With Ireland crowned worthy Six Nations Champions and after a weekend of rugby that will remain long in the memory of those who saw it, the last Expert Witness feature for the 2015 Six Nations sees the welcome debut of Bath Head Coach and former England Defence Coach, Mike Ford.
In the final analysis, the Six Nations table pretty much confirms what we knew already about the Northern Hemisphere. Three teams stand tall, three teams remain either unfulfilled or uncompetitive, depending on your viewpoint.
Ireland, England and Wales all appear to be in rude health, whilst France, Italy and Scotland are simply failing – for a variety of reasons – to match the performances of the other teams.
Mike Ford concurs and believes a lot of this is down to coaching and intensity:
"The top three sides are in a great space for the upcoming World Cup," he noted.
"In every instance they are playing with an intensity that the other sides cannot get close to.
"Both Ireland and Wales played as we knew they could; Ireland with immense attention to detail, great physicality and a game plan that revolves solidly upon the brilliance of their half backs and the cohesion of their pack. Wales too, despite their usual slow start, showed their organization and power in every facet, and benefit hugely from longevity of both player and coach.
"But for me, the crackerjack side had to be England. A team that a year ago were defensively strong, with a great set piece and a game based upon power margins, transformed themselves into the most exciting side in the tournament by some distance. Worryingly, the ambition in attack has eroded some of the defensive and organisational excellence, but it’s churlish to criticize when there is that level of creativity within the squad," explained Ford.
At the weekend, Wales set the bar against Italy, despite going in at half time with parity. The next 40 minutes saw wave after wave of Welsh running, led by the brilliant Jonathan Davies and augmented by the pace of Liam Williams, to set both England and Ireland huge tasks of four-try winning margins in next two games.
Ford believes that Wales are really at the top of their game, especially during the latter stages of a tournament:
"Wales have a side that’s effectively been together for a long time, both off and on pitch," he said.
"The reference points they’ve built up by playing, losing and winning together are immense and that showed. People discuss their inability to change up from Plan A but with skills like Liam Williams and Jonathan Davies coming through, Warren Gatland finally knows how to change the gears if and when he has to.
"But then, when you sit in the stands as a coach and things are tight in the second half, you ask two questions; who can make the break and who can finish it off? Wales are blessed with the players I mentioned, but both of those are starting right now. Of wider concern will be the impact, or lack of it, Wales can muster from the bench.
"It’s a truism to say that outside of the match day 23 there’s few players breaking the door down to be picked. Yes, Wales are a high quality outfit, but how much room to they have to improve over the next six months?" questioned the former England defence coach.
Ireland, despite their championship, are a side that have lost some world-class players in recent months, and Ford also believes they may have plateaued.
"Taking nothing away from the title-winning team, but Ireland, like Wales, need to ask how many players are pushing that match-day squad? There’s a big difference right now between Ian Madigan and Johnny Sexton, or Eoin Reddan and Conor Murray," mused Ford.
"They’ve a great set-piece, the half-backs are both world-class performers and crucially, they know how to win with what they have. However, if you want to beat them, it’s a pretty simple strategy; compete in the lineout and air, field their bombs, win the ruck and match them on the gainline. Outside of those areas of excellence, like Wales, they’ve not yet got the level of x-factor player required to really change games against the big boys of the Southern Hemisphere," he said.
"All the international coaches crucially now revert to a ‘club coaching’ mentality for the next five or six months. It’s rare to have the players around you for such an elongated period of time at international level, and once the last rites of the various domestic competitions take place, then it’s all aboard the Rugby World Cup wagon, with 20 weeks to transform tactics, refine fitness and decide strategy.
"I expect both Joe Schmidt and Warren Gatland will have a great idea of which areas to refine, to improve, but they will be struggling to find an area of quantum improvement to propel them to the level required to be World Champions," he observed.
France, Scotland and Italy all had their championship moments but all suffered with varying ailments; France, incapable of any form of selectorial or tactical consistency, Italy, a side that competes for 40 minutes and capitulates after 60, and Scotland, a side that, in Ford’s words, "Talk a big game but never match it with the required intensity."
These are all perennial issues for the respective teams. How come solutions seem so hard to find?
"We all know about the whimsical nature of the French performance and the adage about not knowing which team will turn up," laughed Ford.
"But when you look back at Philippe Saint-André’s tenure and you see he’s used 16 different half-back pairings in three and a half seasons then you realize he’s making it very hard for himself.
