Raising the bar
Stuart Barnes says that Wales have set a new benchmark for the rest of Europe to follow and selects his team of the tournament.
Last Updated: 18/03/13 1:00pm
The book currently on my bedside table is entitled 'End This Depression Now'. It is about the altogether more important matter of the global depression we are struggling to escape but when I arrived home from the Millennium Stadium and saw it, well, it sort of summed up this season's Six Nations and the events of the afternoon/evening.
European rugby had gone from an exciting first weekend into a slump with England not having to do very much to set up a tilt at a Grand Slam. It was way, way too similar to last season as Wales gradually got worse and worse but the mediocrity they encountered could not stop their march to glory.
That second-rate Grand Slam turned to rubble as the reality hit home and Europe's champions became the world's whipping boys. Had England won in Cardiff I fear a similar fate awaited them unless they radically shifted the focus of their game and balanced character with youthful individual firepower; the temptation to think the pace of their development might have tempted Stuart Lancaster away from the far more ambitious course they need to take towards 2015.
As it was Wales turned up with one of the finest performances I can remember from the men in red. The defence was back to its intense best but the sharpness of their attack was something we have NEVER seen from this group of players. Had Wales played like this, they would have beaten Australia last summer; heck, they would have beaten the All Blacks. No team in the world would have lived with them on Saturday. End of depression.
England had set the benchmark for Europe with their win against the All Blacks - Wales surpassed it with a mean and magnificent effort. The unfortunate usual edge of post-match alcoholic edge was missing on the streets. Even the bad boys knew that something special had occurred. The day went from being about snuffing out the English Grand Slam to reigniting Wales's own aspirations.
But it was just one game; Wales must remember that performance counts as much as results. The last Grand Slam saw that fact forgotten and Wales slipped off the pace. England did their own slide from the highpoints of the New Zealand and Scotland performances and had nothing in terms of an attacking edge to face up to a team with another level of attack.
Lessons for the Lions
Winners and losers can take lessons from the game. What will Warren Gatland think? Obviously, he will be delighted. His team has taken their biggest step yet and without him. When the Lions tour is over he can return to his 2015 project...but first the Lions; until Saturday the most important game was England's win over New Zealand. It was the one game that set the standards. Ireland's win in Cardiff was the secondary factor, until Saturday.
The final match will have a sway on selection for the plane and the test team. Stripped of too many meaningful pre-test games the Lions management will have to consider Cardiff a full on trial. It will be a painful meeting for the English coaches because NO Englishmen would make the test team on this evidence. Indeed so superior were Wales to the mediocrity of most of these matches and teams a case could be made for an all Welsh test team, a fit Jonny Sexton apart.
The loss of Ireland's playmaker exposed Ireland and left question marks hanging around the head of Declan Kidney for not having a plan to cover his star man with someone younger than Ronan O' Gara. It was a rotten tournament for a team with plenty of talent and heads will be demanded and probably handed over to the rugby media on a plate. That is hard on Kidney because Ireland is not so far from being a decent team. Had their fly-half not been injured it could have been so different.
England's headline march has been checked and in the light of Saturday they no longer seem quite so advanced from where they were last season. New Zealand looks worryingly like a one off with the Scotland game the only match in which they fired more than attacking blanks. I'll write this for the last time. Owen Farrell and Brad Barritt will not take England to the next level. Argentina is not a chance to find players for the future but ones for the autumn. As long as England learns their lessons from Cardiff I think they will rebound; they have decent foundations but they have to start building something upon them.
Good news for Scotland
Scotland will be happy just to have re-laid their foundations. Two wins and a couple of competitive defeats is a good return. They were gutsy in defeat and have a few decent backs that can develop. Gregor Laidlaw is very clever and Matt Scott had a fine season in the centre. Scotland finished in credit as did Italy with wins against both France and Ireland. Sergio Parisse was awesome, man of the tournament. If any man has such an influence on a team as Italy's Number Eight I would be stunned. If he were available he would be my Lions captain.
France was as disappointing as Italy were excellent with Philippe Saint-Andre's reputation tumbling in Spring as fast as it rose in the Autumn. Some stability please, France. Two exceptions worthy of mention are Louis Picamoles and Wesley Fofana, who established himself as the most exciting back in Europe. It was the bleakest of Six Nations for France but they have the consolation of several extremely bright sparks who can rekindle their hopes. France was dreadful but only a fool would write them out of the 2015 equation.
Finally a word about a referee; Steve Walsh was outstanding in Cardiff; come the Lions tour let us hope the three Test referees are as sympathetic and sharp as Walsh was in every facet of play. Two teams wanted to scrum and a referee knew what was happening; it proved that a scrum contest is both possible and desirable. Well done, Mr Walsh.
