The Six Nations has a well-earned reputation for unpredictability and last weekend’s opening round lived up to it: Italy were a good deal more competitive against Wales than many people predicted, while the France-England rumble flew directly in the face of expectation, if we leave aside the performance of Billy Vunipola at No 8.
I mentioned in this column seven days ago that Vunipola has the capacity to be a world-beater. If anyone still has doubts after his performance across the Channel, they probably need to visit an optician.
England didn’t bully France at the set piece in the way some of us thought they might and their defence was not quite on the money, Gaël Fickou’s match-winning try being an obvious example of their frailty in this area. But there was a lot of resolve on show, there were promising signs in attack – I thought some of the team’s play with ball in hand was excellent – and with Graham Rowntree cranking things up among the forwards all week (I know Graham well enough to say this without fear of contradiction) I anticipate a sharp improvement up front in the Calcutta Cup meeting with Scotland today. Yes, England lost a game they should have won in Paris, but that’s international rugby for you. When you’re in a harsh environment, you tend to learn harsh lessons.
There has been a lot of chat about substitutions over the last few days, most notably the changes made by Stuart Lancaster in the second half against the French. This is one of the most difficult areas for us coaches and when we analyse our performance after a game – yes, we look as hard at ourselves as we do at the players – it’s the use of the bench that generally takes up most time. We all approach it differently, I suppose. Me? I tend to have something in mind going into a match: for instance, I might want my scrum-halves to play at a really high tempo and therefore plan on a 50-minute, 30-minute split between the two of them. But as Stuart himself said earlier this week, much of it comes down to intuition as events are unfolding.
One thing I’ve found since leaving the England set-up and returning to club rugby is that the more frequently you make these important interventions off the bench, the better you get at it. The beauty of running a Premiership team is that you make the calls week in and week out, rather than 11 or 12 times a season. In some respects the longer you spend at international level, the rustier you become. The best way to reach the top of your game and stay there – to make quality decisions consistently – is to be under the pump, Saturday after Saturday.
Looking at the much-discussed substitutions in Paris, I would say this: unless you were walking in Stuart’s shoes, receiving all the relevant bulletins from the medics and the support staff, it’s tough to take a firm view. All sorts of people will have all sorts of opinions, but they’re basing them on limited information. Where I think Stuart has been smart is in answering questions about his decisions openly and honestly. Some coaches I know would say: “Why the hell should I explain myself to anybody?” But in self-preservation terms, it’s better to put yourself on the front foot by giving a clear account of your thinking.
If I was surprised by anything, it was the decision to go to France without a specialist alternative at outside-half. Yes, the back division was inexperienced; yes, Brad Barritt is an invaluable man to have in reserve in such a situation; yes, both Billy Twelvetrees and Alex Goode have played big club rugby at No 10. But in shifting either of them to the principal playmaking position, you’re effectively making two changes rather than one. This approach is very rare in the Test arena. If it’s happened before, I’ve forgotten it.
I guess this is just the first chapter in what promises to be a very long story surrounding the relative merits of Owen Farrell, the first-choice England 10 at present, and George Ford, the bloke on the rise. As both players have fathers who have climbed to the top of the coaching tree – Andy Farrell is on the current England staff; Mike Ford was there during my time and is now in charge of his son at Bath – this tale of two players could run and run. Rugby’s version of the Montagues and the Capulets? It’s an intriguing thought.
So it’s off to Murrayfield for the second round. As I’ve said, I fancy England to turn up the temperature today, to the extent that Scotland may find themselves struggling to stay in the game before the first half is out. I know England teams have found it difficult to score heavily in Edinburgh – you don’t have to remind me of the fact! – but I can see this match taking the kind of turn we saw in Dublin last weekend, when the Scots looked pretty good for 20 minutes but showed no obvious sign of being able to translate it into an 80-minute performance.
There just isn’t enough of the winning mentality in Scotland right now. The fact that their coach Scott Johnson, my fellow Australian, has been breeding those worms on the Murrayfield pitch in an effort to make the surface a leveller tells you all you need to know!