The 2017 Six Nations has already thrown up a few surprises this season and with England looking strong at the top of the table, we are joined by their former skipper and regular Expert Witness Lewis Moody to preview Round Three.
The Big Questions
With a resurgent Scotland hosting a bruised Wales, both reputation and selection appear to be on the line for the visitors this Saturday at Murrayfield.
Lewis Moody believes this could be a defining test for both teams.
“It’s unusual in recent times for Scotland to be going into this game as marginal favourites,” he observed.
“Whilst they have a degree of confidence now, and have recently found a way of winning and closing out games, they’ve always been a strong side at home. But winning on the road remains a challenge for them and the French game was theirs for the taking.
“At the centre of this return to form is the investment into the club structure that the SRU have made. Glasgow Warriors are absolutely bullying sides in the European tournaments and Vern Cotter’s ability to pick tried and tested club units, all of whom have pre-existing understanding of each other, is key. Glasgow took my old club, Leicester Tigers, apart at Welford Road and that’s almost unheard of.
“They’re a tight-knit squad who have a defined rucking and driving game, all orchestrated by the much improved Finn Russell at fly-half. They’ve a lot of options in the back five of the scrum, although the loss of Josh Strauss will rob them of one of their main carriers.
“I also worry about them missing Greg Laidlaw; given his ability to keep the scoreboard rolling while his accuracy is key to Scottish hopes, and he’ll be sorely missed,” noted Moody.
What of Wales? Is the side with the most caps in the competition, with Lions in every unit on the field and arguably the most consistent British team in the last ten years, growing old together?
Moody believes Wales need to answer some big questions on Saturday after their defeat to England.
“I don’t buy the notion that England were the equal of Wales in Cardiff. They were beaten in virtually every department bar the set-piece and frankly Wales should have closed that game out before the last quarter.
“For a side that’s shown such simple execution over the years, their thinking under pressure, both players and coaches, was diabolical and cost them the game. England didn’t win it, Wales lost it through stupidity.”
“Two obvious incidents spring to mind; Ross Moriaty was having a monster of a game, dwarfing Nathan Hughes and the English back row, and to yank him off just because you’ve another good player on the bench was ludicrous. It was a pre-ordained substitution and the Welsh coaches didn’t see what was going on in front of them and showed no game awareness, which is criminal.
“Then, the last score; Wales did everything right. A brilliant steal at the ruck, a simple pass to the kicker to clear to touch and what happens? Poor kick execution, sliced down George Ford’s throat and England struck.
“I would caveat my comments by saying that Elliot Daly’s try was brilliantly executed and Owen Farrell’s pass took out three world class defenders including one of the best, Jamie Roberts. It was All-Black esque in its conception and delivery, but the root cause was the sliced kick, a Welsh error.
“I hate to say this but there’s some big names playing for their international future in the red shirt right now. Their confidence is utterly shot and I honestly think Scotland can push them over the brink at the weekend into a serious state of turmoil both in leadership and selection.”
Units of Measurement
Meanwhile, Ireland host France in Dublin with the question of form being the likely decider.
Moody’s opinion is that Ireland are misfiring a little at the moment but France, catalysed by the monstrous form of Louis Picamoles, are a dangerous team:
“It’s quite an exciting fixture isn’t it?” he grinned.
“Again, I refer back to my comments about club units; Ireland have done this for years, using their youth structure to create understanding and the provincial teams to build upon that. France, under Guy Novès are trying to do exactly that and you can see him trying to build that understanding with the La Rochelle back-rowers and the Clermont midfield.
“Crucially, France have stopped peaking and troughing during a match and they have new-found continuity of pressure. Flashes of brilliance doesn’t win many games if there’s no continuity of pressure. A lot of that is down to the linking of Kévin Gourdon, almost a clone of my old foe Olivier Magne, in the openside berth and the holes that Picamoles creates with his massive carries.
“That back row battle will be absolutely key; Ireland have great balance with CJ Stander now filling the huge boots of Stephen Ferris on the blindside. We all know what Jamie Heaslip brings with skill and intellect, and on the openside, Sean O’Brien is one of the best over-the-ball men in the game, an utter clamp of a man at the ruck.
“It’s a real tough one to call and there’s great balance and match ups everywhere; Rémi Lamerat versus Robbie Henshaw is a great example of two power centres that will go at each other all day.
“But my point remains; this will be about which side wins in the back row defence and carry. It’s a delicious match up and home advantage should see Ireland through.”
Georgia On My Mind
Italy’s visit to Twickenham is almost an anti-climax before the game even starts. A side that showed a giant stride forward when they beat South Africa in November have struggled massively this season.
Moody believes part of the issue is they’re too used to being whipping boys and have little to play for.
He explains: “Bluntly, with Georgia ahead of Italy in the world rankings, there’s no reason why the Six Nations should not adopt promotion and relegation moving forward. It’s criminal that the Georgians have no way of progressing their rugby despite earning that right.
“I also believe it would put a huge and much needed rocket up Italy’s backside, making them fight for the right to be in the top tier rather than hanging on in quiet desperation in the hope they may get one or two decent results.
“Even with Conor O’Shea professionalism, there’s a relaxed mentality within the squad and that needs eradicating.
“The reason why there’s no movement between the top and second tier is simple; the other nations are scared it may happen to them so they veto the notion, saying it’s commercially unworkable. The truth is half the Barbour clad mob that run the game think of Georgia as being somewhere the Masters is played in April!” quipped Moody.
“Paradoxically, the only way to open up the growth of the game is to have a meritocratic system based upon form and reward and I support that vision.”
“Looking at England, although I was very critical of the Cardiff display, there’s an emergence of England being able to win and close off games ugly, which is key for all the great sides.
“The last try was almost reminiscent of the All Blacks versus England in 2013 where England led the every stat by a mile, save for the scoreline, just as Wales did in Cardiff. Ma’a Nonu’s precision pass at the end to release Julian Savea broke English hearts in the same way Daly delivered the knockout blow to the Welsh. It was belief, precision and execution personified in one movement.
“Good sides find a way and England are doing just that,” agreed Moody.
“I think we’ll see some changes for this game; again, back row balance is key to winning teams and frankly Nathan Hughes has failed to impose himself in the way he does for Wasps.
“There was also a very makeshift unit on the flank; Courtney Lawes scrummaged at six all day which was odd and Jack Clifford was a little lightweight in a game of huge collisions. I know Teimana Harrison has trained at eight this week and he may be given a start there.
“Elsewhere, the loss of the power of James Haskell, now fit again, and Billy Vunipola has created a mis-match in our backs. We rely upon those huge carries of the big lads on the gainline to create room for our lightweight but quick backs to attack holes.
“Without those carries, our backline has been neutered. There’s a case to try Ben Te’o in the starting XV, moving Owen Farrell to ten. I also believe Jamie George has earned the right to start and that might mean Owen skippering and running the show at fly-half,” said Moody.
“England will win, but it’s the style of performance with which they’ll be measured. Eddie Jones has set some high standards for his charges and anything but a crushing win will be unacceptable for this excellent side.”
That’s it for this week’s Expert Witness and we thank Lewis again for his time.
Lewis Moody MBE, a tearaway flanker, played 71 times for England and appeared in one test for the British and Irish Lions. He was a key member of the England’s World Cup winning side in 2003 and skippered England in the 2011 RWC. He will forever be remembered for winning the lineout that led to ‘that drop goal’.
He now spends his free time promoting his children’s charity, http://www.thelewismoodyfoundation.org/ which raises funds worldwide for children suffering from brain tumours.
Lewis was speaking to James While