Brian Ashton: France impressed me most in a wonderful opening weekend
Tackling The Issues
Saturday 12 February 2011
It was, I am delighted to say, the most interesting start to a Six Nations tournament for some considerable time, and if I derived a good deal of enjoyment from the action, it was not simply because my pre-match predictions turned out to be accurate – unusually so, by my standards.
I expected England, France and Ireland to emerge with the victories, but things would have been very different had Italy not spilt a restart in the closing stages and allowed Ronan O'Gara to land another of his match-winning drop goals. Poor old Nick Mallett. The Azzurri coach had a face like thunder as he descended the Stadio Flaminio steps at the final whistle.
Contrast that decisive error with the mental strength shown by England in Cardiff. England absorbed the all-consuming atmosphere of the big occasion for the first 10 minutes, then dealt with it impressively for the next 70. It was a significant step forward for players and management alike.
I was particularly impressed with the performance of Dylan Hartley, who, metaphorically speaking, raised two fingers in the direction of the Wales coach, Warren Gatland – instigator of the pre-match fuss surrounding the England hooker and his temperament. Toby Flood caught the eye, too. He grew in stature as a game manager at the Millennium Stadium. If only he had someone of his own kind playing alongside him... Without taking anything away from their performance, Flood and company were undeniably helped by a dithering, meandering, peculiarly aimless attacking display from the Welsh, summed up by wholly ridiculous decisions to kick the ball away in promising positions around the England 22 while the visitors were down to 14 men. The failure of the Wales half-backs to bring direction and definition to the contest meant the potential of Jonathan Davies, Shane Williams and James Hook to threaten in the wider channels was largely unexplored.
Wales will also be mortified at conceding the first try of the game to Chris Ashton in the way they did. How often has he pulled the same trick in the last four or five years? I'm struggling to work out how the Welsh failed to see it coming. If they defend as myopically against Scotland at Murrayfield today, they will find themselves in trouble.
If England's was the best victory of the opening round, it was France who delivered the best attacking performance. I assume Andy Robinson is still mightily annoyed at the soft turnovers conceded by his Scotland team, but it was no small thing for them to score three good tries of their own. It was just that Les Bleus operated at a different level when the force was with them. In doing so, they highlighted the great virtues that underpin their way of introducing young players to, and developing their talent for, the sport of rugby union.
Go down the traditional Anglo-Saxon instructional road – set out the cones, the tackle shields, the body suits; repeat the drill-based practice sessions ad nauseam – and you produce players who are strong technically but have little in the way of invention and still less understanding of the flow of the dynamic game. Approach things in the games-based, laissez-faire style favoured by the French and you end up with players with the capacity to adapt to, and exploit, the widest range of situations.
Two elements of the French performance in Paris showed this. Firstly, they showed a precious ability to use turnover ball to immediate advantage. At one point, Scotland had a turnover of their own, but kicked to the French, who showed their gratitude by scoring a try. But how often do we see this in today's game? All too rarely. Receiving turnover possession in broken field, where the field of play is in chaos, should be the stuff of dreams, but not every one grasps the principles of attack as completely as the French.
Secondly, they demonstrated a high level of understanding of how to create and attack space and keep the ball alive in a variety of channels while changing flow and tempo at will. This goes back to the way the French practise from a very young age, concentrating as they do on the subtlety of their running lines, the weight and length of their passing, the variations in their offloads, the appreciation of when to go tight on the drive, on how to "read" a defence.
The glory of it is that their forwards do all this, as well as their backs. William Servat and Thomas Domingo showed against the Scots that they were proficient in the art (not the science!) of rugby. Not for them the easy option of going to ground as a first option, thereby playing into the hands of the opposition. They did something much more positive, more challenging and, ultimately, more exhilarating.
Can the French repeat this in Dublin, against an Irish team who made more basic errors in Rome than they would generally expect to make over the course of a tournament? Who knows? It is the eternal question for Marc Lièvremont, their coach. Not to mention the eternal headache.
Hartley and Foden set tone for England
Briefly returning to the subject of England, it was good to see a couple of younger players taking the lead. I've already mentioned Hartley, but I can't overstate the importance of someone reacting so positively to public criticism. By concentrating on the task in hand, he set the tone for the team as a whole.
In a different way, so did the full-back Ben Foden. By heaping expectation on himself in the build-up, he set the terms of engagement for everyone else. Hartley getting his line-out throwing right under pressure, Foden making his high catches... these were important individual efforts that contributed massively to the collective effort.
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