With the penultimate round of the Six Nations coming up this weekend, SWL has given each team its half-term report card by grading them based on their performance in the tournament so far.
Jess says: France took another stride towards the Six Nations title the weekend before last after their 36-17 dismantling of Scotland, and with a Grand Slam in sight, are showing no signs of slowing down.
Les Bleus produced some scintillating rugby in their latest bonus-point victory and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to see who can stop them.
Having previously seen off Ireland and Italy, they face a trip to Wales on Friday, followed by a potential title-decider against England at the Stade de France.
But as things stand, I simply cannot imagine any scenario in which the French are not crowned Six Nations champions come 19th March.
Ben says: It’s been a near-perfect showing from Les Bleus so far.
Three games, two bonus-points and some of the best rugby they have produced for over a decade.
Their free-flowing play has been fantastic to watch, but for the purists their game management has been even more impressive.
They carefully navigated a late comeback against Ireland and then stormed away from Scotland in the second-half at Murrayfield.
It hasn’t just been Antoine Dupont who has starred.
Wingers Damian Penaud and Gabin Villiere have three tries each and have tormented the Northern Hemisphere’s best defences.
Jess says: Ireland put in a very professional performance as they strolled to a 57-6 victory over Italy, but that is about all you can say.
Did we learn anything from a side playing against 13 men, even when a full 15 of Italian players were already massively outgunned? No.
Nevertheless, you have to beat what’s in front of you and Ireland did just that.
Despite falling to a 30-24 defeat against France in round two, they showed tremendous character to fight back from 22-7 down, picking up what could be a crucial bonus point in the process.
Taking into account their 29-7 drubbing of Wales in week one, it’s been a solid campaign for the Irish so far.
Ben says: I think most Ireland fans would happily accept their current position and form.
Routine victories against Wales and Italy came either side of a narrow defeat in Paris.
New faces including Mack Hansen and Michael Lowry have impressed and have gained invaluable test match experience with the World Cup just 18 months away.
Their ill-discipline in France and a slight lack of rhythm against Italy has given Andy Farrell a couple of minor issues to fix ahead of a crunch game at Twickenham.
Jess says: England’s frantic 23-19 victory over Wales was comfortably the best performance of their Six Nations campaign to date and showed exactly why they’re still in the title hunt.
Although Eddie Jones’ side were far from their fluid best, they looked far more disciplined throughout and punished a spirited Wales side to claim a narrow victory.
The opening day defeat in Edinburgh was not ideal, and for some it seemed to undo all the good work done in a successful Autumn Series.
While they have certainly not set the tournament alight, England are still in a good position heading into crunch matches against Ireland and France, and most importantly, remain in charge of their own destiny.
Ben says: Yes, England are third in the table and may yet win the Championship but their performances have been disjointed and inconsistent.
The lineout has been uncharacteristically poor and seen them concede possession at important moments against both Scotland and Wales.
Another headache for Eddie Jones comes in the centres and the question of how he sets his team up in the absence of Manu Tuilagi.
Henry Slade is improving as a 12 but he hasn’t been able to excel with either Elliot Daly or Joe Marchant outside him.
Mark Atkinson is the option most analogous to Tuilagi but thus far has been overlooked.
Jess says: Such is the magnificence of the current French side, it would be easy to give Gregor Townsend’s men a free pass after their humbling at home.
However, many predicted the final score to be much closer.
Perhaps Les Bleus would currently ease past any team in the world, but there were too many mistakes from a Scottish point of view, with Stuart Hogg’s knock-on coming to mind.
While they should have more than enough to see off Italy at the weekend, Scotland should look to their round one performance against England as the blueprint going forward.
Otherwise, it could be yet another disappointing Six Nations campaign.
Ben says: Scotland have had their moments but Gregor Townsend will be disappointed with a single victory at the halfway stage.
That Calcutta Cup success should have been a foundation from which to build but a home crushing by France, and more so the loss suffered in round two to an injury-ravaged Wales team was a devastating setback.
Like England, they have played well in spells but for a team considered to be Scotland’s best for some time it’s been an underwhelming start.
Jess says: While the defeat at Twickenham all but ended Wales’ hopes of defending their championship, there is ground for optimism.
A courageous second-half performance saw Wayne Pivac’s side battle back from 17-0 down to 17-12, but just come up short.
Despite being ravaged by injuries, Wales have managed to put their heavy opening defeat in Dublin well behind them, showing plenty of grit and determination in their recent match-ups with Scotland and England.
Wales face the French juggernaut in round four, but they will certainly test the favourites.
This young group of players will experience plenty more Six Nations campaigns in their future and will fancy their chances of going deep in the 2023 World Cup with a fully-fit squad.
Ben says: Injuries should no longer be considered an excuse for Wales.
They had the same problems in the autumn and this group of players are starting to become more familiar with one another and more akin to the demands of international rugby.
Wayne Pivac has an exciting centre partnership building in Nick Tompkins and Owen Watkin, and Taine Basham has been one of the breakout players of the tournament.
They recovered from a mauling in Ireland with a typically defiant display against Scotland and an encouraging second-half performance at Twickenham.
Jess says: Italy deserve credit for competing right until the last minute in their devastating loss against Ireland and I would say they defended rather tenaciously given the circumstances in the second half.
Nevertheless, that is little consolation to a team that has now suffered 100 Six Nations defeats and 35 in a row.
Unfortunately, a fighting spirit isn’t enough to win matches in this ever-competitive tournament and there is clearly a significant gap in quality between the Azzurri and the rest.
Although their upcoming fixture against Scotland provides them with the best chance of ending that torrid losing streak, it would take a minor miracle for Kieran Crowley’s side to claim such a triumph.
Ben says: It’s been a baptism of fire for Kieran Crowley and his Italy team.
They showed grit and determination in abundance in trying circumstances against Ireland.
The concern is that they’ve failed to cross the whitewash since the 18th minute of round one against France.
Pablo Garbisi has looked lively but support for the young fly-half has not been forthcoming.
Italy’s final mark hinges on whether they secure a first tournament win for seven years when they host Scotland this Saturday.
You can check out all of SWL’s Six Nations coverage here.
Featured image credit: Fanny Schertzer under CC BY-SA 3.0 license