With Round Four of the Six Nations complete, Expert Witness welcomes back World Cup-winning flanker and England great Richard Hill MBE.
Every championship needs a game to light it up and Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium provided an apt backdrop to a dramatic Wales v Ireland match, where Ireland saw their Grand Slam hopes dashed by a magnificent performance from the home side.
Mindful of Ireland’s domination of the first quarter against England, Wales came out of the traps with huge intensity at the breakdown and around the field. Much is made of Warren Gatland’s inability to waver from his much-discussed Plan A but the coach’s attention to detail in kicks, width, chasing and around the contact area showed there’s a lot more to 'Warrenball' than just the power game.
Referee Wayne Barnes was at his schoolmasterly best throughout the game; his early pedantry for accessible ball at ruck time providing a game of high quality once the teams reacted to his policing of the breakdown.
Leigh Halfpenny is the man that keeps Wales going. A handful of teams have goal kickers with comparable accuracy but few, if any have Halfpenny’s range.
This means that you have to play rugby just that little bit deeper inside the opponents half; if you infringe around the half-way line, you will concede and Ireland found this to their cost and were never able to recover from the early nine points they gifted.
Halfpenny’s skill under the high ball is consummate and his line breaks can be telling, and time and time again he negated the Sexton aerial attack with his understanding of space and positioning. Factor in too the performances of Alun-Wyn Jones and Sam Warburton and Wales were back to their best:
"When Warburton and Alun-Wyn carry, Wales become far more threatening," said Hill.
Worrying for Ireland will be the way Wales, regarded by some as an average set-piece team, dismantled the Irish lineout. Credit must go to Gatland and Edwards for their analysis of Irish tactics at restarts and throw-ins and unusually, the battle of the coaching attention to detail didn't go Joe Schmidt’s way.
In the final analysis, Wales were deserved winners, but again, returning to the man in the middle, Barnes, the game proved what an amazing spectacle rugby can be when players are prevented from killing ball at the ruck, as Ireland mounted wave after wave of attack in the final quarter, one such attack resulting in an astonishing 32 phases of play.
Hill believes that this will add to the last week of the tournament and that both teams will be breathing down England’s neck, despite the points difference advantage held by Stuart Lancaster’s team:
"Wales will have an uphill task when they travel to Rome and are chasing points," he noted.
"But Italy may be without Sergio Parisse, their talisman, which would be a huge loss to a team that benefit greatly from his spirit, physicality and application, in all facets of the game, interspersed with subtle touches with ball in hand.
"In terms of winning the championship, Wales would need to attack from the first whistle, with the points differential that Ireland and England enjoy. Wales have the players that can play a high tempo game as well as win the crucial one-on-one battles in the air, dominate the gain line with power or exciting finishing out wide."
At Twickenham, England provided a showing of mixed fortune against a doughty Scottish side, who competed well despite England’s ability to create chances. Paradoxically, much has been made in the press of the number of their opportunities that went begging, but Hill takes an upbeat view of progress and also is quick to point out how well Scotland held on:
"There was plenty of attacking intent on show from both teams," said the former Saracen.
"Even from the first kick off, England secured the ball and instantly set up a well-constructed maul and proceeded with power to drive up the pitch. Rather than see it slow and allow the Scottish defence to organise, Ben Youngs sniped intelligently from the back. With a couple of angles and with players hitting holes, England had an opportunity inside 30 seconds.
"A big positive was that England continued to create chances with significant line breaks, as the ball was kept alive off the floor. George Ford continued to control this attack throughout taking a try for himself and setting up Jonathan Joseph. Ford disguised a short ball to Joseph as the defence misread the main threat. JJ hit the space, before an outrageous change of direction confused Hogg, who himself had defended well throughout the match.
"The likes of Jack Nowell, Anthony Watson and Mike Brown continually challenged the Scottish kick chase and fought hard to stay on their feet and not go to the floor on the first tackle. There will be a recognition within the squad that finishing needs to be improved and there will be a desire to see the conversion rate of line breaks to tries scored. Scotland scrambled well to get defenders in between our ball carrier and support runners. I’m sure time will be spent looking at those scenarios."
