With the return of the Six Nations, Expert Witness welcomes a new face to the chair in the shape of sevens specialist and former England skipper, Ollie Phillips, who is currently preparing to trek to the North Pole in order to raise money for disadvantaged and disabled children.
With England muscling their way to an impressive Cardiff win, Ireland overcoming a doughty Italy in Rome and France pushed close by a rejuvenated Scotland in Paris, Ollie Phillips, regarded by many as a deep tactical thinker on the sport, believes the opening weekend’s results were very much a matter of coaching.
“It’s very interesting how fine the margins are becoming in international rugby,” he explained.
“This weekend really polarized the difference great coaching, attention to detail and strategic thinking make.
“Firstly, looking at the Cardiff game; that was a match that hung on a knife-edge for long periods but eventually won through clear tactical thinking and outstanding management.
“As an example, when Stuart Lancaster named Luther Burrell to face Jamie Roberts, many looked straight to the Racing Metro v. Saints game where Roberts ran the Saints centres riot around the gainline. In selecting Burrell he did three things; he gave his player a vote of confidence and then the ability to atone. But he also used Burrell’s knowledge of the previous encounter to best effect.
"The result was England nullified Roberts to a total of nine metres carried in the entire game. The difference was Luther and the tacklers aimed to hit behind the gain, at the point of contact and possession.
“Elsewhere, English players came of age. Dave Attwood and James Haskell put in performances of immense power and work-ethic. Haskell finally transformed his domestic form in attack to the international stage and his carrying was devastating in the second half. We’ve seen some good defensive displays from him but this was the first time we saw his power running and pace. He was immense.
“I also was mightily impressed with Jonathan Joseph. His is a talent that needs nurturing; his footwork and decisioning were absolutely lethal at times as were those of Antony Watson outside him.
“England were happy to wrap the Welsh attack up with their forwards; simple stuff, forwards tacking the big backs. Yet when England attacked, those same Welsh backs were doing a lot of the stopping. The net result created the millimetres of space needed for the nimble footwork of JJ (Joseph) and Watson to exploit, as the Welsh became fatigued mentally and physically.
“Going back to my opening comments, here is Lancaster’s thinking at its best; meeting Wales head on in the backline collision is rarely going to cause them many issues. Change the dynamic and give them a different challenge by going around them and moving the big three quarter line around with pace and footwork and you have a different game of rugby altogether."
What of Wales? This is a side that provided the backbone of the 2013 British and Irish Lions team, yet appeared bereft of ideas, direction and variation. Phillips believes again that thinking is crucial.
“You can’t write a side off that has that many proven players in it. And let’s be honest, little moments change games significantly. In the lead up to Watson’s try, the bobbling pass served to confuse and ‘stand up’ a couple of Welsh defenders which helped England.
“Perhaps also some selectorial errors were made. Gethin Jenkins has not scrummaged well for a number of years now and has a reputation for hinging and popping out and I guess Gatland was hoping his workrate around the field would work providing Jenkins held his own in the scrum. That failed as Cole and Marler had memorable matches in the tight.
“Wales also lacked a counterpoint to their ‘bosh merchants’. A few years back, Shane Williams gave them that secondary game plan, but nowadays they have six identikit backs and there’s little carrying from the back row, so if they fail to make inroads, there’s not a lot else in the tactical locker.
“They really need to find some offloading carriers in the loose forwards or some real pace in the back division because as it stands, they’re absolutely predictable and once you know the opponent’s game, you’re half-way to there to stopping it.
“Gatland didn’t show the same level of rugby intellect in his selections and game plan as England did. Wales offered containable rugby but you have to acknowledge it was a hell of a statement by England; one based upon great rugby IQ and attention to detail. As things stand now, whilst neither side yet looks like a World Cup winner, England take many positives to build on, whereas Wales’ fundamental gameplan looks very limited."
Over in Rome, an unremarkable game played in predictable fashion saw Ireland win the attritional battle, despite being rocked with the last minute withdrawal of Sean O’Brien five minutes before kick off.
“It’s becoming so clichéd when describing Italian rugby,” laughed Phillips.
“The forwards are very competitive and we know that. But contain them and eventually you will wear them down. Ireland did exactly that and despite the disruption to their side, they showed great attention to detail and awareness in everything they did.
