England edged it
Much was made in the build-up of the intention of both sides to play with an edge, but from the opening minutes it was clear England were sharper and hungrier. When the ball bounced loose, the Wales captain, and talisman, Alun Wyn Jones prepared to fall on it. He was beaten to it by Maro Itoje and that set the tone for the afternoon. Wales kept banging into a white wall while England, never moving the ball for the sake of it, waited for their moment. The home side defended with power and aggression, led by Tom Curry and Courtney Lawes, but as telling was the aplomb they showed in attack, passing crisply and creating space in the way they deployed runners, forcing Wales to defend narrowly. The score was closer than the gap between the sides.
New wine in old bottles
Wayne Pivac is trying to revolutionise the way Wales play with largely the same group of players who enjoyed success under Warren Gatland. Nick Tompkins is an exception and the Saracens centre again stood out with his quick feet and deceptive strength in contact, but such is the relatively short time that an international coach has with his squad that change takes time, all the more so when the foundation laid by the previous regime is firm, making a new coach bounce unlikely. Gatland was a bold selector, capping the likes of Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Jonathan Davies, Sam Warburton and Taulupe Faletau young, trusting his judgment rather than track record, but as the championship has gone on, Pivac has become more conservative. Two players who stood out in the World Cup, Gareth Davies and Aaron Wainwright, were not at Twickenham while Gloucester’s teenage wing Louis Rees-Zammit has only trained with the squad and the under-20s outside-half Sam Costellow is waiting for his chance.
A curiosity of the Eddie Jones era has been his reluctance to groom a young scrum-half. The average age of a young squad is stiffened by its two thirty something scrum-halves, Ben Youngs and Willi Heinz, the latter taking over from another veteran, Danny Care. He will probably need to find one for the next World Cup, and Exeter’s Jack Maunder trained with the squad ahead of the Wales match, but will he be around for it? He declined to answer the question after the victory over Wales when he launched an attack on the referee Ben O’Keeffe that is being scrutinised by the Six Nations. Youngs was the man of the match on Saturday, profiting from his side’s dominance in the tackle area by getting England to attack with pace, but it will soon be time for the next generation.
The red card virus that infected the World Cup looked to have been eradicated after the first three rounds of the Six Nations. It was merely incubating. Manu Tuilagi was sent off four minutes from the end of the victory over Wales for leading with his shoulder as he attempted to stop George North from scoring a try and making contact with the wing’s head. The following day Mohamed Haouas failed to see out the first half after escalating a dust-up by punching James Ritchie; Francois Cros had earlier escaped with a yellow card after a tackle After which Grant Gilchrist landed on his head. The England head coach Eddie Jones described Tuilagi’s dismissal as absolute rubbish that lacked common sense, but the directive that applied in Japan remains: making contact with an opponent’s head, however inadvertent, merits a red card.
France conceded eight penalties in the scrum in the opening three rounds but made light of their problems up front with three victories. They were penalised four times in the set-piece in Murrayfield and lost their tighthead prop through an act of indiscipline after 36 minutes. Scotland have been more orthodox in attack with Finn Russell in exile, but they have become organised in defence to the point where France’s big ball-carriers, led by Virimi Vakatawa, made few gains. Scotland’s prop Rory Sutherland has been one of the players of the tournament so far, putting pressure on all the opposition tightheads he has faced. Their victory over Les Bleus took them to third in the table, although Ireland have a game in hand, and they can condemn Wales to fifth place in Cardiff in Saturday. With the meanest defence in the tournament, they are becoming what Wales were.
Points of difference
When Mathieu Jalibert kicked a penalty at Murrayfield with 19 minutes to go to reduce Scotland’s lead to 11 points, it was an indication that France recognised the need to give their points difference a nudge and get closer to a losing bonus point with the grand slam a distant dream and the prospect of the top two teams finishing on the same number of points distinctly possible. France started the round with a points difference advantage of 12 over England whose late collapse against Wales cost them 14, but finished two behind Eddie Jones’s men who have Italy away to play, a five-point banker in recent years. The match has to be rearranged and one sticking point may be whether the Premiership clubs are prepared to release Jake Polledri and Callum Braley for a game likely to be played outside the international window. If they say no, so may Italy, who also have to play Ireland who, had they picked up five points from the postponed fixture on Saturday, would be leading the table.