An exhilarating and pulsating opening weekend to the 2013 RBS 6 Nations has proved one thing – so-called expert pundits don’t actually know what they’re talking about! England outplayed Scotland, who were flattened by the final score line after a couple of sloppy mistakes, in contradiction to predictions across the board that they would scrape to a Calcutta Cup victory, while France… Well, whoever predicted that they would win the Grand Slam clearly needs their head testing!
On Saturday, England played with a flair and excitement that hasn’t really been seen for a couple of years. Their offloading game, especially, was something to be admired but all aspects of their game were slick and they set an impressive foundation from which they can build during the rest of the tournament. Another clear improvement seen against the Scots was the disciplinary levels – for years England fans have been shouting at their TV screens at those in white for giving away penalty after penalty for the most needless things but there were only seven penalties conceded throughout the whole 90 minutes, of which only two could be converted by Greg Laidlaw, which is a vast improvement even from the autumn internationals just a couple of months ago.
Certain individuals also shone in this strong team performance, with Owen Farrell deservedly picking up the Man-of-the-Match award after a sublime display both off the tee and with ball in hand. He looks so calm and composed when he plays and this is relayed across the whole team. I haven’t seen an English number 10 do this since Jonny Wilkinson was in his prime. Ben Morgan also had a fantastic game at number 8, pushing his way over the gainline time and time again while Joe Launchbury looked every inch an international player at lock and was unlucky not to have been awarded a try. Billy Twelvetrees capped off a solid debut with his first international try and slotted seamlessly into the number outside centre role – Manu Tuilagi may have to wait a while before his next start – while the England bench was unbelievably strong, featuring the likes of Toby Flood, Danny Care, James Haskell and Dave Strettle.
Some, though, have questioned whether Mike Brown should still be in the England team after his mistakes led to both of Scotland’s tries on Saturday. But I think he more than deserves his place in the side – for the last two or three years he has injected searing pace into a Harlequins side still raw from the ‘Bloodgate’ scandal and has been key to their rapid rise back to the top of the game. And he made over 100 metres when he carried the ball, nearly double the distance of everyone else, and often was the basis of England’s numerous attacks on the Scottish defensive line. He showed his inexperience at times and his mistakes were quite basic, but he’s only human – give him a chance!
Overall, things are looking much better than even the most optimistic had predicted before the tournament began. However I do have a problem with one aspect of the team – the haircuts! Someone really does need to tell Joe Marler that his hairdresser has majorly screwed him over. I’m not volunteering though, given the size of him… But that aside, their performance was very good and their chances of a Grand Slam have also greatly increased given the performances of the other contenders over the weekend. France were abysmal against Italy earlier today, making error after error. I’m not taking anything away from Italy, who were superb throughout with Luciano Orquera playing like a man possessed, but Les Blues did nothing to prove that they deserved the favourites tag for the tournament. The writing was on the wall for me when I saw Freddie Michalak selected as fly half – I didn’t even know he was still playing rugby! Back in the early 2000s he was earmarked as the next best thing for France but he never delivered and disappeared off the international scene. And today he was terrible, with absolutely no creativity in his play – is he really the best France have? If so, fantastic!
The French lineout was also hugely suspect and, with Launchbury and Geoff Parling looking imperious, it is definitely an area the English should exploit when the two sides meet on the 23rd February. However, the French did show flashes of brilliance and Chris Robshaw and Morgan are going to have to be at their absolute best if they are to keep the superb Thierry Dusautoir and Louis Picamoles at bay. Beware the wounded smurf…
The other game this weekend highlighted the psychological weaknesses of both the Irish and the Welsh sides. It was clear in the first half that Wales, who hadn’t won an international game since defeating France last March to win the Grand Slam, had absolutely no confidence in themselves and this allowed the Irish to play some free flowing attacking rugby, highlighted by Simon Zebo’s wonderful piece of skill with his feet than eventually led to Cian Healy scoring. But the Irish showed their own lack of confidence when they let Wales back into the game in the second half. Personally I think this may have damaged the rather inexperienced Irish side more than the loss did for the Welsh as they are the ones who almost gave away what should have been an unassailable lead. It is now up to the likes of Brian O’Driscoll and Jonny Sexton to change this mindset and push the side in emerald green to the heights of 2003 and 2006, which they have the potential to do. Wales, on the other hand, have the momentum after the match and with such talent in their side, including George North, Sam Warburton, Jonathon Davies and Scott Williams, they cannot go on losing forever and I think this is the point at which they turn their fortunes around. I cannot see anyone else giving England a battle for the 2013 6 Nations title.
My predictions for the final table:
1st – England (but not a Grand Slam)
2nd – Wales
3rd – France
4th – Ireland
5th – Italy
6th – Scotland