I am sure that I wasn’t the only one left with rather an empty feeling after the third round of this rather sleepy Six Nations tournament. We had all prepared for a clash of some magnitude at the Stade de France, with the Welsh having to play well beyond their recent form to achieve a result, and the misfiring French would surely show that they still had some attacking bones in their twitching body. Meanwhile, the Scots were surely going to get the win they merited, when they could have had two already. Lastly the possible Grand Slam decider in Dublin was whetting the appetite, with the rather amusing statement from O’Connell that this was a better England side than 2003 – which if you had forgotten whipped Ireland by 40 points at Lansdowne Road. It was our last Grand Slam and I have rarely seen a home side so ruthlessly put to the sword as happened that dry spring day in our World Cup winning year.
What was so revealing about the French defeat was the total bewilderment of the coaching staff after the match. St Andre’ had responded to pressure by dropping Basteraud only for Lopez to have the sort of game which had us wondering whether Freddie Michalak wasn’t so bad after all. Some early attempts to play expansively and creatively foundered on their lack of coordinated approach. Plenty of individual efforts but that’s never enough these days – unless it’s a Jonathon Joseph moment. The reassuringly sizeable presence of Serge Blanco alongside his erstwhile playing colleague, who remember scored one of the great tries at Twickenham in 1991, is the last vestige of support upon which St Andre can lean.A loss against Italy, entirely possible, and a probable thumping at Twickenham will surely lead to change – no bad thing, there should always be a good French team somewhere. They above all depend upon selection and mindset.
Two wins for Italy will be a great outcome, and I admire their resilience hugely. It’s important to have a competitive Italy in the Championship and we should celebrate this. Importantly they have unearthed one or two quality players especially at centre three-quarter.
Cardiff will be at the middle of this weekends interest. Suddenly the Welsh, who could have thought it, are sensing a Championship if they can win this one, while rampant Ireland know how to win in Wales, look at the history books. Psychologically, a win for the men in red will do wonders for World Cup confidence and they have the quality in the backs, with some welcome return to form by the likes of Halfpenny and Roberts. However I sense the battle will be won and lost up front, because the Welsh were found out against England, and O’Connell will be licking his lips in anticipation, having masterminded the mugging of our pack in Dublin last weekend. I also think that the emergence of Henshaw and Payne in Irelands midfield could be significant. Henshaw in particular has been developing quietly alongside the best halfback pairing in World Rugby at this moment. By World Cup time they could be a differentiating factor, and I look forward to their next step along the way – this will be a test. One thing is for sure, if Ireland get their win in Cardiff, I install them as high as second favourites behind the All Blacks for the World Cup, whom of course they should have beaten last year. Only one problem with that, Ireland have a shocking record in that tournament, and they need to be constant underdogs to perform well. Perhaps Joe Schmidt has effected a psychological change as well – exciting times for the men in Green and it’s good to see.
England receive something of a footnote ahead of the Scotland ‘clash’, a word I hesitate to use for this coming fixture but was highly relevant back in the day. I played seven times against Scotland and every one of them left me battered and bruised, only sometimes victorious. Times have changed, possibly forever given the imbalance of resources. Having said that there is nothing to lose and they can certainly play with the ball now, I like their attacking intent, and Stuart Hogg is the best three-quarter in the Northern Hemisphere. He is outstanding in every facet of the game and England will squeeze him hard.
I read a piece this week by a senior England player who claimed that they hadn’t expected Ireland to play like they did, and were taken by surprise. Added to the fact that we seemed to want to out-Irish the Irish and I am left bemused. Any winning England team in Ireland will tell you that you have to confront the Irish passion, hand it back with interest, and play your own game. My England team meetings and changing room atmosphere were highly charged almost to excess. Mike Teague famously announced one match day that it was payback time, and duly delivered. Many of our backs were more pumped up than the forwards. That’s what you need sometimes – England totally missed all this last weekend. I felt after only ten minutes that we weren’t in the game.
Make no mistake, England can record two thumping wins and take the championship. It matters not. We are left knowing that England were unravelled tactically and physically in a game they targeted massively. In ignoring their best talents of the season with the likes of Watson and Joseph getting no ball to speak of, we are left wondering again about playing strategy. Barritt would have returned this weekend but for injury, and the ignoring of Cipriani in any capacity has confounded everyone. It’s clear to me that before too long we will see Farrell, Barritt, Tuilagi back in the frame and that Andy Farrell will have his way on our playing style, backed by two fit worldclass packs – we will see if that’s good enough. Apparently the England boys have been angry and edgy on the training field – not surprised. I expect to see a fractious match on Saturday, England will win very comfortably if they can get ahead after 20 mins – though a slow start is their Achilles heel and if not then Scotland will grow in confidence.
All the pressure and excitement in Cardiff then, with sideshows at Twickenham and in Rome. I hope for inspiration as well as perspiration – after all, Spring is in the air!