Round 5 Six Nations wrap up
Looking back to last Saturday in Dublin, there is no question that over the 80 minutes the better team won the game.
It is one of those difficult situations for any side because we talk about there only ever being two emotions in sport, agony and ecstasy, and yet by celebrating defeat England had to do both on the same day.
Make no mistake, winning back-to-back Six Nations titles represents progress for this England squad, especially given where they were a couple of years ago.
Naturally, losing the game probably doesn’t feel like progression. I think when the players sit back and reflect, they can look and understand the reasons why they lost and learn from that. But also they should be proud of what they have achieved.
It is an opportunity missed to make a bit of history, but this is a young side who if they keep learning and stay humble, they will hopefully create many other opportunities to make history, and that is the way you have to look at it. To win a Grand Slam away from home you have to turn up mentally at a different level to your opponent and England do need to learn how to come out the blocks faster and tougher!
Ireland on the other hand knew what they had to do and they have a lot of experience in that group, especially the way they coped with the changes forced upon them at the last minute. They seemed to be able to cope with that very well in fact. Peter O’Mahony, one of the players who was not in the starting line-up, turned out to be one of the star performers in. He made it his type of game playing superbly well.
Given the standards that they expect and their recent results in their Autumn campaign in beating all the Southern Hemisphere countries, it has been a pretty difficult Six Nations for Ireland. Losing to Scotland and Wales meant they had to redeem themselves and pull something out of that bag, not just individually with Lions places on the line but collectively as a group. Warren Gatland will have been pleased with Wales’ win over Ireland and then Ireland’s victory over England. It gives him a bigger canvas to really start painting the plan for his final Lions selections in a few weeks time.
For England it was a case of you can’t perform without the ball, and I was unbelievably startled to see that England only had 25 percent possession in the first half. Ireland not only had the ball but they kept the ball, controlled it, and made sure they were first down on any of the 50/50 loose balls.
It was all about the start and therefore I thought that Ireland definitely settled quickest. The conditions allow that type of Irish rush defence, getting up quickly off the line. When it is greasy and slippery, you are not going to get two or three passes away under pressure. You felt that England should have possibly narrowed things up, going through the phases and getting the forwards’ hands on the ball as much as you can.
Going to Dublin having won the championship, it is not like the title was on the line, and you have to go out and win the game. Instead it felt like England went to Dublin not to lose. Maybe that is all part of their learning and evolution. They still have a way to go in terms of their potential, which is scary and exciting. If you can get to 18 games unbeaten as a young side on the way up, then that is outstanding.
Turning to the chaos in Paris, having seen the game again I thought Wayne Barnes handled the situation in front of him as well as he possibly could have. Looking back on it all, it was a comedy in many senses, although not if you are Wales. That situation is nigh on impossible for a referee to tell a player that he has to scrummage. It’s a legal minefield and a real problem. It does not look great and there is something suspicious about the way everything was handled. Let’s hope the truth emerges.
You had a sense that Slimani did not look like he was coming on at all, with his tracksuit on, even though these players do stay warm. Then all of a sudden the strongest scrummager does come back on and what amazed me with Atonio is that if you do have an HIA, then you are taken off the field by someone to make sure you do not fall over, but he was left to walk down the tunnel on his own… Who knows what happened.
Focussing on who put their hands up for the Lions, Sean O’Brien needed a big game and had one. Sam Warburton put in a very strong performance and is getting close to his best again, and Jonathan Davies also played well for Wales.
Warburton is beginning to enter the conversion for the Lions captaincy, but on previous tours it would have been easier to pick somebody and say “you are my captain and also in my Test side.” Except this time apart from Conor Murray or Owen Farrell, it is very hard to say that at the moment. There is so much competition for places.
Warren is a man who historically likes his captain to be amongst the forwards. I was captain under him at Wasps for a number of years. Fly-halves have too much responsibility anyway, they do not also need the armband.
It may as well be someone upfront and I do not expect anything different. I will be very surprised if it does not come from one of Alun Wyn Jones or Sam Warburton.
A lot of England supporters might wonder about Dylan Hartley, who has done a lot to deserve the job, but those two players already have the experience and you do not need to put a bullseye on Hartley’s back, as someone who was born in Rotorua and with his previous disciplinary record he will be a massive target for the media on and off the pitch. Giving it to someone who has done the job before makes sense.
Also in terms of surprise selections, I do not actually think there will be that many. New Zealand is not the right place to pull surprises. You want to go there and know that the players picked are good enough for the job.
The biggest surprise will be the players left behind, and there will be some big names, including players who have been on past tours or who have a number of caps under their belt. Start penning your Lions squad now as It makes for a fascinating selection.