Stuart Barnes wasn't impressed with England, but is refusing to judge this young team too soon.
Last Updated: 07/02/12 6:25pm
Had England performed in the manner they did against Scotland under Martin Johnson, I would have bemoaned the quality of the performance and, Cassandra like, predicted gloom further down the international road.
An away win is not to be sniffed at but Scotland lost this game as much as England won it. The line breaks belonged to Scotland along with the missed opportunities. That was one consolation for English supporters fed up with post-match excuses in recent years, 'we failed to take our chances' couldn't be cited here; England made no chances.
This win comes with a health warning for those who would herald the dawning of a new era. They beat an awful team that should really have beaten England. Individually, Scotland were more impressive but again, their collective failures continue to astound.
During the World Cup I could not understand why so many of my media colleagues gave them such a sympathetic hearing when they became the first Scottish team never to make the quarter-finals. Argentina were pushing on towards being pensionable, England were rubbish and Robinson's team failed to score a single try against the might of Georgia.
The try famine continued for 80 minutes Saturday; 320 minutes and counting. Going into the game they had selected three different number eights, three different number nines and three different captains in their last three games. This is indecision on the grandest scale. No, England winning in Edinburgh was a good result for Stuart Lancaster but little more.
The team failed to live up to his words. Outside a quietly impressive Charlie Hodgson the passing game we were promised was non-existent; the speed of ball from the breakdown was too slow and threats only sporadic. Italy will be no formality if they repeat this level of performance.
Yet the team did not receive the brickbats they surely would under the previous regime, most definitely from me. Why? Lancaster has been a good communicator off the field and has the press on his side for the moment. Also the team improved their discipline and cut out the stupid errors. Whether this is linked to his determination to create a tighter and more humble environment I don't know but it has to be a possibility.
This was not a gnarled outfit with a few has-been players hanging around but a youthful side. It was not that radical as once the obvious decision to dump the debris was made, options were few unless a different approach was taken. Lancaster is a career coach and not a radical so the road we all would have travelled had we been selectors was taken.
Five Saracens players started and despite promises that England would not play like Saracens, they did in many ways. The negative side of this is the no-passing, low risk game of squeezed margins. It is a style that will not conquer the world but it can get a team past mediocrity away from home.
The positive is the will, energy and determination Saracens always bring to their play. They are not pretty but impossible not to admire. The strengths of this team go deeper than the skin and it was replicated on Saturday. Mouritz Botha was splendid around the breakdown and Brad Barritt tackled like a tank while Hodgson guided England unhurriedly into the right places. It was, I think, as much a win for the Saracens club ethos as Lancaster. England, like Saracens, have the challenge of going further but being such a young team they have the scope to improve into the future.
Italy, despite being heavily beaten on the scoreboard in Paris, might show more variety. Jacques Brunel delivered an improved performance on anything Nick Mallett could get from them in New Zealand. The pack is strong in the set piece and the half-backs are sharper. They were undone by the individual firepower that England do not possess at the moment. It will be interesting.
France had gears in hand and will be confident of handling a massively-disappointing Ireland team who were second best against Wales in Dublin. France have a fabulous record against Ireland and could create the same sort of discontent in the rugby corridors of Dublin as exist in Scotland - the land of the non-try scorers. They are just 80 minutes away from 400 minutes of Test match rugby without a try. Is that a record for a British and Irish team? If it is, let me know.
This brings us to the best, which has been saved for last. Wales, deprived of Gethin Jenkins and Luke Charteris from the start, missing Sam Warburton from half-time, managed to beat Ireland yet again. This was a better effort than the World Cup win when the odds were even from the start. This time they loaded on Ireland but Wales played their way to a positive victory that lifted the spirits of those who love the game and not their team to the exclusion of quality.
Warren Gatland masterminded the performance of the first round. Wales and France battled for the supremacy of Europe in the World Cup semi-final; this battle might be replayed come the last round of the Six Nations when the same teams meet in Cardiff. Logic, after round one, suggests these are the teams to fight out the title. I'll be logical and stay with France but logic and the Six Nations? Well, they have never been bedfellows have they and that, I guess, is the intrinsic beauty of a tournament that give us games as ugly as Scotland versus England.
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Stuart I have just finished watching the lowest skill match that I can recall in the Six Nations in recent years. Well, actually, I didn't "finish" watching - I was so bored I gave up after 70 minutes of the most tedious, unimaginative rugby that I can remember. Even Italy produced more than these two hopeless sides! In this day and age is there any excuse for such poor handling skills Mike Northall
STUART REPLIES: Mike, I don't think there is an excuse but what's interesting is how different your thoughts were to many Englishmen I encountered post match in Edinburgh. They were euphoric. Some people love rugby for the game, others for the result. I share your thoughts - although I give a very young team a little more leeway - but others seem not to care about the standards in the slightest. In a politic mood I say, each to their own. But, broadly speaking, Mike, I share your interest in the quality of the game and not just which side wins.
Italy get Les Bleus
Hi Stuart, how impressed were you with France? They did not seem to get out of second gear and I thought François Trinh-Duc really controlled the game like a fly-half should. Great to see Italy run the ball too. Owen, London
STUART REPLIES: Owen, I am an admirer of FTD and think France, under his control and with a better looking team than any side they fielded at the World Cup, are the team to beat. Italy looked porous in defence but I suspect that was because of the quality of France's firepower as much as Italian deficiencies. Early days but I thought they were a good bet for the Grand Slam at 4-1 and still think they are on course for a crack at the GS in Cardiff. As for Italy, it was indeed an encouragement to see them attempt to play with some variety in Paris. The result was poor, the performance was not and England will have to play better than they did in Edinburgh to be certain of victory.
A star is born
Stuart, the least said about Scotland the better - they were dire. However, David Denton stood head and shoulders above anyone else on Saturday. Can he keep the momentum going for the rest of the tournament? Mark Harvey
STUART REPLIES: Mark, I have no idea. If David Denton can maintain these standards a star is born. As you say, a shame about the collective mess around him. Man for man I reckon Scotland shaded the game but collectively they lacked shape and an ability to turn individual breaks into scores. It was a good day for Stuart Lancaster and another rotten one for Andy Robinson whose record is currently pretty dreadful.
Stuart, out of England's new boys I thought that Phil Dowson was the most disappointing - is it fair to dismiss him after one game or should he be given another chance, perhaps at his usual position and not out of position?
STUART REPLIES: Ian, I have been a big fan of Phil Dowson's over the years but he has been picked in a year when his club form has dipped a long way below his form of recent seasons. He is not a youngster but he appeared tentative. If England want to progress as well as win I think it would be a fair call to look at Ben Morgan from the start in Rome.