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…
McFadden is the PRO12's most accurate place-kicker. (c) Ken Bohane.
Praise for Fergus McFadden is a regular thing here on the pages of The Touchline, but the simple fact is that the 25-year-old is having a superb season for Leinster. His display against the Ospreys on Friday night showed exactly why he should have been starting at 12 for Ireland during the Six Nations. Gordon D’Arcy had a predictably disappointing tournament and he has been on the decline for the last year at least.
Despite some intermittent flashes of his old self, the 32-year-old has been far from his best for Leinster and the time has come to replace him at both provincial and international level. McFadden is his obvious and deserving successor, as proven by his performance against the Ospreys. He was as busy as usual with ball in hand, making several half-breaks as well as some other strong carries in traffic. He almost scored in the 56th minute after dummying and using his strong fend to break the Ospreys’ defence. Richard Fussell did well to haul him down.
Much has been made of McFadden’s missed tackle on George North in the Six Nations opener against Wales. It was a spectacular one and isn’t easy to forget, but that incident was far from the norm for the Kilkenny man. It wasn’t even McFadden’s tackle to make; he was forced to step in due to D’Arcy’s failure to take his man. Against the Ospreys, McFadden’s defensive game was solid, with one stand-out hit on Jason Tipuric just before half time, where he drove the Welsh international 5 metres backwards.
Despite his 11 caps, McFadden's international career hasn't burst into life just yet. (c) Liam Coughlan.
His place kicking was a little less smooth than usual, although he still converted 6 from 8. The best effort of the night came from inside Leinster’s half. McFadden’s routine off the tee is best described as unfussy. He certainly takes less time than other leading place-kickers but he consistently gets the job done. He is the PRO12’s most accurate place-kicker and will look to continue the massive improvements he has made in this area. Having him alongside Sexton for Ireland would also leave us with a proven goal-kicker on the field if Ian Madigan were to be used off the bench.
McFadden was clearly motivated to show what he offers after a frustrating Six Nations spent mainly on the bench. Another highlight of his performance was the booming 70m clearance kick out of Leinster’s 22 in the first half. It was a beautiful spiral and showed how hard the centre is working on his core skills. His ever-improving handling also showed up well as himself and Madigan worked a smart loop to release Nacewa earlier in the game.
All the signs this season point to a player who is working hard to improve himself and is really starting to peak. At the other end of the scale, D’Arcy is showing clear signs of decline and has passed his peak as a player. McFadden is the best inside centre in Ireland right now and if he continues this type of form, he must start at 12 on the Irish tour to New Zealand.
*Do you agree that McFadden is the answer for Ireland at 12? Do you think D’Arcy still has time left at international level? Would you like to see other players given a chance at inside centre? As always, feel free to drop a comment below with your thoughts and views!
The Irish scrum was solid all tournament until the English match. (c) Ken Bohane.
In fairness to the IRFU they haven’t hung around in attempting to remedy the catastrophic scrum failure at Twickenham on Saturday. Yesterday, on their website, the governing body of Irish rugby advertised the newly-created position of High Performance Scrum Coach. The harsh lesson England gave us at scrum time shows just how lacking in depth our front-row is. Tom Court, a loosehead prop for his province, was asked to replace the clearly irreplaceable Mike Ross at tighthead and the results were disastrous and dangerous.
The new Scrum Coach will be responsible for implementing the “recently established” High Performance Scrum Programme on behalf of the IRFU. Presumably, that programme means teaching young Irish props how to hold their own and hopefully dominate this particular set-piece. The current lack of depth of props anywhere near international level is alarming. There are certainly players with the potential to step up, but lack of exposure, even at provincial level, has held them back.
A lot is made of the need for props to gain years of experience before being unleashed in high-level rugby. We often hear that props don’t hit their prime until late in their careers, often after they turn 30. But look at England’s pair who demolished us on Saturday – Dan Cole is 24 and Alex Corbisiero just 23. Our own Cian Healy is 24 too, and his scrummaging has been progressing until this hiccup. Clearly, if he is good enough, a prop is old enough.
Healy and Ross coped well against Italy. Can we take it to the next level? (c) Ken Bohane.
Jamie Hagan is a fine prospect at tighthead. Age? 24! Still uncapped, the Leinster man hasn’t even featured in an Irish squad yet. That’s despite a strong season at Connacht last year when he was first-choice. While he hasn’t been a starter in the big games for Leinster this season, he has 15 appearances, 2 more than Court has made for Ulster, at loosehead. With the lack of cover for Ross at tighthead, surely Declan Kidney could have given Hagan a chance at some stage over the last year or so, even just off the bench?
