Rugby’s Greatest Championship continues to live up to that moniker after another weekend of top quality action that saw Ireland and Scotland make it two victories from two matches while England got their campaign back on track.
The world number one side ended France’s hopes of back-to-back Grand Slams and placed themselves top of the table but breathing down their necks are the Scots who recorded a record home winning margin over Wales in Edinburgh. Meanwhile, England are still unbeaten against Italy with Steve Borthwick now getting his first win as head coach. Here is what we have learned from round two of the 2023 Six Nations Championship:
Ireland set the standard for remainder of tournament
The first half between Ireland and France in Dublin was nothing short of sensational, simply 40 minutes of the two best teams in the world showing exactly why they are sitting on top of the rankings. It had everything from controversial calls to moments of individual brilliance in both attack and defence. The second half couldn’t quite live up to the same standards and was a cagier affair as Ireland held off the visitors for a monumental win.
It was a standard setting performance from Andy Farrell’s side who have shown the rest of the Six Nations sides how good they need to be to challenge the title favourites and the rest of the world what it is going to take to prevent them lifting the World cup later this year. The evidence of the tournament so far suggests they should win comfortably in Rome in week three with the trip to Murrayfield after that potentially looking like a title decider.
France fall short but there’s no cause for panic
The hope of back-to-back Grand Slams might be over but France are still very much in the title race with home advantage over Scotland in their week three match followed by ties against struggling Wales and England. What Les Bleus showed on Saturday is just how impressive they can look even in defeat. They were at their attacking best in the first half and just struggled to break down Ireland’s resilient defence once the home side got their noses a bit further in front.
There’s no need to panic after one defeat, even if they don’t go on to win the Six Nations Championship this year it’s clear that the real prize for them is the World Cup for which they will be hosts. They are likely to meet Ireland in either the quarter-final or semi-final stage if both teams progress that far and will have learned enough from Saturday to know they are more than capable of standing up to that challenge - as if that wasn’t already clear. Special mention goes to Antoine Dupont who was exceptional once again.
It’s Finn Russell’s world, we just live in it
Finn Russell was the player of the second round and was at his absolute best as Scotland recorded a record home victory over Wales at Murrayfield. It was an excellent result for Gregor Townsend’s side who have now started the competition with back-to-back bonus point wins and look to be mounting a credible title challenge at last - but there’s a long way still to go, starting with a daunting trip to Paris in round three.
If they are going to push on and challenge the strength of Ireland and France then Russell is clearly going to be crucial to everything they do. A strong defence hasn’t been as much of a concern in recent years for Scotland as their wastefulness in the opposition 22 but last Saturday showed how lethal they can be when their finishers are in tune with Russell’s creative excellence. Get the ball to his hands and magical things can happen, it’s as simple as that.
Light at the end of the tunnel looks a long way away for Wales
Things seem to be going from bad to worse for Wales and it feels like they could be a long, long way away from returning to anything even remotely resembling their previous best. Warren Gatland made some big selection calls, picking the players they hope will be future stars over the established names who have underperformed for the best part of a year in a red shirt. It may have given them some valuable test match experience but they were blown away by Scotland in the second half and were second in every area of the pitch.
Warren Gatland may be a legendary coach but he’s not a miracle worker and Wales look to be hurtling towards a Wooden Spoon decider with Italy in week four, barring a huge improvement when England visit Cardiff in round three which you can never rule out with that fixture. What looked like a straightforward World Cup pool when it was drawn must be incredibly scary for Welsh supporters. Fiji and Georgia will surely recognise they have a chance at history for their respective nations with a place in the knockout stage up for grabs if something doesn’t change soon.
England answer some questions as Borthwick gets out of the traps
Steve Borthwick has his first win as England head coach and, although it was far from perfect, it’s a step in the right direction for the former Leicester Tigers boss. The scoreline perhaps makes the match look more comfortable than it was, although they were well on top for large periods of the game the Italians were able to cause them a lot of problems and the drop in levels would have certainly been punished by an Ireland or a France.
Focusing on the positives though and making the call to finally choose one of Owen Farrell or Marcus Smith instead of a 10/12 combo of the two looks to have paid off. Ollie Lawrence demonstrated the benefit of a ball carrying 12 rather than a second playmaker in a Man of the Match performance that will almost certainly have put the debate to an end. Knowing his strongest XV is a crucial part of establishing the platform for Steve Borthwick to build on.
Reminder that Italy are still very much a work in progress
Although nobody was really getting carried away with Italy’s competitive defeat to France in round one it was still a bit disappointing to see them lose to England by such a comfortable margin. Even if they go the whole tournament without a win, being competitive for 80 minutes in all five matches would be a huge sign of improvement for the Azzurri after so many batterings in recent years.
There were positives to focus on for sure and they were even the better side for periods of the match but just could not sustain that level over the game as a whole. England capitalised on frustrating mistakes by the visitors and it could have been a different story if the Italians were just that little bit more switched on at key moments. One thing is for sure though, they will still very much fancy their chances against Wales in week four but will need to up their game considerably to avoid a hiding by Ireland in week three.