Expert Witness continues covering the Six Nations as we welcome former England scrum-half Kyran Bracken.
With France pushing England to the wire and Scotland pulling off an unexpected win in the first round of the 2017 Six Nations, the weekend’s events have been overshadowed by the death of an all-time great of the sport, Joost van der Westhuizen.
Suitably, our Expert Witness this week is former Saracens and England scrum half and skipper, Kyran Bracken, a man who faced Joost on six occasions in Test matches.
“It is devastating news for everyone in the game,” noted the former Saracen.
“A gifted few simply transcend the sport they play and Joost was one of those.
“He was the greatest scrum-half ever to have played the game, in my opinion, and certainly the most challenging opponent I ever faced at any level.
“He was a beast to play against, powerful, searingly quick, a step off both feet and a huge rugby IQ that allowed him to make decisions quickly and accurately; a real rugby genius.
“I won’t forget the 1995 Twickenham Test in a hurry; I hardly knew about the guy, yet he ran around me twice and I was left grasping thin air! One break led to that amazing solo match-winning try down the blindside and, looking back, there was little we got wrong defensively; he just was very special and out-thought and out-paced us.
“I finally got revenge on him in 2000 in Bloemfontein when we won against the odds, and I can assure you that was really pleasing,” chuckled Bracken.
“Joost was a proper rugby man and was incredibly engaging post-match. He would actively seek his opponent out afterwards and was very charming, funny and sociable; he wanted to chat about scrum-half play and the game in general, and he’d help you improve too, whilst, of course, gently enjoying the usual banter with those piercing eyes and a big smile on his face.
“His struggle for life has been chastening for all that knew him and the way he managed to scrap against his disease right down until the final whistle was a mark of the man and summed him up.
“He will be sorely missed.”
Back to the events of the weekend, and much-vaunted Ireland, arguably the form side of Europe, found themselves on the end of a brutal display of rucking and running from a blossoming Scottish side.
Bracken believes a return to basic strengths was at the root of the win.
“The Scottish performance reminded me of the sides I first played against in international rugby. Scotland were famed for their fast rucking game, and this was a return to that style,” he explains.
“The current side have a number of world class players emerging and consolidating; the likes of the Gray brothers, Stuart Hogg, Alex Dunbar and co.
“They have, up until now, lacked the ability to push that last inch and close off games, and I see this as a real turning point for the team.
“Ireland’s experience in units has been an enormous strength in recent seasons; however, they’ve been forced to introduce new blood and these new faces take time to fit into a system; Garry Ringrose’s incursion out of the line is a great example. It offered a defensive dogleg and players like Stuart Hogg need no second chance to take those chances.
“I have to single out the invention of Vern Cotter with the Alex Dunbar try! The Scottish lineout then pulled the canniest trick I’ve seen in a long time, front-loading it with three backs – Laidlaw, Tommy Seymour and Dunbar.
“I don’t think Ireland thought for one second that Ross Ford’s throw was going to one of them, but it did. He threw it flat to Dunbar who flew through the gap and scored.
“Ireland will rue missing their chances to close the game off, but this was a huge step for the Scots, possibly their most important win for 20 years and I believe it will stand them in good stead for the trip to Paris.”
At Twickenham, England showed remarkable fortitude and resilience in beating a huge French team by a single penalty goal. For the first time under Eddie Jones, England were rocked to their core, unable to boss the contact and collision area.
Bracken believes England were very fortunate to ‘get out of jail’ and the result could have been a lot worse.
“It really was a case of winning ugly,” he noted.
“England were really very lucky; France were by far the better side and I believe it was just a case of self-belief, combined with some very whimsical officiating which very much favoured England, certainly at scrum-time.
“What really struck me about England was how unbalanced the team looked. You can field a lightweight backline intent on attacking space provided you have front foot momentum. We were hammered in the contact area.
“England also had, by their own admission, looked to target the French lineout, and wanted Tom Wood to attack their throw in a roving role. Due to the power of the French catch and drive, England had to throw all hands to the pump and most of the time, they had to defend that huge driving maul, which stopped them attacking the French throw.
“Eddie loves his cricketing analogies; well, this was like a strokeplayer being barraged by short-pitched bowling and forced to defend on the backfoot, when in previous matches the player had smashed it everywhere off the front foot,” quipped Bracken.
“I was also astonished how late Jones left it to change the dynamics. I am aware he is concerned about James Haskell’s lack of game time, but when he and Te’o came on, we started to hit rucks and contact properly again.
“Frankly, without the power carriers in the forwards, we need to re-jig our back selections. I truly expect to see Ben Te’o at 12 versus Wales, with Owen Farrell moving into the fly-half berth.
“France meanwhile have turned a corner for sure, and I believe, with some selectorial tweaks, they’re on their way back.
“They’ve managed at last to get continuity in their game, and a lot of that is due to Noves selecting club units and also forwards that handle and link, such as the superb Kevin Gourdon.
“He is crucial to the big drives from the likes of the outstanding Louis Picamoles; he offers the support and continuity needed once the forwards have punched the big hole.”
When in Rome
Wales, a side in transition, travelled to face a confident Italy and for 40 minutes, looked under pressure, until an enforced substitution turned the game.
“Wales really struggled to deal with the Italian brio in the first half; Conor O’Shea’s presence has really galvanised Italy and none more so than their talisman Sergio Parisse who was playing a game on a different level to any of the other 29 players for much of the first half,” Bracken said.
“He was simply astonishing in his attack and vision in that first half and it’s wonderful to see such talent still performing at this level.
“Wales played far too deep in that first half and allowed the Italian push defence to work them over.
“When Sam Davies came on, he absolutely changed the dynamic of the match by standing as flat as he dared. This prevented the blitz, slowing it down as any mistiming would have created a dog leg.
“His ability to play flat allowed Wales’ runners to start to create holes and eventually, Wales put a flat scoreline up which probably flattered them greatly.
“I also felt that Wales very much got the better of the officiating. Some of the scrum penalties were a nonsense in the second half and I’d love to know how JP Doyle allows a Welsh player to swear directly at him yet penalises the Italian skipper for asking for a clarification on a decision.
“Doyle was very myopic in the way he approached that game and I am sure O’Shea would have had a lot to say regarding his style post-match.”
The Old Enemies
With Scotland travelling to Paris, England to Cardiff and Ireland visiting Rome, Bracken believes each side has work to do moving forward.
“The Scots will really need to up their set-piece aspirations in Paris,” he says.
“England struggled against them and that is remarkable. Unless they can match the French up front it could be a hard day. Equally, Guy Novès will be looking for his charges to maximise their attacking plays and turn domination into points, something they failed to do at Twickenham.
“Ireland won’t take Italy lightly and they need to play to structure to improve. Italy will recall Campagnaro to their backline for sure for this game and I believe they will really test a wounded Irish side.
“Wales v England in Cardiff is always the prime fixture of any Six Nations and this one is a delicious match-up.
“I expect England to make some changes with Te’o and Haskell starting. The Welsh back row is very balanced and England’s is far from that. Eddie Jones cannot go into Cardiff making a swathe of changes but equally the machine was misfiring badly on Saturday, and I do believe it needs a degree of tuning to take on their oldest of enemies in a defining match,” concluded Bracken.
That is it for this week’s Expert Witness. We thank Kyran for his time and we will return again next week to discuss Round Three of the 2017 Six Nations.
Kyran Bracken was a gifted scrum-half in the colours of Saracens and England, gaining 51 caps and captaining his country three times. Bracken is also famous for his exploits in the UK TV Show ‘Dancing on Ice’.
Kyran was speaking to James While