It was billed as the 2016 6 Nations showdown and in what has been a largely uninspiring tournament, it nearly lived up to the hype. We had tries, controversy and some late drama. Here are the 5 main talking points from the game:
(1) Craig Joubert
The patron of the Scottish Tourist Board made his return to our shores for the first time since some incident that happened some time last year…. There was lots of talk before the game from the respective coaching teams about the illegalities of each others scrummaging technique but it was probably Joubert’s refereeing of the breakdown that was the most controversial.
Northern hemisphere and southern hemisphere referees still have fundamental differences in their approaches to the breakdown. Joubert is a fairly typical southern hemisphere referee in that he tends to favour the attacking team over the defending team when dishing out penalties.
In this game it was not the jackal that was the primary focus but the defender not moving away from the tackle fast enough that irked Joubert on a number of occasions. Some of the calls were fair but others were very harsh adjudications; the tackler cannot magically disappear.
Attacking teams quickly cotton on the the referees approach and we saw a number of players using legs, arms and other body parts to pin the tackler in the ruck to milk the penalty. Referees need to be more savvy to this cynical technique.
(2) Maro Itoje
The guy is a great prospect. Anyone who has watched the England u20 team over the last few seasons will have seen the Saracen’s player come through the ranks with some relish.
Whether he ends up as a 6 or a second row at the very top level is yet to be seen, but in his first couple of games he seems to have very quickly adapted to test level rugby.
He disrupted a couple of early Welsh lineouts, is comfortable competing for the ball on the ground, puts in the hard yards and can carry well. His run and offload for one of England’s tries showed that not only is he a great athlete, he is one with a brain that allows him to think on his feet and read what is happening around him.
If he carries on improving with this trajectory we could well be looking at a future England captain.
(3) Stopping England’s ball carriers is difficult
It was clear watching England’s performances this tournament that the key to beating them is to stop their ball carriers on the gain line. If you can do this you nullify their back line. Ford, Farrell, Watson, Nowell et al, are not the sort of players who are going to power through defences to score tries, they need space to play, which is created by their forward carriers.
You would think that this would play in to Wales’ hands given their back row is chosen primarily to play without the ball. In simple terms Lydiate tackles and Warburton or Falateu steal the ball. In this game though the Welsh back row and their colleagues struggled to stop the likes of B Vunipola, Hartley, Itoje and Haskell getting over the gain line.
For England’s first try it was Itoje who ran around Biggar and was then missed by Baldwin who provided the pass for the try. Wales usually pride themselves on their defence so these were very poor missed tackles by their usual standards. The statistics say Wales missed 25 tackles in the game – more than the Ireland (15), Scotland (9) and France (20) games.
(4) Eddie Jones and Warren Gatland’s stock
Assuming England go on to beat a woeful France and win the grand slam Eddie Jones will no doubt claim the plaudits for taking this team to their first clean sweep since 2003. How much impact he has had is up for debate.
England only lost 1 game in each of the last 5 6 Nations tournaments and have come close to winning the Grand Slam before. Eddie Jones hasn’t taken on a poor team and made them great but he may have made a good team slightly better against a misfiring Ireland and Wales.
His supporters may point to the small differences being enough to justify Jones receiving the credit but this has been an evolution rather than a revolution of Lancaster’s work.
When it comes to Wales under Gatland there are two schools of thought. The first is that he has made Wales competitive at the top of the northern hemisphere game and brought a period of success to the nation that rivals the golden periods of the past. He has taken a decent group of players and moulded them in to competitive outfit.
The anti-Gatland camp will point to the poor record against the southern hemisphere’s best, and the 3 year gap without winning the 6 Nations Championship with an exceptional group of players as evidence that he has taken Wales as far as he can.
The reality is probably somewhere in the middle. Gatland and Edwards have certainly made this Welsh team competitive and have remedied some of the long standing issues with the Welsh game but there are two valid charges against them that stick.
Firstly, the team has a a rigid game plan which is conservative in nature and low risk. We know Wales struggle to score tries against the top nations but the lack of a “Plan B” or a creative edge has meant Wales have struggled to beat the best. The 10 minutes against a depleted Australia in the Rugby World Cup is a perfect example of their limitations.
The second charge is that in specific aspects of the game Wales have not improved; namely the lineout, an attacking maul and set piece back moves. In these three areas Wales have stagnated, or even regressed against the best.
(5) Alex Cuthbert
I know, I know….it isn’t fair to single out one Welsh player after a poor display but Alex Cuthbert’s form at the moment is embarrassing to watch. Tom James was brought in for a game or two and then bizarrely dropped but on current performance levels he must offer more than Cuthbert?
Last year we put up a defence of Cuthbert after he came under fire for some less than average games but since then things at test level don’t seem to have got any better.
On several occasions today he chased a kick, only to over-run the ball or miss the attacking player all together. He had the ball ripped from him by George Ford of all people, he ran an isolated line straight in to touch, he was out of position on a number of occasions in defence, he was shrugged off by Watson metres from the Welsh line…..we could go on but maybe it should be left there…..
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