There is no point trying to hide away from it: England's defeat by Wales at Twickenham last weekend was a body blow they could well have done without. Brian Ashton was justified in expressing satisfaction with the way his side played in the first half of the game – I was deeply impressed with their rugby at that stage, especially the defensive work at the breakdown, which was bang on the money – but those of us who have coached the national team know that these matches are overwhelmingly about winning. Victory is pretty much the be-all and end-all. Expectation is always there at this level, and it has to be met.
Some major themes emerged over the first weekend of the Six Nations that will continue to shape the tournament as it unfolds. We saw the importance of the kicking game and we were reminded of the fact, whether or not we needed reminding, that the contact area is the crucial theatre of action.
Perhaps most strikingly the issue of leadership came to the fore. Leadership is the great determining factor for Test sides, and without it the international arena is the most unforgiving place imaginable.
England looked short of this quality when things went sour on them in that extraordinary final quarter, particularly when Phil Vickery, the captain, and Mike Tindall, who performed very much like the second in command, were off the field towards the end. At that point, with Wales right back in it and beginning to smell a victory at Twickenham for the first time in 20 years, the situation was crying out for a couple of players to take firm responsibility. It had to come from those in decision-making positions, and as the back-row combination was inexperienced and compromised by injury – remember, there were only two loose forwards still on the field, with next to no caps between them – all eyes turned to the half-backs.
I'm not suggesting that defeat was down to Jonny Wilkinson and Andy Gomarsall: there were 15 professional players out there, several of them hardened Test operators. But when you think how those two led the way in closing out games during last autumn's World Cup in France, it was disappointing to witness such an obvious lack of clarity.
Compare the England-Wales game with the events in Scotland 24 hours later. France took the field with a seam of new caps running through a deeply unfamiliar line-up, but in the scrum-half Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, one of their senior professionals, they had a player willing and able to take ownership of the contest. His control, his sense of direction and his unerring grasp of the rhythms and dynamics of the match were the highlight of the weekend. At Twickenham, no one in an England shirt went close to governing the match in the way Elissalde governed at Murrayfield.
Some very public individual errors contributed to the English defeat, but mistakes will always happen. I notice some people have been having a go at Iain Balshaw for having a clearance kick charged down in the build-up to the second and decisive Welsh try, but there isn't a player on earth who doesn't have a rough moment here and there.
I coached Iain for years, both in the Bath and England environments, and I know how he works: if you ask him to do 15 things, 13 of them will border on world-class and two of them will go wrong. Actually, when you leave the charge-down aside, and watch the game in its entirety, he played well.
What concerned me more than the error count was the apparent absence of people who were willing to stand up and be counted. Leaders are not necessarily the best players in the side, but they are always strong characters, with good communication skills and a clear understanding of how to react to changing circumstances.
Leadership requires a very considerable investment from the coaching team in creating a framework that enables the key decision-makers to flourish. I just hope the England hierarchy are investing sufficiently heavily.
The demands made on England in Rome tomorrow will be considerable. It is a point of honour for Italian sportsmen that they do not lose at home, and slowly but surely, their rugby men are growing in stature on their own patch of land.
If England simply go out to take them on physically, they will be playing straight into Azzurri hands. They must test the Italian fitness levels by asking continuous questions of them around the field – that requires patience and discipline for the full 80 minutes. Above all, they must control the scoreboard and ensure they compile that vital 15-point lead. Against Wales, they managed a 13-point lead. As they found to their cost, it wasn't enough.
There's more than one way to kick this ball
It was interesting to see tactical kicking having such an impact. Ireland scored an early try against Italy when Ronan O'Gara kicked diagonally for Andrew Trimble, who in turn put Girvan Dempsey in for an excellent try. O'Gara had tried the trick more than once, and eventually it paid dividends. Unfortunately for the Irish, the potency of their kicking game faded badly in the second half, and the match became a real struggle for them.
