1) Wales ride wheel of fortune
Wales’s head coach, Wayne Pivac, admitted his side had enjoyed moments of fortune in their opening three victories, but a year ago they were on the wrong side of the (English) referee when they lost at home against France, two decisions in particular costing them. A feature of their campaign is that they have been quick to react, coming from behind against Ireland and Scotland, admittedly with a man advantage, and responding after England closed a 10-point lead. When they won the grand slam in 2019, they looked to dominate opponents and wear them down but this year they have been more opportunistic and quicker in thought. Aware of their limitations, they have made the most of fortune and as a collective they were more organised and aware than England who were too slow to deal with the unexpected.
2) England suffer at hands of French referees
At least England will not have a French referee in their next match. Five of their past eight defeats have come when an official from the other side of the Channel has been in charge. Included in that number is their 13-6 defeat in Cardiff before the 2019 World Cup when Pascal Gauzere had the whistle and allowed Dan Biggar to take a penalty quickly when Anthony Watson was still on the pitch making his way to the sin-bin. Go back to the 2015 World Cup and their two group defeats were controlled by Frenchmen as was their next loss, in Ireland in 2017. Gauzere got it wrong when he allowed Biggar to kick a penalty to Josh Adams on the left wing when, on his orders, England were in a huddle listening to their captain, Owen Farrell, tell them to improve their discipline. And again when he ignored Louis Rees-Zammit’s knock-on in the build-up to Liam Williams’s try. England will not make a complaint to World Rugby, but they should not need to.
3) Self-destruction through indiscipline
France supply more referees to the Test panel than any other country and they are, generally, consistent in their application of the law. From the start on Saturday, Gauzere was strict on players entering a breakdown from the back, not the side, and remaining on their feet. It is part of the game’s drive to reduce head injuries by applying laws governing the ruck, but it was enforced earlier in the Top 14 than the Premiership and England lost against Wales primarily because they did not react to the way Gauzere was refereeing and carried on regardless. Having fought back to 24-24, they self-destructed by conceding three penalties they could not dispute, all in positions where their line was not under threat. Maro Itoje has been touted as an alternative captain to Farrell, but he conceded the first of them, his fifth of the match. No leaders, no lead. Decisions cost them 14 points. They lost by 16.
4) Smith left to survey Roman ruins
Italy’s head coach, Franco Smith, said after his side’s 30th successive defeat in the Six Nations that he did not expect his young side to be competitive at the top for up to eight years. An Ireland team on a three-match losing run in the tournament won comfortably and for all Italy’s attacking intent their defence has conceded 12 tries in two matches to two cautious sides after the defeat against England. “We have to crawl before we can walk,” said Smith, but it is not just the defeats his side are slumping to but the manner of them: their past 10 have been by an average of 30 points and it is three years since they secured a losing bonus point. “We have to support these guys because in seven or eight years when this team will be competitive against everyone.” As the Six Nations enters a commercial partnership which will be all about the bottom line, the question will become whether the tournament is better off without a team who always talk about tomorrow.
5) Sexton looks to have more in tank
Johnny Sexton is at an age when his rugby obituary has been penned and every defeat, indifferent display and injury brings its deadline day forward. The Ireland fly-half drives himself on with the 2023 World Cup his destination. He recognises he will have to pause at each stop along the way but with Joey Carbery’s injury disrupting Andy Farrell’s succession plan he remains a central figure in the squad. Having missed the defeat against France in the previous round, his selection for a match when the question was how many Ireland would win by was regarded as a failure to address the future, but the victory bore his fingerprints as he schemed and coaxed and if he is looked after, rested each summer perhaps, he may well make it to France. Whether his half-back partnership with Conor Murray does is another matter: Craig Casey’s cameo from the bench in Rome suggested it will not.