Round Three of the 2023 Guinness Six Nations brought yet more drama.
Ireland remain the only team in the hunt for a Grand Slam after Scotland’s defeat in Paris, but Gregor Townsend’s side, along with England and France, all remain firmly in the hunt for the title. Wales and Italy meanwhile both suffered their third defeat of the Championship, leaving them with visions of the dreaded wooden spoon looming…
The OptaJonny team break down the action from Round Three.
Italy 20–34 Ireland
Ireland overcame Italy in a tough battle in Rome. It was a match that was more about attack than defence, with the home side making six line breaks to Ireland’s nine. The 15 line breaks in that game were the most in a Six Nations match so far this year.
In defence, those line breaks proved costly for both sides, with seven of them being converted into tries, also a match-high for this year’s Six Nations. In fact, the last game to see more tries scored following a line break was back in 2019, when England and Italy scored eight tries combined after breaking the defensive line.
Ultimately Ireland were the more prolific side, scoring from 56% of their line breaks (5/9), a tally only Scotland (vs England) and France (vs Scotland) have bettered in a match this year.
However, Italy caused Ireland plenty of problems, particularly in the wider channels. Ireland were playing a 9-10-12-13 combination made up from four different provinces and the cohesion in the back line understandably wasn’t quite as good as it had been in previous rounds. As a result, the Azzurri aimed to get the ball wide frequently, testing out Bundee Aki who was making his first Test start in the 13 jersey (although it is a position he is more than familiar with at club level).
Italy moved the ball wider than the first receiver on 47% of their phases against Ireland, the highest rate of any team in the Championship this year. Going into Round Three, no team had moved it wide on more than a third of their phases.
Marshalled by the returning Paolo Garbisi, Italy managed to get around Ireland’s defensive line and find some cracks in a unit that had shipped just two tries in the first two rounds. Gregor Townsend and Finn Russell will certainly have been taking notes.
The top teams in the world always find a way though and although it wasn’t a vintage Ireland performance, they did enough to secure the win with a reasonably comfortable scoreline.
Ireland have been one of the best sides when it comes to the breakdown and that was no different in Rome on Saturday. Andy Farrell’s men retained possession from 100% of their attacking rucks against Italy, a feat that has been managed just once in the Six Nations in this current Rugby World Cup Cycle (France in 2021 vs Wales). It wasn’t just the way Ireland protected the ball that was impressive, the sheer speed of their breakdowns made it hard for Italy to defend, the ball being available within 2.9 seconds – no other team had an average ruck speed under three seconds at the weekend.
Ireland will go to Edinburgh in two weeks’ time, aiming to keep their Grand Slam hopes intact against a Scotland side with title aspirations of their own. The men in green will have been concerned with aspects of their defensive game in Round Three, but they might just serve as a timely wake-up call before facing Finn Russell and co. in Round Four.
Wales 10-20 England
The build-up for this match was challenging for both camps, especially the home side, but once gameday arrived all attention turned to the pitch in Cardiff. Wales always seem to have an extra 10% of motivation when they play England and that was no different this weekend.
Despite the effort, their execution and gameplan still wasn’t there for Warren Gatland’s men. A third straight defeat marked their cards as genuine wooden spoon contenders, and their showdown with Italy will be a huge match for both sides.
England are still finding their feet under Steve Borthwick, but some standout performances from the likes of Freddie Steward, Ollie Lawrence and Ellis Genge carried them to a second win of the Championship which leaves them tied on 10 points with Scotland and France.
Steward picked up the Player of the Match award and his 13 catches from Welsh kicks played a large part in that, only one rare miss in the 68th minute blemishing a perfect day in the office for the Leicester Tigers star. That tally of 13 catches was the most by any player in a Six Nations match since Mike Brown snaffled 15/16 for England against Wales back in 2018.
Wales’ persistence to kick to Steward was baffling. Indeed he accounted for 62% of the defensive catches that England made, with only Max Malins (three) and Anthony Watson (two) also taking multiple catches.
Lawrence continues to look extremely comfortable in Test rugby. Getting over the gainline at a rate of 76% is impressive, with that number only bettered by Yoram Moefana amongst centres in this Championship. Meanwhile a dominant carry rate of 40% means he’s also mixing with the best.
Genge is becoming a more and more important figure for England. His heft in both attack and defence is unstoppable and provides real momentum on both sides of the coin. He’s made a remarkable 20 carries over the gainline in his 169 minutes of action so far, the most of any front-rower and that rate of 9.5 such carries per 80 minutes is the best of any player in the Championship this year to have played 80 minutes.
Oh and by the way, look who is second on that list…
For Wales one simple graphic sums up their tournament so far, and it doesn’t really need many words to tell the story…
They’re creating chances but just 0.86 points per 22 entry is not good enough to win matches. A trip to Rome awaits in a couple of weeks for Gatland and his men and in these two weeks he’ll need to devise a new strategy to break down their defence and also stop them in their tracks.
The Azzurri may be 0/3 in this Championship, but they’ve genuinely tested each side they’ve faced, and their confidence will be sky high as they try and record back-to-back wins against Wales.
France 32-21 Scotland
After two wins from two, Scotland headed to Paris with a real spring in their step last week and they’ll have fancied themselves to have taken the spoils against a France side reeling from defeat to Ireland. In what was the 100th meeting between the sides, the visitors fought valiantly and came back from 19 points to trail by just four in the closing stages. In fact, when Ethan Dumortier crossed for Les Bleus’ second try of the afternoon and with Scotland already down to 14 men, Opta’s Live Win Probability model had Scotland with just a 2% chance of winning the match. After almost exactly an hour of playing time later, Finn Russell’s try and conversion brought Scotland within four points of France and with a 24% chance of going on to steal victory.
However, a few unforced errors at crucial stages cost them, and they ended up flying home with no Championship points in their carry-on luggage at all.
Two red cards in the opening exchanges made for an entertaining and extremely open game, where almost every attack seemed destined for the try line. Both sides tried to exploit the extra space where possible, especially from first phase. This flamboyance and bravery in attack is no doubt led by the mercurial Finn Russell. Of all teams in the Six Nations this year, Scotland have opted to move it wide most often (14%).
If you look at their matches on the whole in the Championship this year and last, the ball is moved wide by both sides on average 11% of the time, the most often in any side’s matches.
Quite often the quickest way to get the ball wide isn’t via the hands, but rather Russell’s expert footballing skills. He’s attempted seven cross-field kicks in this Championship, five more than anyone else, with five of those being successfully retained and two leading directly to tries.
France, despite Mohamed Haouas’ moment of madness, got their Six Nations campaign back on track and Gael Fickou’s last-gasp try not only secured the victory but also a potentially vital try-scoring bonus point.
Thomas Ramos was a key figure for the hosts, scoring 17 points, including a try, and generally proving a real menace with ball in hand. His tally of 151 metres gained was the second most by a French full-back in a Six Nations match (Thomas Castaignède, 186 vs Italy in 2000) and the most by any France player overall in the Championship since Noa Nakaitaci made 169 vs. England in 2015.
Overall the hosts were extremely clinical, scoring from four of their seven line breaks in the match. This conversion rate (57%) has only been bettered by Scotland (67%, 4/6 vs England) in this year’s Championship. With three sides tied on 10 points behind Ireland, France are in prime position should the leaders slip up in the closing two rounds, although a tough trip to Twickenham is next up against an unpredictable but talented England outfit.