With the 2017 Six Nations entering Round 4, this week’s Expert Witness sees the return of former England international, Nick Easter.
Hope and Glory
With England riding high on top of the Championship table, Scotland in a rare vein of form, and Ireland showing a return to their displays of November last year, this weekend could prove decisive in the final outcomes.
Nick Easter is relishing a big weekend ahead.
“It’s a very interesting weekend to predict,” he smiled.
“England’s clash with the Auld Enemy Scotland is a peachy match up.
“It’s safe to say England have won three games they might very well have lost and haven’t been in anything like the form of 2016. Put simply, they’ve learned to win ugly and let’s be honest, it’s been very ugly.
“The Italian game was absolutely compelling and fascinating for many and much more interesting than Italy simply turning up, boshing it for a half then losing by a cricket score in the second, as is often the case.
“Between my old mate Conor O’Shea and Italy’s defence coach, Brendan Venter, they produced a set of tactics – let’s call them the non-ruck – that outsmarted and out-thought a very professional outfit.
“One overlooked feature of this was where and when Italy chose to launch the tactic; on England’s exit strategy which is a very well defined one. They looked at England’s three exit plays, the box, the 12 channel drive and the fly-half clearance and they stood in areas that stopped that.
“Although Romain Poite would have been briefed by the coaches, using it in England’s half (initially) was lower risk regarding penalties or misinterpretation by the officials. As Poite showed them lee-way, so Italy started to use it in their own half to thwart the speed of England’s ruck.
“Now, a lot of people are roundly criticising England for their ability to counter this, but it was a shock tactic, one you can use every now and then, but not something you’d rely on for each game.
“What concerned me greatly was England’s thought process and, absolutely crucially, the lack of ability of the leadership team, on-field and off-field, to get a message and counter strategy onto the pitch,” remarked Easter.
“Every side has a specific call to calm things down and, as cynical as this may sound, allow the team and management to regroup their thinking.
"England used a call ‘Kit-Kat’ which meant ‘take a break’ to allow the water carriers and physios to deliver the thinking from the key tacticians and England failed miserably to execute something like that.
“The other issue is basic knowledge of the laws. James Haskell, whose team Wasps have used this very same tactic in Europe, seemed not to know precisely what forms a ruck or understand his rights in pulling defenders in, and for a top class back rower, that’s not good.
"Fortunately for him and others, Tony Spreadbury, the RFU’s reffing guru, has issued a note of clarification this week of what is allowable, where offside is and how the law is applied, both in letter and spirit.
“It’s strange he has to do this, but a few decent rugby brains struggled to work out precisely what was going on out there, and this will help.
“In the final analysis, England’s mental toughness was challenged again and once they’d realise the route to success was precisely straight through the middle of the non-ruck, they put together some scintillating plays; again the bench proved telling and Jamie George’s ability to link and pass in the back line was evident.”
Scotland’s disposal of a stuttering Welsh side who seem unable to find a method or personality, was a very strong mental and physical performance.
"With the Scottish back row to the fore, and Finn Russell orchestrating a pacy back division, Easter considers Scotland could be the biggest test of Fortress Twickenham this season.
“The Scots have really made the most of the form of their regions, club combinations and a reversion to typical Scottish values of pacy ruck ball, real low body positions and keeping the set piece plays, where they’re slightly weaker, to a minimum," he said.
“They have speed and mobility aplenty and if there is one player that has impressed me more than any other this season, it’s their superb openside flank Hamish Watson, who I’d be taking to New Zealand in a trice if I were Warren Gatland.
“The game is going to be decided by pace versus strength. England will look to slow the game down, apply pressure to Scotland’s creaky scrum, keeping their back row honest all day with power.
“For Scotland to win, looking after the ball is crucial and they will try and achieve this with pace and changes of angle, and using their low bodies to counter the England strength on the gain-line.
“I really would not write Scotland off, and if they can keep the scoreboard rolling up to half time, the game could go either way.
"I call England by a score and a penalty, with Billy Vunipola’s recall being crucial in providing the platform and balance that’s been missing since his injury."
France travel to Italy on Saturday to see for themselves what tricks the coaching mastermind Conor O’Shea has in store for them and Italy must fancy their chances in producing their first result of this year’s Six Nations.
Easter considers France are very much on the upslope of improvement but are still just short of being able to land the killer blow.
“Guy Novès, with the assistance of his senior players like Louis Picamoles, is bringing some real ambition in offload and continuity. France look fit, properly fit, and they also now have a consistent selection policy," Easter said.
“When you are a coach, the set-piece, defence, exit, loose play are all pretty simple things to get right. Attacking plays are the things that take longer, the real knockout blows that put sides away.
"Against Ireland, France were so close on three occasions in the first half and if they’d have put one of those tries away, Ireland may have struggled to come back.
“The French scrum is immense and I have to single out Cyril Baille for giving the much-vaunted Tadhg Furlong a serious technical examination at scrum time.
"Given time, France’s finishing will improve with experience and they will become a formidable side. They’re very much on the right track and although they’ve not got the results, they’ve produced some strong showings.
“Provided they’re patient and are prepared to endure the usual Italian arm wrestle for 40 minute, France will win.
"But I’d not discount Italy nor Conor’s ability to produce another tactical bunny out of his hat!” quipped Easter.
The Back Row Battle
Six Nations returns to Friday night action this week when Wales host Ireland in Cardiff. Easter is relishing this match up and considers it a very tough one to call.
“Cardiff, Friday night, roof closed? What’s there not to like about that?” he smiled.
“The atmosphere will be deafening and I am sure the match will be compelling.
“I believe that the teams are very closely matched, with parity in so many areas. The battle is going to be won by the battle of the back row and half backs, where players will be fighting for international futures, both as British and Irish Lions and with their own sides.
“Balance is key to any back row. It’s not a case of traditional shirt numbers, but having the right skill-sets; tackling, carrying, jumping and jackling are all absolutely basic roles for a modern back row and there will be six of the best exponents of their arts on view on Saturday.
“Wherever you look, openside, blindside or eight, the protagonists are all fighting directly for a Lions tour place and each one has a claim based totally on merit. It will be one for the aficionados of loose forward play for sure!
“At half-back, Johnny Sexton simply kept Ireland in the game against France and managed the plays a lot better than the French pairing. His presence is essential for Ireland to succeed.
“If Wales want to be bold, their halfbacks need to be prepared to play a lot flatter to defeat the Ireland rush defence and if I were Rob Howley I’d be considering switching Dan Biggar, a superb operator, to the inside centre berth and allowing Sam Davies to use his pace standing flat at ten.
"This will keep the powerful Irish flankers, CJ Stander and Sean O’Brien, committed to defending the midfield, thus creating spaces for the pacy Welsh back three to exploit.
“As a neutral, I see nothing but an Irish win by a score or more as I believe they’ve greater confidence and variety in their attacking options right now, but Wales are a wounded and desperate beast and their passionate supporters may just prove able to push their team over the line.”
Once again we thank Nick, a regular on this column, for his time once again and Expert Witness will be back next week with Shane Byrne to preview the final round of the 2017 Six Nations.
Nick Easter played 54 times for England and scored 13 tries, including two hat-tricks, one in the his final appearance for England in the 2015 World Cup. A skilful number 8 with cricketer’s hands, his offloading and distribution are hallmarks of a rounded game. Nick is now defence coach for Harlequins, the Club he represented 281 times.
Nick was speaking to James While