As the 2016 Six Nations passes the halfway mark, Expert Witness is delighted to welcome back Harlequins director of rugby, Conor O'Shea.
After the third round of the Six Nations, it's rare to find only one team in with a chance of winning the Grand Slam. Ireland's draw with Wales in the first round eliminated two such challengers but with the title still left to play for, O'Shea believes that Eddie Jones' England are shaping up into a formidable outfit following their disposal of Ireland at Twickenham.
"A few have said that Ireland had their chances in that game, and I would agree with that.
"There were a few incidents; Ireland's disallowed try by Van der Flier, James Haskell could have got a second yellow card for slowing the ball down when Danny Care got a yellow and a couple of other moments that could have fallen either way," mused O'Shea.
"But that would be doing an injustice to England, whose overall display deserved the win and Ireland did well to hang in.
"Operating the defensive system England employ for 80 minutes is a big ask, as it is a very physical and mentally draining method of defending," he explained.
Many have made much of Ireland's depleted resources through retirement but O'Shea points more so to the walking wounded in the Irish camp, which has become a frustration for all involved.
"Remove Sean O'Brien, Iain Henderson and Peter O'Mahony from that side and you lose so much in breakdown competition. The guys coming in have done a decent job but you can't replace that level of player easily," he noted.
"England, surprisingly, dismantled Ireland's line-out, led by a towering display from George Kruis and the stellar talent of Maro Itoje, but the Ireland scrum, which can be an Achilles heel, was stable for most of the time, although England did get a nudge on towards the game and Mike Ross' return was very important for the Irish.
"But the fundamental fact is, Ireland have blooded a few new faces, they've acquitted themselves well, learned a lot and I'm not at all despondent about the future.
"England, however, are in a very decent place. Crucially, their age profile also points to a really positive future for this group.
"Eddie Jones mentioned after the game that they'd left 15-20 points on the pitch in the first half. I'd say that's fair, but what is apparent is that England are creating enough chances to allow Jones to make statements like that.
"If you unpack the English game, power has always been a given. However, that power is also now coupled with the forwards carrying from deep, straight and at pace.
"They look decisive and a side that is developing a really positive style of rugby. Speed of recycling is key here and there's definitely a new intent from England in getting the ball out quickly to their pacey backs.
"Eddie's mantra appears to be to coach players to make decisions based upon what's in front of them and not to shoe-horn a pre-planned move into a situation that requires something different.
"Their pack is almost obscenely powerful and Billy Vunipola is having the season of his life. Many consider him to be just a big lump but the number of times he beats the first man with quick feet and side stepping is incredible," explained O'Shea.
In Cardiff, France again failed to challenge a powerful Welsh side and O'Shea is admiring of the Welsh defence in closing the game off right from the first moments.
"Wales' defensive efforts in the first 20 minutes set the tone of the match from the off.
"France spent so much time crabbing from side to side, unable to break the wave of Welsh defenders, that you may have started to wonder which way around the pitch was!" quipped O'Shea.
"The reinstatement of Sam Warburton and Dan Lydiate as a hunting team paid dividends. They know their game so well that Sam will wait for the famous Lydiate chop tackle and the moment he connects, Warburton is second man in, clamping over the ball and either turning over or slowing down. They are exceptional as a pairing.
"I would say, as a coach, whilst referees are being very pedantic about some areas like scrum engagement, they might start to implement more fundamental laws, like watching the offside line in the backs a little more closely. Wales, in fairness, played the referee, but at times they were up so quickly in defence you have to question if their starting point was legal and a micro second advantage in that area can absolutely close down any form of attacking intent.
"But France lacked a man that could run straight and break the gain line; someone like Louis Picamoles. Jules Plisson must also shoulder some blame as not once did he really try to use kicks or bringing a man back on the switch to straighten the attack and smash a hole in the Welsh line.
"When Francois Trinh-Duc came on at ten, he played with far more intellect, using variety and tactical kicking to offset the Welsh blitz and it’s a mystery why the French selectors have not utilised Trinh-Duc more over the years.
"I must shout out two players here. French skipper Guilhem Guirado showed his side just how to run hard and straight, and the defensive work of Wenceslas Lauret was quite superb at times.
"Wales, at last, are also bolting on something of a plan B! At the centre of this is Jonathan Davies, who acts almost as a secondary fly-half, waiting for his colleagues to take the big hit up the middle and then waiting to use the phase ball, either through his pacey running or intelligent distribution. He and Jamie Roberts are as good a centre combination as any in world rugby right now and are the heartbeat of the Welsh side," concluded O'Shea.
Scotland's visit to Italy has almost become the perennial wooden spoon decider, and, despite Italy's useful showing so far this year, the first 15 minutes of the game shaped the final outcome.
"Looking at Scotland, their find of the year is WP Nel has made a vast difference to their set-piece and Italy, who traditionally have done well in this area, failed to make any impact on Nel and the outstanding Alistair Dickinson, a player who has really improved what was once a very suspect scrummaging technique.
"Another key component of Scotland's performance was the work rate of Jonny Gray who made something like 25 tackles, together with a number of line out steals and some rumbustious running with ball in hand," admired O'Shea.
"Italy will be disappointed because even at the end they had the chance to take three points to be again within a score going into the closing minutes but they went for it and didn’t get the try, leaving the score at 29-20 not 29-23. The final score for Scotland made the scoreline more than a bit unfair on Italy but they will know that Scotland’s scrum dominance was the biggest issue of the day."
That concludes this edition of Expert Witness.
With the Six Nations taking another week off, we will return in a fortnight, with our next guest, former Scotland scrum-half and TV pundit Andy Nicol, making his debut in our column. Yet again, we thank Conor again for his time.
Conor O'Shea, a hard running full-back and keen rugby intellect, played 35 times for Ireland scoring 44 points, and is now director of rugby at Harlequins.
by James While