Expert Witness: Six Nations

Date published: February 13 2014

Each Wednesday in the Six Nations, Planet Rugby's Expert Witness analyses the past week's action alongside a former international.

Each Wednesday during the Six Nations, Planet Rugby's Expert Witness analyses the past weekend's action along with a former international player.

Continuing last week's theme of physical centres, this week we welcome former England skipper Mike Tindall to share his views on the latest Six Nations action.

With another riveting round of international rugby, we witnessed strong displays from both Ireland and England, whilst France finally overcame a resurgent Italy

In Dublin, Ireland's demolition of the champions Wales was a significant victory from the home team and Mike Tindall believes was built upon the foundation of powerful forward play and a masterclass of fly-half skill from Lions' ten, Johnny Sexton.

“Sexton's right boot was certainly the most influential and impressive of the weekend,” noted the former England skipper.

“His ability to vary the plays and to dissect the Welsh defensive weakness was a huge factor. Wales were unlucky to lose centre Scott Williams early on, and Sexton probed his replacement Liam Williams' defensive skills all day,' explained Tindall, a skilled orchestrator of Test defences.

“Liam hasn't played a lot as a Test three quarter, and he got up a little too eagerly on a number of occasions. Sexton seems to have an extra second just to see that, and time again he made Williams turn to defend a aerial bombardment!

“However, clearly Wales struggled to find their own game on Saturday. When that didn't happen, they were doomed to fail.

“They made the fatal mistake of getting drawn into the Irish wrestle, and once you've done that you will lose every time. Whenever we played Ireland, we would talk about committing as few players to contact as possible; to keep their big forwards honest by moving them around the field. Ireland are past masters of the choke tackle, of holding players up around the contact area and generally making it as hard as possible for you to get quick usable ball.

“The last thing you want is a contact-zone battle. Wales fell right into that trap and will kick themselves for being so naïve.

“Warren Gatland has a very prescriptive method. We saw that in the British and Irish Lions tour last year. They have a belief in a big powerful Plan A, and when that fails, Warren's first reaction is to throw more bulk at the plan!” quipped Tindall.

“Those tactics also rely greatly upon certain gifted individuals putting in some game changing moments, and we didn't see that from the likes of the extremely talented Jamie Roberts, Mike Phillips and George North.

“There will be massive pressure on Wales to respond in a fortnight. They'll need to dig deep as Gatland does not have the resources available to him that he had last summer. They also failed to react to the game changes. When it became clear that Sexton would bomb the back three and the Irish would rush-chase, the Welsh leadership could have dropped a midfielder back to alleviate the pressure on the back three. They didn't react, and as a result, the Irish were rampant.

“Factor in too the performance of Paul O'Connell and Peter O'Mahony at the breakdown and you will see that Wales had a very tough day at the office,” explained Tindall.

Up in Murrayfield, England dismantled Scotland. In a game plagued by poor conditions both overhead and underfoot, Tindall, a keen tactician during his international tenure, was excited by what he saw.

“It's a bold statement, but I believe England have finally turned the corner,” observed the former England skipper.

“International rugby is about a style evolving within a group of players and, with the addition of the talents of Luther Burrell and Billy Vunipola, England finally seem to be gelling into a defined style and, most importantly, a style of power and attacking ambition.

“I'd temper that by saying that yes, the attacking game is still work in progress (and I'd point out that the conditions in Murrayfield meant you were never going to get a piece of rugby artwork), but there is a defensive base led by the forwards that is highly impressive.

“Scotland were absolutely hammered on the gain line. Almost every single time they took the ball into contact they lost a yard at the tackle. Conversely, England made two yards in that tackle contact. Those are game-changing margins at this level.

“A word for Andy Farrell here; he has re-defined the way England defend. The line speed up into the opposition faces is superb. England look to rush on the first two or tjree carries by their opponents, but then look to revert to an intelligent drift thereafter. Really clever stuff,” noted Tindall.

“This of course is underpinned by gametime together as a unit, trusting each others' growing knowledge and knowing each others' roles. Stuart Lancaster now has much greater clarity in his personnel than perhaps he did a year ago, and both a clear gameplan and options around the field are emerging as a result.

“I'm also warmed by the attacking intent. I said it was work in progress, and it is, but game by game the offloading talents of the two Billy's, Twelvetrees and Vunipola are coming to the fore.

“I also believe that playing players in their chosen positions is key. Wingers have a certain mindset, and will stay out wide to create opportunities. When you play a full-back in those channels, the mindset is not the same. England are benefitting from astute and consistent selections.

“Factor in you still have established world class players such as Alex Corbisiero and Manu Tuilagi to return to the fold and you will see that England are in a good place.”

On the theme of astute and consistent electoral policy, Scotland have come in for vociferous criticism from all quarters, a lot of it aimed at the perhaps eccentric coaching style of the charismatic Head Coach, Scott Johnston.

“I have to admit I am often perplexed when I look at the Scottish potential on paper and then see their performances in the field. The two are quite incongruous at times.

“They have some world class options in all three rows of the scrum, a high quality centre and some pace in the three quarters. But it just doesn't seem to gel.

“Although I am not party to the behind the scenes decisions, you also have to question what is going on the camp itself.

“Dave Denton was yanked off after 55 minutes of brilliant defence and honest toil. He was Scotland's stand out by a mile. As he walked off, you could see exactly what he was thinking through his body language. I also question the treatment of Kelly Brown, an outstanding blindside flanker or eight, yet someone dropped because he can't perform the openside role? I don't quite get that, I'm afraid.

“He may well be looking to find a secret or magic ingredient with some of these left-field selections, but when Scotland are in the position they are in, Johnston would do well to learn from Lancaster's ethos in picking specialists in their chosen positions,” mused the Gloucester