Six Nations: What we learnt about the teams on weekend one
With the first weekend of the Six Nations done and dusted, Chris Hewett assesses how each country has started and identifies where they must improve moving forward
Much has been made of the reigning champions' injury list, but in reality, only three first-choice players were missing from the side that went 27 points down to the Irish at the Millennium Stadium before shaming themselves into a resurgence in the last half-hour. Admittedly, the precise nature of the absenteeism hurt Wales: the outside-half Rhys Priestland, the lock Alun Wyn Jones and the flanker Dan Lydiate were at the heart of the Grand Slam campaign in 2012, and with two more tight forwards, Luke Charteris and Richard Hibbard, also off limits because of injury, they went into the Ireland game light.
Confidence is seriously low, for a number of reasons. Eight defeats on the spin is wounding to the spirit; money shortages at club level, leading to misfires on the Heineken Cup stage, are equally damaging; the exodus of frontline talent to cash-rich France is divisive. Throw in the absence of the head coach Warren Gatland, whose Lions commitments have removed him from the back-room mix, and it is easy to see why a team might spend the first 50 minutes of an important match firing blanks.
Yet the comeback against Ireland, fruitless though it proved to be, confirmed anew what we already knew: that however ragged the Welsh operation may be, they will always field some of the very best players in these islands. Leigh Halfpenny and Toby Faletau were magnificent, and if the coaches find a way of fielding the eye-catching flanker Justin Tipuric from the start, the holders may yet have a say in the outcome.
England: Farrell can be a midfield general
The home World Cup is still more than two and a half years distant, but the broad outline of Stuart Lancaster's side is beginning to emerge. On the strength of the weekend's dismantling of Scotland – nowhere near ruthless enough for the head coach's liking, but infinitely more convincing than anything seen just recently – it is easy to imagine at least three-quarters of the starting line-up taking the field against Australia, or Fiji or, God forbid, Wales for the global curtain-raiser in September 2015.
Perhaps most strikingly, it was evident on Calcutta Cup day that England have an outside-half around whom they can create a distinctive style of winning rugby. Owen Farrell's big-game temperament has never been in question, and neither has his ability to shoulder the burden of marksmanship. Both of those building blocks were cemented into place long ago, before the 21-year-old was out of sporting nappies. On Saturday, however, he unveiled a new attacking vibrancy, complete with nifty footwork and a variety of pass that would have made Argentine maestro Juan Martin Hernandez sit up and take notice.
Midfield issues have been hanging around the England team like a bad smell for longer than anyone cares to remember, but there are signs that Farrell, playing with an inside centre like Billy Twelvetrees, is ready to move things to another level. Where better to do it than Dublin, against opponents as accomplished as Jonathan Sexton and Brian O'Driscoll?
Ireland: O'Driscoll cannot hide lack of depth
Four months before the Lions meet the Wallabies in Australia, the flanker Sean O'Brien is already performing at Lions level. So too is Cian Healy at loose-head prop and Rory Best at hooker, although it is still a little difficult to imagine a British Isles front row being two-thirds Irish. Good judges are talking long and loud about the lock Donnacha Ryan, too: the most improved player in the Emerald Isle, the Munsterman is an absolute diamond when it comes to the full and frank exchanges at close quarters.
And then there is that O'Driscoll chappy, who could develop into a half-decent centre if he sticks at it. The 2005 Lions captain is at the front of the queue to lead the red-shirted collective for a second time in June, and another four displays like last Saturday's will kill any remaining debate stone dead. The Dubliner is in full force of nature mode, having promised himself one last shot at winning a Test series in the southern hemisphere. The threat he poses to England this weekend is very substantial indeed.
Yet this much also emerged during proceedings in Cardiff: however good the Irish starting XV may be, they are unable to hurt opponents off the bench. When the centre Gordon D'Arcy and the flanker Peter O'Mahoney left the field, they seemed to take the best of their country's rugby with them. That could be telling in the tough games to come, especially this week's little rumble with the title favourites.
Scotland: Forward strategy flawed
When Andy Robinson walked away from the Scotland coaching job after the knee-clenchingly embarrassing 21-15 home defeat by Tonga last November, there were plenty of hardened rugby patriots north of the border who somehow felt unable to mourn the passing of a mere Englishman from the national set-up. They may soon have to reconsider. Robinson's win-loss ratio may not have been great, but it is difficult to remember one of his forward packs plumbing the very darkest depths of inadequacy, as Scott Johnson's unit did at Twickenham.
The irony is almost painful. The very moment Scotland put themselves in a position to field a genuinely dangerous wide unit – both Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland had their moments at the weekend, and few doubt the ability of winger Tim Visser to turn a tight game with a barnstorming try or two – they find themselves caught between two stools up front. Unable or unwilling to pick a genuine breakaway on the open-side flank, they do not possess players with the raw physical power to prevail in an arm-wrestler's man test.
In addition, they are lacking direction in midfield – a crying shame when the likes of Hogg, a possible Lions tourist at full-back, is in such threatening form.
The answers are blindingly obvious: Greig Laidlaw (above) should be playing at outside-half rather than the position of scrum-half; and a proper No 7 of the buccaneering variety should be playing fast and loose from the side of the scrum.
Italy: Consistency now the key for Azzurri
An Azzurri advance or a Tricolore travesty? Events in the Eternal City on Sunday were not wholly discombobulating: after all, the Italians had prevailed over their next-door neighbours in 2011, with a 22-21 victory when Nick Mallett was at the head of their coaching operation, and had pushed the Wallabies hard on home soil during the autumn.
But it is still a shock to the system when one of the so-called "tier one" nations find themselves cast in the role of Christians, rather than the role of lions, and the temptation is to look at the weaknesses of the defeated rather than the strengths of the victors.
By the time Italy complete their business with Scotland in Edinburgh this weekend, we will know more about the impact of Jacques Brunel's coaching. If they can back up their performance against the French in Rome by winning at Murrayfield, the pre-tournament words of Sergio Parisse, their magisterial captain, will be justified in full.
Parisse (left), as good a No 8 as the sport has seen in the professional era, said at the Six Nations launch that he and his countrymen "no longer felt like the little guys". He admitted consistency was still a problem and that his side's ability to do most, if not all, the right things for most, if not all, of the 80 available minutes was still an issue, but at the same time, he insisted that the inferiority complex of old had flushed itself out of the system. He may well have been right.
France: Time running out for Saint-Andre to finally get it right
You could say they were asking for it. Not even the All Blacks – especially not the All Blacks – would have had the brass neck to take on increasingly dangerous opposition with their best scrum-half on the bench, their best inside centre at outside centre, their best outside centre on the wing and their best wing at full-back. Oh yes, almost forgot. The form flanker in Tricolore country, Yannick Nyanga of Toulouse, was left out altogether.
All things considered, then, Philippe Saint-André, the head coach of Les Bleus, has questions to answer, and if he fails to answer at least some of them correctly when Wales travel to Paris this weekend, he will feel some serious heat from the whistle-happy French supporters. He knows it, too. The expression on his face for much of the game in Rome mirrored that of the more tragic figures in the world of Les Miserables – that is to say, those forced to listen more than once to Russell Crowe's singing voice.
Saint-André has a default position ahead of opening championship games: he speaks enviously of the amount of time rival teams spend together before the first weekend, contrasting it with the odd few minutes he is granted by the men who think it a good idea to hold a round of full-blooded Top 14 club fixtures five minutes before the Six Nations begins.
But preparation issues are not the same as selection issues. France have the players to dictate the terms of this tournament even now, but someone has to put them on the field, in the right places.
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