Expert Witness: Six Nations

Date published: March 16 2016

With Round Four of the Six Nations complete, former Scotland skipper Andy Nicol debuts on Expert Witness for a canter through the weekend’s international events.

Scottish Evolution

With England taking their revenge on their biggest of foes, Wales, Ireland thrashing a below-par Italy and Scotland beating France for the first time in 10 years, BBC’s Andy Nicol is delighted at the showing of his national side:

“It’s a great effort and has been a long time coming,” smiled Nicol.

“We’ve had so many close results recently where the guys simply have lacked the experience to close the game off and we’ve finished a score the wrong side of the board.

“I felt the Scots showed immense bravery and intelligence throughout the game, especially considering we fell behind to one of France’s better moves of the tournament very early on.

“We responded well and showed great resilience and fitness after the loss of our pivot and playmaker Finn Russell in first half. What pleased me greatly is we showed ambition and continued to play rugby rather than just trying to scrape across the line.

“Hats off to Vern Cotter. It’s taken him time to bed some real basics in.

“We saw some glimpses, maybe a few false dawns and perhaps we have overhyped some of those narrow losses, but I’m delighted in how we’re scrummaging with WP Nel and Alasdair Dickinson to the fore, and also in the contact area where both Gray brothers almost act as auxiliary back row forwards.

“England did what we knew they could do to us first up; suffocated us from start to finish. In Cardiff, we saw a lot of hard work and a belief to continue the offloading and attacking game but what struck me most of all was our belief in each other.

“A great barometer of this is seeing a defensive effort from all 23 players. We’ve never given up and when you see talents like Duncan Taylor emerging and Stuart Hogg maturing, you feel that Scotland have made quite a stride this year,” he explained.

The French Disconnection

Indeed, whilst Nicol is effusive in his praise for Scotland, he is equally pragmatic in understanding the issues surrounding the wider French situation.

“France gave us 15 minutes of some serious sustained pressure but then dropped off. People allude to a difference in fitness, but I don’t buy that. The truth is the French players are utterly knackered due to their workloads, not because of a lack of fitness,” Nicol explains.

“The French structure is there for the benefit of the big clubs, the moneyed investors and the itinerant overseas player! They have no connectivity of national agenda to the club game and it really shows.

“I commentated live on the game on Sunday and I looked down the team-sheet beforehand and was quite scared for the Scots.

“Fickou, Fofana, Spedding, Trihn-Duc and more, all world class players. Yet they went out and played with something akin to ‘reverse synergy’.

‘They’re the inverse sum of their parts and the root cause is the club workload of the players, international squad welfare (or lack of it) and the fact that some of the Top 14 sides have as few as three indigenous Frenchmen in the starting XV.

“The fact is the clubs have all the power in France, and the club Chairmen, generally businessmen, have much too loud a voice.

“It’s a ludicrous situation and France need someone to broker a triangular deal for club, player and country in the same way Rob Andrew, often unfairly criticized, has done for England, PRL and The RPA,” concluded the scrum-half.

Irish Smiles

In Dublin, Ireland pre-empted St Patrick’s Day with a blistering performance of running rugby, completely dismantling Italy with Jamie Heaslip finishing off two great scores, one of which is a genuine contender try of the season.

Nicol was delighted to see the new Irish faces coming in with such effect but laments the progress shown by Italy over the last 16 years since their admission to the tournament:

“Although Italy are very stubborn opposition, Ireland just took them apart from the first whistle,” he added.

‘There was clearly a tactic to avoid contact and to offload and run and I could praise Ireland in depth but I have to confess to a real frustration in Italian progress and I will focus on that.”

The Italian Job

“A great parallel is Argentina in the Rugby Championship. Both teams came from the so-called Tier Two nations, both totally on merit,” Nicol notes.

“My frustration is Argentina have approached this professionally, with intellect and with humility to learn. Italy have not used their resources intelligently, not built the right structure and are not that willing to learn,” commented the former Scotland skipper.

“When Argentina were admitted to the top flight, Gus Pichot, an iconic player and administrator, went out on a limb to get the right resources for Los Pumas.

“Graham Henry, one of the greatest rugby intellects around, took on a consultancy role. He explained that there was a step change needed, in physicality and importantly, style.

“Henry was key and to their credit Argentina listened, they tore up their script, changed totally their style of rugby to the fast offloading game we saw at the World Cup and emerged as what, ranked four in the world at the time of writing?” explained the Scotsman.

“Italy need to follow suit. Essential to this is a willingness from the Union and the players to adapt and change, and for the coaches and authorities to provide those players with both a domestic and an international environment in which to flourish.

“Italy have some very solid rugby intellects around  but when you hear that former players such as Diego Dominguez have effectively been ostracized from contributing, then you have to be worried.

“It’s not happening for the Azzurri right now and that is of huge concern to all of the followers of the game,” concluded Nicol.

Revenge served cold

At Twickenham, Anglo-Welsh hostilities resumed with the added spice of indignation following the Welsh disposal of the host nation of the World Cup.

Nicol revealed: “I have to admit to being secretly impressed by England. Eddie Jones has brought a fresh approach and a winning mentality, of which Eddie is the architect.

“But equally, when you see the precision of defence and set-piece you also conclude that the coaching team is a strong partnership rather than just Eddie. Paul Gustard and Steve Borthwick have added fresh voices and new styles of play and that’s often essential to a good but underperforming side.

“It was one of those games where you scratch your head and ask if England were that good for 60 minutes or where Wales just poor?

“Often, you’d argue that the opposition play as well as you let them and England were excellent for the first half. But still, with the number of line breaks and opportunities, Jones will be fuming that England were not out of sight at the break.

“Considering England’s long period of dominance, for Wales to get close at the end was a huge effort of self-belief and character. If the game had just three minutes more left in it, I really think Wales may have stolen it.

“Jones and his coaches played a very cute game in terms of where they wanted to play. England attacked and defended flat in the Welsh faces and that meant the big power runners of the visitors lacked the extra bit of momentum they build up running from a deeper position.

“England’s ability to drive through the gain-line from that flat starting position, characterized by Maro Itoje, Billy Vunipola and James Haskell, meant that Wales were always throwing in numbers. The result was evident and not many sides get around the outside of the Welsh defence like England did,” commented Nicol.

Iconic Itoje

No review of last weekend’s action would be complete without a comment about the man of the moment, the towering Saracen, Maro Itoje, whose stock has risen so far so fast one might be excused for wondering if he’ll be announced as the next James Bond before the season is out.

“He is a fantastic physical specimen and is one of those players that just stands out on the pitch,” Nicol enthused.

“There’s some fabulous locks around at the moment and I don’t think the British and Irish Lions will be lacking for options next year.

“Whatever happens next weekend is key for the English. Lose in Paris and people will forget the Championship. It’s all about the Grand Slam and it will be interesting to see how this young English side cope with the pressure of Paris.”

That brings us to the end of this week’s installment of Expert Witness. We thank Andy for his time and his intellect in preparing this piece and we’ll finish where we started next week with the return of former England skipper Lewis Moody to sum up a make or break weekend for English Rugby.

Andy Nicol, a sniping scrum-half, played 23 times for Scotland, skippering them in the famous defeat of England in 2000. He is now a regular commentator on the sport with the BBC TV Team.

Andy was speaking to James While