This has been an odd and certainly not a vintage Six Nations. However we now have at the Millenium Stadium next weekend the two most consistent teams going head-to-head for the title.
There have been some common themes running through this year’s tournament which have led to frustrating viewing for many.
Scrummages are now dominating the game as never before. Not necessarily as establishing platforms from which to play, but because they take up a ridiculous amount of time in each contest. On Saturday in the Ireland v France game the first scrum took two and a half minutes to complete ( if that is the correct word !) and ended with a free kick to France.
This was not an isolated incident and it would appear that the IRB Laws committee need to take yet another look at this area of the game. Certainly at present it is in real danger of demeaning the spectacle.
At Murrayfield in the Scotland v Wales game, during which neither side showed much ambition to play, the whole match was punctuated with penalties, many given at the scrum. Worse still, and short-changing the paying customers, the clock ticks on through these interminable contact contests, ensuring that valuable playing time is eliminated.
That old chestnut of the application of advantage is also causing confusion for many both on and off the field. Some referees encourage teams to get on with the game whilst others allow five or six bites at the cherry before returning to the original offence.
Almost all advantage situations result in turnover ball – the dream of any attack minded side. The ball is received when the opposition are at their potentially most vulnerable and to be allowed to play through a number of phases only to return to the original offence to profit from this should not be a part of the mindset of the professional player.
He should be technically, physically and tactically smart enough to take an immediate advantage. In the England v Italy game on Sunday there was a multi-phase meandering attack allowed before the referee returned to the original offence which I suspect many players and spectators had forgotten!
Players should be obliged to have a more opportunistic, optimistic and positive outlook in using turnover ball, not just going through the motions and relying on the referee to give them a second chance.
Gerald Davies, ex Welsh great of the 70’s and manager of the Lions in South Africa in 2009, wrote last Friday of the increase of searching for contact when running with the ball. The concept of attacking space has taken second place and the whole approach of physicality (an essential part of the game ) without intelligence seems to dominate.
The game of intellectual challenge and creativity, in addition to searching out space, is seen but rarely and it could be argued that the Wesley Fofana try for France v England has been the only wow moment of the tournament so far.
Even this was misinterpreted by many in the media as just poor defence and not great individual running skill !!!
The two teams contesting the championship title this weekend, Wales and England, have moved on in different ways since the first two rounds. Wales have now won 3 from 4 and all on the road!
After the traumatic Australia tour and the poor results in the Autumn Internationals they will be mightily relieved to get back on the winning track. Theoretically they should be looking to blow England’s Grand Slam hopes out of the water in front of their own supporters.
But I suspect that they may well have to offer more challenge in attack if they are to trouble the England defence. Wales have kicked a great deal more than they did in winning the title last year and, given the limitations England have shown so far in running ball back successfully, Wales may feel that this is a legitimate tactic. But given the potential in their back division I am sure they will look to pose a more varied and measured challenge.
England scrambled through a game against an eventually very competitive Italian side at Twickenham to keep the Grand Slam hopes alive. Technically their basics were not up to scratch. The attacking game was very lateral with a great deal of in-to-out running that played right into the hands of the Italian slide defence. Adding in a multitude of miss passes ensured little or no threat.
The England pack also had a thorough examination in the scrum by Italy, who in the previous game had been totally outplayed in this area by Wales. It will be interesting to see the outcome of this on Saturday, always assuming of course that a decent contest is allowed to develop.
Saturday was the first occasion in the Championship in which England seemed uncertain and unnerved by their inability to get into the game. One of the strengths previously had been the ability to solve different problems presented by the opposition or, in the case of Ireland, the opposition and the horrendous weather. The players will need their problem – solving heads on at the Millennium as I am sure neither the Welsh team nor its supporters will allow England an armchair ride.
In one of the other two final round games Ireland travel to play a revitalised Italian side in Rome. Over the years Italy have found it impossible to back up performances but surely they will be anticipating what many may consider an upset by beating Ireland.
It would appear that success or otherwise depends on which Orquera at first five eight turns up. He had a cracker against France , was poor at Murrayfield, was dropped for the Wales game and reinstated for the England contest during which he had an outstanding second half. It is good to see Italy playing a full part in the tournament.
Ireland will be delighted to be away from Dublin! Their two home games have been played in dreadful weather and this has not suited what is potentially a dynamic Ireland outfit . They will be most remembered, of course, for winning 80% of the ball at Murrayfield and losing the game!
This takes some achieving and there were signs against a rejuvenated French team that their mojo was back although another afternoon of incessant heavy rain dampened it somewhat. It has been a difficult tournament for Ireland. This may be Declan Kidney’s last game in charge and Brian O’ Driscoll’s final Six Nations appearance and I am certain that the loyal players will wish to make it an occasion to remember if this proves to be the case.
So to France v Scotland. France !!! Where does one begin to comment on their Six Nations campaign? I would argue that they have the best individual players but the sum of the parts have not remotely resembled a whole.
Selection and replacements have not helped. The game against England at Twickenham will probably be remembered by the French supporters as the game of mystifying substitutions. Having outplayed England for 55 minutes, largely thanks to the direction given to the team by Parra and Trinh-Duc at half back and to the scrummaging input of Domingo and Mas, all four were replaced and France lost.
There were signs in Dublin however that the collective is being to grow (so important for the French) and Scotland will need to be wary of a typical old school final French onslaught at the weekend.
Scotland won back-to-back games against Italy and Ireland for the first time in some years but could not make it a hat trick in the penalty and kicking dominated game v Wales. The dour Scots seemed to have been replaced by a happier version and I suspect this is in no small measure due to Scott Johnson’ s management style.
Scotland have discovered a back three as good as any in the tournament so it makes sense to bring them into the game as often as is appropriate. If they can achieve some sort of parity up front v France then we could be in for a cracking game. Historically France v Scotland in Paris has often been a great spectacle.
This Six Nations needs one this weekend. Three spectacles would be even better. As indicated earlier wow moments have been almost non-existent so hopefully, even in the championship decider, we will see optimistic, positive and productive play to bring the curtain down on the 2013 Northern Hemisphere tournament.
Do you agree with Brian that rugby is being bogged down by set-piece play? Comments below…