State of the Nations: Half-time Report

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.

Six Nations

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

16 thoughts on “State of the Nations: Half-time Report

  1. Can’t disagree with you on much of that – It’s a reasonable reflection of what isn’t going to go down in history as a particularly high quality tournament. You would hope that, in a world cup year, coaches were holding back a little in order to ensure that their teams get to NZ in peak fitness and form, but you don’t get that impression from any of the 6 Nations sides. All of the teams, to a lesser or greater degree are still experimenting and reverting to old names and faces when the experiments fall. Quite what Lievremont was thinking replacing Harinordiquoy (sp? sorry) with Chabal at 8, i suspect we will never know. Why Wales are persisting with Phillips at 9 seems difficult to understand – And why England can’t, or perhaps won’t, replace Tins and Shontayne Hape I cannot fathom. I fully expect to see an England grand slam at the end of the tournament, but can’t help wondering if that will lead to a false sense of security that could come crashing down when the RWC begins.

  2. It’s so difficult to tell how teams compare to top three at the moment. The general standard of rugby isn’t that high, but the RWC is such a different environment.

    I think France and England will be competitive in NZ, with Wales and Ireland capable of an upset or two.

    The picture could be very different in a few weeks though once the next couple of rounds have been played.

  3. This year all teams seem to be inconsistent – I don’t think any side has put together a whole match of play to a decent standard (England aside, though that was against Italy who were on very poor form). France as you say were brilliant in Paris for the first half, Ireland were similarly excellent for the first quarter against France, and both Scotland and Wales have strung together quarters of decent rugby. Some teams are learning and improving – Wales, England (look at how they changed and improved in the 2nd half against France; that’s not easy to do), and to an extent Ireland, given their shocking start in Rome. Others however are slipping backwards – guilty hands raised for France, Scotland, and maybe harshly, Italy.

    With two rounds to go, anything could happen. It’s too early to talk about Grand Slams and it’s certainly too early to start putting these performances into the context of the world cup – on form you wouldn’t fancy any of the northern hemisphere teams to challenge SA, NZ, Aus, but that could and probably will change over the next 3 months.

    I’m just excited about 2 more weekends of fun, if not great, rugby to watch.

  4. Having seen how the Waratahs have started the season and how consistently brilliant James O’Connor is I think this might be Australia’s season to come into form. I know it’s not the most original point to make but i can also see France having one big result in the RWC. It’s likely to be against NZ in the group stage which might be a blessing for NZ!

  5. That wouldn’t be good news for England though, Spike – I think it would mean that New Zealand would be waiting in the quarters.

    I can actually see France being complacent against a side like Tonga, putting out a second string and getting turned over. That would be quite funny.

    Let us know any other thoughts you have on the tournament so far, and the performance of each nation, and we’ll put them in The Rugby Paper on Sunday.

  6. I can see this year turning out a bit like 2009, except without a Grandslam winner. What I mean is that in 2009 three teams finished with three wins so the second third and fourth place teams all had six points. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if three of Ireland, France, Wales and England all end up with four wins apiece and the champion is decided on points difference, which will mean England more than likely.

  7. It is very pleasing to see England on the up again but I think their resurgence has come just a little too late for them to seriously challenge at the World Cup. The 2003 team, although blowing several Grand Slams, were the dominant force in the Northern Hemisphere for a good three years previous to the tournament in Australia. The current England squad has only just established itself in that position and whilst it is not beyond the realms of possibility that they could pull off a shock World Cup win, it is still hard to see them beating New Zealand on their own patch.

  8. I’m not sure that’s possible is it, Lee? Ireland and Wales play each other next, so after that, one of them will probably have lost twice.

    I can see England winning the Grand Slam and then anything can happen in a World Cup – they’ll be in a better position than 2007. They’ve got a lucky group draw, and anything can happen once you reach the knockouts.

  9. You speak the truth wise Hutch!

    Everyone is talking like Wales are suddenly good again lets not forget that the 2 wins they have had have been against Italy and Scotland! Can’t see them beating either Ireland or France so will end up on 4 points.

    What’s more likely is that Eng, Fra & Ire all end up on 8 with (save a cricket score by France) Eng winning on points difference which is currently 50 more than France, I think.

  10. Pessimistic as it may sound, I can see Ireland beating England and, bearing in mind France have Wales at home and Italy away, it being pretty close on points difference at the end. The more teams see of England, the more they will work them out and I’m not sure we have the experience yet to keep finding a way out of that. Ireland are actually a much more intelligent team than France tactically (their coaches being a big factor in this).

    Unless Scotland can pull out a miracle resurgence, Wales v Ireland and Ireland v England are the standout remaining games in terms of impact on the final table. Ireland and Wales’s championships hang on that game in Cardiff.

    I don’t think it will make any difference for the World Cup whether England win the Grand Slam or not. They will take quite a lot of confidence into this tournament comewhatmay and have developed depth in some key positions. I also think they have a bit of a hold on France in big games (granted France won a Grand Slam against them last year but France played very poorly against a poor side) so save for any slip-ups in the Group, I can see England making it to the semis where anything can happen. Having said that, they’d be likely to play Australia whom I’ve been backing to win the World Cup or a couple of years and still think they’re a good bet.

  11. Don’t think the Aussies have the pack to win the World Cup but with the talent in the team and their never-say die attitude, I’m not sure I’d ever bet against them

    If England can get Sheridan, Lawes, Attwood and Croft (and maybe Flutey, Moody and D Armitage) fit and firing for the WC then we’ll go into it with some decent strength in depth – although mostly amongst the forwards. The centres are an area for serious concern though – even if you think Tindall and Hape are a great partnership, where are the replacements if one of them gets injured? There’s no-one with any international experience. Johnson’s answer is probably Banahan, which makes the heart sink

    As for the rest of this 6 Nations, as an England supporter, I’d love to see Wales beat Ireland so that Eng aren’t paying against an Irish team with a sniff of the Championship and the Triple Crown. Other than that, if England can avoid slipping up on the banana skin that is Scotland, then I think we’ll beat Ireland

    Scotland make me nervous though

  12. I agree with paulo about our forward pack. RWCs cant bne won without a mean pack who can play tight and loose.

    reassuringly we will have one, especially if Attwood stays fit. i really rate him, apart from his temper losing!

    Ireland in Dublin will be toughest assignment of the lot, irrespective of what either team does in the meantime.

  13. Im rather more optimistic, i believe that england have what it takes to win the grandslam, and to progress in the RWC. As said previously i would also love to see Wales beat Ireland. All here say that it is the English and French teams will compete the best out of the six nations teams when the RWC comes about, but England have beaten France, thats got to be a massive confidence boost. I was pondering the question about the England centre partnership, Hape and Tindall aren’t a great pair, so i though Anthony Allen, good all round game, and is able to distrubute the ball to the wings, which is key to our team. Cant wait to see the next match

  14. It may not have been the most thrilling rugby so far, but i was at the France game last week and the atmosphere was second to none! The perfect way to introduce my 5yo to the game!!!
    Just checked on and there are still tickets available to the Scotland game, and I fully intend on going!
    With the 2011RWC being so far away, I reckon we should make the most of it when its on our doorstep!
    Lets get through the 6N before we start worrying about the WC!!!

  15. Scotland play some good rugby but make mistakes and don’t score tries. Been another disappointing year for them, especially in world cup year.

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