Six Nations: Seven things we learnt from the second round of action

Jared Wright
Six Nations 2024: Ireland fly-half Jack Crowley, Italy head coach Gonzalo Quesada, referee James Doleman and Scotland co-captain Finn Russell.

Six Nations 2024: Ireland fly-half Jack Crowley, Italy head coach Gonzalo Quesada, referee James Doleman and Scotland co-captain Finn Russell.

Following another enthralling round of Six Nations action, here are seven things we learnt from round two of the Championship.

Ireland have serious depth

The weekend’s final game posed a potential banana skin for Andy Farrell and his charges as Ireland took on an Italy team that ran England close during the opening weekend.

While the Azzurri asked some tough questions of Steve Borthwick’s side in round one, they were no match for Farrell’s largely changed outfit in round two.

In fact, it was very much a training run for Ireland as they barely got out of second gear en route to a six-try 36-0 win at the Aviva Stadium. The men in green even had two tries ruled out and barely looked challenged by the Italian attack that failed to register a single point for the first time in a Six Nations Test against the Irish.

Farrell made six changes to his starting XV with six new faces added onto the bench, but it mattered little as Ireland flexed their depth against a largely first-choice Italian team. While regular starter James Lowe walked away with the Player of the Match award, many of those who were given an opportunity rose to the occasion.

Up front, Finlay Bealham produced a shift that will get the coaches thinking about whether he deserves more starting minutes ahead of long-time tighthead Tadhg Furlong. Meanwhile, James Ryan put in one of his stock standard high-quality shifts once again, while Ryan Baird was as energetic and brilliant at the lineout as he has been all season for Leinster. Finally, Jack Conan had a handy and aggressive try-scoring showing at number eight.

Jack Crowley had a few issues off the tee but still looks to the manner born for Ireland’s famed number 10 jumper, and his Munster half-back partner Craig Casey was just as excellent on his inside.

Stuart McCloskey put more pressure on the midfield selection headache with a fantastic outing, and Robbie Henshaw looks to be getting back to his best. The pair shone while Bundee Aki rested and Garry Ringrose was sidelined – the centre depth is just ridiculous.

The squad that faced Italy would fancy their chances of knocking over Wales in round three, and rightly so. They were ruthless, and one could barely spot a poor performance throughout the 23 – if there was one.

Gonzalo Quesada has a big job on his hands

Staying with Sunday’s match and all the good credit Italy earned in round one simply dissipated in round two as Ireland comfortably swept them aside.

The Italian tight-five were just not at the races in any facet of the game, and it became open season for the Irish pack. The Azzurri also seemed reluctant to compete for much on the ground, and against a team that is so ruthless off quick and accurate ruck ball, it was only ever going to end one way. Whether that was a coaching instruction or poor execution on the players’ part, it needs fixing.

While the Irish will be putting their feet up for most of the fallow week, we’d imagine that Gonzalo Quesada will have his men working tirelessly to rectify their mistakes and get the side back on track. Having front-five issues ahead of a clash against a mighty French pack is the last thing the coach will want, but that is the unfortunate situation he faces next week.

Quesada is a highly respected coach following his success with Stade Francais and Jaguares, turning both teams into real forces to be reckoned with, but this may just be his biggest challenge yet.

England still can’t shake sin-binnings

Borthwick’s charges are trending in the right direction after two wins from two in 2024, and while their win record is 100%, there are still concerns.

The Felix Jones-led defence is taking some time to bed in, understandably so, and the attack is stuttering despite glimpses of it starting to kick on.

While those two aspects of the game will take time, the one thing that is of immediate concern is that they have had three yellow cards in their opening two games. Ollie Chessum can feel incredibly hard done by for his 10-minute spell in the sin bin against Wales, but Elliot Daly and Ethan Roots were both well deserving of their respective yellow cards.

Wales were unable to capitalise on the sin-binnings of Chessum and Roots on Saturday, but best believe that Ireland certainly will – possibly France and Scotland too.

Frequent visits to the sin bin generally point towards a lack of discipline in open play, but that is not the case with Borthwick’s side, who boast the second-lowest penalty count in the Championship. Only Warren Gatland’s young Wales outfit (9) has conceded fewer penalties than England (9).