The new Scrum Coach will need to stress to Kidney the importance of getting Hagan involved as soon as possible. At Munster, Stephen Archer is a 24-year-old tighthead with plenty of talent. He’s in his third season with the province and has picked up 7 starts this season. Archer will also need to be worked with closely, getting his scrummaging up to standard. Ulster’s Adam Macklin at 22, is another with potential. A converted back-row, the Belfast Harlequins man still has plenty to learn, but why not in an international environment?
On the other side of the scrum, Healy is first-choice but we need more competition here too. Court is good player for Ulster, but looks uncomfortable at international level. His teammate Paddy McAllister, 22, has looked solid in his 15 appearances for Ulster this season. Leinster’s Jack McGrath is the same age and another potential international. John Ryan of Munster, 23, and Ronan Loughney of Connacht, 28, can play on both sides of the scrum.
John Andress of Exeter Chiefs, 28, is a tighthead who played for the Wolfhounds back in ’09. Brett Wilkinson, also 28, has had plenty of involvement with the Irish squad, but no caps so far. Also at Connacht, Rodney Ah You and Dylan Rogers battered the Irish scrum in a World Cup warm-up last August and could be naturalised soon, both joining in 2010. There are plenty of options!
Competition is needed for Healy at loosehead too. (c) Ken Bohane.
Last Saturday, Ireland paid the price for not investing time and resources into developing props who are up to an international standard. It has been a long-term issue, but with John Hayes and then Mike Ross having stayed largely injury-free, it has never really come to the fore. That’s exactly what happened in Twickenham, and the spotlight was merciless. The IRFU have been forced to act swiftly, knowing that something should have been done a long time ago.
The main point is that it’s not all doom and gloom. Yes, we got an absolute beasting at the scrum against the English, but there are young players in this country with the potential to play international rugby. If the IRFU can get the right person to fill the new Scrum Coach role, allied to their succession plan, which should mean more provincial exposure for Irish props from next season onwards, then things can be put right.
In the short-term, Kidney must include some of these young players in the tour to New Zealand, even if he doesn’t feel they are ‘ready’. The only way to find out is to give them a chance. As we’ve seen with players like Conor Murray and Peter O’Mahony, some guys are just made for international rugby and the step-up is natural for them. To use Cole and Corbisiero as examples again, both were 22 when the made their England debut. Now, both look like possible Lions contenders next year.
Kidney needs to take a leap of faith in his squad selection for New Zealand, not just in the prop positions. As discussed on The Touchline already, he needs to get competition for every position back into the squad. Who knows what heights Cian Healy and Mike Ross could be pushed to with hungry young props breathing down their necks? If there had been replacements at a sufficient level of ability, could they have been rested at some stage in the 4-game run and thus come into the England game ready to attack their scrum? Some balls in June will have huge benefits down the line.
*As an aside, the IRB must expand the size of the bench in international games to 8 players. Asking a prop to cover two specialist positions is unfair and dangerous, as we saw with Court last Saturday.
Kidney's loyalty has cost Ireland this year. (c) Art Widak.
In the build-up to this year’s Six Nations, Declan Kidney’s conservative squad selection was not at all surprising. Loyalty is Kidney’s way. He maintains faith in the players who have done well for him in the past. There are positive sides to this loyalty. For example, it can contribute towards a strong spirit of togetherness within the squad, where every player knows he is valued and will not be discarded on a whim.
However, there are clearly negative factors to Kidney’s loyalty too. Picking players on past glories means ignoring absolutely crucial factors in current performance – form and confidence. Furthermore, when a player is almost certain of retaining his place in the team/squad even after a poor display, what effect does this have on his motivation? Competition within a squad is vital.
I’ve waited to write this piece until today because I didn’t want it to be a knee-jerk reaction to the embarrassment of Twickenham, but my feelings are still the same now. I don’t want to accuse Irish players of complacency as I understand that they always try their best for their country. But knowing that your coach is unlikely to drop you or give other players in your position a chance is not going to result in a player being at his most focused.
Donnacha Ryan, passing, is one player who has shown high levels of motivation. (c) Ken Bohane.
A perfect example came on the stroke of half time last Saturday. English scrumhalf Lee Dickson was dithering over the ball at the base of a ruck just outside the English 22. Donnacha O’Callaghan, who started all 5 games in the tournament despite losing his place at Munster, stands idly at the back of the ruck watching on. Donnacha Ryan, making just his 2nd Six Nations start and with plenty to prove, ferociously clatters into the breakdown with an aggressive counter-ruck, forcing Dickson into conceding the penalty that keeps Ireland well in the game at 9-6.
Ryan jumps to his feet, pumps the air with his fist and screams, “Come on!” His teammates are visibly lifted, and there’s plenty of back-slapping and praise. Ryan is a man playing with high levels of motivation. O’Callaghan is a mere spectator. Again, I don’t want to start slating individual players, but the simple fact is that O’Callaghan has offered Ireland very little over the course of this Championship. In the past, he has been a vital part of Ireland teams, but that was when he had something to prove.
