Brian Ashton: No 10s deserve a good kicking for booting the ball away so regularly
Tackling The Issues
Saturday 11 February 2012
Remember last week's column and the way I said specific refereeing decisions might play a significant part in the outcome of international matches?
I'm not referring, in particular, to the last 15 minutes of the Ireland-Wales game, although I have it on good authority that the visiting coach, Warren Gatland, believed his lock Bradley Davies deserved a red card for his now notorious tip-tackle on Donnacha Ryan. I also saw Stephen Ferris being sent to the sin bin for a perfectly legal "hook tackle".
As this last incident cost Ireland the game, you might say my point was made for me. Yes, we saw another positive performance from Wales and they earned their victory, but it does not disguise the fact that one or two of the most proficient tacklers in the sport will now be looking very closely at their own techniques and wondering if they have not suddenly been declared illicit. Are we seeing the dreaded "health and safety" mentality seeping into rugby?
On a more positive note, I enjoyed the performance of the Welsh official Nigel Owens in the France-Italy game – and I don't often feel good about a refereeing display as I sit down to reflect on a contest. Owens gave us something of a masterclass in positive communication and game understanding. He probably merited the man-of-the-match award, although I don't suppose a mere ref will ever qualify for such preferment. None of the refs get it right all the time, but the rapport Owens developed with players of both sides ensured that it was they who had the opportunity to make the decisions that mattered.
This was in stark contrast to the performances of three of the men charged with the No 10 duties in the first round of the tournament. I'm not at all convinced that the 10s of Scotland, Italy and Ireland were in command of the basics as they played in their respective losing causes.
Andy Robinson, the Scotland coach, called for an opening of frenzied chaos against an England side more notable for its green shoots than its mature bloom. What did he see? The handing out of one birthday present after another by Dan Parks, his choice in the pivot position. Parks' kicks to the England full-back Ben Foden were too long and too shallow, and ensured the visitors were spared the chaos and treated to something approaching order instead.
Meanwhile, Kristopher Burton of Italy and Jonathan Sexton of Ireland appeared to be obsessed with putting boot to ball at the most inappropriate moments. Burton, never afraid to take on his opponents with ball in hand, undermined the Azzurri effort with some aimless kicking that merely encouraged an interesting French team to explore the possibilities of their own inimitable counter-attacking game. Is the romantic Philippe Saint-André surfacing alongside the more pragmatic one? If it is, we should all be looking forward to the way Les Bleus develop over the coming weeks. Not least against the Irish in Paris tonight, especially if Sexton decides again that kicking away possession is the way forward.
Sexton is undoubtedly one of the rising stars of the game in these islands, so it was pretty mind-blowing to watch him play in such a manner. Whether it was pre-planned or not, I cannot imagine the approach continuing in the way it did had Brian O'Driscoll been standing alongside him in midfield. Given that Sexton plays outside-half for the European champions Leinster, who aspire to be the best passing team in the northern hemisphere, it was an intriguing spectacle.
On the other side of the halfway line, the Wales No 10 Rhys Priestland once again appeared assured and authoritative. Skilful and brave in the heavy traffic, he reminded us of his ability to vary his positioning and decision-making to suit the ever-changing circumstances unfolding around him. He benefited from the marauding presence of Mike Phillips inside him and the bulk and straight-line dynamism of Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies on his other shoulder. Those two shared the pressure-relieving duties to great effect, and when you add a high-quality back-three unit and then imagine a first-choice pack taking the field, it is easy to see the Welsh re-emerging as a genuine world force.
As we're concentrating on the outside-half performers, it is worth discussing François Trinh-Duc, something of an elusive figure in the French team. Discarded at the World Cup by the coach Marc Lièvremont, who preferred to pick a scrum-half in his place, Trinh-Duc was at his most enigmatic following Saint-André's decision to recall him to the starting line-up. Big and raw-boned, he has an inner belief that enables him to influence a game both with and without the ball. He makes mistakes, certainly, but I hope Saint-André keeps faith with him as a natural foil to the scheming Dimitri Yachvili or the clever Morgan Parra at scrum-half and the line-breaking threat posed by Wesley Fofana, Aurélien Rougerie and Julien Malzieu.
This brings us to Charlie Hodgson of England – the matchwinner at Murrayfield. Hodgson had a mixed afternoon: while he fronted up in defence far more effectively than some had predicted, some of his distribution was average by his standards. In Rome today he will be looking for a little more possession (make that a great deal more, of the quick variety). But he was part of a winning team on his return to Test rugby. And as many of us know to our discomfort, victory at Murrayfield has not been a regular occurrence for England sides.
The defining aspect of that victory was team spirit, based on the simple values of honesty, discipline and sheer hard work. The things the coaches have focused on in their short time together helped England win a game many thought they would lose, and while the players themselves will know they could just as easily have finished second, it is important to acknowledge that the right tone was set behind the scenes. Spirit will be important against the fiercer challenge presented by an Italian side playing a Six Nations match at the Stadio Olimpico for the first time. England can emerge successfully once more, but they will need a more enhanced level of teamwork to go with all that commitment if they are to occupy a higher performance plane in the three remaining fixtures, all of which will be extremely demanding.
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