We are now over halfway through the Six Nations and it seems as good a time as any to take stock. Who will be pleased with their performances to date and who will be in the midst of some serious soul-searching? And what will be the aspirations of the respective teams for the final two rounds.
For England, so far, so good. Even the most demanding supporter cannot complain too much about a victory in Cardiff, a clinical thumping of Italy and a win against France. From here, anything other than a Grand Slam will be regarded as a disappointment. This is somewhat presumptuous with two games to go, and no trip to Dublin can be taken lightly, especially given that Ireland are not out of the title race themselves and would love to deny England their moment – but it’s a sign that expectations are high.
The performance against France was probably their worst but in many ways it was the biggest step forward. It was a greasy day and the precision England had shown in previous weeks was absent. In fact the second quarter was pretty awful. But they found a way to win when not playing well – a hugely important thing to be able to do. Furthermore, they did it against a physical team with a big pack. So far on this mini renaissance their victories have come against loose, pacy teams with less forward muscle while they struggled against New Zealand and South Africa.
The report sheet is far from blemish-free. England now have serious options in the back row with Croft and Moody far from guaranteed to reclaim their places, but the midfield cupboard still looks alarmingly bare. Tindall provides the team with shape but his handling is a real concern. Given this, he needs a creative influence beside him and Hape does not look to be that man. So much of rugby is about balance and players offering complementary skills and Johnson may want to consider whether making changes from a position of strength may be preferable to waiting until things go wrong.
France continue to be an anomaly. For the first 40 minutes of the tournament they were electric. They eased their foot off the pedal when they decided Scotland were beaten and have never quite pressed it down as hard since. While the victory against Ireland owed something to fortune and Irish ill-discipline it was an excellent result. But as the tournament has progressed, they have retreated further into their shells, following four tries in their first game with only one since.
They have not been helped by Marc Lievremont and his tinkering fingers. It is all very well tweaking a winning side, but making 6 changes before your biggest game of the season borders on the ludicrous. And his explanation of wanting a more physical pack for England suggests he needs to spend more time thinking about his own team than the opposition. What other explanation is there for dropping his talismanic 9 and breaking up a world class back row unit? He sometimes seems more of a help than a hindrance to his hugely talented side. However Wales at home and Italy away should not tax them too much and they should still be in the mix come the last day of the championship.
The best that can be said of Ireland thus far is that they are hanging in there. Shorn of a few crucial players, they have been scratchy and unconvincing in the main. That they have changed both their half backs speaks volumes. Having said that, they could easily be moving towards a Grand Slam decider had it not been for a succession of silly penalties against France. They are a team who seem to have peaked but there is no doubt that they still have the ability to beat anyone else in the tournament on their day, and England will be hoping that day does not come on March 19th.
Ireland’s big discovery has been Sean O’Brien but they remain heavily dependent on the same old faces. Having been diabolical against Italy, unlucky against France and scratchy against Scotland, Ireland will desperately want to beat England. Before that however they have to go to Cardiff to face a Wales team undergoing a suggestion of a resurgence. Lose that and they will have to beat England to save their season from being a significant disappointment.
There has been progress in Italian rugby this year with the introduction of their teams into the Magners League and hopefully we will see this reap dividends soon. But for now the progress of the national team remains painfully slow. They have not had a decent half back for 5 years and still lack any penetration out wide to build on the heroic efforts of Sergio Parisse who would probably be their best back if he wasn’t a forward. The bare facts are that they failed to beat Ireland at home when the opposition played as poorly as they have done in years, were hammered at Twickenham in a throwback to their earliest Six Nations days and, but for a 15 minute spell in the second half never looked likely to beat Wales.
They have become tough to beat at home but really need to start winning regularly there. Yet another Wooden Spoon decider awaits and, harsh as it may sound, from a purely rugby point of view questions may begin to be asked about just how much they are actually adding to the tournament.
So much hope, so little delivery. This was supposed to be the season in which Scotland emerged from the doldrums and became competitive for the first time in some years. Instead they find themselves competing for the Wooden Spoon once again. I believe the roots of this can be found in the over-excited reaction to their performance against France. Yes they scored 3 tries but they were hammered in the first half after which France stopped playing. To read some of the Scottish press you would have thought their team had been by far the better team.
This came home to roost in one of the poorest Six Nations performances against Wales. A year of gradual and discernible progress disappeared and Scotland returned to the dark times. They have a strong pack who will always give them a decent base but lack penetration and, more importantly, seem to have very fragile self-belief. They have only the slimmest of chances at Twickenham where they have not won for over 20 years so their season comes down to a Wooden Spoon decider against Italy. It was not supposed to be this way this year. Back to the drawing board for Andy Robinson.
We still await the Wales we know is lurking in there somewhere. It remains extraordinary that a side with such ability can fluctuate in their form to such an extent. Their defeat to England felt disappointingly predictable from their point of view, an indication of how far they have fallen over the past two years. From nowhere though, they beat Scotland comfortably at Murrayfield, although Scotland were so poor that the significance of that victory is hard to measure. They have though coped better than anyone expected with the loss of their props.
Warren Gatland seems a long way from the assured coach who first took the reins. His constant movement of James Hook and uncertainty over Jamie Roberts’ best position is hampering his team. It may be partially due to a lack of depth in certain positions but you surely pick your best players in their best positions and go from there. If Hook is the best fly half, that is where he must play. But Wales are such a confidence team that two victories, however unspectacular, could be just the pick up they need. Win against Ireland in Cardiff and they will be happy with their overall position. Lose and the pressure on Gatland and some of his senior players will ramp up to boiling point.
By Stuart Peel