Six Nations: A rotten result for England but not a bad day, says Stuart Barnes
Stuart Barnes gives his view on the Six Nations games, including England's defeat to France in Paris.
By Stuart Barnes
Last Updated: 04/02/14 3:10pm
There was much of interest in Cardiff and Dublin but from the neutral perspective the centre stage was France, where the home side did exactly what they needed.
They won and ended an abject run of results. They were perhaps fortunate, with both the bounce of the ball and the final result but they'll be unlucky and Lady Luck will soon ride to England's side. That is sport.
Away from fortune France can point to a more ambitious game plan, an attack that benefitted from more freedom and less structure and an outstandingly quick, muscular individual effort from Yoann Huget. Bar being stepped once by Mike Brown he was immaculate.
The other boost for France was the cool finish to the fabulous finale by young Gael Fickou. He is being given a ridiculously hard time by Guy Noves in Toulouse. Hopefully Philippe Saint-Andre will allow this immense talent to grow alongside Wesley Fofana into one of the world's best centre partnerships.
The other major plus for France was the support. Impatience in recent games gave way to passion as their anthem rebounded round and around the stadium, surely surging them towards a win that looked to be slipping from their grip as the second half progressed.
Round Three in Cardiff still appears a formidable barrier to Grand Slam dreams, though.
As for England the Grand Slam continues to elude them.
The post-match media verdict dwelled on what they got wrong. I think they got a lot more right than wrong and on reviewing the game on Sunday afternoon (before luxuriating in Arsenal returning to the top of the Premier League) I think this was a positive negative.
The attack is so much sharper than last season. Owen Farrell played on the gain line, Billy Twelvetrees did a lot right in shaping the middle, while up front, the second row partnership and Billy Vunipola were big, very big plusses, although the scrum was a bit of a worry. But that, like defence is easier to fix than an attack.
If winning the World Cup means more to an England fan than winning the Six Nations, it's better by far to have lost with an attack functioning than to have won by playing limited but safe rugby. The parallels with Clive Woodward's World Cup are obvious but in the obsession with winning, memories shorten.
The greatest European team of the professional age won the World Cup precisely because they learned what they could and couldn't do during the Six Nations. Only by testing the boundaries can a team reach its peak of excellence.
The Wembley defeat to Wales and an awfully stupid performance against Scotland in Murrayfield were as much a vital part of the preparation for 2003 as the demolition of Ireland to win a Grand Slam in World Cup year.
Whatever the short-term shouters may scream, this was a rotten result but not a bad day for England. In time this defeat might mean a great deal more than a defensively-minded defeat of Scotland or Italy.
Wales, the Six Nations superstars but global whipping boys, got off to a winning start at home to Italy. Jamie Roberts was sharp on the gain line and Toby Faletau again impressed but this was a game where little should be read into the quality (or lack of it).
Many of the team have been short of much top-end rugby and the rustiness bled through the red shirts. So too did the confidence that they would win, no matter how mediocre their performance. And so a mediocre performance duly ensued and Wales won.
They will have to be much better in Dublin where Ireland, on the basis of their performances against New Zealand in defeat and Scotland in victory, should start favourites to repeat last season's win. That is not to say they will because improvement from Wales is almost certain.
But Ireland and Joe Schmidt should be quietly content.
The 'Paul O'Connell late injury' media panic I listened to on my way from St Pancras to my West Country home prior to kick off had listeners believing Scotland, with all their low ambition structure, could win in Dublin.
I wish the bookmakers would have overestimated the loss of the great man. Ireland dominated the line out and had Scotland in trouble at the scrum. With O' Connell back, Ireland's pack is going to test Wales, even in the absence of Sean O'Brien.
Cian Healy continues to look like the best loose head prop on the planet with his technique in the tight good but no match for his brilliance everywhere else. He is some player, but the half backs were very good as well.
This wasn't top gear, it was not up there with the All Blacks performance but Schmidt is not averse to getting his teams to peak when it matters. I'll take Ireland to win next week.
As for Scotland, they were disappointing. The side knows how to hang onto ball but don't possess either the wit or personnel to do much with it.
If their set piece crumbles against England all the 'local derby' atmosphere in the world will not stop England beating them comfortably and England really must not think of the next match as a game to win but one in which if they perform well they will win and well.
The decision to omit Johnnie Beattie, an outstanding ball carrier for Montpellier, from a pack that has no ball carrying cannot help but make you wonder about the selection skills of Scott Johnson.
Scotland must start with him in the Calcutta Cup game on Saturday, but the one ray of comfort came from Stuart Hogg who was pure class. Every time he gets the ball there is threat. England will not wish to kick anything down his throat.
Italy, a little like England, lost the game but left with a whole bundle of positives from their away defeat. Wales were not wound up to pitch but even so this was one of Italy's most balanced performances for some time - including the odd inspired victory.
The pack was competitive as ever but Gori was very good at scrum half and the backs carried some pace and threat. Without looking like winning this was an encouraging start for Italy... and if France are renewed with swaggering confidence next week's game may be tighter than a few think.
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Stuart, I hear that Sam Burgess is planning to break his contract with South Sydney and look to get into union. He' a fine RL player but what do you think a league player needs to make it in the 15 man game? On that note how do you see Benji Marshall getting on in Super Rugby?
STUART REPLIES: Phil, If a league player is new to union the precious commodity is time. The sports have similarities but even more differences. A good attitude, skill, pace, power and an ability to work out the breakdown should do it... As for Benji Marshall, I have only seen glimpses in league so I am really not in a position to comment, sorry.
Hi Stuart, I thought England have progressed a little since last season. It was disappointing that they could not hang on for a win against France and perhaps they would have if Lancaster had not made premature subs it seems to me that @approx 60 mins most coaches think they are obliged to sub - what are your thoughts? Although the subs generally did well (particularly Morgan) when Lawes and Hartley went off the line-out suffered. The modern coaches talk a lot about "momentum" but ignore the loss of momentum when substitutions are made. On the positive side Burrell and possibly Nowell are in the team to stay but personally I'm still not sure Twelvetrees is good enough. Your comments please.
STUART REPLIES: Roger, they lost the game but found a sharper attacking game. On the substitutes, I think the two losses were Lawes and Hartley but Lawes was enforced. Dickson was fine despite all the brouhaha regarding Care's substitution. The new boys did all right although too early to say if they are 'here to stay' while I thought Billy 12trees actually did an awful lot very well.
Stuart, I was told that making mistakes educates and should not be overly criticized. Making the same mistakes again shows a distinct lack of learning. Stuart Lancaster has just done that. We lost against the All Blacks in the first 20 minutes and repeated that against France. In both matches we woke up and put in a colossal effort to recover and then had nothing in the tank to stop our opponents. That is down to selection and preparation. Our defence captain should have been on the pitch at the start (Barritt) and having two tyros on the wings was one risk too many - Ashton should have been there. And finally Goode has lost a yard of pace and was sorely exposed. Stuart is getting a lot right but is not showing that he is learning from his mistakes. What do you think?
STUART REPLIES: Paul, How many mistakes did Clive Woodward's team make in the Six Nations before they won the World Cup? Answer? Plenty! Cruel bounces did for the first twenty, the attack - an area of massive concern, bloomed without Barritt, Ashton did not deserve to start and I agree with you about Goode - a fine professional but short of the requisite pace and power at the highest level.