Tuesday, February 28. 2017
So, having downplayed the Scottish back row for the last two weeks, it’s time to hold my hand up and say congratulations, they were better than the Welsh on Saturday, and the Welsh have, so far, been the best back row we’ve seen. That wasn’t the only reason the Scots won - too many Welsh players dropped the ball at key moments as well (sometimes that was their fault, sometimes that was brutal Scottish tackling, sometimes it was an offload that was too hard, but the end result was always points going begging). We all know backing up huge matches with another huge match is a big ask and Moriarty wasn’t likely to do the same as he did against England but the whole Welsh back row were still dominated in most breakdowns, and that’s not good. Alan-Wyn Jones and the Gray brothers slugged it out for lock and while I wouldn’t like to guess who will be the starting pair, they look like good bets to be going to New Zealand. Wales still played well, except for the ball dropping, and while there’s certainly competition at 10, Webb and Biggar are my stand out players in that position. Warburton, Tipuric and Moriarty will still be in contention, but Barclay, Hardie and Wilson will have pushed their way into contention. Sam Davies might be a serious threat to Biggar’s for next year but doesn’t quite have what it takes yet, not at test level. If Barclay, Hardie and Wilson can perform like that again, England could be seriously troubled in two weeks’ time. Ken Owens carries on having a totally solid performance at hooker too. He’s not as dynamic around the field as some but his core skills seem better than anyone else’s. That’s not just the throwing in and scrummaging on both sides, but his carrying in the tight and defensive work are both solid. It might sound like I’m down on Wales (and I am disappointed) but they’re changing from Jamie Roberts (who I liked and admired) as a huge crash ball carrier with surprisingly soft hands, to Scott Williams who I also like who is a smaller, more touch player and a more “commit the tackler and offload” style of play. This is certainly a viable form of play but it requires more alertness and better decision making and softer hands and those passes to stick. At the moment, it’s not quite working - Wales are creating the chances, more than any other side in the 6N if you look at the stats, but not closing them out. That will change as the players adapt and with a bit of luck and if they keep playing this way, Wales could well seriously challenge all the Southern Hemisphere teams by 2019, but it’s painful right now.
France v Ireland was brutal, no surprises there, but Ireland are bigger than Scotland, took their hits and could still keep going and scoring. To me, Ireland seem to play as well with Sexton or Jackson on the field but neither of them seem to have quite that X-factor that the Sexton of 4 years ago had. Here, the Irish front row all looked good, and a shout must go out to CJ Stander as well. That 6 shirt looks very competitive.
The biggest talking point of the weekend, however, is England v Italy. It relies on a simple understanding of the laws: to form a ruck requires at least two players from each team, the tackler, the tackled player then one more from each team to engage over the ball. Only at the point a ruck is formed is an offside line drawn. If the tackler holds the player up, a maul is formed with the same criteria for the extra players (referees are bad about calling a maul from a tackle as they tend to wait a bit to see if the tackled player can get to ground, which they shouldn’t really) but again, once they call maul, an offside line is drawn, before that, there is no offside line.
Italy didn’t put players into the breakdown, so, no matter how many players England put there, it was not a ruck, it was a tackle, there was no offside line, and they could stand wherever they liked, such as right by the fly-half, perfectly legally. I’ve seen this tactic before, used occasionally, but it’s an occasional thing simply because good teams adjust to it. England’s inability to understand what was going on, to have to have the laws explained, to then ask the referee how they could counter it, prompting a reply of “I am the referee, not a coach” is a massive indictment of the England players’ understand of the laws of the game and the senior players and their ability to think on their feet. While I understand Eddie Jones frustration and embarrassment, attacking Connor O’Shea for outthinking him but playing completely with the laws is not the right response. What we saw is not the normal way rugby is played, but it is rugby. England finally came up with the simplest and most boring of responses to the tactic, forcing Italy players to ruck them in order to prevent the pick and drive, running out comfortable winners. There are other options here too, although applying them in a half-time break might be a challenge for any team.
Anyway, thanks to their inability to adapt, none of the English forwards, nor the half-backs really covered themselves in glory with this display. Nowell certainly attracted the eye though. A lot of people are strongly touting Farrell too. I’m less convinced - I think he forces his way into contention as a kicker but if Gatland doesn’t want the second five eighth role that England are playing with, there are better options, and unless he starts with Ford at 10, all the other 10’s are high quality kickers in their own right. There are several potential picks, like Halfpenny who are better kickers as well.
This might sound harsh on England but, while O’Shea coached them well for this match, Italy are still not a great team. New Zealand will pose a much, much sterner challenge and it won’t be just in terms of the fitness, physicality and speed but their thinking, their attitude and their understanding of the laws as well.
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