Patriot Games – A Critical 6 Nations Weekend
Perhaps it is the inevitable consequences of predictable results, but this weekends round of 6 Nations matches will define the season for every participant. Only Englands comfortable away win over Wales can be considered a surprise so far, every other outcome would hardly have tested a bookmaker, let alone rugby cognoscenti. If the standard of some of the rugby has been desperate (which it has), the sense of desperation for a positive result will be palpable.
I have been amused to read the media celebrating the emergence of some midfield ambition especially in the centre, as though it was a lost piece of art unearthed by chance. Not much else to talk about perhaps, and I wouldn’t rush to turn on a highlights package to date, other than Josephs three tries, Watsons pearl and a couple of slashing breaks by the Scottish and Italian midfield. Most rugby centres, myself included, would rush to tell you that such moves can turn a game. Hence, the Irish rightly worrying about the combined impact of Ford, Joseph and Watson, Baths three musketeers. Who says combinations don’t work……..!
Midfield talent doesn’t extend however to Mathieu Basteraud, even St Andre’ has worked that out by forklifting him from the side and onto a reinforced bench. Wesley Fofana, a world class operator, has been made redundant without any ball to use. He is now sadly a peripheral figure, but all that could change on Saturday. Frances muscular attempts to dismantle Ireland were met with derision and should they lose against a stuttering Wales then I shudder to think their reaction. Commentators still glibly talk of unpredictability when it comes to the French performance but I just don’t see it, bar an implosion by the men in Red. Their own unravelling by England on the opening weekend revealed too many key players out of form, and they were unconvincing again against a Scotland team who have improved in the points scoring charts but should be finishing these games off. I do predict a more riveting contest – Wales v France has historically been exciting, but there will be no comfort for the loser whatever the entertainment factor. On this evidence neither side is even an outside bet for the Webb Ellis Trophy, which is currently on a tour around England to build the anticipation that England may actually lay their hands on it this November!
This isn’t looking so outlandish, they having a sense of momentum unmatched by anyone else. They may have stumbled upon their best team all of a sudden, but in reality the strength in depth is a priceless commodity which will be very valuable come World Cup time. Compare this with the disproportionate impact of Jonny Sexton on Ireland. The insipid display against the Italians turned into a physical trial against the French from which Sexton in particular emerged triumphant given that he was clearly targeted. England know the value of the man and surely will squeeze him. I cannot believe we will be ambushed this time round, and we have found out how to play in Irish drizzle. However, the media and no less a name than Brian O’Driscoll have accorded Jo Schmidt legendary coaching status so we all presume he has worked out how to offset Englands strong points but I don’t think its that complicated. It just doesn’t matter how we win or by how much as long as we do!
Personally, I see three key areas:
Irelands kicking game – the sky above the Lansdown pitch has suddenly become a key battleground. Apparently, having a Gaelic footballers background is even more valuable than Sam Burgess’ cross code credentials because it helps in catching a high ball. This belies the fact that Andy Goode is one of the safest players in World Rugby under exactly that. I do admit to worries about Watsons experience, but he is one of the best players in the tournament right now and a fullback to boot. I back him. As for Jack Nowell, he will get plenty of attention – fingers crossed. It’s a valid strategy for Ireland and the way they play anyway, but I respectfully suggest that George Ford has a tactical kicking game to match anyone.
The Breakdown – if England can get quick ball, and its a dry day, I take them to carry on from where they left off in exploiting 1-1 opportunities and their talent in this area far outweighs the workaday qualities of the Irish backs. Conversely, the Irish have become very savvy in slowing down ball as well as exploiting the choke tackle. Both sides will see that area as vitally important.
A quick start – England is notoriously slow out of the blocks whereas the Irish know how to lay down a marker. We simply have to make an impact early on, because playing catch up against a motivated Irish side that hasn’t lost for a while will be extremely difficult. Holding your nerve against a misfiring Welsh team or the disorganised Italians is one thing…against the reigning 6 Nations champions it is another matter.
Is it a contest between the visionary Joe Schmidt and an English coaching team juggling quality resource? Yes actually it is but only in giving their respective squads the belief as on balance the difference between the two is wafer thin…even at the seasons midpoint this is in my opinion a winner take all game, the Grand Slam should be the prize – my respect for the other sides is in proportion to what they so far deserve, but I hope I am wrong. The ensuing momentum will be priceless. England have talked well so far, its time to deliver and its a game every Englishman would want to play in -the Irish will be relishing the occasion and the opportunity, emotions will run high but the cool head will prevail. Cant wait!
Finally, I don’t wish to demean the importance of the Scotland/Italy confrontation – they have both played some excellent rugby in patches, and I maintain that someone will receive a nasty surprise though it may have to wait till the World Cup. For now, its very tough for two countries with an imbalance of resources to bridge the gap.
Why the Patriot Games? I feel that every player will be clutching their national emblem during the anthems with more emotion than usual – from a personal and collective viewpoint a poor performance is not what anyone needs at this stage. All these matches are too close to call – a patriotic desire could prove the difference!