Monday, February 12, 2007

6 Nations - the story so far

I've seen most of the 6 games that have been played so far, and it's been the usual mix of up and down, light and shade, tears and laughter, etc. Here's my very brief country-by-country verdict on how things have gone so far:

England: 2 wins out of 2 is not to be sneezed at, though the unconvincing nature of the win over Italy will have taken the edge off the celebrations. The pack looks as massively formidable as ever, and the backs look, Jason Robinson aside, as lumpy and unimaginative as ever. Tindall will run all afternoon for you, but he needs to be surrounded by more imaginative players who can capitalise on the holes he punches in the defence. Lewsey, who I'm normally a big fan of, has been pretty anonymous so far, and I'm far from convinced by the Wilkinson/Farrell axis at outside-half and inside centre. Farrell has produced some neat passing out of the tackle but looks ponderous otherwise (he's a rugby league prop, after all) and hardly likely to break the defensive line. Wilkinson isn't and never will be a creative running and distributing outside-half, and that's OK given his invaluable skills elsewhere e.g. in defence and with the metronomic goal-kicking, but he needs someone with some creative nous outside him - England haven't had someone fulfilling that role since the massively underrated Will Greenwood retired. I fancy Ireland and France to beat them, but it'll be tough.

Ireland: Impressive against Wales, despite some questionable refereeing. Pretty impressive against France too, right up until Clerc snuck through for that try at the death. Ireland never seem entirely happy being favourites, so maybe the defeat will relax them a bit for their remaining games - the only tricky one of which looks like being against England. If they hold their nerve, and as long as O'Driscoll is back, they should win.

Scotland: Not at all good against England in week one; the 22-point margin flattered them a bit. Not much better than distinctly average against Wales, either, but against a dire Welsh performance that was more than good enough. Never less than awkward to play, especially at Murrayfield, especially if it rains, but they have nothing very threatening behind the scrum. And don't be fooled by the talk about Paterson having a better kicking percentage than Wilkinson; if you never score tries you never have to kick touchline conversions, which makes life a lot easier.

Wales: Not bad against Ireland, though the lack of penetration in the backs was a worry, but if a few refereeing decisions had gone the other way things could have been more interesting. Absolutely pitiful against Scotland, though - if there's one thing that you can guarantee against the Scots it's that if you haven't got your line-out sorted then Scott Murray will clean you out time and time again, and so it proved on Saturday. The answer to the obvious question, which is why are Wales so terrible compared with two years ago is in a few parts:

  • their strength in depth isn't as good as England or France or Ireland. They key to our Grand Slam triumph was the midfield pairing of Henson and Shanklin and the pace of Shane Williams on the wing. Neither Henson nor Williams have played at all yet, and Shanklin is easing his way back. Gareth Thomas adds a crucial bit of mongrel on the wing or at full-back as well, when he isn't banned.
  • confidence and luck. Wales played a high-risk form of rugby in 2005, and when it came off, as it did gloriously against Scotland and Ireland in particular, it was phenomenal. When they try to throw the ball around when confidence is low, or when the side is being chopped and changed so no-one's sure of their role, or at the expense of the basics like winning line-out ball or securing the ball on the floor at the breakdown, it can all get very ugly.
  • weather. It might seem mad, but I seem to remember all Wales' games in 2005 being played in reasonably dry and sunny conditions, which are obviously conducive to open running rugby. When it's pissing it down like it was at Murrayfield on Saturday a more "up the jumper" style may be more effective.

France: Just to blow my own trumpet, my tip for the Grand Slam before the start of the championship. They were excellent against Italy, and it's nice to see Laporte giving Chabal a run in the side, girl's hair and all. It looks as if they might have solved their half-back problem with Pierre Mignoni and David Skrela, who looks very good - in fact there are two things that worry me about him: one is that he's very slight and a really good opposition back row might make mincemeat of him, the other is that I remember his father Jean-Claude Skrela playing for France as part of the legendary back row of the late 1970's (Jean-Pierre Rives and Jean-Pierre Bastiat being the other two) which makes me feel very very old. They will be strengthened by having Aurelien Rougerie and particularly Damien Traille back eventually as well. Tricky game coming up against England, and to resurrect one of the oldest sporting cliches in the book, it very much depends on which French team turns up on the day. They should win, though.

Italy: Never in the game against France, but they could have caused England a lot more problems than they did if they'd played the aggressive game they played in the second half throughout, instead of constantly kicking possession away in the first half. Symptomatic of a lack of confidence, but if they take as much confidence out of the Twickenham game as they should they could cause some serious problems later in the championship, particularly for anyone who has to travel to Rome. Like Wales, for instance.


everlands said...

My money is on Italy to stage a remarkable comeback and win it on points.

Any takers?

The Black Rabbit said...

Ello poptart.
I'm a bit riled by your 'brief thoughts' on at least the SCO/WAL game.
Sure, Sco have been distinctly average for some time now, but I think we were slightly better than distinctly average against youz.

Yeah you played like a bunch of wet girls, but we can take heart from the fact, I think, that we won, and won well. The scoreline certainly did not flatter Scotland in that game.

Scott Murray has to go get the ball in the lineout, I don't think it was just presented to him!

And as for Paterson's percentages, sure, Scotland tries are not the most prevalent these days, and that game proved that, but there MOST CERTAINLY have been quite a number of Scottish tries over the not-too-distant-past, where Paterson HAS converted from touchlines, and converted well. I guess you are just quoting percentages from THIS year?

And rather like the old Sandy Lyle v Nick Faldo golf thing, Jonny hones his kicking skills for an alleged 2 hours each day, Paterson just twenty minutes.
My point being, that Christopher Douglas Paterson IS in fact, a far superior goal kicker, than, er ANYBODYZ, and thats a FACT. So best you go and swivel between the posts... ah yeeah.

One final thang regarding your thoughts on Scotland- Without Jason White still, and Ally Hogg for a long period, and Mike Blair, AND Simon Webster (though choice... WHY?) I DO think we did play relatively well. You never looked like even threatening the try-line, through many of your mistakes for sure, but down to us in no small way also.

If we DID play Webster, I think you might have to eat your words, which are all too easy to write, regarding Scotland never scoring any tries.
Phew. that's that.

Regarding your prediction of a French slam. You look in good shape at the moment, for sure. Buutttt you have popped your champagne cork a little early haven't you? Two games in?

They have won only ONE of the 'difficult' games (at least on paper) but have three left to do the french thing, and completely fuck up against someone.

I thought they might, and still HOPE they have one eye on their world cup, but I am well aware it doesn't really look like that at the moment.

Just don't count your poulets before they've hatched. That's all I'm saying!