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Hi Stuart, obviously thrilled with the result but more than anything the total domination from 1-15. Do you think that being completely outplayed in such a massive game/occasion will seriously impact the number of players who might make the Lions touring party from across the Severn? Also a note on Leigh Halfpenny, do you think he's done enough to be not only the premier full back in Europe but also, with the exception of Israel Dagg, the rest of the world?
STUART REPLIES: Dan, such a performance has to impact on Warren Gatland's thinking. The Australian teams will be weakened by squad absentees in the first test build up so this is, in some ways, the last trial and Wales won hands down in every position. Tour possibilities like Ian Evans became test probabilities and tour certainties like Leigh Halfpenny became test probabilities. I am a great Rob Kearney fan but Halfpenny has overtaken him as the likely test full back. I always thought he might end up on the wing but George North and Alex Cuthbert have changed my thinking in that area too. I bumped into Cuthbert at Cheltenham on Wednesday; don't know how he fared that day but he had a helluva day Saturday.
Hi Stuart , I am a frustrated England fan!! Why am I frustrated?? Despite the obvious I think today's loss might have been inevitable England are a young team and to go to Cardiff and win takes a lot of experience and international nous. However the style of the defeat could have been a blessing in disguise. I sent an email in the summer calling for the inclusion of Billy Twelvetrees in the team, and I got it. I can only describe myself as distraught to see Twelvetrees come off to be replaced by Tuilagi. Does anyone else in the world of rugby play two crash ball centres at the same time? Barritt is a work horse and great in defence, but will never hurt anyone in attack with his pace or his passing. Tuialagi and Twelvetrees makes perfect sense, I just don't understand Lancaster's mentality. Defence and a goal kicker will not win you a grand slam let alone a World Cup. We have two ful backs and an out of form Ashton in our back three, this means we will get burned on the outside by sides who can actually use attacking patterns.
STUART BARNES: Steve, I think Stuart Lancaster reigned in his thinking and tried to graft out a Grand Slam; a mistake as you write. But I do not think him quite the conservative you do; I am optimistic the tour party to Argentina will include a number of 'next wave' test players and, like you, I suspect short term will be long term gain; the manner of England's game did lack a certain spark but defeat in Cardiff should drive the point home. Don't despair, the World Cup is not tomorrow, England has time to regroup.
Pressures of Europe
Hi Stuart, Before the Six Nations started many pundits and experts seemed to write off Wales' championship hopes and hype Ireland and France's chances based on the performance of their regions/domestic sides in the Heineken cup. Obviously this has worked out totally opposite and I was wondering if you believe that the Heineken cup has taken its toll on some of the Irish players especially? (I think the French was more about bad team selections) Also interested to hear about your thoughts on the Lions captaincy. I personally can't see beyond Alun-Wyn Jones as he has so much passion, determination and class and can't think of a better second row in the British isles at the moment and although Coombs did a superb job I thought that the return of AWJ made a massive difference to the Welsh pack.
STUART REPLIES: Edwyn, nobody is talking about Jonny Sexton's injury fairly early in Ireland's second game with England; they should. France blew it off the field. I do not think their side's Heineken exploits are a factor. There wasn't much between the sides, it was all pretty average, until Cardiff....captain, AWJ is a possibility amongst several but lack of test captaincy suggests to me he might lose; Warburton was 33-1 before the Scotand game. I missed a chance to make a killing. He would be my fancy now he has regained his form.
Options for Scotland
Great to see Scotland placed so high on the table. Do you think that the SRU should pull out all the stops to keep the 'interim ' coaching team even if that does mean losing one of your colleagues?
STUART REPLIES: Barry, we want Dean back! If the SRU do not try and keep him there is something wrong with them.....beyond that there is little I can say.
Morning Stuart, plenty to ponder over from the weekend - especially the scrum which is turning into an absolute joke. If the players don't know which way the ref is going to go week on week then how the heck are the fans! Anyway, my question is who would be in your team of the tournament?
Team of the tournament
STUART REPLIES: The scrum was ok in Cardiff. Steve Walsh allowed competition and the superior scrum prevailed. As for my team of the tournament....here we go: Thomas Domingo (when France deemed to put/keep him on the field) Richard Hibbard, Adam Jones, Alun-Wyn Jones, Ian Evans, Ryan Jones, Chris Robshaw, Sergio Parisse (captain), Mike Phillips, Dan Biggar, George North, , Matt Scott, Wesley Fofana, Alex Cuthbert, Leigh Halfpenny....obviously distorted by recent events but before Saturday the options were limited....