by Big Joe Shep
A Grand Finale (Slamming that is)
Let’s Set The Scene - The 6 Nations and all that………………..
Well the 6 Nations championship (AND the Triple Crown AND the Calcutta Cup) had been won by an (in the main) exciting, rejuvenated and focused English side who came to Paris seeking their first Grand Slam since 2003. I have read somewhere from one reporter that England's transformation said something about the mediocrity of the 6 Nations………… I disagree. Post a disappointing RWC for Northern Hemisphere sides, England were the standout team of this competition, truly deserving winners! WHY?? Because they did what they had to do, pretty or not when it needed doing and they had the “Eddie” factor (oh and I’m one of Eddie Jones’ greatest admirers). England themselves are not the completed article nor on many occasions were they the best team overall as many would say but they achieved a remarkable turnaround and winning a Grand Slam is NOT easy. Well done!
Now clearly that will cause some debate but hey, I’m writing as an objective Irishman who saw his own team decimated with injuries but a decent crop of new talent stood up and we showed some real flair and guts in the latter games (I would have loved to play England last by the way as it might have been a different tale). Then there’s a Welsh team who played some decent rugby but I believe Gatland has had his day and they are living and achieving off a few class players but they’re not the team they were. Italy, were dogged, determined but as ever weakened. They did however produce some great rugby, running, offloads and all rallied together by their great leader and talisman, Sergio Parisse. They just never gave up but you must question the need for a 2nd Tier 6 Nations as I now firmly believe that Georgia would add far more value to the competition. That however is for another blog! France were France (stop me if I’m already getting too technical lol!) and just failed miserably. Playing Fofana out of his Centre position on the wing was simply a waste.
Now here’s the thing, whilst England and Jones pulled themselves together to be the most successful in this campaign, Scotland I’d add were the overall most improved and their results didn’t bely their play and how much Vern Cotter has achieved.
Ok at last to the game. This was (according to the stats) a pretty much even game. France pressured England and had a number of opportunities mainly through their exciting Winger, Vakatawa however he’s far from the finished article himself and lacked the composure and nous to fully exploit the opportunities he was given which, mostly saw him end up in touch or the ball wasted through poor passing. He really did have the measure of Jack Nowell for long periods of the match though. France seemed in the 1st half to have done their homework on England at both the lineout and the scrum but the set piece was one of the key areas were England ultimately shone through. Itoje & Kruis really put pressure on France as the game went on and it the end England won 13 lineouts to the French 9 and indeed France lost 4 to England! Interestingly the 2nd half appeared to show England dominating on turnovers but the final match totals were 10 each. It was the English defensive aspect that was overall very poor. The conceded 54 errors (France 49) and missed 28 tackles (France 21). A stronger team would have punished England therefore but where England won this game (apart from the Lineouts) was their belief in running at France. Their 1st try through one of my favourite players, Danny Care was pure opportunistic. From the base of a ruck he saw a French player marginally out of position and whoosh!! No catching him and England's 1st try. Great rugby.
There was some dispute over the 2nd England try from Prop Dan Cole. Was the French player impeded as he attempted to play the player. Good old Nigel looked at it and was happy it was clearly ok. Personally it WAS slightly unfortunate but that’s the rub. The French defence was sloppy and Cole should never have been allowed to achieve what he did. Bottom line always great for a Tight Head to score a try.
In what could be seen as a reverse of norms in this game, England attempted to play some expansive rugby, took clear opportunities whist a frustrated France kept in touch with penalties. One thing that does goad me is the new penchant for kicking? This game saw both sides kick and equal 35% of their possession. A lot of the time it appears a nervous reaction to get rid of the ball when you’re under pressure in your own 22 but invariably merely gives the ball to the opposition??........perhaps as ever being a retired Tight Head, I get irked after all the hard graft from the Forwards seeing valuable ball being wasted (in my humble opinion!!)
Moving on…………... The overall top French player for me was Full Back Scott Spedding. He showed what every No 15 should do. He had excellent position, vision, handling and his runs just never stopped but when push came to shove, he didn’t have additional support on his shoulder enough. A class act that along with Vakatawa and the French front row (especially Hooker of the whole tournament, Skipper Guilhem Guirado) their only real mainstays. It wasn’t enough to exploit any potential weaknesses that England had. Some great plays but individualistic. Added to that having a world class player like Fofana playing at Winger instead of Centre didn’t help the French effort. (Have I mentioned that already!)
By the time Anthony Watson had scored a very determined and strong 3rd and match winning try, a tired and dispirited looking France had nothing left to give. A match and Grand Slam winning 31 - 21 to England and they really look like they’ve lots more in the tank yet. Will they dominate the next 3+ years leading up to RWC 19 in Japan? You can see it merely from the pool of players they have to pick from and from the belief Eddie Jones brings them. Time will tell. I’m not 100% convinced it will be as easy and straightforward as many believe. The summer tours and autumn tests will give us a better idea. In this game, England were the more clinical of teams, better organised and more cohesive.That’s what won them this game and dare I say the competition.
So there’s lots of debate about certain players this campaign? Has Robshaw played as good as some say?? Not for me. In this game he made only 14 meters from 10 carries and lost a turnover. In defence he made 10 tackles and missed 4 conceding a penalty. Certainly not a contender for the 6 Nations XV for sure. Haskell played well for me, Itoje & Kruis are a great pairing in the Second Row and actually Kruis for me is a more rounded player all ready. Itoje is an awesome athletic individual but he’s still naive at the top level with too many silly errors. Then there’s Farrell. I won’t go on as most people know my views on him. A world class kicker but not an overall player and how he’s at No 12 is beyond me.
I think there’s potential for changes in the English front row where both Cole & Marler haven’t performed for me. Although Mako Vunipola had a difficult game against France he was my top Loose Head in Rounds 1 & 2 of the competition. The Scrum & Maul needs more work from the English coaching team.
Then there’s Mike Brown. Now here’s a talent, world class player with speed, vision, skill, running ability but he DOES need to curb his temperament. Great having an “Edge” in a player that drives them etc etc, but if he doesn’t learn to channel it, he won’t make the Lions No 15 slot as Hogg is the rounded player. In the France game he ran 102 metres from 13 carries.
So that leaves England's player of the campaign and an underestimated player. Underestimated is definitely how I’d describe Jack Nowell. He did have a torrid 1st half against the huge Vakatawa on the Wing but adapted his game and stifled him out eventually. Throughout the campaign he’s been assured, strong, pacey and a real find for the future. Player of the campaign (for England!) though must go to Billy Vunipola. Whether playing at 6 or 8, he’s such a strong, gifted player that adds immense value to any side. It’s been a real pleasure watching him. How does he compare with Parisse, Faletau and Heaslip? Clearly right up there. But there’s players who stand out because of their size & strength (Vunipola) or stature (Parisse), technical ability (Faletau) or the one who just carries and carries and turns over and supports and it doesn’t necessarily get as noticed and that’s Ireland's Jamie Heaslip.
There we have it a great deserving campaign for Eddie Jones and England and what a way to come back after the RWC
The 2016 Grand Slam / Triple Crown / Calcutta Cup and 6 Nations Champions = ENGLAND!!
@bigjoeshep is the Owner and Head of Information & Knowledge Management at Digital Knowledge Zone. An avid Leinster & Ireland Rugby fan, he came to rugby at the late age of 24, was a tight head prop, had at least 2 good runs in every game and retired at only 36 after 3 operations on his legs and now forms the 4th "virtual" person in a front row each time his beloved teams are playing (much to the annoyance of his suffering girlfriend who has to put up with being "embraced" by the Big Fella at each scrum!!!)
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