Much the same could be said of Gordon D’Arcy’s showing. There were dropped balls, kicks directly into touch and a badly judged switch of play when England looked to be on the ropes. The single most shocking incident was his attempted drop goal though. As we trailed 6-3, a thumping Ryan tackle on Dickson allowed SOB and Ferris to pile in for a turnover. Cian Healy’s pass to D’Arcy was poor, but to then attempt a ridiculously ambitious drop goal with very little space was hard to understand.
D'Arcy (12) has looked far from his best. (c) Ken Bohane.
The D’Arcy of ’07 or ’09 would have kept that ball in hand and battered into the English covering defence with confidence, looking for a hole to slip through, looking to create something. But this year’s version of D’Arcy, completely assured of his place in the team, doesn’t have that same hunger. Likewise Jamie Heaslip, the key example being Dylan Hartley ripping the ball from his grasp with Ireland in a superb attacking position in the England 22.
Tomas O’Leary’s case is a little different. He does have something to prove, having lost his place in both the Irish squad and with Munster. Still, it is Kidney’s loyalty that is the issue again. O’Leary should never have been near the Irish bench based on form. The decision to replace Eoin Reddan, who was having a decent outing despite one or two bad errors, was mindless. While I will stress that I will never blame individual players for a loss, some of O’Leary’s mistakes were costly.
His lack of confidence and sharpness was particularly evident as he carried the ball over the Irish tryline, providing England with the platform for their penalty try. Farrell’s kick was good, but the scrumhalf had options – either sprint to retrieve the ball before it got that close to the line, or have the belief to let it cross before touching down. As it was, O’Leary made no decision and England secured the game. His passing and box-kicking were both off the mark too.
There was more competition in the 2009 squad. (c) Arun Marsh.
When you look back to the 2009 Grand Slam-winning squad, the level of competition is obvious. Paddy Wallace started the first 3 games at 12, before D’Arcy got the nod for the final two games. At hooker, Jerry Flannery was first-choice but Best started the Scotland game and replaced Flannery in every other one. In the back-row, Ferris, Heaslip and Wallace were the front-liners, but Leamy came off the bench in every game as well as starting against Scotland.
At scrumhalf, Stringer kept the pressure on O’Leary, starting that Scotland match and appearing off the bench regularly. Rob Kearney was vying with Geordan Murphy at fullback, while Mick O’Driscoll and Malcolm O’Kelly ensured that O’Callaghan earned his place in the team.
Kidney’s loyalty has completely deprived Ireland of that level of competition this season, and the inconsistent performances are the result. On our day (vs. England last year/ vs. Australia at RWC) we are capable of beating any team. Those wins come when the entire squad is aggressive, motivated and hungry. A lack of competition in this current set-up means those performances are becoming more and more rare.
Following on from our Player of the Tournament piece, here’s the shortlist for the best newcomer in this season’s Six Nations. The list features two Scots, two English and one player each from France and Wales. Italy’s newcomers failed to make any impact. Ireland had a distinct lack of new faces and plenty of the criticism of Declan Kidney in the aftermath to the capitulation to England will be based on this.
Take a look through the piece, which outlines why each of the six players made it, and make your vote in the poll at the bottom! Leave a comment explaining why you choose that particular player. If you think anyone has been unfairly omitted, let me know in the comments section too.
Denton on a typical surge against Ireland. (c) Ken Bohane.
The powerful No.8 made his debut for Scotland in the World Cup warm-up match against Ireland in August of last year, but missed out on selection for the final squad. His form for Edinburgh since made it impossible for Andy Robinson not to choose him at the base of the scrum for this year’s Six Nations. Born in Zimbabwe and schooled in South Africa, Denton qualifies for Scotland through his mother. He has had an outstanding debut tournament for his adopted country.
Denton’s ball-carrying ability is already world-class. His strength and pace make him a hard man to stop. He relishes the physical battle of contact, and his work-rate is second to none. In fact, Denton made the most carries of any player in the Six Nations with 65. The Edinburgh back-rower has also displayed a nice offloading game, something Scotland need to exploit to better effect. Denton doesn’t shirk defensive responsibilities either, and made some quality steals on the deck. A genuine 2013 Lions contender.
Fofana in action against Italy. (c) Richard Dunwoody.
The Clermont speedster features in our Player of the Championship poll, and has already picked up a couple of votes. His impact for France saw him finish 2nd in the try-scoring table, with 4 in 5 games. Fofana’s pace and evasiveness make him a nightmare for opposition defences, highlighted by the fact that he beat more defenders than any other player in the Six Nations. He is also a superb finisher. Despite not being very big for an international centre (5’10” and 88kg), Fofana’s power also makes him a strong defender.
