As we sat on the edge of our seats at Twickenham awaiting a possible Italy try which would have given them a deserved draw, there seemed much to ponder.
It was the Azzurri who had lit up the tournament through their amazing win over France, until we realised just how poor the French were. It’s a fact of rugby life that dire French performances have a dampening impact on the whole Championship. Apart from Picamole’s bullocking runs and one outrageous break from Fofana against England, Les Bleus have offered us nothing.
Their opponents last weekend, Ireland, apart from a blistering demolition job on the Welsh in a torrid first half, have flattered to deceive. I heard a lot about the young guns in the Irish backline and I have no doubt they will mature in time.
Luke Marshall’s gain line breaks were impressive, although his passing less so. Which is a criticism you can level at most of the back play we have seen this year, playmakers too often seeking contact rather than deliver a telling pass.
The much vaunted Irish back row has been a shadow of themselves, and perhaps the publicity around the Lions captaincy has distracted Jamie Heaslip. Lastly, it has been a pleasure to see the greatest centre of modern day times, Brian O’Driscoll, back in action. His sublime pass to Zebo against Wales has been a true highlight, but those who have earmarked a place for him in the Lions team are simply confirming the underperforming talent in the crucial midfield area.
Ireland’s last match against Italy promises to be a cracker, nothing to lose for either side, and Italy is quite conclusively the most improved side in the Northern Hemisphere. Take a bow Parisse. Can you play centre?
Scotland has the unenviable task of dealing with a misfiring French team who will be desperate for something to salvage from the wreckage of their season. Philippe Saint-Andre’s selections have been mystifying, and their style of play even more so.
The French Super 14 has been a treasure trove for many ageing overseas players, but hasn’t been bringing through young domestic talent so there are mitigating factors. Nonetheless, the scorer of the finest try seen at Twickenham (1991) will find the guillotine hovering if he cannot inspire his squad, as well as dispatch Freddie Michalak back to Toulon.
As for the Tartan Army, they will travel in hope rather than expectation. I felt that they were refereed out of the game up at Murrayfield, but the development of their more integrated approach has stalled somewhat. However, under Scott Johnson and Dean Ryan, this Scottish team is on a steady curve of improvement and we all welcome their competitiveness.
And so, we come to the big one at Cardiff. Who could possibly have predicted the dire first half performance against Ireland would have presaged a Welsh revival to the point that they can win the Championship?
The answer is that they have gone back to a defensive pattern which has rendered a clean sheet in the last three games, after the savaging they took from the Irish backs. Their traditional loose play has gone for now, although we may see a return at the weekend because they will not win a battle of the penalty kickers
England has more discipline than Scotland and Halfpenny won’t get that many chances. Tactics apart, every Celt is willing on the Welsh. Raining on an English party is everyone’s idea of fun!
I suggested some weeks ago that we should realistically consider an English Grand Slam, attracting a modest amount of ridicule. It was a simple philosophy, based on the incompetence of the other teams as well as a hard edge to this current group of players.
They have been fortunate to beat France and deny Italy a deserved draw. Ireland found that they had forgotten how to play wet weather rugby, cue the decline of Ronan O’Gara, and Scotland was a walk in the park if we are honest.
Having flirted with a midfield mix that placed Twelvetrees at 12 and immediately revolutionised Farrell’s play, England has gone back to type. It’s a shame, as now we are asking questions of England’s attack – can they score any tries? The answer has been none in the last three games if you exclude the fortuitous score by Tuilagi, which was offside. Flood ran across the field all day against Italy and shouldn’t play again, and the consequence was that the backline couldn’t function.
Will it matter? I still think that England can squeeze out a Grand Slam on a torrid day in Cardiff, because Wales aren’t good enough, and the traditional hwyl may not affect a very focussed squad of Englishmen, for whom this season is but a step along the way to 2015.
But it’s a 50-50 shot after the Italy game exposed so many weaknesses. My admiration for their PR off field is matched for their ability to find a way to win, somehow, knife edge contests. It will not be enough to win a World Cup, and definitely not until they face facts in the midfield and out wide where Foden may need to reappear.
As we ring out a Six Nations tournament long on expectation and very, very short on delivery, no Englishman will turn down a shot at glory. The great Grand Slam sides of the early 90’s and 2003 would dominate selection if you had to make a choice. But that’s not the point. Win a Grand Slam in Cardiff? Yes please.