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Six Nations: Grand Slam not France's just yet

The Six Nations is now two rounds old and with this being a fallow week, it feels the perfect time to assess the action so far.

France are the only side to have won both of their games and are 6/4 to claim their first Grand Slam since 2010.

However, they have been far from perfect and still need to emerge unscathed from trips to both Edinburgh and Cardiff.

Meanwhile, after an opening defeat to Scotland, England sit second in the table but have work to do, while third-placed Ireland produced the performance of the tournament to beat Wales first time out, only to fall to Les Bleus on Saturday.

Scotland retained the Calcutta Cup in round one, but inconsistency remains their enemy, losing to injury-plagued Wales over the weekend. The Welsh could now kick on, but the same is unlikely for Italy, who prop up the table and have conceded 10 tries in their two matches.

Six Nations Standings

TeamPWLDBonusPoints
France220019
England211026
Ireland211026
Scotland211015
Wales211004
Italy202000

France far from the finished article

After a couple of years of impressive progress under Fabien Galthie, France continue to make strides in the direction of where they want to be ahead of next year's home World Cup - Les Bleus are 5/2 to win World Cup 2023 and seem to have the raw materials to be crowned world champions for the first time.

Up front, they have pure power, unrivalled athleticism and incredible grit, while their back-line is supreme, with full-back Melvyn Jaminet emerging as a world-class goalkicker.

Arguably the find of the Six Nations has been wing Gabin Villere, who is 6/5 to be crowned the tournament's top try-scorer.

After opening the competition with his country's first hat-trick since Vincent Clerc in 2008 in the 37-10 win over Italy, the 26-year-old backed it up with a fine defensive effort in the 30-24 victory against Ireland.

The question is, where is Romain Ntamack? The mercurial fly-half has shown the odd moment of magic, but will need to produce a more rounded performance against Scotland on 26th February.

With Mathieu Jalibert on his way back from a thigh injury, who gets to wear the number 10 shirt heading into the World Cup will be a major talking point over the next 18 months and that decision could define this France side's future.

While they have all the ingredients to be crowned world champions, Les Bleus' occasional moments of madness suggest that now is the time to make the big calls in order to develop the consistency still lacking in their game.

Ireland must emerge from Sexton shadow

For once, there's a chance that Ireland are not set to peak a year out from the World Cup. While they dazzled in their opening 29-7 win over Wales, they lacked the physicality to really squeeze the French last Saturday.

Coach Andy Farrell insists they are still in the tournament, with them 7/2 to win the competition, and next up is the perfect chance to respond as Italy head to Dublin.

Johnny Sexton is expected to recover from the hamstring injury that sidelined him in Paris in time to face the Azzurri, but it might be wise to rest him. Sexton's brilliance as both a playmaker and a leader has made him undroppable, therefore, Ireland's issues have come when he has been injured.

That was the case at the World Cup 2019 and Jack Carty and Joey Carbery were unable to step up. In fairness to Carbery, he too had injury issues in Japan and has struggled for regular gametime since.

The 26-year-old finally made his first Six Nations start in Paris and produced a composed display, growing in confidence as the match went on.

After kicking a match-winning penalty against New Zealand last year, now could be the time to give him a run so that he knows the playbook should he be called upon.

Saturday's defeat also gave lock James Ryan a run as captain, while back-row Caelan Doris shone and a try scorer Mack Hansen possess the nous the side has lacked at times on the big stage, taking advantage of French indecision from a restart to run in for his maiden international score.

Despite being 36, Sexton remains a star. However, he can't go on forever but there are now signs that there are others that can lead the side.

Same old Scotland

After battling past England, the stage was set for Scotland to take the next step in their development on Saturday. However, on a rainy afternoon in Cardiff, they failed to ignite, this time being on the wrong end of a 20-17 scoreline.

Wales were missing over 700 caps worth of experience through injury, but still battled it out for a morale-boosting victory. In contrast, the Scots were left kicking themselves as once again, they failed to back up and after winning their Six Nations opener.

The script was written for them to claim a first win in Cardiff since 2002, but they fluffed their lines.

Not for the first time, the Scots could not impose themselves on the game and Finn Russell's yellow card for a deliberate knock-on with 12 minutes to go with the game in the balance hinted at a mental fragility that has plagued his team in recent years.

Gregor Townsend will be digging deep to try and find a way to get his players to embrace the pressure of being favourites. After decades of playing the underdog, the Scots still don't seem able to change their mentality.

Conversely, it might work for them next time out. France visit Murrayfield on 26th February and, having ended Les Bleus' Grand Slam hopes in 2020, they are 11/5 to repeat the trick.

Related Six Nations News

Six Nations: Round two talking points

Six Nations: Slam hopes hinge on Paris battle

Six Nations: Tough to be a perfect 10 and a captain

Six Nations: Can 2022 match past Calcutta Cup classics?

New era for England

Just like he did a couple of years out from World Cup 2019, Eddie Jones has spent the last 18 months or so remodelling his squad with an eye on next year's tournament in France.

The Australian continued his attempt to rewrite the rulebook as far as what number plays in which position for the opening defeat in Scotland, but went back to basics for Sunday's win in Italy.

True, the team was probably picked months before the trip to Rome, but the inclusion of Bristol's Harry Randall at scrum-half meant the Harlequins duo of number eight Alex Dombrandt and fly-half Marcus Smith were connected by a number nine with similar fizzing qualities to their club-mate Danny Care.

Ben Youngs came off the bench to equal Jason Leonard's record of 114 caps and is expected to surpass the prop in the round three clash against Wales, a match England are 10/11 to win when given a -14.5 deficit in the two-way Handicap.

However, the extra zip brought by Randall and Sale's Raffi Quirke provide Jones with genuine options in the one position he has failed to evolve since taking over.

Italy can take a leaf out of Wales' book

Reigning champions Wales may struggle to defend their crown with so many injuries, but Saturday's success over Scotland means they are at least likely to avoid the Wooden Spoon.

Driven by captain Dan Biggar's determination, Wayne Pivac's patched-up side ground out the victory and similar to Ireland, the game saw the likes of Adam Beard, Ryan Elias and Owen Watkin emerge as leaders.

Wales are 40/1 to defend their crown and are still to host France and Italy. The latter visit Cardiff on Super Saturday and are unlikely to have recorded a single point by that stage.

Kieran Crowley's men have shown plenty of heart in defeats to France and England, but an 80-minute performance still appears beyond them and they have now lost 34 Championship matches in a row, a run stretching back to 2015.

Inevitably, the argument regarding the validity of their place in the tournament has been reignited.

However, what good would dropping them do? If they go to a level below, they'll likely crush the majority of sides they face, while the team that replaces them would take over their mantle of underdogs.

The bright side is that like Wales, they do have a lot of young players coming through, with their under-20s beating their English counterparts 6-0 on Friday.

With confidence low amongst their established stars, now might be the time to go all out and blood those fresh faces.

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