Expert Witness: Six Nations

Date published: March 4 2015

With Ireland derailing England’s Grand Slam ambitions in Dublin, Wales stealing an away win in Paris and Italy providing the performance of the season so far at Murrayfield, this week’s Expert Witness features the return of former England skipper, Martin Corry, to cast his critical eye over the weekend’s events.

Head coach Joe Schmidt’s attention to detail is fast becoming Ireland’s greatest strength and underpinned the Irish approach in England’s first defeat of the 2015 campaign.

This was always a match that would hinge on the execution of very simple rugby; the set-piece, the contact area, discipline and kick execution, and in every aspect, Ireland emerged with greater credit than their opponents.

Corry, who was part of the England side that secured the Grand Slam there in 2003, saw the warning signs from the first moment of the game:

“Schmidt leaves nothing to chance,” mused the forner Leicester Tiger.

“The tactical focus of the Irish was evident from the very first line-out in midfield, thrown short and boxed kicked just short of the 22. That’s not what you expect in the first minute.

“The difference in the focus and intensity in the first period of the match was very noticeable. Ireland had energy, they had a gameplan. England came out not energized, almost waiting to see what Ireland’s first move would be.

“From that moment, England were on the back foot; defending for their lives rather than attacking for the victory.

“For the first 20 minutes, Johnny Sexton grabbed that match right by the balls and as he did so, those either side of him, Robbie Henshaw and the supremely impressive Conor Murray, started to exert influence alongside him.

“In Test rugby, you have to enter the match knowing you can break the opposition down. You won’t know when that will happen; it might be after 10 minutes, it might be after 70 minutes. The key is realising at what point, the opposition are broken and then, that is the time to strike and take the victory.

“Ireland did exactly that in the second half when the outstanding Craig Joubert had almost awarded a penalty. England, to a degree, stopped for the infringement, fatigued. Murray continued and delivered the killer blow with the knowledge of a man that knew England were, at that moment, broken,” explained Corry.

Many have criticised England’s selection after the event, despite the enforced changes before the match. A case in point was the English back-row, where a dynamic James Haskell has made many tough yards but given away a litany of penalties around the ruck. Also and crucially, he is not a primary line-out jumper, thus restricting England’s main options to George Kruis and Dave Attwood, whereas Ireland at all times had four different players available for the catch.

Does Corry believe the inclusion of Tom Wood over Haskell would have done much to dynamise the line-out and improve the accuracy around the contact area?

“No. Without Lawes and Launchbury England lack carrying power in and around the fringes," he explained.

"I’d be more inclined to look at the thinking under pressure of some of the lineout calls; the throw when camped on the Irish line maybe should have gone front and mauled. It was on-field thinking rather than off-field selection that caused our issues.

“Look, Ireland are, over the last ten Test matches, second only to New Zealand in terms of wins and form. To go and lose there is a setback for sure, but it wasn’t unexpected and you have to respect the fortress Ireland are building there.

“If you look at the wider agenda, what England have lost is the ability to play their next two matches with the pressure of a cup knock-out situation, something that would have given them great experience for the World Cup ahead.

“The dynamics regarding injured players have also changed. A few weeks back we were asking how Corbisiero, Lawes and Tuilagi would get back in the side. Now we are willing them fit and their selectorial stock has risen without them even lacing up their boots which is not ideal,” concluded Corry.

At Murrayfield, Scotland’s expected form under Vern Cotter hit an unexpected obstacle in the shape of a compelling Italian performance led, as always, by the peerless Sergio Parisse.

“It’s easy to slip into clichés regarding Parisse when discussing Italy,” laughed Corry.

“Yes, he’s a rugby genius, but what happened on Saturday was a couple of other players also put their hands up and put in big shifts.

“Scotland always have a very disruptive back five in their pack. But Josh Furno at lock and the whole Azzurri back-row matched them in that area and had the better intensity and desire to win.

“Both teams went into the last quarter knowing everything was on the line but neither really had any reference points on how you close a game out. This is one of the crucial skills in rugby and I refer to the point I made about knowing when to strike, realizing, on the pitch, when a side is broken and then taking the match.

“Right down to those last two minutes neither side had yielded. But then, suddenly, Scotland went, 78 minutes into the match. They simply didn’t believe they could hold on and, as that happened, Parisse sniffed the chance.

"His sheer will to win galvanised his cohorts into those massive mauls. He realized the Scots were busted and he absolutely knew it was time to strike, hallmarks of both a great player and leader.

“Scotland have issues now. They’ve unearthed some good talent in Blair Cowan and in the centres, but there’s something not clicking. Vern Cotter will expect a lot more in terms of execution and rugby IQ from his team in the next couple of game, otherwise the Wooden Spoon will beckon.

In France, Warren Gatland’s Wales managed to squeeze a victory from a perennially underachieving France. Corry believes Wales were unconcerned about the beauty of a win, but that a victory was required at any cost.

“There’s moments in your career where you just need a win," he explained.

"It doesn’t matter where it comes from, you have to just go and get it.

“Wales showed a lot of mental resilience in that match; it was all about squeezing over the line and some big-game players really put their hands up, notably Alun-Wyn Jones, George North, Jamie Roberts, Taulupe Faletau and Dan Lydiate.

“What is the most pleasing aspect was the decision making of the senior players; Lydiate’s choice to produce a sublime linking offload in the lead up to the Dan Bigger try was excellent. He could have turned and driven but he was aware to the wider opportunity.

“Equally, Faletau’s work at the base and the way he cleans up untidy ball is exemplary in execution, even when the Welsh scrum is unstable.

“However, for all sides playing against Wales, the watchword is ‘don’t infringe.’ Leigh Halfpenny gets Wales over the line when some teams, without his accuracy and range off the tee, would struggle.  
“He has the priceless ability to just keep the scoreboard rolling, keeping his team in touching distance on the scoreboard when territorial advantage may not be coming. He is absolutely worth his weight in gold to Wales.

“On the other hand, France; it’s getting to the point that every side in the Six Nations thinks they can break them down. What France are not doing is playing for 80 minutes. They can blow hot at the start, and are dangerous if they get a couple of scores ahead, but, with doubts over fitness and mental composure, the longer you stay in touch on the scoreboard, the greater your chances are as, statistically, they are not playing well in the last quarter.

“Looking ahead, France really need something to change a predictable dynamic off the pitch. As always, there seems to be a managerial and selectorial unrest; Philippe Saint-André’s post-match comments won’t really help either when calm confidence is needed to get his players onside.

"A culture of empowerment rather than perhaps fear is needed to get the best out of any player and perhaps France need to take a real look at why these issues seem to occur whoever the head coach appears to be."

We thank Martin once again for his time this week and look forward to welcoming back England’s World Cup talisman, Richard Hill for Round Four of the 2015 Six Nations.

Martin Corry MBE, a powerful back-row forward, played 64 times for England and won seven British and Irish Lions Test caps. An iconic figure in the colours of Leicester Tigers, he skippered England 16 times and won a World Cup winners medal in 2003.

Martin Corry was speaking to James While