Six Nations Round 2 – Thoughts

15 02 2010

England, England, England*.

This was supposed to be the game where, with all Johnson’s first choice players available, England would cut loose, throw off the shackles and prove to the rugby world they can play. A combination of a resurgent Italy and extraordinarily muddled game plan ensured that England struggled and Italy in many ways appeared to be the better side.

Italy did all that was expected of them, getting up into England’s faces and spoiling well at the break down. England, however, after a good start in which Armitage almost went over in the corner, retreated to the aerial kicking game that is all too familiar to England supporters.

The best sides in the world all employ a kicking game. These are built around other aspects of the game plan which in turn create space for them to kick to. By drawing players into contact situations and sucking in the defence this creates gaps behind into which kicks can be placed and territory gained. England’s kicking is mainly down to a lack of other ideas, which means that almost always the opposing team has players covering and any potential advantage is lost. Factor in the poor quality of much of the kicking and often England are simply handing back the advantage to the opposition.

Delon Armitage had a second poor game and seems to have lost confidence since his stellar performances last year. An important facet of his play was his ability to run the ball back, often beating two or three men and putting England on the front foot. In the last two games he has been fallible under the high ball and then, more often than not, simply put boot to ball in a fairly aimless fashion. England need the old Armitage back as otherwise Ben Foden provides an attractive alternative.

On a positive note, Wilkinson stood a great deal flatter and several times initiated wide attacking moves with Monye twice and Flutey making lengthy breaks down field. The extraordinary thing was that despite a clear demonstration that this tactic was working, for much of the first and second half England reverted to type and the boot. Variety is the spice of life and England just keep getting it wrong by doing the same thing again and again.

Coming into this game Flutey was supposed to be the man who could set England’s backs alight. As noted above, whilst there were instances of this (more in this one game than the entire Autumn series combined), Flutey needs the ball in hand (and his in particular) to do this. After a couple of deft touches in the opening minutes, it was the 38th before he touched it again, at which point his lovely angle cut open the Italian midfield. It was telling that England’s best moments came with him involved and should be something Johnson considers over the next fortnight.

In many ways Italy were the better team on the day and had clearly set out to play with some invention themselves. Their backs, which previously had been impotent, burst into life and genuinely threatened on a couple of occasions. Mallett would be a great deal happier after this performance than Johnson, although he is no doubt ruing the missed opportunity to take what would be a serious scalp in world rugby.

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France have been reaffirmed as favourites to win the championship and potential Grand Slam winners. Indeed if they play as they did against the Irish in Paris there is little chance of anyone even competing and we would have backed them against any side in the world. Dominant at the breakdown, brilliant in the backs and with Parra and Trinh-Duc playing probably their best games for France, Ireland stood no chance.

Despite odd individual moments of brilliance from Darcy and O’Driscoll the Irish found themselves repeatedly hitting what appeared to be a solid blue wall, such was the French defence. Coupled with set pieces that achieved parity at best and the Irish back row being second to the break down on most occasions it was always unlikely once France had gone into the lead. Ronan O’Gara was also poor, missing kicks and tackles which when combined with his insistence of standing 15 yards behind the gain line when receiving meant that the Irish backs had little chance of making any impressions. Jonny Sexton will likely return for England at Twickenham which for both teams is a must win game and having Sexton’s superior attacking ability will help unleash Ireland’s undoubtedly talented backs.

It is important Ireland regroup to win the remainder of their games as with only 18 months to go prior to the next world cup, it is crucial they keep their momentum going. France, on the other hand, appear to once more have an embarrassment of riches and with Lievremont appearing finally to be settling on his preferred combinations they are going to be a genuine threat to the southern hemispheres superiority.

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Having sat down to watch the Wales Scotland game with some trepidation at the prospect of a low quality game we were pleasantly surprised by what turned out to be the game of the tournament so far. Despite suffering injuries to Thom Evans and Chris Paterson Scotland stormed into the lead and with only 6 minutes remaining were 10 points clear. Wales however produced a fantastic period of play to deny Scotland what would have been a cathartic win for Andy Robinson’s team.

When Wales play like they did in the final minutes they are seriously dangerous and it must be a huge frustration to Warren Gatland that they cannot do it over an 80 minute period. Shane Williams looked like he is back to his best, creating two on ones and worrying the Scots every time he got the ball. Likewise Jamie Roberts had his best game since the Lions and was the main focal point for Wales going forward.

For Scotland the back row were brilliant, particularly in the first half, with Barclay and Beattie carrying well and competing on the ground. A second positive was back play which looked more full of initiative and threat than it has done for quite some time. If Scotland can carry this form over to Rome they should be fairly confident of winning.

The major frustrations of course come from losing a game that they should really have won. It seemed an extraordinary decision by Blair to restart the ball into play with the scores level at 24 all when a simple kick into touch would have brought the end of the game although equally you could applaud them for gambling and going for the win.

*Our frustrations are probably all too apparent in this article and so we apologise if we sound bitter – its just so appalling being England rugby fans at the moment!

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