England’s strong start to the Six Nations has inevitably brought forth talk of Grand Slams and comparisons with teams past. The facts are that England have won three consecutive games, all of which offered very different challenges and during which they showed that they can not only play in different ways but that they can adapt to changing circumstances within an individual match. This is all great stuff and is a firm step forward. However, much of the hyperbole which has accompanied these encouraging developments seems to me to be somewhat premature. I am therefore going to strap on the Scrooge hat and suggest why England supporters should be a little circumspect before trumpeting too loudly their plans for European, global and ultimately intergalactic domination.
The dampening of the Irish
There was plenty of talk after the win in Dublin that England had beaten Ireland at their own game in their own conditions. It is true that England had the better of the breakdown battle, an area in which the Irish normally excel. But the conditions, while doing England no favours either, were far from what the Irish were looking for. Ireland have regularly beaten England in recent years playing a high intensity, shock and awe style of rugby which has left England wondering what hit them. The torrential rain in Dublin meant that the match was far too error-strewn and slow to give Ireland a chance of achieving such a thing. The English deserve great credit for playing the conditions so well but in their recent revival they are yet to face a high-tempo team with their tails up and a baying partisan crowd at their backs. That could well come in Cardiff (see below).
France: unpredictable, backs to the wall etc
I’ve never really subscribed to much of the mythology surrounding French rugby. Gallic flair seems to me to be a concept which is a good 20 years out of date (a quick watch of the Top 14 is testament to that), performances such as the 1999 World Cup semi final being very much the exception rather than the rule. Under Bernard Laporte they decided that English rugby was winning rugby and set out of ape their style. His successors have maintained this meaning that they have spent much of the past decade looking slightly confused, as though fighting their better instincts.
But one unoriginal cliché that is undeniable is the one about not knowing which French team will turn up. One would have thought that the advent of professionalism would have reduced this but if anything it has only been exacerbated. Their almost inexplicable arrival in the last four of the 2007 World Cup and the finals of the 1999 and 2011 tournaments speak volumes for this. And they are never more dangerous than when they have nothing to lose. The last time France seemed in a state such as now was at the conclusion of the group stages in New Zealand after a meek surrender to the hosts and a humiliating defeat to a Tonga side coming off the back of a defeat to Canada. They promptly blew England away in the first half hour of the quarter final. So England, beware the French, particularly when they are appear to be rubbish.
A resurgent Wales
Wales are the ultimate momentum team. If they dog out a couple of early wins in the Six Nations, they are unstoppable. If they lose one or two, they fall apart. Wales ended their horrendous run of eight consecutive defeats with a victory at the most unlikely of venues, Paris. It was a dreadful game, the French were truly appalling and the Welsh only just won. But that is often all they need. This is a good Welsh team whose true level probably lies somewhere between their 2011 Grand Slam form and their subsequent slump. There is no doubt what they are capable of. They have two very winnable games coming up against Italy and Scotland, the latter of which could be very tough. If they win both of those, England will find themselves facing a dragon with momentum behind it and a patriotic crowd at their backs spurred on by the prospect of ruining English dreams. That is a strong cocktail, one that has proved too powerful to resist in the past. It will be a huge test.
The Weight of History
There’s often a tendency to attach too much weight to history but it can certainly add to the pressure on a team. England’s record of blowing Grand Slams is well known. Over the past 15 years they have gone into the final game of the Championship in search of a Grand Slam on no fewer than 5 occasions and have won only once (incidentally, why are England’s Grand Slam deciders always away from home? Conspiracy?). But even that may be getting ahead of ourselves. Since their last Grand Slam, England have won their first two games in the Championship on no fewer than six occasions. In 2004 and 2007, they managed only one further win, in 2006 and 2010 zero (including a draw in ’06), and in 2011 and 2012 they won a further two.
England have been impressive in this Championship and there is plenty of justifiable optimism around. It should also be noted that they have now only lost two of their last twelve Championship games. But by the same token it is only four games since they succumbed so disappointingly to the Springboks and five since they lost to a Wallaby side coming off the back of a record defeat to France. These may yet be heady days we are experiencing, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. There are plenty of obstacles to negotiate. And also be wary that if it all goes wrong, nobody will let them forget it.
by Stu Peel