Round 4 Six Nations wrap up
To say that performance from England has been a little while coming is an understatement.
A lot of people forget that England had a third of their team unavailable at the beginning of the Championship, including their entire starting back row. Of course, they have strength in depth, but it is not easy. You build a team and then suddenly if five or six players are injured, you have to start again.
I am not sure some if the comments made by Scotland, or on behalf of Scotland, were particularly well thought out. They were naturally talking themselves up quite a bit, having been playing some exciting rugby.
But when people start suggesting that Jonny and Richie Gray should be picked ahead of Maro Itoje, Joe Launchbury or Courtney Lawes, I am sure you’re sat there as a player going; “Really? We’ll show you what we are about.” England certainly looked like an angry side that had a point to prove.
Even though they have equalled New Zealand’s record there is a sense that England are very much work in progress. When the All Blacks were on that run, they were pretty close to the finished article, whereas with England the exciting news is I think there is still a lot more to come.
It was Vince Lombardi who said, winning is a habit and so is losing. England have certainly opted for the former. You have to a serial winner you have to absolutely detest losing, and for whatever reason England became used to losing the odd game and that is not how it should be. It is about applying a relentless work ethic to continually drive up your standards, mentality and culture.
The base ingredients for any side at international level should be centred around this incredible honesty and work ethic. If you are working harder than any other player in the world then naturally you have a chance to be the best team in the world.
Eddie Jones is known for that work ethic and he has really passed that on to the players. One of the first things he did when he took over was remind the players exactly where they were, being very honest (sometimes brutal) in his assessment saying that England had underachieved in the last 12 years.
Not in a personal way towards any former coaches, but stating the plain simple truth that, as a side, they had massively underachieved; with more registered players than anywhere else in the world, plus great resources and facilities, they did not have a team matching any of that. It is a breath of fresh air, because at last someone has said that this team was underachieving rather than hoodwinking everyone into thinking that finished second four years in a row is okay, when it is not.
As for Wales, Friday’s game was a much-needed win but it did not surprise me. Ireland are a good side but I did not expect them to win that game. Wales have too many very good players and have not necessarily had the results that those players should deliver.
This was the last chance for many of that group of players to put their hand up for Warren Gatland.
People often talk of small margins at the highest level. It would have put him in a very difficult and uncomfortable position if Wales had lost to all the home nations and not put in a Lions-quality performance, so for that reason alone their desperation level was that little bit higher. The way they defended close to their line had that hunger and they were prepared to suffer for the result.
Ireland will now have that same desperation having lost to Scotland and Wales which makes them a very dangerous side. They are heavily reliant on the all round brilliance of both Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, who was outstanding. They could have so easily won, so there will not be any panic. A win for Ireland would ripple around and world and restore their confidence massively.
Focusing finally on those players who put their hands up for the British & Irish Lions in last weekend, Jonathan Joseph was the beneficiary of some wonderful play from George Ford and Owen Farrell. Ford had probably his best game for a while, which was a good because at his best he is a wonderfully gifted footballer, and all they all benefited from an outstanding forward effort.
Maro Itoje looked his most comfortable and effective at six, whose versatility might make him that hybrid Lions selection. Courtney Lawes looks back to his best and Joe Marler had one of his best performances of his 50 caps so far, while Launchbury is always close to winning Man of the Match.
From a Welsh perspective, there was relief that one or two players that we all know about as potential Lions candidates delivered.
Justin Tipuric was outstanding and could have been given Man of the Match. There were concerns over George North’s form but he showed that if you can get him the ball early and give him some confidence what he is capable of. Rhys Webb was very effective and caused problems as well.
Warren Gatland though will look at the away games as much as the home games. It is how you perform in the most hostile environments away from home, under the most extreme pressure, that will tell the tale for me.