The one aspect of the game that the 24-year-old needs to work on is his distribution. Fofana almost never looks for the pass or offload. His confidence in his own ability is commendable, but if he is to continue playing at 12, Fofana must add variety to his game. It’s hard to believe, but the Paris-born back only made 9 passes in the 5 games, and not a single offload. If he can improve these facets of his game, Fofana has the ability to become one of the best centres in the world.
Cuthbert watches on as Beauxis takes a penalty for France in the Grand Slam game. (c) Matt Appleby.
A lot of the hype about Wales’ backline centres around the freakboy that is George North. On the opposite wing though, Cuthbert has been probably more impressive in this Six Nations. After a quiet opening game against Ireland, when he came off injured at half-time, the Blues winger exploded into life with a brilliant try-scoring performance against Scotland. The giant (6’6″ and 104kg) wide man added further tries against Italy and France, both fantastic scores.
Born and raised in England, the 21-year-old was unusually not an underage international with Wales (he qualifies through his mother). A move to college in Cardiff where he played sevens resulted in a call-up to the Welsh Sevens for the 09/10 and 10/11 IRB World Series. The Blues were impressed enough to bring him onboard in Cardiff, and Cuthbert has rapidly risen to where he is now. His background highlights the need for the IRFU to invest in sevens. Cuthbert is still relatively raw, as shown in the English game when he only touched the ball once. However, his size, pace and finishing ability means he will be worrying Irish defences for years to come.
The Scarlets No.8’s decision to opt for an international career with his native England, rather than Wales, whom he qualifies for on residency grounds, has turned out to be a good one. After impressing off the bench in the first two games against Scotland and Italy, the 23-year-old finally started against Wales. His performance in that game was good, and he has grown in the two games since then. Explosive ball-carrying in Morgan’s main strength, but he also possesses good skills, with his offload for Foden’s try against France a prime example.
Wales, France and Ireland have all struggled to halt Morgan and he has been one of the best No.8s in this year’s Six Nations. He has confirmed a move to Gloucester next season, which will make it easier to link up with the English international camp. There will be a fascinating battle for the Lions’ No.8 jersey over the next year, with Morgan, David Denton, Toby Faletau all strong prospects. Hopefully our own Jamie Heaslip can find some form too.
Hogg wearing the 13 jersey for the Warriors against Leinster this season. His future may lie there for Scotland too. (c) Patrick McGuire.
While Scotland endured a shockingly poor championship, 19-year-old Hogg had a highly promising tournament. Having only made two appearances for the Glasgow Warriors before this season, no one could have predicted his impact. The fullback didn’t even feature in Scotland’s squad for the opening defeat to England, but a brilliant performance, including this magnificent solo try, in Scotland A’s 35-0 thrashing of the English Saxons showed Andy Robinson what he was missing.
Coming off the bench against Wales, Hogg made a big impression with his deft footwork and willingness to attack. He hasn’t looked back since, and turned in his best display as Scotland came close to beating France, scoring his first international try. The quality of Hogg’s attacking play may eventually result in a move to outside centre, where Scotland lack creativity. Wherever he ends up playing, the young Scot is set for a long international career.
Farrell is another who features in The Touchline’s Player of the Championship poll, although he’s not received a single vote at the time of writing. His performance in the St. Patrick’s Day win over Ireland may see that change, as the 20-year-old put in a fantastic display of tactical kicking. After playing the first two games at outside centre, where he was defensively solid if a little unspectacular, Farrell’s move to outhalf has seen both himself and England flourish. The Saracens youngster has displayed massive amounts of mental strength and plenty of ability.
Farrell’s defensive strength is a huge plus at outhalf, and he has made some big hits over the course of the Championship. His kicking out of hand had been a slight worry, particularly against France, but the win over Ireland yesterday showed that he is accomplished in this area. His place-kicking has been largely excellent too. The one area that Farrell has yet to prove himself is as an attacking force. The English game plan is pretty limited at the moment, so it will be interesting to see how he copes if England look to develop there. It’s been a brilliant debut international campaign for Farrell.
Ireland’s Donnacha Ryan is worth a shout here, despite being 28. This season was the first in which he had an impact on the Six Nations, and the Scotland game was the first time he started a Six Nations game. Declan Kidney’s loyalty to Donncha O’Callaghan was hard to understand and Ryan now deserves a first-choice role.
For France, Yoann Maestri came into the side for their second game against Scotland and retained his place for the remainder of the tournament.The 120kg second-row added plenty of beef to the French pack and excelled defensively. The Toulouse man will look to get on the ball more in the future.
England’s Brad Barritt and Chris Robshaw were both as solid as rock, although very limited in attack. They are perfectly suited to England’s style of play.