The 2013 version of the Six Nations threw up an incredibly exciting first weekend, with Italy’s shock win over France the clear highlight. An opening day loss for the tournament favourites has thrown the Championship wide open. Meanwhile, Ireland and England recorded impressive victories to get that all-important momentum rolling. Next Sunday may end the hopes of one of the two. What follows are just a few thoughts on how things have unfolded so far for the teams apart from Ireland. Feel free to comment below with any of your own!
Personally, I expected a strong statement of intent from the French on Saturday, but the loss makes sense when you look back at their build-up to the tournament. Bernard Jackman highlighted several of the problems during his excellent slot on Monday’s Off the Ball, particularly how wrong Phillipe Saint-André had gone with his approach. The French coach basically pre-excused his players for the loss, continually emphasizing that they were fatigued, as well as how little time he had had with the squad since their impressive November series. Regardless of whether his assertions have a basis (something I’ll look at in more depth next week), it was the wrong thing to be saying in the media.
To be fair, the French performance was tired-looking. They still tried to get off the defensive line at speed, but they never won the physical collisions. That was illustrated by the manner in which Italy managed to get their razor-sharp offload game going. The most stark example was when Orquera (78kg) got his hands through a double tackle from Picamoles (113kg) and Ouedraogo (102kg) for the Castrogiovanni try. That’s not to take anything away from Jacques Brunel’s team, who were exciting and brave in attack. They will travel to Murrayfield expecting a win.
Saint-André has made two changes to his starting XV, Suta in for the injured Pape and Bastareaud replacing Fritz. The Toulon man adds serious bosh-factor but has defensive positioning and awareness problems. Still, it should be a bone-jarring battle in the centre between France and Wales on Saturday. Directly across from Bastareaud will be a man with big problems of his own, JJV Davies.
I felt that the individual performances of Davies and the Sam Warburton neatly summed up the Welsh performance last weekend, particularly in the first half. Davies had possibly the worst game of his career, utterly lacking in confidence. Whatever about the poor passing (he’s never been the most skillful centre), the fact that he was losing physical collisions to the likes of Craig Gilroy spoke volumes. After a run of 8 losses in a Welsh jersey, the confidence just wasn’t there.
Similarly, Sam Warburton’s confidence has fallen off a cliff since the Grand Slam win. A run of bad games has turned into a crisis and he needs to focus on his mental game. At least twice in the first half vs. Ireland, Warburton was in prime positions for steals at the breakdown, but just didn’t have the confidence to put his hands on the ball. A year ago he would have had the ball snapped up and away in that split second where he’s now staring at the ball. Regardless of whether or not Warburton is actually injured, Wales have done the right thing by starting the sensationally in-form Justin Tipuric at openside this weekend.
England roll into Dublin for Sunday’s game on the back of a four-try win against Scotland. As expected, they looked physically powerful and in control at all times. Farrell’s place-kicking is becoming such a reliable weapon for them that simply overpowering the opposition and taking points is the tempting option. However, the introduction of Billy Twelvetrees adds something different. Without getting ahead of myself, he looks a genuinely complete centre and is just great to watch. He’s a big lad and can carry well, but his vision and distribution add so much more than the Barritt/Tuilagi combo offers.
We’ve another fascinating weekend ahead of us and it’s impossible to say where this Championship is going to end up. Leave a comment below with your views on the other teams in the Six Nations and what you expect this weekend…