It has all been about England in this year’s Six Nations, with some very smart kicking strategy and then the ball most often in the hands of their playmakers and matchwinners. With this approach, the traditional back row contests and set piece battles become statistics but not match defining. I can think of plenty of talented backs starved of ball through their career who wonder why this has suddenly happened!
England’s win against France last week owed a lot to this phenomenon. Back in the 80’s, France was so full of talent they would pick centres on the wing – Charvet, Bonneval eg- and they became even more potent. England even did it once. Opposing wingers found themselves humiliated by intelligence and creative genius. But you have to be ready and able! To see the wildly impressive English wreak humiliation on the woeful French was great for a while until we realised that selecting three under prepared, out of position players in the French back field was asking for a cricket score and it duly happened. Fair play to England, they were perfectly happy to take candy off the French baby. To those who were awaiting a full-blooded clash there was something lacking about a game which could have been a victory by at least 50 points or more, something I alluded to last week but didn’t really believe – less le Crunch, more marshmallow.
I ask myself how England seem so superior all of a sudden? Partly due to the cycle of their post-World Cup endeavours, the continuing hurt of a pool stage exit and a poor season last year, partly because when all their players are fit and focused, they should be the number one team in the world. If the attitude is right, the selections smart and the tactics well thought through, then tick all three boxes so far this season. Add in a coach who has now realised that he doesn’t need to play so many word games and even the PR starts to look good.
The beauty of sport however lies in its unpredictability – England expects to win down in Cardiff and then onto the Grand Slam. Fanciful some may say after last year’s downturn, but such adversity makes you stronger. However, even the best players when given little space or time can crack – there can be no other Welsh strategy and let us not forget they have some pedigree of their own. I will never forget the wide-eyed look on Lancaster’s face after the 30-3 drubbing a few years ago but the steel and knowledge in the England squad this season is undeniable. Fascinating match in prospect, and if England win I suspect the rest of the tournament becomes an exercise in World Cup preparation.
Sorry about everyone else in Rounds 2 and 3. You earn the right to plaudits in my view – a promising Scottish assault on the stuttering Irish side momentarily caused the crowd to roar but the rest was a catalogue of errors and while Italy stayed in the game through Welsh profligacy (again) we were left wanting much more. An injury-ridden, half-strength Scotland in Paris may hand the French a vital win, while only an eternal optimist could see a victory for the Azzurri. Weather is set for cloudless skies, so the Piazza Navona could be a favourite venue for the travelling Irish to enjoy the magic of Rome.
Back here, it is all about the pressure cooker of Cardiff. I wonder, will it be Tom Jones or Max Boyce on the microphone???