England v Wales 2022

England’s own errors cost them the game in Murrayfield, a combination of choosing to kick for the posts instead of going to the corner and Luke Cowan-Dickie finding himself on the wing to defend a cross kick against Darcy Graham made the difference in a game where they dominated both territory and possession.  In round two a combination of the 6 changes Eddie Jones made and an inexperienced referee made it very difficult to draw many conclusions from a 33-0 win over Italy, really the only standout from that game was Alex Dombrandt, so presumably he’ll retain his place this week against the nation he represented at Under 20 level (purely because he studied in Cardiff and was more of a cricketer before he attended University).  Wales on the other hand were easily brushed aside by Ireland in a windswept Dublin back in round one and then made 4 changes themselves before struggling to a 3 point win over Scotland who haven’t won in Cardiff since 2002.

Against Scotland England had 54% of the possession and in Rome that number improved to 59%, however the territory statistics from both games are significantly different, while they really dominated in Edinburgh with 62% territory and spent just 6 minutes and 3 seconds in their own half in the second game against Italy they only had 42% of the territory and spent almost twice as long in their own territory, 11 minutes and 58 seconds.  All this really displays is Italy didn’t really have a cutting edge in attack, they obviously scored 0 points per visit to the opponent’s 22 compared to England’s 2.5 points per visit (Itoje and Slade had tries disallowed so it could have been a much more impressive 3.6) but it mostly illustrates how unconcerned England were at the prospect of Italy regaining the ball in their half and counter-attacking.  Against Scotland England’s points per visit was just 1.2 as they preferred to kick goals rather than kick for touch compared to Scotland’s 3.4 (who only managed 1.8 against Wales as Wales managed some vital turnovers when defending in their own 22) so they haven’t exactly been at their most clinical so far in this tournament.

In Dublin Wales managed a measly 1 point per visit as they looked both overpowered (and conceded 14 penalties leading to just seven 22 visits) and impressively disorganised in both attack and defence (Ireland only managed 2.1 ppv as they missed kicks at goal and had a try ruled out by the TMO) but they improved to 2.8 ppv when they hosted Scotland as Dan Biggar kicked some close range penalties and a drop goal inside the 22 in addition to Tomas Francis’ rolling maul try.  In terms of possession and territory Wales’ statistics against Ireland were understandably poor (although they could have been much worse considering they only scored an interception try late on), they had just 43% of the territory and only 40% of the possession, although 48.3% of their possession was in their own half and they did spend half as long in Ireland’s territory than Ireland did in theirs (7 minutes and 42 seconds compared to 13 minutes and 50 seconds).  Against Scotland however they had 50% of the possession and 55% of the territory, a large part of that was a result of Scotland kicking the ball to Wales, according to the Six Nations own statistics Stuart Hogg kicked the ball 63% of the time he had it (compared to Hugo Keenan’s 19% the previous week), it’s also important to note Ireland’s kicking was much shorter and designed for them to retain possession which is something that you would expect England to learn from this week.  If Wales are looking for positives this week they definitely improved with the ball, but they have only scored two tries in two games.

Whilst Wales have definitely made progress in their attacking game their defence still seems worryingly fragile, they missed 22 tackles against Ireland (out of 231) and against Scotland where they had more possession they actually conspired to miss 25 (out of 226). If they are actually concerned about this is difficult to know though as their defensive strategy seems to involve creating turnovers more than stopping the opposition making easy yards, in an NFL parlance they’re happy to bend but don’t want to break. A lot of the tackles that are missed are in the wide channels as they almost deliberately defend very narrow (it seems nonsensical to leave the empty space they do out wide but a returning Jonathan Davies may correct the issues they appear to have with their “spacing”) as they resource rucks more than most teams in an attempt to win turnovers or penalties. Winning turnovers is a key part of their attacking plan which appears quite a risky proposition and requires a certain level of sympathy from the referee (although can also lead to attacking players losing ther discipline as they clear out defenders which is why so many players were sent off against Wales last season). Contrastingly England’s defence has improved, after missing 17 tackles in Edinburgh they missed just 10 against Italy (France only missed seven against Italy, but that’s Shaun Edwards for you), England’s defence coach is also a former rugby league player Australian Anthony Seibold and he puts a real emphasis on line speed (most do), but this has lead them to concede 5 penalties for offside in the first two games. The other reccuring discipline problem plauging England is at the breakdown, they’ve given away 8 penalties at the ruck so far and that either means they’ve been competing hard as Wales try to do but with more enthusiasm than control or that they’ve struggled to correctly resource their own rucks and had to hold on to the ball which will be music to Gareth Williams the Welsh breakdown coach’s ears.

England have scored 6 tries in the tournament so far but 5 of them came in the game against Italy who were really completely devoid of inspiration and by the end of the game had missed 19 of the 216 tackles they had been asked to make so it was by no means a sparkling attacking display from the visitors who had two tries disallowed by the TMO and made 14 handling errors as they struggled to gel as a unit. Both teams only managed a single try against the Scots though so this could be a very even contest and if it becomes a staccato affair with Mike Adamson being a particularly fussy referee who struggles to keep up with long passages of play it could benefit Wales. Alternatively a lot of set pieces should favour England who appear set to name a gargantuan team with the return of 113 kg Courtney Lawes in a back row with 110 kg Tom Curry and 118 kg Alex Dombrandt whilst Wales will be missing three of their most experienced forwards and the promising Christ Tshiunza.

