Four Plus Two Nations

If this Six Nations has yet to produce any truly classic matches, it has at least risen above the torpor of the last couple of seasons – the three middle game weeks were appalling last season, for example.  The weather has been largely favourable and the standard of play has been decent, for the most part.  It has also provided us with a uniquely intriguing endgame, where four teams share the lead with two wins from the opening three games.  Talk about up for grabs; any of England, France, Wales and Ireland can win it – with all this competition it’s almost like the .. err .. Five Nations used to be.  The championship will almost certainly come down to two matches: England vs. Wales this weekend and France vs. Ireland, the last game in the tournament.  The match in Twickenham will rule out one of England and Wales, but provided Ireland and France can overcome the might of Italy and Scotland this weekend, they’ll join them on three wins and any of three teams will go into the final weekend as potential champions.

It’s hard to call.  England are probably marginal favourites.  They look the best team of the series and they have home advantage in their crucial game against Wales.  Wales themselves are the outsiders; they have yet to spark and look jaded, their points difference isn’t looking great and beating England in Twickenham looks tricky for them – despite them being the BEST TEAM EVER ©BBC.  Ireland have looked good (admittedly at a very narrow subset of competencies i.e. technical forward play), and their points difference is very healthy, but they have to win in Paris, which almost never happens (once in our lifetime).

But here’s the bizarre bit; totally misfiring, abject, awful, bickering France are in a pretty good position.  They have two games left against teams they habitually beat.  This weekend they travel to Murayfield.  Scotland may have won against Italy, but against the better sides they have been inept, accruing six points in aggregate against Ireland and England.  Even in third gear, presumably fighting with one another and relying on Picamoles to bail them out, France should win at a canter.  Then they play Ireland in Paris.  The last two matches between the sides have been drawn, but playing Ireland has a habit of bringing the best out in them.  Can even this rubbish French team find a faster tempo and run Ireland ragged as so many previous vintages have done?  Doubtful, but you never know – Ireland have a habit of standing off the handsome Mediterraneans like a bunch of hewn demi-Gods and letting them do whatever they want – and France like nothing better, apart from maybe a spooked New Zealander in a crucial World Cup game.

Aside: we really need to get out of that habit – when the RWC15 draw was made we said we had three years to learn how to beat France – we’ve made a good start, time to follow through.

For the sake of the championship one hopes France do not win.  Unless France find some inspiration from somewhere, they would be a most unworthy winner.  Indeed, it looks like their win over England could be the defining result of the championship, and with the benefit of hindsight, we can now see it bordered on the freakish.  England must be kicking themselves, especially after watching the tape of a mediocre Welsh side dispatch Les Bleus with ease.  Against England, France raced into a somewhat fortuitous early lead as England looked jittery and tentative – Jack Nowell in particular, but the bounces of the oval ball were pretty favourable to the home side.  However, England dominated the remainder of the match and were easily the superior side, fighting back to deservedly take the lead.  They had the game won, until an ill-advised switch at 9 (by England, the French switch was 100% advisable) and an extraordinary, totally unexpected and really quite brilliant try from Gael Fickou stole it at the death.  It was a try that never looked like coming, but it has given France something to play for, and has stopped England from racing away from the chasing pack.

What about Scotland and Italy? Last season looked like they might have taken a tentative step away from being perennial basement dwellers, but an ageing pack and still-too-young backs isn’t a good combination for Italy and useless coaching and mystifying selections isn’t working for Scotland. Transition, then, for both, a familiar state.

Five things we learned from this week’s Six Nations

Another week, another set of bogus predictions from the Whiff of Cordite boys.  I only hope all our loyal readers have been going to the bookies to lay exactly what we’ve been forecasting.  Wales to cut loose, Ireland to win a tight game and France to beat England.  Erm…

Ireland’s attack: now with 40% more penetration

Before the tournament, the one thing we asked – begged! – for was to see Ireland’s attack improve.  Credit to Deccie and Kiss; they have delivered.  Ireland look a threat with ball in hand now, and the flat, lateral play that characterised Ireland over the last couple of seasons has been largely dispatched – 13 tries in four games, and no fewer than two in any match, tells its own story.  It said a lot that even after a nervy, ponderous start, Ireland were willing to go to the corner with an early penalty, and take the game to the Scots.  It’s been a collective effort, but two players who deserve particular credit are Rob Kearney and Keith Earls.  Kearney’s counter-attacking has been a joy to watch, and Keith Earls has shown himself to be up to the job at 13.

Wales slam-in-waiting has echoes of Ireland in 2009

Wales have effectively won the Championship, barring a ridiculous set of results next week.  Their journey to the Grand Slam has been reminiscent of Ireland in 2009 – opening with an impressive flourish in the first match, before regressing a little with every game.  Ireland relied on an accurate kicking game, while Wales have fallen back on their power.  It’s almost as if they’ve bought into the press’ fawning over the size of their backline. No side that wins a Six Nations deserves to be sniffily treated, and less so one that wins a Grand Slam, as Wales surely will.  They are the best selected, best coached, and it would appear, fittest, team in the competition, but this is not a vintage championship.  Ireland, and indeed England, will not see them as especially superior, and are entitled to have some regrets.

Just how awesome is Richie Gray?

Very is the answer. Watching Scotland on Saturday was a little bit like watching Italy in recent times, when one player is just so much better than all his team-mates. Gray was physically and metaphorically head and shoulders above anyone else in a navy shirt, and indeed many in green. His try was a thing of beauty – Bob Kearney is getting some stick for buying Gray’s dummy, but Gray combined the dummy with a subtle change of angle and pace, and it was that, as much as anything, which did for Kearney. At times you felt he should step in at 10 to give Wee Greig a break – he most probably has the skills for it.

