half-backs and unfortunate Freddie Steward
It’s time for our Monday wrap of who has their name in lights and who is making the headlines for all the wrong reasons after the weekend.
THEY’RE ON FIRE!
Dominant Ireland win Grand Slam: For the fourth time in the Championship’s history, Ireland have charged to a Grand Slam, beating every team that stood in their way. They headed into the tournament as the favourites to win the title, and they did not disappoint. France in Round Two was always going to be their biggest hurdle, and once they defeated Fabien Galthie’s charges in Dublin, it promised to be plain sailing from there. However, injuries hampered their run to the title but still, Andy Farrell’s outfit looked largely unfussed by whatever was thrown at them, and grit and determination got them over the line against Scotland and England in particular. They are worthy champions, and what a way to send off captain Johnny Sexton from the Six Nations arena, with the fly-half highly likely to retire after the World Cup. Meanwhile, it was a case of double cause for celebration for the Irish as their U20 side also clinched a Six Nations Grand Slam courtesy of a 36-24 victory over England at Musgrave Park on Sunday.
Signing off in style: Staying on the subject of Sexton, the Irish fly-half has been the main focal point over the past week, and rightly so. He is undoubtedly a legend of the Six Nations and appears to have played his final match in the tournament and what a way to go out. After the 2019 World Cup, many wrote the experienced pivot off for the 2023 event. However, he has continually proved his doubters wrong and led his country to a fourth Slam. A memorable day was also capped with him moving ahead of Ronan O’Gara as the Championship’s top scorer.
Reward for Andy Farrell: Taking over from Joe Schmidt was never going to be easy, but Farrell has thrived with the challenge. He’s led this group to new highs, securing the top spot on the world rankings, beating the All Blacks in New Zealand for the first time and sealing a series victory in doing so. During his tenure, Ireland have also been consistent in the Six Nations, winning at least three games per tournament and finishing in the top three every year. However, they’ve fallen short, until now. He has finally been rewarded for his efforts as his side claimed the title and won all five games emphatically. Some may have doubted Farrell’s credentials as head coach when he took the reigns, but those critics have been silenced, and Ireland are a serious contender for the 2023 Rugby World Cup after this latest achievement.
France’s incredible half-backs: Fatigued, overplayed and tired were the terms used to describe Antoine Dupont and, more so, Romain Ntamack during the early stages of the Six Nations, but as the tournament progressed, their influence and form increased significantly. After a masterclass from the pair saw France post a record-breaking victory at Twickenham, the Toulouse duo went about picking apart Wales and did so superbly over the weekend. They linked up with supreme efficiency garnered from playing alongside one another on so many occasions. When the pair are on song, they are near impossible to stop, and they did that once again as they showed their class.
Food for thought after Blair Kinghorn hat-trick: It was a profitable day at the office for Scotland’s Kinghorn as he more than took his chance of a rare start against Italy. Back in the fly-half jersey after an injury to Finn Russell, Kinghorn’s running game came to the fore as he went over three times at Murrayfield. The jury may still be out on whether he’s a Test match fly-half but with Stuart Hogg also missing due to injury over the weekend, has Kinghorn possibly done enough to persuade head coach Gregor Townsend that a spot at full-back is an option?
Crusaders respond: That was some way to answer your doubters. After defeats to the Chiefs and Fijian Drua, the Christchurch outfit were under pressure heading into their clash with their arch rivals, the Blues, but they produced an excellent display to emerge with a 34-28 victory in Auckland. Leicester Fainga’anuku’s performances have almost mirrored his side as, after a difficult start to the season, Saturday’s clash saw a return to form from the imposing wing as he touched down three times in the win.
COLD AS ICE!
Unfortunate Freddie Steward: Quite simply, we don’t think it was a sending off. We have always been advocates of player safety and believe the framework outlined by World Rugby is correct, but it wasn’t followed properly by the officiating team on this occasion. If it is to be deemed foul play, which we don’t think it was, there was still mitigation with Steward passive in the ‘hit’, trying to absorb rather than going with force once he realised he was going to make contact. But more pertinently, had the England full-back attempted to make a tackle then it would have done more damage to his opposite number with the positions they were in going into the collision.
The whole point about giving red cards for poor technique and challenges to the head is to change player behaviour and thus make the game safer, and in that regard the laws evidently had an effect on Steward. Knowing that a tackle in that dynamic situation would have likely resulted in head contact – with force – and thus potentially an even more serious injury to Keenan, he pulled out, bracing himself in a way which could protect both players in the best possible fashion. Unfortunately, it still resulted in the Irishman being replaced and we very much hope he makes a speedy recovery but, in this instance, we felt Steward was very unlucky to see red and should see it rescinded at the disciplinary hearing.
Petition to bin off ITV: They have some great presenters, excellent commentators and several very astute co-commentators, who really do understand the modern game – although the less said about some of the in-studio pundits the better. However, that’s not the main frustration. For the whole tournament, there were games each weekend where the commentary was around one or two seconds ahead of the action, which meant the viewer knew what had happened before the pictures caught up. It is understandable if it happens once, but for it to be a constant issue throughout the past month-and-a-half is unacceptable. ITV1 then decided to cut away from Ireland’s celebrations, before the trophy had been presented, for Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, which rather summed up their approach to this year’s Six Nations.
Another winless Six Nations for Italy: The Azzurri are definitely going in the right direction but this still represents a very disappointing tournament for Kieran Crowley’s men. Performance-wise, they certainly improved and ran the two best teams in the world, Ireland and France, close, but they let themselves down against the weaker sides. Italy didn’t show up against England, were erratic against Wales and were not composed enough to get the job done against Scotland. Ultimately, they need the results to truly show that they are making progress.
Ollie Chessum injury blow: After such a good Six Nations, it was galling to see the England international suffer a serious injury. The Leicester Tigers back five forward has dislocated his ankle and, as a result, will be sidelined for up to six months. It is hugely disappointing for the player, who had impressed in the tournament in the opening four rounds and cemented his spot in the XV. With the World Cup starting in September he is a serious doubt for the competition, which is a big blow for Chessum and England, as well as his club side Leicester, who will miss him in the Premiership run-in.
Dave Walder exits Newcastle: Away from all the international action, something which went a little bit under the radar, was the departure of Walder as head coach of the Falcons. He had taken over the running of the team from director of rugby Dean Richards at the start of the campaign, but he will now leave the club. Despite their position near the bottom of the Premiership, Newcastle’s performances had been reasonably good under the 44-year-old. However, the sudden mid-season loss of local product and England international Trevor Davison to Northampton Saints was a surprise and came just before Walder stepped down. It may or may not be linked but something must have gone on behind the scenes for him to depart.
READ MORE: Six Nations Team of the Tournament
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