With the 2016 Six Nations behind us, Expert Witness reaches its conclusion and welcomes back former England skipper and World Cup winner Lewis Moody MBE, to cast a critical eye upon the weekend’s proceedings.
Looking at the 2016 Six Nations table there has been a paradigm shift in power and form from the heady days of the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
Scotland and France languish in the bottom half, with Wales and Ireland just above. Almost incredibly, England, dumped out of their own tournament, have near transformed their fortunes under new coach Eddie Jones.
Big wins for Wales and Ireland at the weekend underlined both the existing and emerging talents of both nations and Moody, a man who has won every honour in the game, believes both Ireland and Wales are going through a rebuilding phase.
“Wales and Ireland are in similar phases of development. Both sides are introducing fresh faces within a framework of established players and known skills,” he told Planet Rugby.
“Robbie Henshaw’s emergence has been a beacon for Ireland and he is another world class centre to follow in the footsteps of Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy and Brendan Mullin. When Peter O’Mahony was ruled out of action, you wondered how he could be replaced, but CJ Stander has brought in a real ball carrying option to their back row.
“Also the loss of Cian Healy would have worried many sides, but Jack McGrath has stepped up and shown he’s of the standard required for this level.
“I think it’ll be a couple of years before Ireland get to the levels they’ve enjoyed in recent times, but the signs are good.”
Wales, a side characterised by their big personalities like Alun Wyn Jones and Sam Warburton, started slowly but finished powerfully. Moody on that basis considers that Welsh rugby is in rude health.
“Wales are noted slow starters in Six Nations competitions but there’s a lot in that group of players to admire,” he explained.
“They’ve unearthed a gem of a loosehead prop in Rob Evans, they’ve two world class scrum-halves and Dan Biggar has emerged as the number one fly-half in the tournament this year, characterised by his brilliant aerial game.
“England did very well to overcome them, even at home, and I’d suggest that was the biggest game for Eddie Jones’s men this season. Looking at their ability to fight back, even when three scores behind, is warming for all of their supporters and if a Lions team was announced now they’d be very well represented,” he concluded.
Scotland, who game within a kick of a World Cup semi-final, had a mixed bag of a competition. Suffocated by England’s power and opened up by Wales, they came good in the end to finish a creditable fourth.
“International rugby is of such fine margins now that learning a method to close a game off is a key quality,” explained Moody.
“Scotland, who possess a rapier of an attacking weapon in Stuart Hogg, have bolted on some real solid foundations to their team. Their scrum has been wonderful, shored up by the formidable figure of WP Nel on the tighthead, and John Hardie epitomises the skill set of a genuine over the ball seven, which is great to see.
“Vern Cotter has always been a shrewd rugby coach and he’s slowly improved all the aspects of contact and set piece. The last piece of the jigsaw was learning how to close out tight games and finally that’s started to happen, which is great to see,” admired the flanker.
Italy, who ran France within a whisker during the opening weekend, suddenly appeared to capitulate halfway through the tournament and Moody believes that they should no longer be guaranteed a place at Europe’s top table, further suggesting that a promotion and relegation situation might benefit all.
“In such a short tournament, dead games are not good for anyone. I believe it’s time to allow the Tier Two European nations an opportunity to step up to the plate, as clearly Italy haven’t managed that in their 16 seasons in the top flight,” he argued.
“It’s criminal that the skills of players such as Mamuka Gorgodze haven’t had their chance on this stage. I’m not suggesting that it’s a straight one down one up, maybe a playoff would be required, but we certainly need to develop a sense of competition in order for all of the emerging nations to have an opportunity to develop.”
France appear in dire straits but suddenly, on Saturday they produced a performance of rare quality and intellect to push England all the way on their road to the Grand Slam.
“We’ve spoken before about the sheer workload of the French players and how their league structure isn’t conducive to a strong national side. However, Guy Novès had clearly done his homework against England and in my opinion, the manner in which France responded to the England push defence showed a tactical acumen not often seen in French rugby.
“They really are infuriating and have bags of talent, but something is seriously disconnected. Word is that former flanker Julien Bonnaire will join the coaching staff very shortly to add some real nous to their effort, and for me it can’t come a moment too soon,” said Moody.
And what of England? A side in disarray four short months ago, the arrival of Eddie Jones seems to have transformed the fortunes of the Rose. The side is largely the same as at the World Cup yet the results are quantaumly different. Moody believes it can be summed up in one word:
“Fun!” he exclaimed.
“It’s pretty obvious that Eddie’s brought a spirit of enjoyment and of performance to that squad. It was refreshing to hear Billy Vunipola telling the media that Eddie believes a few beers doesn’t hurt anyone and I concur with that. In Lancaster’s reign, it was too much of a sterile environment. Players need to enjoy what they’re doing and breaking bread and wine is key to knowing the person inside the shirt.
“I have to say I have loved Eddie. His humility and earthiness in a sport of hyperbole is so refreshing and there’s an impish grin around the guy in everything he does.
“But it’s not been all about him. Paul Gustard’s defensive system has been a real feature and Steve Borthwick’s lineout intellect has been absorbed by his players and was, in the final analysis, the big point of difference in Paris,” explained Moody.
“Maro Itoje and George Kruis have been incredible, and if you’d have told me that they’d be first choice this season I’d have questioned it. I still believe Itoje at this stage is more suited to a role at six but you can’t complain when your locks have the skills of back row forwards.
“I’d also like to shout out James Haskell, a man often criticised for under performance. He’s really reveled in the openside role and has created havoc with his hits and his carrying. I mentioned the fun factor earlier and that’s evident in James’ play; he’s handling well and looks as if he’s enjoying his role as a senior player.”
With the June Tests now the next big talking point with Jones taking his charges back to his beloved Australia, Moody believes that the tour will be an acid test to see just how far England have come.
“I’m confident we will acquit ourselves pretty well down under. Eddie is playing a style suited to hard grounds,” Moody stated.
“There’s a lot of plays in his game plan that are right out of the Brumbie playbook; the round the corner attacking peel that we saw on Saturday, when backs come from deep at pace on each other’s shoulders is classic Jones.
“I will be surprised if we don’t take one Test at the very least.”
That’s about it for Expert Witness for this season. We will be back with more insight for the June Tests. We thank Lewis and all of our Experts for their time and we will see you again shortly.
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’.
Two years ago he founded the Lewis Moody Foundation which supports research into to brain tumours and puts on special days for young families dealing with serious illness. Find out how you can get involved with the foundation at http://www.thelewismoodyfoundation.org/
Lewis Moody spoke to James While