6 Nations: : Lions Watch

After a few Blog-less months (caused by the stresses and strains of a journalism course which has somewhat taken over my life the past few months…), I am pleased to make my return and what better excuse to do so than the 6 Nations and the forthcoming Lions tour.

The British and Irish Lions have a mouthwatering summer tour of Australia lying in wait and as is always the case in a 6 Nations tournament in the lead-up to a Lions tour, competition for places is starting to hot up.

Gatland has much to consider after the first weekend of action

The opening weekend had all British rugby fans wishing that the likes of Martin Castrogiovanni and Sergio Parisse were not Italian and were English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish dynamos instead as they helped inspire Italy to a stunning victory over France.

The opening weekend also saw a rejuvenated Ireland conquer Wales who are continuing their free-fall from their Grandslam-winning pedestal, and England demonstrating the sort of attacking verve en-route to victory against Scotland that helped them defeat world champions New Zealand in the Autumn.

As is nearly always the case in a Lions year, the opening weekend provided a fascinating insight into who might make the trip and who might not.

It threw up the usual blend of ‘dead-certs’ confirming their status as being such (e.g Dan Cole, Rory Best, Johnny Sexton, Brian O’Driscoll, Chris Ashton), former favourites for selection on the wane (Sam Warburton and Jonathan Davies, the latter seemed to just have an off-day) , and young unexpected contenders throwing their hats into the ring for selection (e.g Joe Launchberry, Billy Twelvetrees.

Anyway, now that the dust has settled on the wonderful opening round of this year’s tournament it is time to look ahead to this weekend’s action and I have decided to highlight some of the key British and Irish players and clashes to look out for┬áthis weekend.

Cian Healey Vs. Dan Cole:

Come the first test match against Australia this summer these two could well be partnered as the first-choice tight-head and loose-head props for the Lions but this Saturday they will be head-to-head and it promises to be a snarling battle. Both were true to form on the opening weekend and proved why they are both regarded amongst the very best in the world in their respective positions.

Ben Youngs Vs. Danny Care:

This is an ‘in-house’ battle within the England setup and one which seems to drive both players on rather than inhibiting their performances. They are both world-class, both exciting, both energising, but unfortunately both are still pretty young and each have a tendency to undo some of their fantastic work with some clumsy errors. They are however both in the running for a spot in the Lions squad as well as being locked in a battle to wrestle the number 9 England shirt from one another. Hopefully this battle can continue to inspire the pair of them and we can look forward to a big 60 minutes from Ben Youngs this weekend and an exciting cameo from Care in the last 20.

Justin Tipuric:

 

Justin TipuricLess than a year ago it seemed that Sam Warburton could do nothing wrong. He had performed and led the Welsh side superbly at the World Cup in late 2011 and then he flourished again as skipper as Wales went on to Grandslam glory in 2012. He has however been a steep downwards slide since then and so have Wales as a collective unit. Captain Sam is missing this weekend though and at the moment this actually seems to be a positive for the Welsh as it opens up a space for the dynamic Justin Tipuric. Prior to last weekend I had heard an awful lot about him but hadn’t seen much of him myself, however, his performance after coming off the bench against Ireland made me sit up and take note. Could he be the answer to Wales’ desperate prayers of late? Could he even be Lions material? We might just find out against the French this weekend…

Brad Barritt Vs. Brian O’Driscoll:

Brian O' Driscoll 6 Nations 2013This week Sir Clive Woodward conceded that in England’s last Grandslam winning year in 2003, when Brian O’Driscoll was at his dazzling best, that he earmarked no less than three England players to nullify the Irish master’s threat. If last weekend is anything to go by then Stuart Lancaster may have to follow Woodward’s lead in his team instructions as O’Driscoll returned from injury in stunning fashion. Barritt playing alongside Billy Twelvetrees in the England midfield will surely be charged with such a task this weekend at the Aviva Stadium and the whole game could well hinge on this battle.

Other things to look out for this weekend:

The Irish back-three (even without the absent Tommy Bowe), the battle of the two fly-half Lions front-runners Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell and the development of Scotland flyer and Lions full-back hopeful Stuart Hogg who made a great impression at Twickenham last Saturday.

Has the penny finally dropped for England @ The RWC?

A few tough weeks are not yet forgotten, but England’s performance against a poor Romania side this morning provided some significant respite. Less unforced errors, fewer moments of silly indiscipline and a more assured and confident day with the ball in hand all added up to a much improved showing from Martin Johnson’s men, and it was about time.

Though the opposition were at times staggeringly poor, it was vital that England treated the game with respect and that they did. From their early decision to slot three nerve-easing points from a penalty to their late attempt at what would have been an incredible breakaway try, England performed with total professionalism and hunger as finally they laid down their marker for the tournament.

In a week where South Africa and Australia silenced their critics it was the perfect time for England to make an impression and this result may not have sent out shockwaves, but it certainly will have made a few teams sit up and take note that England aren’t a team in total disrepair.

No matter how poor their opposition were it was encouraging to see England playing with far greater intent and this was helped dramatically by their improved handling throughout. Ben Youngs dictated the pace of the game very smartly at 9 and got the England backs firing right from the word go and he was well supported by Jonny Wilkinson in the first half and Toby Flood in the second. The combination play between the half-back pairings was neat, tidy and efficient and brought England’s try-scorers into play on a consistent basis.

It seemed that England knew a simplistic approach would suffice if they injected pace into their attacks and the vast majority of their tries came as a result of this approach. England were strong up front and endeavoured to provide Ben Youngs with the quick ball he thrives upon and this enabled the likes of Manu Tuilagi to play a starring role.

Tuilagi revelled in his greater involvement in attack

The young Pacific-Island dynamo was invited to play at his dangerous and brilliant best this morning with the quick service allowing him to take the ball on the shoulder of Wilkinson and Flood right up on the gain-line. For me he was the real star of England’s display and he was demonstrative of everything that England did right in attack today. His support running was fantastic and his hands consistent as he continuously made breaks through Romania’s defensive line and provided the simple hands necessary not just to score himself but to provide assists for others. In England’s previous games they haven’t played with enough confidence and conviction to bring Tuilagi and their other devastating supporting runners like Chris Ashton in from the fringes of the game, but today was a totally different story.

Has the penny finally dropped for England in New Zealand? It seems it has. Simple and strong rugby played at pace usually does for the minnows in tournament play and boy did it work today. Romania’s display was committed as was expected, but their error-strewn handling, shabby set-piece play and their inability to keep pace with England’s relentless execution of the basics meant that they failed to keep touch with their far more able opponents. From now England’s remaining matches in this World Cup will all be against truly world class opposition. Their next opponents Scotland have a huge match against Argentina tomorrow and whatever the result is they will be coming for England’s blood next week.

It is fair to say that England’s more direct and simplistic approach was suited better to today’s task rather than their upcoming encounters, but they would be well advised to take note that uncomplicated rugby does work if executed with confidence. England’s more exciting performers like Youngs, Tuilagi, Ashton and Ben Foden are the key to their potential success at the World Cup, but the way to utilise them most effectively is to get the basics right in the first place.