Twickenham should be bathed in sunshine on Saturday and that could make for a really interesting game with an England backline who want to attack but haven’t really clicked just yet and a Welsh back three who want to counter attack from any loose kicks as they thrive running in a broken field. However the England backline will only be able to attack effectively with quick ruck ball and Wales will do everything in their power to prevent them generating that so it will be a battle in the contact area and how the officials interpret it may well decide the game. Wales haven’t won at Twickenham since the Rugby World Cup in 2015 and their last 6 Nations victory was back in 2012 so it would be a surprise if they left west London with a result this week and since this is their first home game in 2022 it wouldn’t be at all surprising if this is the game where England’s attack find their feet. The creativity of Max Malins out wide against the narrow Wales defensive line is setting off all sorts of alarm bells for me and with Louis Rees-Zammitt’s omission there’s a real lack of pace in the Wales team who have been struggling to score tries so the smart money is on a comfortable England win, 27-10 or somewhere in that ballpark.

AFC Wildcard game 1 – Baltimore Ravens @ Pittsburgh Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers made it 21 divisional titles (granted that division’s title has changed from the AFC Central to the AFC North over the years, but still) on Sunday Night Football when they beat the Bengals last weekend. The last 2 times the Steelers won their division they appeared in the Super Bowl so they’re no stranger to long playoff runs.
If they are to go deep into the postseason this year they will need defensive stalwarts Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor be healthy and back to their vintage best, which they haven’t really been all season, they could also do with Pro Bowl Running back LaVeon Bell to be 100% fit, which after Reggie Nelson’s crunching hit to his right knee is looking increasingly unlikely. Bell’s knee injury is such a worry for the Steelers that they’ve been trying out Ben Tate this week, the Steelers would be Tate’s 3rd different team this season, but needs must and all that. If they do sign another running back I would imagine it’d be to compliment the 2 talented rookies they have rather than replace LaVeon Bell as the main back, with a short turn around between their Sunday Night Football game last week and their Saturday night playoff game it’d be tricky for Tate to learn the entire playbook. Bell’s loss will mean the Steelers will have to adapt their offense quite a lot this week as Bell is 2nd only to Pro Bowl Wide Receiver Antonio Brown in receiving yards, Brown lead the NFL in yards and with his 854 Bell was 40th in the league. Short passes will be the key for the Steelers offence against a Ravens defence that has recorded 49 sacks this season, Tight End Heath Miller who is master at finding the spot in a zone defence stands to be a key target for Ben Roethlisberger and I’d expect a few screen passes to youngsters Martavius Bryant and Dri Archer who have some serious speed. The 6 foot 4 inch Bryant ran a 4.41 second 40 yard dash at the NFL Combine and Archer ran the fastest time at the combine (4.26 seconds) which is no surprise for someone who clocked a 10.49 100 metre time as a High School student.
The Ravens are not without their own considerable injury problems with a massive 18 players on the Injured Reserve list and 4 more players struggling to practice this week just reaching the postseason is a gargantuan feat in itself. After the controversial exit of their former Running back Ray Rice (not controversial because it wasn’t warranted, but controversial because the NFL’s indefinite ban was overturned in court) early in the season and star Defensive Tackle Haloti Ngata being banned for 4 games for failing a drug test, the Ravens could be forgiven for struggling through 2014 and starting a fresh next season. It’s a mark of their resilience not just as a team but as an organisation that they’ve made a potentially traumatic time into a relatively successful season. On the field the Ravens have averaged an impressive 664.9 yards per game and have averaged 25.6 points per game, with the Steelers averaging 411.1 yards and 27.3 points per game this doesn’t appear to be one of the titanic battles of field position that the AFC North traditionally served up. In fact when these teams met at Heinz Field in early November there was a total of 66 points, 43 for the Steelers and just 23 for the Ravens and LaVeon didn’t have his best game that night either, he managed just 58 total yards from scrimmage and wasn’t even the Steelers best rusher. Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown did tear the Ravens secondary to pieces though with Roethlisberger throwing for 340 yards and a whopping 6 touchdowns and Antonio Brown being on the receiving end of 11 passes for 144 yards and a touchdown.
I think the Steelers should win this game too because they have only lost 2 home games all season and they were both against NFC South teams. It should be closer than their previous meeting but 2 inconsistent defensive backfield’s on show there could be almost as many points as the Pittsburgh faithful saw in week 9. The one thing you know about any Steelers matchup with the Ravens is there will be no shortage of physicality and even with the improvement the Steelers offensive line has made over the course of this season the loss of LaVeon Bell’s blitz recognition and pass blocking will mean Ben Roethlisberger will be under constant pressure when he drops back to pass.