Throughout the RBS 6 Nations our director of Rugby Gareth Dyer will be previewing and reviewing each round of fixtures. Here are his thoughts after the first weekend.
The highlight of the weekend’s games came in Paris and that is where I start my review of the 1st round of games in this year’s Six Nations Championship.
France vs England
This was a superb game to watch for the neutral. An early French onslaught followed by an impressive England fight back scuppered only by an excellent French try to snatch the game at the death.
After the thrills and spills comes the analysis and no doubt there will be more realism in the cold light of day than the emotional charged media frenzy that was in evident in the 24 hours following the game.
I think the media hyperbole about England’s performance has been a little overdone. England had 60% territory, 60% possession and dominated the middle 60 minutes of the game, yet when it came down to the final stages they were still within reach of an average French side that will look back on proceedings and struggle to believe their luck.
England will point at two harsh bounces of the ball that went against them for Huget’s two tries but to look at the end of those movements for answers will incorrectly gloss over what went before. A dropped kick off and some poor defence from Goode when he had Huget tight to the touchline and going nowhere were both positions that should have been dealt with more efficiently.
England were the better team at going through the phases, building pressure and the power play of Messrs Lawes, Launchbury and Vunipola certainly gave them a physical advantage over their French counterparts. But England will know they were outscrummaged (with Dan Cole in particular having a difficult afternoon) whilst the French backs still looked sharper when presented with decent possession.
Add in some mystifying tactical calls from the bench and for all the positives that can be taken, there were a lot of errors and system failures to address as well. In terms of the substitutions, when you are in the ascendancy why is there a need to change the personnel? To do so simply because of numbers on a computer screen suggests coaching by numbers rather than by instinct.
The reaction is understandable given the character of the fight back. It is also fair to believe that where the performance fell short can also easily be put right. However it’s the devil in the detail and those last 1% improvements that are always the hardest to nail down and England must now put together a complete performance at Murrayfield to build on a promising display.
England are a far better team than Scotland and will be strong favourites to win at Murrayfield. With expectation comes a different sort of pressure and after the opening day excitement it will be interesting to see how this inexperienced England team handles the coming week.
At the risk of extending accusations of my Welsh bias, I have to say that Nigel Owens was once again outstanding. It is no coincidence that the three best test matches I’ve seen over the last 12 months (NZ v SA, Ireland v NZ and this game) were controlled by him. He gives the players a clear understanding of what he is looking for whilst not suffering any fools. He is setting the standard for all other officials to aspire to.
Ireland vs Scotland
Talking of hyperbole, I’m also amazed at some of the comments and press coverage I’ve seen and read about the Scottish display in Dublin. To my mind they were soundly beaten by an Irish team that didn’t need to get out of 2nd gear.
The fact that the score was only 6-3 after 38 minutes is irrelevant. If Scotland were still playing now (some 24 hours after the final whistle) they still wouldn’t have scored a try. The Scotland team lacks the necessary accuracy to break down strong defences whilst a number of their senior players had little or no impact on proceedings. Add in the fact that the first up tackling by international standards was woeful and I am struggling to see any positives for team that seems ill equipped for anything other than damage limitation.
Scott Johnson has always been big on rhetoric but to suggest they had more try scoring opportunities than their host’s sounds like he is clutching at straws. Apart from one burst from a scrum by Denton I don’t recall Scotland ever threatening the Irish line.
By contrast this was the perfect hit out for Ireland. They looked comfortable throughout and their forwards were ominously powerful at the set piece. Sexton and Murray bossed the game and when they needed them they delivered the scores they needed. A 20 point win could also be a useful boost come the championships final analysis. They look in good shape for the harder tests ahead.
Wales vs Italy
This was hardly a display of champions but a win is a win and the slow starters were always sufficiently clear on the scoreboard to prevent Italy getting too close for comfort. Italy looked a lot sharper than they have in previous seasons and will take a lot of positives from the game. They look like they may have finally found some pace behind the scrum and this could develop into a real cutting edge.
For Wales this was only a six out of ten level of performance. At 17-3 they should have built a more comfortable win but they were lacking precision in a few areas and these will need to be addressed before their trip to Dublin. They certainly won’t be complacent following Saturday’s display and perhaps this is the biggest positive to come out of the game for the Welsh team.