As now appears inevitable, the Six Nations has once more produced two weekends of contrasting performances and two surprise results. The unashamed patriotism that accompanies the games always makes it difficult accurately to predict outcomes and I have little doubt that this will continue until the final round of fixtures.
I think it is safe to say that France have been the surprise package so far but in a negative fashion. Played two, lost two!!! After the promise of the Autumn internationals in which they comfortably defeated Australia and Argentina and seemed to be making progress in their more familiar way of playing the game, France appeared to have retreated into trench warfare based rugby and suffered the consequences.
They have not yet reached the point of disintegration but are on the path and the next game at Twickenham has now assumed real significance for the reign of Philippe Saint-Andre.
France’s progress has been hampered by both the selections and the style of play adopted. Morgan Parra is, on the evidence of the Heineken Cup, the top number nine in the Northern Hemisphere. Yet he has been relegated to a bench position for both opening games.
He is a typical French half back whose leadership and understanding of the game and its situation all help to drive his team forward – qualities not seemingly appreciated at present by the national management.
Freddie Michalak plays for Toulon. Who is the number ten and goal-kicker for Toulon? One Jonny Wilkinson. Who fulfils these two roles for France? Yes, you have guessed correctly – Michalak !!! Wesley Fofana has been a stand out centre all season in domestic and European competitions in France yet has been selected in a far less influential position for the national team on the wing.
There has also been a slow sea change in the style of French rugby since the advent of professionalism and the money swilling around in the Top 14. Largely gone (Clermont Auvergne are a distinct contradiction at this moment in time) are the moments of illuminating magic and flamboyance to be replaced by prescriptive, restrictive and fearful rugby – for the genuine fans of rugby here in the North it is a real sadness.
Scotland have undergone management surgery and produced two contrasting performances. At Twickenham, in their opening fixture, they were largely pinned on the back foot by England and rarely showed a willingness to fight their way out of this predicament.
The very least England’s players expect from a Scottish team is a mixture of real passion and an attempt at total disruption of the tackle area, but neither of these were evident. Bizarrely, given the recent difficulty Scotland have had in scoring Six Nation tries, they are presently the top try scorer in the tournament!
At last they have found a back three which can, given the opportunities, score tries from 80 metres or so! After the sobering performance against England, Scotland redeemed themselves in a potential banana skin of a game in beating Italy by thirty points at home.
The difference in approach? They attacked the tackle area both with and without the ball in a purposeful manner and reaped the rewards of quick and turnover ball to use. They now need a victory against one of the traditionally stronger teams to cement progress.
Italy also have had contrasting fortunes in their opening fixtures. A passionate and skilful victory over France was followed by an error strewn performance at Murrayfield. Under Jacques Brunel the Italians are beginning to produce a more dynamic approach to the game and are challenging defences in areas previously ignored.
This brought them great rewards against an admittedly poor French team in Rome, but at Murrayfield they were unable to marry this undoubted and welcome ambition with accuracy at pace. I do hope that they continue to develop this change in mindset as I have always felt that they have allowed games to slip through their fingers with their previously very structured approach.
I am sure that the Italians in Rome will have an influence on the final league table. It has never been an easy place to play and the move to the Olympic Stadium from the quaint Stadio Flaminio (my home ground for a while in the late 1970’s) has guaranteed far more passionate Italian support.
England are unbeaten and have demonstrated progress since the defeat of the All Blacks last year. There was the unanswered question of whether that result was a one-off but the two games so far have largely shown that it was not.
On the opening weekend England had a pretty easy ride against a Scotland team totally devoid of their usual patriotic exuberance. Having said that, England did demonstrate a willingness to attack with pace and ambition and, as the old story goes, you can only play what is presented in front of you. There were signs of a looseness developing in the last quarter of this game which would have been a concern had it been repeated in Dublin.