England also claimed a try from an attacking kick, this one aimed at Lesley Vainikolo, the mountainous new wing from Tonga via New Zealand. He showed outstanding skills for a big man in taking an awkward catch and then feeding Toby Flood off the floor.
With someone like Vainikolo hanging around out wide, the threat is obvious. Yet, like the Irish, England allowed their kicking game to peter out.
You might say that the French boxed even more cleverly with their kicks by keeping them on the floor, although it has to be said that one of the tries they put past the Scots as a result of those "grubbers" was a complete freak, and the other smacked of good fortune. Still, these prods and toe-pokes are often worth trying. The shape of a rugby ball means that there is always the possibility of a lucky bounce.
I was even more struck by some of the things I saw in the tackle area. England were brilliant in the first half, stopping numerous Welsh attacks almost at source through a combination of players "owning" the space around the contact, and good old-fashioned ball ripping. France were equally impressive; their back-rowers made life seriously difficult for the Scots by slowing down their ball at will.
It reinforced the message that if you want quick possession in the modern game, the offload is all-important. Once you're put on the floor, things become a hundred times more difficult.
French get the angles right from early age
No one quite knew what to expect from France when Marc Lièvremont, their new coach, dropped half the World Cup squad and drafted in fistfuls of players from unfashionable clubs such as Montpellier, Dax and Albi. At Murrayfield, we caught a glimpse of the style that Lièvremont intends to create: a bold attacking approach, with players given licence to run from deep, allied to some aggressive forward work around the field.
People frequently wonder how the French manage to perform such apparently miraculous deeds of running and handling in the narrow channels, often tight to the touchlines – their first try against Scotland being a classic example. There is no great mystery to this. Virtually the moment they take up the game, they are taught to run the kinds of angles that "hold" a defence; to come on to the ball from depth and at pace; and to look to pass as a first instinct.
So often, I see youngsters in England practising moves of bewildering complexity. The French do things with greater simplicity.
Look at Vincent Clerc and Cedric Heymans, those magnificent backs from Toulouse. Both have good kicking games, which gives them a way out when things get really difficult. They also have strength, as well as raw speed, so if they find themselves isolated, they can either buy time by standing strong in the tackle or move rapidly to pick up support. Vainikolo has the strength and the speed, but he doesn't have the kicking option. Not yet, at any rate. Put four people on him, and he'll be neutralised. Put four people on Clerc or Heymans, and they'll open you up with a delicate little chip.
Can Ireland win in Paris today? It comes down to the Irish tight forwards. They had their problems against Italy, and if they go no better this afternoon, the whole team could find themselves on a long road.
Scots can relax and test jubilant Wales
Scotland travel to Cardiff to face a Wales side in cock-a-hoop mood. We saw some genuine cussedness from Warren Gatland's team at Twickenham, of the kind we witnessed in their 2005 Grand Slam campaign. They were comprehensively outplayed in Paris that year, yet they hung in there for the win. That sort of thing helps to grow a side. If you pick up a victory on the road despite playing poorly, you suddenly think: "Christ, anything is possible." What did Wales do against England? Not a lot. But what they did do, they did with enormous spirit.
The Scots face a difficult examination, especially as they performed so disappointingly against France. At least the weight of expectation is off their shoulders now. They went into the opening match as favourites. As it turned out, they made more errors in 80 minutes than they would have expected to make in an entire championship. As I said: individual mistakes are easier to handle than a major system failure. Today, they can just go out and play. It will be closer than many predict.
Player to Watch Thierry Dusautoir (France)
I'm keeping an eye open for good African players, because I believe we'll see them make a serious, football-style impact on union over the next five years. Dusautoir, born in Ivory Coast, is a perfect example of the type of rugby athlete the continent is capable of producing in big numbers. He is an impressive physical specimen, blessed with terrific hands, genuine pace, a huge engine and an ability to get over the ball to great effect. He also has a tackling game to die for. People say he made 38 tackles for France when they beat the All Blacks at the last World Cup. It is an extraordinary figure, but I can believe it. He is everything that a coach could want in a multi-purpose back-row forward.Reuse content