Expert Witness returns and welcomes back former England skipper and World Cup winner Lewis Moody to cast a critical eye upon the first round of the Six Nations.
“By definition, the Six Nations that follows a World Cup always tends to have a degree of transience and change," explained Moody.
"Players retire, coaches move on and new players are given a chance, and this year is no exception to that.
“Looking back at the weekend, that was evident in the performances. Starting with the encounter in Paris, France, with a new skipper and coach, perhaps stuttered a little, but will be pleased with Jules Plisson nailing his claims in the ten shirt and Guy Novès will take that very narrow win without hesitation.
“We saw a magnificently taken try from debutant Virimi Vakatawa, another muscular showing from Damian Chouly and a game that ebbed and flowed with real balance.
“Italy will rue the missed opportunities but appear to have unearthed a gem of a fly-half in Carlo Canna, whose assurance with ball in hand was a delight. It’s ironic he had such a poor kicking game from the tee otherwise we’d be hailing an Italian win, but for a long time the Azzurri have needed an attacking counterpoint to the strong organisation of their forwards.
“He ignited their play with more attacking intent than we’ve seen for many years. Everyone knows Italy are formidable up front, but with Campagnaro and Canna in the midfield they’ve renewed attacking intent.
No mention of Italian forwards is complete without a shout out to the poster boy of European Rugby, Sergio Parisse.
“He was utterly remarkable and one kick away from the perfect performance,” added Moody.
“I had to check how old he was as he seems to have been around for ever; 32? 115 caps? If there’s a better player in world rugby I’ve yet to see him, but you have to ask if that drop goal attempt was vanity or sanity?
“Sergio is the greatest strength that the team have, but there’s part of me that identifies that he tries to do too much himself on occasions and can become a real weakness too, and that was an example of it.
“Patience was required and he became palpably frustrated. He has a dozen or so drop goals in professional rugby and even a couple in Tests I think, but that was the time to delegate to a specialist, not grab it yourself through frustration.
"England were in precisely the same place in a World Cup Final in 2003 but we knew to trust each other and trust our system and we all know what happened thereafter.
“Italy are emerging and part of that is Parisse learning to place faith in those around him more and doing less himself.
“In the final analysis, this match was further proof to me that the Tier 1 and Tier 2 gap closure we saw at the World Cup is here to stay and that’s great for the game.”
With Scotland impressive during the World Cup, pushing finalists Australia down to the wire, Murrayfield was a potential banana skin for Eddie Jones and his new-look England side.
“I really felt for Scotland in the Australian quarter-final, but at this level you have to be honest about your performances in order to improve. Scotland’s basic execution still lets them down and again, error count and failure to deliver the basics allowed England to steal the game, when the Scots could rightfully call themselves favourites,” observed Moody.
“As an example, the Gray brothers really should have had more domination at the lineout; Stuart Hogg never had the broken field play to operate in and Dave Denton failed to dent anything.
“With runners like Hogg and Matt Scott in the Scottish ranks, turnover ball is their best attacking weapon and it is a mystery why the leading turnover exponent of last season’s tournament, Blair Cowan, didn’t start.”
Winning at Murrayfield isn’t always a given and Moody believes England acquitted themselves well but he calls for more progress from this point on:
“On paper, you might say that Eddie Jones hasn’t changed much," he explained.
"There’s been much heralding of the new era but there was also a sigh of disappointment with the squad he named, and much vindication of the previous regime under Stuart Lancaster.
“However, George Kruis was impressive in every aspect and I’m sure Eddie would have made other changes if fitness had allowed; Manu Tuilagi, Johnny May, Henry Slade and others would all have had a chance if fit.
“My old mate James Haskell had a great game on the openside; he’s not a conventional seven at all and there’s part of me that believes Matt Kvesic could not have done more to demand inclusion, but 22 tackles speaks for itself; factor in the rumbustious display from Billy Vunipola and an assured performance from Chris Robshaw on the blindside and England bossed the breakdown, one of Eddie’s stated aims before the match.
“As a coach Eddie will engender a greater pace than others have wanted and quick breakdown ball is key to that. He will want to see scrum dominance, not just parity, but most of all he’ll want disruptive players to win turnover ball to allow players like Jonathan Joseph to display their dancing feet against disorganised defences.
"However, with Italy now hungry, I don’t think he can take anything for granted in Rome and I expect to see a similar side named.”
Before the match in Dublin, the pundits found it hard to call the result of the ever-exciting Ireland/Wales fixture and even after 80 minutes the drawn scoreline suggested that even the rugby Gods were unable to separate these two outstanding teams.
For Moody it was a case of two heavyweight sides reaching an impasse.
“This was always going to be the quality game of the weekend!" he said.
“Both sides gave nothing, played the percentages but this is a league tournament and I feel that despite the immense talent, there was a reticence to be willing to lose in order to win.
“However, I think the midfield collision between Jamie Roberts and Robbie Henshaw, was worth the admission price alone; both huge, both direct, both pacey, both as hard as nails and they tore chunks out of each other in the most sporting manner all afternoon. Really gladiatorial stuff and the fact that both players cancelled each other out was reflected in the scoreline.
“CJ Stander has been a real form pick by Joe Schmidt and he added a lot of brawn and carrying skill to the Irish pack.
“As a fellow flanker, not wishing to denude the tackling presence of Dan Lydiate, I’ve felt for a long time that Wales’ best combination would be the blend of Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric and they were, as were the Irish too, exceptional. However, Tipuric’s support running and handling shows he offers a different blend to most European back rowers and is truly the classic seven.
“We must also shout out Rhys Priestland. A few months ago he was about to call it a day, knowing the fabled Welsh ten jersey was in the safe hands of the outstanding Dan Biggar. Dan’s knock early on allowed Rhys to really wind back the clock and show some of his sumptuous positional skills.
“Wales and Ireland have similar conundrums right now; both have some real established stars and characters in key positions, with a lot of promise and youth sandwiched between. The way those fringe players develop will dictate the fortunes of both sides in the coming weeks, and it will be an acid test of the championship when England host both of them at Twickenham on consecutive weekends.”
Once again, we thank Lewis for his time and joining us on his sixth Expert Witness. We will be back next week to comment on the events of Round Two of the 2016 Six Nations and look forward to hosting you then.
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 line-out 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