However, what Stuart Lancaster and his back room staff and players have changed dramatically, is the whole culture and demeanour of this squad. The year-long evolution has focused on Team Spirit before Team Work and is now beginning to pay dividends. This is essentially a group of tight knit youngish players with a willingness to work hard and for one another at all times.
The coaching team is relatively young but remarkably grounded and the players have emulated this. The behavioural change was in evidence in Ireland when in pretty poor conditions and under some provocative play from the Irish, the England players – Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell alongside the captain Chris Robshaw particularly – displayed a maturity that belied their youth to manage a game out of the reach of the Irish team.
England are slowly developing options throughout the squad and having put the aforementioned foundations in place over the last twelve months will now be looking to push on with the development of their game. I expect the selection of Billy Twelvetrees as a second five eight to continue and this should widen decision and play-making options. I also expect Stuart Lancaster to look at some point at an additional ‘Gas’ man in the back three to Chris Ashton, though both Goode and Brown have fulfilled their roles admirably.
After a rip-roaring first half in Cardiff, Ireland have meandered a little in what is a transition phase for them. They played some top drawer rugby against Wales with the ball in that first 40 minutes and, despite allowing Wales back into the game, showed a willingness to dig in without the ball in the second 40, making a total of 180 tackles in the game.
A win away then in Cardiff set them up for what many have judged to be the pivotal game of the tournament – England at home. As had been well documented England have failed to win for a decade in Dublin and I felt that the general thought was that this might be a step too far for a young England team at this stage.
Not so and Ireland made, in my opinion, a significant contribution to their own downfall in the difficult conditions. They may feel that they were not helped by losing Sexton and Zebo in the earlier exchanges, though Farrell had shown a shrewder grasp of how to play the game than Sexton had demonstrated.
In any case the replacement was that master of territorial rugby Ronan O’Gara who has kicked more than one team to death in an inclement Dublin. Without a consistent go forward foundation however he had to concede second best to Farrell on the day and a victory to England.
Ireland tactically therefore were on the back foot and this impossible area to play in was compounded by a couple of their forwards who were clearly mentally over the top and close to being out of control.
This was in total contrast to their younger opponents’ demonstration of maturity and had a clear effect on the outcome of the game. On a drier day Ireland have the players and the game to challenge the other teams in the tournament but they will need a return to the drawing board to discover a way to overcome obstinate but smart opponents and foul weather in the future.
Wales, on the back of eight straight defeats, achieved the second surprise result of the tournament by beating France in Paris. This was an important victory for a variety of reasons and no-one in Wales will care about the manner in the short term and the fact that France were dreadful!
Wales have had injuries to contend with during this run of defeats and it is no secret that the domestic game requires a drastic overhaul to re-ignite the traditional playing areas of Welsh Rugby and to attempts to prevent the drain of resources on such a wide scale of players to the more lucrative French Top 14.
However the majority of the players who won the Grand Slam and reached the semi-final of the World Cup in 2011 are still in contention and theoretically should be maturing all the time.
So why has this downward spiral of defeats come about? Many have questioned the wisdom of The Welsh Rugby Union to allow Warren Gatland a year’s unprecedented sabbatical to focus on the Lions trip to Australia later this year. It threw Rob Howley into the spotlight and Head Coach’s job almost by default and it may be a position he did not want or does not feel comfortable with.
Whilst looking back over the years is not always a good thing to do, the Welsh team historically has been full of wit and invention and pride, allied to a steeliness of purpose that often emanates from a less populated nation.
I am not convinced that this is readily apparent in the way they have played recently. They are a physically confrontational side, not least in the back division, but so are many other international sides.
At times their rugby becomes predictable and too reliant on route one/ play the same way rugby. From a Welsh point of view maybe the success in Paris will have a rejuvenating effect on the way they approach games and it must not be forgotten that they play England in Cardiff on the final weekend of the tournament, so could still be influential in this year’s once more unpredictable Six Nations.
What have you made of the Six Nations so far? Comments below…