After two rounds of fixtures there are just two unbeaten teams left in this year’s Six Nations. Ireland’s remarkable 32-19 win over France keeps their Grand Slam hopes alive, while Scotland then hammered Wales 35-7 in Murrayfield. On Sunday, Steve Borthwick got his first win as England coach as they dispatched Italy 31-14 at Twickenham. While Ireland’s performance was arguably the most impressive, the individual showing of the weekend goes to a certain Scottish fly-half and on Sunday, the courageousness of an England openside was repaid with a superb showing against Italy.
Finn Russell the man rugby needs
In rugby’s uphill task of securing the imagination of the younger generation, the powers that be need to look no further than Finn Russell as a key figure who can drive engagement and interest. With this Six Nations filmed by Netflix, capturing the box office nature of Russell can help grasp fresh imagination.
He is a one-man highlight reel, but his importance to Scotland lies far deeper than a mere flurry of flicks and kicks. He’s more than just a mercurial fly-half, and he has a Scotland team around him now which offers him the platform to change the shape and flow of a match.
But first the box office moments in Scotland’s 35-7 win over Wales, enough to flood social media multiple times over. The clip which will be replayed over and over again will be his backhand pass to tee up Kyle Steyn’s try in the 51st minute. You can imagine kids up and down the land tried to mimic it at mini-rugby on Sunday morning. The execution is a brilliant piece of intuitive brilliance, but the true skill lies in how he managed to fix three Welsh defenders and still get the back-of-the-hand pass through to Steyn. We’ve seen him try this before, but it doesn’t detract from the excellence.
He’d go on to play an integral role in Scotland’s next three tries. Six minutes after the backhand, Russell planted a perfectly weighted cross-kick into Steyn’s hands to allow him to run in. For Scotland’s wonderfully constructed fourth, it was his kick-pass to Duhan van der Merwe which opened up Scotland’s attack and caused panic in Wales’ defence. Van der Merwe dodged past Liam Williams and put the outstanding Blair Kinghorn over.
And then for the fifth and final try, he swung an effortless pass over to Matt Fagerson. But watch it in slow-mo and you see him momentarily pause to take an extra half-step before floating it into Fagerson’s hands to canter over.
Russell has always been an incredible talent. Stick his name into YouTube and you’ll have an array of brilliance spanning the last decade. But the difference at international level is he has a team around him where their solid spine and deadly finishers mean his opportunistic moments are now magnified into game-changing spins.
We’ve seen this before — like Scotland’s incredible comeback draw against England in 2019 — but it seems to be a different proposition now a far more frequent occurrence. Last week he changed the match against England as he dictated play at the key moments to give Scotland a winning platform. This week he was master puppeteer.
“You’ve just got to expect anything when you are with Finn,” Steyn said. “That’s what I learned through training and playing a couple of games with him. Whenever he’s there, you just try and hover in and around and tend to get something. You just got to back him. The problem is that he plays like he’s got so much time on the ball. I just want the ball now! So it’s more a case of holding my feet so that I don’t overrun him. Just give him time to do his thing.”
Russell and head coach Gregor Townsend have had a love-hate relationship. The personalities have clashed, sometimes Russell was too much of risk. He’s been exiled. He’s a complex character. But it’s all working in harmony again and it’s to the benefit of Scotland but also, rugby.
Willis shines two years on from brutal injury
Two years ago, playing for England against Italy at Twickenham, Jack Willis suffered a knee injury. In short, it was career-threatening. It took him 53 weeks to recover from the way his knee buckled under Sebastian Negri’s tackle to playing rugby again. His performance against Italy on Sunday completes the circle of recovery. He played 52 minutes against the Azzurri and was magnificent.
His first-half stats were off the chart. He made 16 tackles, one turnover and scored their opening try. The celebration as he crossed in the 12th minute was as much relief as adrenaline-induced. He’s played for England since that day back in February 2021, but this was the moment where he finally had the chance to put those awful memories of that incident to bed.
“I had a moment earlier today where I thought about it, and how grateful I am and the journey I’ve been on in the last couple of years, and how much my family have supported me on that,” Willis said. “My focus was now you’ve got that opportunity, how can you take it with both hands?”
It’s been a turbulent season for Willis. He started at Wasps and he’ll finish at Toulouse, with the RFU granting a rare exemption allowing Borthwick to pick those based overseas due to the demise of two Premiership clubs (Wasps and Warriors). The tricky logistics meant he only had a couple of training sessions with England before their match against Scotland so sat that out. But Willis has taken it all in his stride.
“We’re really pleased for him and his family,” Borthwick said. “He’s been through a lot, his injury yes, but also this last year he had to leave the club he grew up at, move overseas and take on a different competition. I’ve been really impressed by him and how desperate he is to play for England.”
He was one of three changes made by Borthwick ahead of Italy, and they got the job done. The Ollie Lawrence-Henry Slade partnership looked effective and they must be given time to grow, given Slade across his 53 caps has had 11 different centre partners. Lawrence was brilliant and offered a physical, tricky presence which England missed last week. Willis was outstanding at openside and should start again against Wales in a fortnight. And Henry Arundell showed why he’s tipped for greatness with a neat finish off the bench.
You can see hints of the Borthwick blueprint on England. They’ve re-found their roar in the maul — something that’s evaded them — as it delivered three tries: Willis’ in the 12th minute, Jamie George’s in the 36th and the second-half penalty try. The defence looked sturdy, but still coughed up two tries, while the attacking game is still taking shape.
“We’re trying to rebuild this team and we’ve taken some steps forward,” Borthwick said. “There’s plenty to improve on. We left plenty of chances out there. We were in a winning position late in the game last week but let it slip. We’ll have a good look at that to make sure we’re better.”
But if you’re looking for early signs of progress, you can look to England’s maul, the five-try victory and the mere fact Borthwick has a win as England coach in what was shaping up to be a tricky test. And to crown it all was Willis’ performance.
The opening match in Dublin on Saturday was one of the best Six Nations matches we’ve seen in recent memory.
We saw another monumental performance from No. 8 Caelan Doris. We saw James Ryan tackle anything and everything. There was another stand out showing from Damian Penaud for France, and there were also remarkable performances from Andrew Porter, Garry Ringrose and Hugo Keenan. It was box office.
But this match could have hugely important ramifications both in the present and looking forward. Head coaches have pretty much banned the words “World Cup” during this championship, but this was Ireland’s first win over France in the Andy Farrell era, having lost their previous three meetings.
Ireland have overcome a significant mental barrier with both teams — ideally — planning to face each other again in the World Cup final.
The Ireland-France game deserved far more than being tied up with a potential TMO blunder which allowed James Lowe’s 20th-minute try.
The angles offered at the time as Lowe grounded the ball one-handed in the corner failed to show definitively if his toe grazed the grass. They could only go off what was offered, but TV pictures later showed his foot appearing to be in touch. With all the technology offered, the game deserves more than ambiguity.
What to watch out for in Round 3:
It’s a fallow week, so the action returns on Feb. 25 with Ireland travelling to Rome looking to continue their Grand Slam bid against Italy. Then the action switches to Cardiff where Wales will be looking to get their first win of Warren Gatland’s second spell in charge against England. On Sunday, France host unbeaten Scotland in Paris. Scotland will go there full of hope given they are two from two, while France will look to get things back on track after falling to Ireland.