If the beginning and the end of this year’s Six Nations were rather alluring bookends, what appeared in the middle was a very dull read and in hindsight we would have been tempted to skip a few chapters.
Even now, the horror facts behind the Scotland v Wales game still grate. There was a record number of penalties scored, meaning that the crowd had to endure a full half an hour of goal kickers lining up and interminable scrummages, more than 50% of which ended in penalties, cue the goal kicking.
It’s been a shambles and the referees have had a major part to play when they should be as invisible as possible. They may say that they are only following the laws, but even the best practitioners in the dark arts, like Brian Moore, are completely mystified by some decisions.
Right now there are only two debates in town. Firstly how and why England blew the Grand Slam along with their implosion as an attacking force. And secondly whether the Welsh team might take their jerseys home and get their mums to sew on a Lions badge instead because there’s only one team worth looking at.
Also I am bored to tears with the debate raging over Steve Walsh’s performance in Cardiff penalising the English scrum off the park, as if the result would have been affected. Teams certainly scrummage now for penalties and not as an attacking platform to score tries.
The record low numbers of tries scored – half the number of ten years ago – has also been attributed to strong defence coaching and some very poor weather. It had been imagined that more space being created from scrums for the attacking sides would be a positive but the reverse has happened. These were definite factors this year, but somewhat miss the point.
Let’s get something straight first of all – England were not good enough to be a Grand Slam side, and although I was dreaming of it like all Englishmen, I stressed a number of times it was due to other teams deficiencies.
It’s a fact that as soon as England came up against a side playing with power and pace, we crumpled. But the writing was already on the wall. I completely admire the way in which Lancaster turned a disparate rabble (no other word for it) into a cohesive, committed and loyal group of wannabes. He tapped into a nationalistic desire to feel good about their rugby team.
This England side has proved nerveless in scraping some unlikely wins, with one or two genuinely quality performances thrown in – France last year and the All Blacks in November. A record of 8 wins out of 10 in the Six Nations is hardly a performance to be sneezed at. But the team became progressively less effective over the tournament, and by the time England arrived at Cardiff, the notion of scoring a try was as likely as a quality fly-half taking the field for France.
Lancaster’s selections have been highly questionable in the key midfield and back three positions. He had all the encouragement he needed after Scotland to keep Twelvetrees at 12, as the playmaker. He put pace on the line, gave Farrell options and crucially can pass the ball.
There is absolutely no excuse for picking two non passing centres instead, and this was a deliberate strategy, as much as persisting with Ashton and Brown on the wing. Goode is a safe bet in bad weather, but has no pace so adds little in attack.
The broadsheet media have been so in love with the new access they enjoy, that none of them dared disagree with the England hierarchy, and now they don’t know where to turn to explain what’s gone wrong. It’s laughable, especially when it was so obvious.
The continuing stunning performance of one of my favourite players in English rugby, Elliot Daly of Wasps, shows that there’s plenty of depth in England. What worries me is that Lancaster and his coaches lack playing ambition with the attendant risks attached.
I want to see an upward curve in the WAY we play, alongside good results, which makes sides fear us and marks us out as genuine World Cup contenders something which we currently are not. A hot half hour versus the beach-bound All Blacks is not good enough. The England back performances over the last ten Internationals are way short of the mark, and it’s not that we don’t have the players. Wayne Smith would never have settled for this, which of course is why Lancaster was desperate to recruit him.
England’s conservatism and ultimately poor selections may have reduced significantly their Lions representations. But they are young and talented with a great attitude – Gatland will feel he can integrate them into a more ambitious framework as evidenced by the last two years of Welsh performances.
I expect Ireland to be well represented in the Lions as they were the unluckiest team in the Six Nations and have some real talent on offer. The Scots forwards aggression and physicality will command some attention, so expect an evenly balanced squad, although the dominant figures on tour will have been wearing red all season.
As I sign off at the end of a long International season, I look back to my near obsession with the importance of the key midfield positions, and find myself even more convinced. It’s not too late to change…