It would be remiss not to acknowledge Scotland’s durability during that first half. Hill was particularly impressed with openside flanker Blair Cowan.
"Cowan was outstanding around the fringes, forcing a number of turnovers," enthused Hill.
"Even when he wasn't able to secure, his ability to slow the ball through his physical presence was impressive. That physicality forced England to lose accuracy around the ruck as they threw men in to counter Cowan . He is a real find for Scotland, and his back row partner, Dave Denton made some telling carries too."
Cotter is a detailed coach and the Scottish fightback in the second quarter was testimony to their coaching.
"After absorbing extreme pressure for 20 minutes, Scotland, immediately levelled the scores with a well worked try off the lineout, straight from the training ground. They threw over the top to remove England’s back lifter, and then delivered the inside ball straight through the hole that lifter would have covered," explained Hill.
"After that, the speed of the Scottish attack meant England were not able to get back in to an organised defensive shape and the try was well taken by Mark Bennett.
"The confidence gained by the visitors from this try was carried through for the rest of the half, as Scotland saw a reversal in the stats that were clearly in England’s favour up to this point," commented Hill.
On Sunday in Rome, the Italy v France fixture, played in torrential rain, was a scrappy affair and in stark contrast to the quality of rugby displayed in Cardiff.
A notable talking point was the amount of fly-halves both teams went through during and before the match, with five players featuring in either the programme or the jersey throughout the match!
"It is obviously difficult for a team to lose their playmaker at any point in a match," said Hill.
"For Italy to lose two of them within 15 minutes was very unfortunate and I don't think they ever recovered from that disruption.
"France, on the other hand, needed a win and a win at all costs, something they achieved with ease in the final analysis."
Indeed, France performed well with big shift put in from both Bernard Le Roux and the French talisman, Thierry Dusautoir, both world-class exponents of back-row play. With Mathieu Bastareaud making a decisive intervention toward the end, Hill is mindful of the French challenge for England.
"Looking forward to the final weekend, England should be very wary of the threat they can provide. There is no question they have the quality of player at their disposal and if they can finally put together a performance of 80 minutes at high intensity, England will have a testing time in their final game," he said.
Indeed, the last round looks to be an exciting affair with three teams still in contention. Hill believes that whilst England are the bookmaker’s favourites, there’s still a lot to play for.
"Scotland may surprise Ireland with their intensity and commitment. If Hogg gets a sniff of a chance he is very dangerous, although I would back Ireland to take the win to force England into a big performance in the final match.
"I mentioned earlier Wales’ uphill task, but if Italy are without their two fly-halves and Parisse doesn't recover from his knee issue, they might just set Ireland and England a testing points target in the last game.
"Many are talking about England having an advantage by playing last and also having an extra day’s recovery over their rivals.
"However, I'd point out that by the time the other games are finished, England will have little time to react. They will have already started the warm up. I do believe however, it could inform tactical replacements in the last quarter and the benefit will be more for the management decisions in the stands than the players starting on the pitch," explained Hill.
"Lastly, for those citing the extra day’s recovery, my mind always wanders back to the Rugby World Cup, when the side I played in beat France on the Sunday and Australia on the following Saturday, so I have to say I always smile when I hear this theory and I don't believe it has anywhere near the merit that others consider it does," he quipped.
That is it for this week’s Expert Witness. We thank Richard for taking time out from his mentoring and coaching duties with the England age group sides and look forward to the debut of former England and now Bath coach, Mike Ford on Expert Witness next week.
Saracens Flanker Richard Hill MBE won 71 caps for England and toured three times with the British and Irish Lions, playing in five test matches. Regarded by many as one of the greatest players in the professional game, his accuracy, intelligence and physical presence were hallmarks of his skillset. He now works for England Rugby, mentoring and coaching the next generation of England players.
Richard Hill spoke to James While