Gallic shrugs for all

It’s pretty clear France aren’t very engaged in this tournament. We thought they would stroll it, so mea culpas all round, but they just don’t seem too bothered. When they look like they might be embarrassing themselves, they step it up for a while (last quarter vs. Scotland, third quarter vs. Ireland, last 10 minutes vs. England), but generally aren’t too concerned. Why might this be? Well, PSA was roundly congratulated for his continuity, contrasting with Lievremont’s selections, but that has a flip side. Firstly, they were all physically and emotionally drained after the RWC. Secondly, the team’s key players are from Toulouse, Clermont and Biarritz – three teams with key months ahead, for differing reasons.

The rumour mill is already rife that Yachvili (and the FFR) would prefer to be with Biarritz to save them from relegation rather than devote time to Les Bleus. At the other end, Clermont are aiming for a unique double – and expect to see the Aurelien Rougerie we are used to and not the ponderous and disinterested passenger of the 6N when Les Jaunards pitch up in Lahndan in April. It’s not that the national jersey means nothing, it’s that these men can only give so much; and being a Basque, Catalan or Auvergnat is equally as important as being French.

And by the by, for a nation which professes to be in love with the drop goal, they’ve been utterly useless at them in this competition.

Lancaster’s investment in youth has paid off

England might have looked desperate at times, but they have done what they have needed to do, and, but for Mike Brown’s inability to fix a man, would be playing for the Championship this weekend. Lancaster tore up the tired old script and gave youth its head, and he has been rewarded. England are improving with every game, and it’s down to Owen Farrell (20), Manu Tuilagi (20), Ben Morgan (23), Alex Corbisiero (23), Chris Robshaw (23) and Brad Barritt (25). The youngsters are beginning to look comfortable in their surroundings, and England look in decent shape all of a sudden.

The test will of course come in adversity. Johnno tore up a pretty successful playbook after getting hockeyed by Ireland last year, and the result was a farcical RWC. England have their nemesis of recent times, a rejuvenated Ireland, up next, then a three test tour of South Africa at the end of a draining season. If their performances hold up, they don’t ship any heavy beatings, and they get two wins (or one if it comes in SA) from those four, England will have come through a very tough time to get to a pretty good place.

Six Nations: Round Three Preview

Ireland v Italy

This is a game Ireland should really win, and win comfortably.  Italy may have given England a fright a fortnight ago, but they are no great shakes on the road, and until they find a fly-half from somewhere they’re not going to trouble teams outside their home ground.  The trouble is that Ireland tend to give them a bit too much respect.  Last season – admittedly in the Flaminio, Deccie picked a horrendously out-of-form Tomas O’Leary at scrum-half, seemingly in a bid to counter the Italian forwards.  The result was that Ireland almost lost – Italy were a restart away from winning.  Ireland need to be bullish here and go wide early and often.  They should forget about nonsense like ‘earning the right to go wide’ and simply play the game at the highest pace they can.  Get Sexto flat on the gainline and put the ball through the hands.  Do that and Italy will start to fall off tackles, and tries will come.

A more likely outcome is that Ireland start slowly, butcher a couple of chances and get sucked in to a war of attrition.  Ireland will probably grind Italy down by a score or two but they should be looking to put this team away.

Verdict: Ireland to win by around 10-12 points.

England v Wales

Judging by the tone of some of the previews of this game, you would be expecting Wales to win by 2 scores or more – Barnesy has said England should be fearful, and the Grauniad were running pieces from the Welsh team of the mid-1980s boasting about how they didn’t respect any of the English players, with a clear line running through to today’s callow and ordinary Red Rose side.

Still, this is Twickers, and England don’t lose by much here – save for the Boks the November before last, they haven’t been far behind on the scoreboard in a long time.

All that said, the Welsh team look far too strong, a combative and skillful pack are getting ball to the destructive backs, which eventually leads to scores. The key to stopping Wales is to slow down the ball and get Mike Philips in a dogfight – this ensures the centres get the ball while static instead of going forward. And the key to beating them is to use their strength against them – have their relatively immobile backs turning around and drifting across by aggressive rucking and carrying then varying the attack with kicking behind, skip passes and hard lines.

Do England have the tools for this? Yes, in the form of Lawes, Wood, Morgan, Dickson, Cipriani, Tuilagi and an intelligent ball-playing 12. Lancaster’s team, however, is unlikely to contain any of those.

Verdict: Wales by 3-5 if Morgan plays and 7-10 if Dowson plays.

Scotland v France

An admirable ballsy selection by Robbo here – teenager Stuart Hogg is rewarded for his entertaining and effective cameo against Wales. John Barclay is back and with 2 genuine opensides in the team, expect Scotland to try and make this a dogfight at ruck time.

Mini Greig Laidlaw holds the 10 jersey and concerns about his defence against the giant French backrow and centres might have led to the re-instatement of Ooooooooooooooohhh Graeme Morrison – its hard to think of any other reason to pick him to be brutally honest.

Even if France do manage to be dragged down to Scotland’s level, its difficult to see them not prevailing. France have quality everywhere and a bench packed with high-class operators and Julien Dupuy. In the unlikely event of them finding themselves in trouble, the replacements will make the difference.

Verdict: We’ll be surprised if France need to go higher than third gear, and certainly don’t expect them to if they are in front. France by 9ish.