So it’s not a team issue with discipline but rather individual lapses of judgment and stupidity.

Was George Ford’s denied conversion during England v Wales the correct call?

Scotland need to find the finishing touches

We said after round one that Gregor Townsend’s side needed to be more ruthless when they had the opposition on the ropes, and the same applies after round two. Sure, they manufactured a late opportunity to win the match back, but frankly, they should never have been in the position where they would have needed it.

Former Ireland hooker Bernard Jackman phrased it perfectly in his review of the match, stating that Scotland effectively wanted to ‘Park the Bus’, and while Jose Mourhino may have had major success with the tactic, Scotland did not.

They sat back and invited the pressure, and while France deserves credit for their fightback, they should really have lost that clash by quite a margin and are incredibly lucky to have left Murrayfield with a W.

French flair can still win tight Test matches

The French looked flat and fatigued in their opening two matches of the tournament, but there was still just enough flair to propel them to victory.

It was a wonderful score from livewire winger Louis Bielle-Biarrey, although it was paired with some suspect defence from Scotland and served as a stark reminder that the French can still pull something out of nowhere to sneak a win.

There wasn’t much on from that scrum position, but it was a superb carry from Francois Cros, an equally stunning pass from Nolann Le Garrec and then the brilliance of Bielle-Biarrey to capitalise.

The French might not be on top of their game at the moment, but they showed that if they are within a sniff in the latter stages of the match, they do still have some of that cliché ‘French flair’ in their back pocket.

Teams need to make decisions easier for officials

We couldn’t not address the elephant in the room or the no-try decision in the final play of the clash at Murrayfield. Former Scotland back-rower John Barclay described the TMO call as the “most unfair decision” he had “ever seen”, and he was joined by many of his countrymen in slamming the match-defining decision.

We can certainly understand the discourse and, on the balance of probability, think that the try was scored. While the TMO procedures were followed correctly, some blame does have to fall on Scotland, who did not make the decision easy for the officials.

It was reminiscent of the Ireland-Springbok World Cup pool stage match when South Africa attempted to drive their way over the line for a late score but were denied. On that day, the ball was deemed unplayable at the back of the maul, with many arguing foul play from the Irish forwards beforehand.

Rassie Erasmus spoke about how the Boks changed their approach in many facets of the game to ensure that they paint easy pictures for the officials to interrupt, and in this case, Scotland could have been better off doing the same.

During this attacking passage, just before Sam Skinner lunges for the line, Matthieu Jalibert, Damian Penaud, Yoram Moefana and Thomas Ramos are all tied up around the edges of the ruck, suggesting that there was perhaps some more space out wide if Scotland were willing to be more adventurous – something they have had massive success in doing particularly with the threats they have in the backline. Even if they weren’t, a more pragmatic and patient attack so close to the line could have served them in better stead.

Final play of the Six Nations match between Scotland and France in the 2024 Six Nations clash at Murrayfield.

Skinner was wrapped up in a double tackle when he went for the line with Posolo Tuilagi also flopping on top of the Scottish second-rower. It meant that there was not going to be much wiggle room for clarity in his grounding.

Much like players need to get lower in tackles and front-rowers need to present the correct body shape in the scrums to get favourable calls, this needs to extend to these kinds of situations when going for the line.

A Grand Slam looks increasingly likely

The Ireland camp might not be discussing it just yet and while Sunday’s game looked more like a training run than a Test match, back-to-back Grand Slams look more likely than ever.

Ireland’s ability to replace key players has often been questioned, but Sunday showed those concerns are a bit outdated.

Defeating France in their own backyard looked to be their biggest challenge this year. After emphatically completing the job, they now have many of their best players heading into round three after a two-week break.

They also have a reasonably favourable schedule left as Cardiff is never an easy place to visit, but this year, they face Gatland’s charges in Dublin. Farrell’s side then have an imposing trip to Twickenham to face a tricky England outfit, but they finish their campaign off in Dublin again as the Scots visit the Aviva Stadium.

It’s not plain sailing from here on out, but based on recent form, it is definitely obtainable.

READ MORE: Paul Gustard’s Six Nations Team of the Week: ‘Complete’ wing stars for Ireland while one Scot makes the cut