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 this 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.

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6 Nations Review 2012 and Team of the Tournament

So, what has the 6 Nations taught us?

Wales:

Wales Grandslam 6 Nations

Super-Sam Warburton lifts the trophy for Wales

Wales have been fantastic. They may have suffered their fair share of scares along the way, think the Ireland, England and France matches, but ultimately they overcame every obstacle thrust in their way and they have landed another Grandslam.

Consequently, Wales are in a state of rugby-based euphoria once again but questions remain about the timing of their success, have they yet again peaked too early? Their three recent Grandslam wins have never come within a year of the start of the World Cup, in fact, both this weekend’s triumph and that of 2008 have come in the immediate aftermath of Rugby’s showpiece event.

For now Wales have every right to live in the moment and enjoy their hard-earned Grandslam glory but it is yet to be seen whether they can build on this and become one of the stand-out favourites for the World Cup in 2015, which must surely be their aim going forward.

England:

Second placed England have too been fantastic. After a sluggish but typically gritty and successful start

Stuart Lancaster England Rugby

Lancaster has helped restore pride for England

England have grown into the tournament with arguably one of their best performances coming in their only defeat of the tournament, against Wales.

Much has been made of England’s poor showing on and off the field at the World Cup and many thought that interim boss Stuart Lancaster would struggle to re-build and galvanize the troops but how wrong were they?

Lancaster has arguably been the success story of the entire tournament and the manner in which he has gone about his business has been truly admirable. He has demonstrated all that you need to be a success in the world of management in international rugby, from his media savvy to his raw enthusiasm and appreciation of the privileged position in which he has found himself, he has demonstrated extraordinary composure en route to guiding England to a pleasantly surprising campaign.

Three wins out of three on the road (a 6 Nations record) and two very creditable home performances in the narrow defeat by Wales and the romping victory against Ireland has made for a far more rosy outlook for English rugby. This tournament has been a far cry from the World Cup exploits of the touring party and that alone should be enough to ensure that Lancaster is favourite to grab the job on a full-time basis.

Ireland:

Ireland 6 Nations

Tommy Bowe has one of only a few exceptional performers for Ireland

Ireland managed to pretty much replicate their World Cup performance. They once again showed great promise but they lacked the bottle and killer instinct necessary to get themselves into real contention.

The performance against England was entirely regrettable, but arguably more disappointing were the failures to put away Wales and France when they had engineered themselves winning positions. They may feel a little aggrieved at the nature of their defeat against Wales given that there were some questionable decisions from the referee that contributed to Wales’ eventual triumph but really they need to focus more on their inability to close out games.

Wales were the better side in their head-to-head with Ireland, yet Ireland manufactured a match-winning lead going into the very final moments only to let an ounce of indiscipline undo all their hard work which should have earned them an improbable victory. To coin the old report-card classic… Ireland: ‘Could do better…’

France:

Saint-Andre France

Saint-Andre must find a better attack-defence balance for France

France’s first campaign under the tutelage of Phillipe Saint-Andre was rather bizarre. They were, as per usual, pretty unpredictable but the real surprise came in the way that Saint-Andre seemed to set them up in terms of their tactical approach to games.

The joy of French rugby has always been that though they are capable of implosion at any moment that they always look for a way to get on the front foot and take the game to the opposition and more often than not with the ball in hand, trying to produce flowing and exciting rugby.

This campaign saw an entirely different emphasis though. Saint-Andre had clearly tried to impress on his troops that defence was the priority, and for the most part their defence was indeed fairly decent (the first half against England aside).

The problem for the French though was adapting to this new style of play. Their more able attacking forces seemed inhibited and, as a result, their plan to hit teams on the break with counter-attacking rugby fell flat on it’s face at times.

Maybe Saint-Andre should stick to what the French know best. They have always been a bit of an all-or-nothing team and perhaps that is what they must remain. Turning the French into a disciplined and defensive unit is like turning England into a lethal, fast-paced team founded upon their thirst for try-scoring and flowing backs moves. It just doesn’t seem to fit. Lancaster seemed to get that in his first tournament in charge of England but sadly for France this didn’t appear to be the case for their new boss.

Italy:

Fifth-placed Italy deserve enormous credit once again for their efforts in avoiding the wooden-spoon.

Venditti Italy Rugby

Venditti crashes over to avoid the wooden-spoon

Their solitary win against the Scots may not have been attractive but it was ruthless. In Rome they gave Scotland a painful lesson in taking your chances when they come. Venditti may have resembled a baby rhino lacking in any natural running technique when he went over for the decisive score but the fact remains that he was the only person who managed to do so all game.

Italy’s campaign wasn’t though entirely based upon their final day win as they also performed well against England and France. They may have ultimately succumbed to defeat in both games but their willingness to take the game to France and the attitude they showed to come back from an early deficit and go in at half time with the lead against England suggests that the gap between them and the rest is shortening year on year. It is hard to tell just how much the Italians are progressing at times but I think they have shown enough in this year’s tournament to suggest that they are moving forward.

Scotland:

Scotland flattered to deceive. An opening day performance of decent promise against England was ruined

Scotland Rugby

Plenty of promise for Scotland, but ultimately failure

by a lack of composure, their great resistance in the early stages against Wales was eventually ground down and overwhelmed and they again had their moments against France en route to defeat.

It has been a very strange tournament for them really. The past few weeks have seen them receive plaudits for their much-improved style of rugby which will have made Coach Andy Robinson a very proud man but ultimately they have lost all five of their games and their performance against Italy was pretty sub-standard.

The likes of Richie Gray, Dave Denton and Stuart Hogg have shown in this tournament some real rays of light for Scottish rugby but Andy Robinson may pay for his side’s lack of killer instinct. Robinson does seem to me to have the right ideas to take the Scotland side forward but the lack of positive results may well cost him his job.

The Conclusion:

Wales are fantastic and have to now use this success as a foundation towards bigger and better triumphs in the long term.

England do still have a side with the potential to build towards 2015 and should stick with Lancaster after a very encouraging first taste of job.

Ireland need to learn how to win big matches and need to learn what life will be like without the killer instinct of Brian O’Driscoll, which they have sorely missed throughout the tournament.

France are better off being cavalier and arrogant than they are being resilient. Lievremont experienced something of a mutiny within his ranks at the World Cup but somehow they still nearly won it, Saint-Andre targeted unity and discipline and it seems as if this ended up blunting the French threat en route to a disappointing 4th placed finish.

Italy need to keep on plugging away. They are perhaps still a little too reliant on the likes of the brilliant Sergio Parisse and Martin Castrogiovanni but they are making strides in certain areas and they appeared a little more threatening going forward in this year’s Championship.

Scotland need to either show great confidence in the new Andy Robinson ethos and accept that it might take a while for it to truly reap it’s rewards or alternatively they must move on to a new Coach with a new style immediately, they can’t afford to stick with Robinson in the short term and then get rid of him after losing their next couple of games. Their have been real signs of life in their ranks this tournament and it has been refreshing to see them taking on the opposition but no wins in five suggests there is still an enormous amount of work to be done.

My Team of the Tournament:

Coach – Stuart Lancaster (My apologies to Mr.Gatland who has obviously done a great job as well…)

Front Row – Gethin Jenkins, Dylan Hartley/Rory Best, Dan Cole

Second Row – Alun Wyn Jones, Richie Gray

Back Row – Dan Lydiate, Toby Faletau, Tom Croft/Sam Warburton

Half Backs – Mike Phillips, Owen Farrell

Centres – Wesley Fofana, Jonathan Davies

Wings – Alex Cuthbert/George North, Tommy Bowe

Full Back – Leigh Halfpenny