Expert Witness: Six Nations

Date published: February 17 2016

With Round Two of the Six Nations complete, former Wales centre Tom Shanklin debuts on Expert Witness for a canter through the weekend’s international events.

It’s a truism that the Six Nations Championship that follows a World Cup is always hard to predict. Teams are in transient situations, old guards retire, new coaches take reins and 2016 is no different.

Strength is Depth

Tom Shanklin believes that strength in depth has been the key to success in the first two weekends and already we’re seeing the shape and ambition of teams for the next few years:

“Over the weekend we’ve seen the teams that have a degree of depth succeed and teams with lesser quality in their reserves and bench, struggle,” he mused.

“Starting off with the Ireland v France match up, some would be surprised to see France sneak that win, especially considering the World Cup result last year.

“But Ireland have been a team whose success has been based upon longevity of units and some real experience emerging in vital positions. Put simply, few sides can suffer the loss of big players like Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony and others and still put in the winning performances,” explained Shanklin.

“Look back over recent Irish sides and players like Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll, the Munster forwards and half-back combinations, and you’ll see those guys knew their games, being brought up almost together. It’s a great strength to have drop-in units like that, but a big weakness if there’s little else available and pressuring the incumbents or replacing the walking wounded and the fact is, those units have broken up and Ireland are struggling to replace them.

“To compound that, Ireland lost a key figure in the powerful Sean O’Brien early in the game, and Sean’s ruck and breakdown presence is a key influencer on Ireland’s ability to win usable ball.

“Conversely, France have huge playing numbers; rather like England that can make selection harder rather than easier, but with their weight of quality and also, importantly, the novelty of a new coach in Guy Novès, France just had that little bit more firepower on the day,” observed the rangy centre.

“On the subject of Novès, he’s the one proven coach France have. It’s a shame this job has come to him in the autumn of his career; rather like Gareth Jenkins with Wales in 2006, it’s come a few years too late, in my opinion.

“Nevertheless, France are starting to have a core of talent. Sometimes it takes time for players like Jules Plisson and Wencesles Lauret to make their mark on the international stage and I hope Novès sticks with the incumbents and gives them a chance, rather than chopping and changing like Philippe Saint-André tended to do.

“One thing I firmly believe, when you have excellence and experience in a position, it’s easier to introduce successors into a squad. Dan Biggar is proof of this; he succeeds players like Stephen Jones and Rhys Priestland, who can pass down a lot of wisdom to their heirs. France, unsettled for so many years, are not doing that and it shows.

“In fact, I pointed out to my successor Jamie Roberts on Saturday that if it hadn’t been for my tutelage, he’d not be half the player he is now, and I reckon now I’m owned half of at least nine international Man of the Match awards,” laughed Shanklin.

Power and Width

On the subject of Roberts, Shanklin was effusive about the power the big man brought to the Welsh game against Scotland:

“Jamie had a massive influence," he said.

“He is such a focal point for defences he opens up the rest of the park for others, provided Wales secure quick ruck ball.

“Wales have some big characters in most of their combinations that have won at the highest level; Alun-Wyn Jones, Sam Warburton, George North and others have succeeded abroad with the British Lions and won a number of Six Nations medals.

“Players like that don’t panic; compare that to Scotland, who respectfully, have a recent history of gallant losses and few players who hold the experiences the Welsh boys have and you’ll see there’s a big difference in mentality when closing a game off,” explained the former Cardiff centre.

“Another telling difference on Saturday were the benches; Scotland can bring on some good players, but when you’ve a guy like Gethin Jenkins with 100 plus caps and Dan Lydiate, a winning Lion, to finish the game, then you know you’ve a strong matchday squad.”

Shanklin, a keen rugby intellect, also believes Wales are trying to add width to their noted power game:

“When you see a bench with three outside halves on it you know there’s an ambition to run. Warren Gatland is clearly looking to play a more expansive game with Justin Tipuric acting as a classic seven link man and looking to add width and pace from the latter phases.

“However, the downside is, Dan Lydiate and Sam hunted as a pack; Dan with the chop tackles, Sam in over the ball to secure and their timing and understanding was and is still outstanding. I’m not sure which is the best option and for England I think you may see Wales revert to the old method, but we shall see.”

Running England?

England’s Valentine’s Day trip to Rome was the game we always thought it would be; a battle for 60 minutes with England pulling through as Italian interest, fitness and skill dropped off the scale as players tired or became injured.

Shanklin is quick to praise English intent but is equally worried about Italian progress:

“It’s a sad fact, but when Italy roll over they roll over big time, and yet again we saw that,” he observed.

“I’m not going to be overly harsh when I say there’s a palpable lack of progress in Italian rugby. Other than a few historic ‘backs against the wall’ wins, we’ve not seen the considered progress that, say Argentina have shown in a similar scenario in the Rugby Championship, where they are truly developing their style, the sport and their skill levels in an admirable fashion,” remarked Shanklin.

“When they lost three key figures in the first half, they crumbled. The replacements were not up to the standard of the starting XV and frankly, at 60 minutes, they just capitulated.

“But let’s not denude England; I am seeing a sea change in their ambition. Under Stuart Lancaster they were predictable and prescriptive, maybe scared of going off point. However, Eddie Jones is coaching attacking intent and empowering players to make heads up decisions on the field of play.

“Most of all, England are looking to attack at 4th and 5th phases, using fast feet and skill to attack space rather than bodies, using dummy runners to create diversion and playing with an awareness that’s refreshing,” admired Shanklin.

“When you see a side with Jonathan Joseph, George Ford, Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell in the backs, you know they won’t want to play ‘structure’; they want to run and enjoy themselves, pick off the defending props and locks with gas from broken field play and that’s already evident in their offerings this year.

“And England’s traditional beef is still there; George Kruis has been their best forward so far this season and there’s nothing missing up front. In short I’m impressed,” he quipped.

Centres of Attention

Shanklin was a gifted centre and enjoys other exponents of his craft. This season has already shown some real progress and new faces in the international midfields and Shanklin believes the Six Nations has a golden crop in his favoured position this season:

“Yes, it’s strange how these things happen, but looking around there’s a lot of high quality operators around at the moment. I’ve mentioned Jamie and JJ already, but then Wales have the wonderful decision making of Jonathan Davies back in the outside berth which adds pace and footballing skill to a physical backline. Italy have arguably the best prospect of them all in Michele Campagnaro who competed for a full 80 minutes on Sunday and lost nothing in comparison to his opponents.

“I also am very impressed by the Irishman Robbie Henshaw who has a huge future ahead of him; he’s a big unit in the mold of Roberts with plenty of gas and can be very physical. I’ve not mentioned England’s injured players like Elliot Daly, Henry Slade and Manu Tuilagi, nor Owen Farrell’s improvement in the 12 shirt. Scotland have promise in Mark Bennett and Duncan Taylor and France have  added the impressive and direct bulk of Jonathan Danty so it’s safe to say 2016 will be a fine vintage for the centre community,” he chucked.

On that note, Expert Witness now closes for two weeks. We thank Tom for his time and humour in preparing this piece and we invite you to join us in a fortnight’s time when Harlequins’ Director of Rugby, Conor O’Shea will make his return.

Tom Shanklin, a gifted centre, played 70 times for Wales, scoring an impressive 20 tries. Selected for two British and Irish Lions tours in 2005 and 2009, injuries prevented Shanklin from gaining a test cap and he retired in 2011 with a re-occurring knee issue.

Shanklin now divides his time between his commercial role at D S Smith and his work as a rugby ambassador with