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Analysis: A tale of two eights

Analysis: A tale of two eights
  • CJ Stander and Grégory Alldritt have been named Guinness Six Nations Player of the Match in each of the first two rounds
  • The pair have helped their teams to two wins from two so far
  • Ireland travel to France in Round 5

With two wins from two under their new coaches and nine points apiece, France and Ireland have plenty in common through the first fortnight of the 2020 Guinness Six Nations.

While it is far too early to circle their Round 5 encounter in Paris as a potential title decider, there have certainly been promising signs from the teams under new coaches Fabien Galthié and Andy Farrell, both of whom have taken the top job having worked under their predecessor.

The other peculiarity of their opening two successes is that the same men have been named Guinness Six Nations Player of the Match in both games, No.8s CJ Stander of Ireland and France counterpart Grégory Alldritt.

The pair have vastly differing experience. Stander is now approaching 30, has been a fixture in the Ireland team for a half-decade and has been on a British & Irish Lions Tour.

ALLDRITT’S EMERGENCE

Alldritt, by contrast, is still only 22, and was a relative unknown when thrown in at the deep end a year ago.

Initially he served as Louis Picamoles’ understudy, but even before the France great called time on his Test career, Alldritt had been promoted to the starting No.8.

He appears to have taken another step forward during this year’s Championship, becoming France’s go-to man in their pack.

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That may be in part down to circumstance. But for injury, Camille Chat would likely have started the campaign as the first-choice hooker, and would have taken on some of the ball-carrying duties.

In his absence, Alldritt has provided much of the go-forward for Les Bleus, with 20 carries against Italy, easily the most of any player this weekend.

And while many of those were in tight, Alldritt is also a threat in open field, as his 149 metres made in the match attest.

That attacking input is substantial and was a large part of why he was promoted to the France side in what was just his second season of professional rugby last year.

What has stood out this season though, is how much of an effect he can have on the game on the other side of the ball.

Towards the end of his career, Picamoles established himself as a real threat at the breakdown and in Shaun Edwards’ defensive system Alldritt is thriving in that area, counter-rucking with gusto against Italy while also adding another key turnover to his collection.

In the first 20 minutes of Sunday’s match, Alldritt collected every Italian kick-off or restart, and spearheaded a ferocious French defensive effort that allowed them to open up an early lead.

Then just as half-time approached, he drifted out to the wider channel to be on hand when Antoine Dupont’s fine wide pass gave him the simplest of run-ins. The finish was easy, but it came from his reading of the game. He has now scored 16 tries since the start of last season for club and country combined, a remarkable number for a forward.

STANDER TURNOVERS

Alldritt’s carrying numbers are reminiscent of Stander in many ways. When he first broke onto the scene, the Ireland No.8 took the ball into contact more than any other player on a consistent basis. His power was often what Ireland would build their attack around.

And yet coming into this year’s Championship, his role had shifted slightly, starting the opening game at blindside flanker, funnily enough, where he started his Test career with Jamie Heaslip firmly entrenched at No.8.

It is another Leinster player, 21-year-old Caelan Doris, whose emergence led to Stander reverting to the blindside, but with his debut lasting a matter of minutes, Stander has spent the majority of the campaign back at No.8.

He still carries the ball a lot, although not quite to the absurd levels we saw in previous years. But where Stander has really made the difference this year is at the breakdown.

He won three turnovers in Saturday’s win over Wales, a week after his ability to snaffle ball swung the game against Scotland.

A late yellow card when going for one jackal too many may have blotted his copybook a touch but opposition teams know that if they get isolated and Stander is in the vicinity, they are in real trouble.

Both Ireland and France face their biggest challenges to date in Round 3, leaving home comforts behind to travel to Twickenham and Cardiff respectively.

If Stander and Alldritt can continue to influence games in the way they have so far, then their respective sides may yet carry their current form on the road with them.