"He needs to look at what he’s got and give a pairing a decent run to develop and above all he needs consistency. Look at his centre combinations, vacillating between the power of Mathieu Bastareaud and the guile of Gael Fickou; the coach needs to decide which game he wants to play.
"Equally, in the front row, he either picks big scrummagers or mobile props. He is never consistent in the game or the method he wants to instill and this is costing France dearly.
"On Saturday, the collective necks were on the line and France contributed to a great game of rugby. But had that team played four games as a unit together then France would have been a lot more competitive," noted Ford.
"Scotland, on the other hand, know exactly what their plan is; disrupt and counter. But their players are not able to contain for long enough and are not showing the physical prowess in the tight exchanges to make the disruption game effective. Against England, they played well for one quarter and in the other three, the home side made enough chances to score 50 points.
"The scoreline flattered and Scotland were lucky to escape lightly. Ireland showed, through better execution than England, how to wear them down and then counter. The Scots will be bitterly disappointed at the way Italy took them in the dying minutes of the game in Rome said all about the lack of durability and duration."
Italy did manage an away win and also had one of the players of the tournament in Sergio Parisse, but Ford suggests the Stade man is both their greatest strength and their biggest weakness:
"When Sergio plays, Italy look to him for everything. It’s ‘ship the ball out to him and wait for a moment of genius’ stuff. When he was injured, Italy played their best half of rugby on Saturday, using all of the fifteen players. They need to watch that tape, believe in themselves and temper that gameplan into the skillset Parisse. Don’t rely on him, use him. Sides know what he can do and at the moment if you stop the big man, you pretty much stop Italy," concluded Ford.
And what of England? A side out-thought in the rain of Dublin, but one good enough to win in Cardiff and put 55 points on France. Is it a case of one step forward, two steps back for Lancaster’s men?
"Far from it," argued Ford.
"I’d say it’s two huge leaps forward and a shuffle or two back!" he quipped.
"Go back to my points about Wales and Ireland and their ability to improve being marginal. England’s improvement potential is huge and that’s where the difference lies.
"My earlier point about defence and set piece holds. Last year, they were the corner stones of our strategy, now attack, creating a line break and stepping are all features of a great attacking plan, led by the ambition of the backs with Ben Youngs, George Ford and Jonathan Joseph outstanding.
"The key is to bottle that attacking ambition, keep it and then work the defence and setpiece back to where it was a year ago. Both Rowntree and Andy Farrell are world-class coaches and they will know how to tune the misfiring components.
"Then factor in the talent not starting; Corbisiero, Farrell, Tuilagi, Morgan, Wood, Launchbury and Eastmond, of whom cannot demand a place by right, but need to prove their worth and fitness in the Premiership in the next month or so, and you will agree England’s improvement potential is massive," he explained.
"It’s a competitive environment where selection is now vital. Lancaster knows what game he wants to play and he needs to pick accordingly and also fine-tune his tactics.
"A case in point would be the 12 berth. Does he pick a footballer or carrier? My view is to use a shortened lineout when attacking, put Billy Vunipola in the 12 channel and use HIM as the battering ram, with a ball player like Farrell or Eastmond as the inside centre," he enthused.
"England’s speed of thought and ambition is excellent and needs to be encouraged. George Ford’s quick throw on his own line on Saturday made a try in 30 seconds at the other end of the field. The best time to attack is from chaos, and England recognised the turn overs and kicks that could be used to attack from."
All in all, it’s been a magnificent Six Nations tournament and one that’s had some spectacular rugby. The next six months are the acid test of the strength of Northern Hemisphere rugby and Mike Ford is optimistic of a good showing for three of the sides:
"Australia will be quaking in their boots knowing they have both England and Wales with home advantages in the group stages," said the former international.
"Ireland are highly competitive and if things fall their way, they could go right down to the wire but DO they have the firepower to win the tournament? Scotland and Italy may struggle but no-one will ever fancy playing France in a knock-out situation as 1999, 2007 and 2011 all proved.
"But if any nation can do it, I’ll take the accusations of both parental and national bias with a smile and say England have that ability and the crucial x-factor, provided they keep the ’no-fear’ environment of attacking intent, and refine the defensive and set-piece areas of their game."
We thank Mike for his time and we look forward to the return of Expert Witness for the Rugby Championship in June.
Mike Ford, a gifted thinker on the game, was a rugby league half-back for both England and Great Britain. As a coach, he guided England’s defence to the latter stages of the Rugby World Cup in 2007 and 2011, and is currently Head Coach of Bath Rugby.
Mike Ford spoke to James While