“It says a lot about the systems Joe Schmidt has put in place when Tommy O’Donnell steps up at the last minute and provides a match-winning performance,” he noted.
“Ireland got better and better despite the stuttering start. Schmidt’s attention to detail was crucial to this. As an example, Ireland, always comfortable around the breakdown, turned one of the great Italian strengths, Sergio Parisse, to their betterment – letting the great man batter and batter his way until he became tired and error prone. Look at the last quarter of the game and a couple of crucial pressured mistakes from Parisse allowed the Irish to counter and to gain big inroads into the Italians.
“Factor in that Ireland have three or four world class performers to come back into that side and they’re going to be set the standard for the competition. Round Three and England’s trip to Dublin is one for the rugby connoisseur,’ quipped Phillips.
France are rarely at their best in the gloom of February, but few predicted Scotland would match them in adventure and spirit, if not finally on the scoreboard.
Phillips, a man noted for his attacking ambition during many years in the various colours of Stade Français, was delighted in the Scottish showing but somewhat nonplussed with another lacklustre French performance.
“Again, I’m noticing a different approach in coaching,” he stressed.
“Vern Cotter has been a revelation in transforming the Scottish team. He’s gone back to basics, he’s made sure that the good parts of a competitive line out and back row were retained and he’s bolted on intelligent tactical thinking and as much pace as he could find with his limited resource.
“They have a decent scrum and a very disruptive back five in the pack. But what they’ve now found is brilliant footwork and ambition from Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour (who was unlucky to withdraw early on) and an emerging talent in Finn Russell.
“Scotland made a declaration of bigger and better things to come. For spirit and adventure they were outstanding and with the only try of the game they were the equal of the home team, despite the scoreboard, and they rocked France to the core, punching well above their weight,” commented the former Stade man.
France, conversely, looked less than the sum of their glittering parts. Highlighting the underachievement of the French side has become almost as clichéd as describing Italian tactics but Phillips believes that issues off the pitch are costing France dearly:
“As someone who has played there for a large proportion of my career, I have a good insight into the mechanics of the French game. People describe them as a ‘sleeping giant’ but when they finally wake up they’re playing like a giant with an almighty hangover.
“They are absolutely relying on individual quality to see them through a team sport and that is simply not enough,” noted Phillips.
“This will work against lesser teams but when they play the big boys they’re not going to be at the races. The themes of power and laboured carrying persist and I simply don’t think that they’re going into matches with any clarity or unity or gameplan.
“Here is an example; Mathieu Bastareaud is an incredible rugby player. However, he is unfit and he is prepared just to turn up and play and do his stuff. As an opponent, you relish that because you know that if you keep running into him eventually he’ll tire a lot quicker than his opponents and he’s certainly not prepared to try and out-think you. No-one in the French team is grabbing hold of the guy and saying ‘buck your ideas up, get fit and think about the game.’
“During the match, I watched with huge amusement as Serge Blanco wandered down and sat next to the French coaches. He would have been giving advice real time on the game, that I guarantee. Could you imagine Jason Leonard, the RFU President Elect, wandering down to give his unsolicited thoughts on scrummaging to the England coaching team during the match? Not a hope and rightly so.
“It’s a crying shame as on paper, and with the emergence of Camille Lopez as a real threat at ten, France should be right up there in world terms. Sadly they’re a first world team with a third world approach to playing the game and if attitudes don’t change soon, they will becoming whipping boys at the Rugby World Cup as other sides are much fitter and better organised, just as Scotland showed.”
That wraps up this week’s edition of Expert Witness. We thank Ollie for his time as he prepares to venture into the Polar wilderness and look forward to another exciting chapter in Six Nations’ rugby next week.
Ollie Phillips played over 80 times for the England Sevens side and was IRB Sevens Player of the Year in 2009. A brilliant wing in the colours of Gloucester Rugby, Newcastle Falcons and Stade Français, in April he treks to the North Pole, in a rugby record breaking event on behalf of Wooden Spoon the Children’s Charity of Rugby. You can follow Ollie Phillips @olliephillips11 and the Arctic Rugby Challenge at www.arcticrugbychallenge.com or on Twitter @WSArcticRugby, and donate here.
Ollie was talking to James While.