Gareth Dyer is head of rugby operations at Preston Grasshoppers.
Those of you who have read my column in the past will know I have often been frustrated by the standard of play in the Six Nations Championship.
The average skill levels, the lack of intensity from some sides and conservative playing styles have often been bugbears of mine and key reasons I believe why the Northern Hemisphere has such a pitiful record when it comes to World Cup success.
So, as we move into the second round of games in this year’s tournament, are there reasons to be more hopeful that the quality of play and the level of playing entertainment might be enhanced this time around?
Alas, whilst hopeful we are seeing some signs to believe things are improving, I am not sure what we can glean from the first round of games.
Wales and England will be satisfied with bonus-point wins, Scotland woefully under-performed when they were expected to go well, Italy appear no further forward whilst for you insomniacs out there, the first 70 minutes of the France versus Ireland game might be just what you need to get you to sleep. It was very much a game for the purist with the highlights being a superb French try and an amazing finale that allowed Ireland to sneak the win.
The signs in the Autumn were that the European teams were trying to play a more rounded game. Scotland were particularly lauded for their play having scored a bucketful of tries and shown a playing style which was easy on the eye. It hinted that things North of the border were moving in the right direction.
Last season I had disagreements with several of my Scottish friends when I said I thought that they were getting a bit carried away after home wins over Ireland and Wales. I drew further fury from my Celtic cousins when I stated that only two or three Scottish players on the Lions Tour was about right.
I was reminded about these comments after Scotland had beaten Australia twice in the space of a few months. But last weekend’s Scottish performance backed up my thoughts from last season’s Six Nations. Scotland crumbled at Twickenham last year and were just as poor last Saturday in Cardiff. The common denominator? Expectation.
Learning to perform when the pressure of expectation is upon you separates the best from the rest. Coming in under the radar is a very different mental proposition from having to come in as favourites.
England were solid but probably experimented too much with selection in the Autumn for there to be any more clarity on where they have improved. Against Italy they started strongly generating quick ball and using the Ford/Farrell axis to fix the Italian defence with lots of runners coming on different lines.
In rugby, coaches talk about faces in the frame. Giving defenders multiple attackers to mark and then selecting the runner who will hit the gap. England were as ever strong at the set-piece, direct from first phase and able to exploit Italy early in the phase count. When the ball was slowed down we again looked at the balance of the English back row to figure where attacks would be reignited from.
As I said during last year’s Six Nations, England have four world class locks but playing any three of them at the same time is not helping. The knock-on effect is that the back row lacks balance and it remains Eddie Jones’ biggest selection dilemma. Italy again hinted at improvement in attack but as ever the basics of their game let them down. One step forward, one step back. They will never win games with such poor indiscipline. Numerous times they had England in their 22 and numerous times they gave away soft penalties that England didn’t really have to work for. When a 90-times capped hooker gives away two ridiculous penalties that allow a defending team to relieve pressure, in a nutshell that tells you where Italy really are.
Wales were the team with highest average number of passes during the Autumn games but it all looked a bit frenetic rather than being evidence of a cutting edge. Last Saturday there appeared a better balance in their game. The signs were promising but the power or the England pack and their suffocating defensive line speed will tell us more as to where Wales really stand.
Ireland did what Ireland have generally done under Joe Schmidt. Took each game as a single piece of work totally unrelated to the game before or after. I remain unconvinced by Ireland. With the players at their disposal I expect more. To me they are set up too tactically rigid with those tactics dependent on who they are playing. It’s time Schmidt took the handbrake off, got more pace into their game and empowered his players to go out and play.
France were fitter and more disciplined than in recent years but with a new coaching team in place it will be a Six Nations of getting to know you.
So, the early signs on tangible improvement are confused. Let’s hope the first weekend was just the launchpad to better things, starting this Saturday.