Expert Witness returns ahead of the first round of Six Nations Tests and welcomes former French international back Thomas Lombard.
The Six Nations Championship kicks off on Saturday with England attempting to win back-to-back titles for the first time since 2001.
Our first guest on this year’s Expert Witness is former French international Thomas Lombard, now a commentator on the sport with Canal+, and who relishes France’s visit to Twickenham.
After France’s heavy loss to England in the corresponding fixture last year, many believe this match is a forgone conclusion, but France, rejuvenated under Guy Novès, certainly made strides in the right direction during the November Tests last year and their new-found vigour, together with an emerging willingness to play a game based more upon offload than contact, might give England a rude awakening.
“There is no doubt that Novès has already made some difference to the French side,” agreed Lombard.
“However, the major problem remains for him; in simple terms French players are not playing the same games at their club, their country and even on their training grounds.
“The Top 14 has some high quality players but it is far too limited to produce players required to perform at the levels required for international rugby.
“Set piece, defence and kicking games, those we have in abundance.
“But if you ask the players to attack space and gaps, to create and react, then I am afraid we are very much lacking, especially when we reach the physical red zone of both performance and fitness.”
“I had a long conversation with Philippe Saint-André earlier this week, about how to measure the gap, how to improve the players and we concluded that the gap is huge and is one of approach, not one of talent,” said Lombard.
“As an example, England have just invested in two new specialist faces in their backroom for ‘marginal gain’, an eyesight/vision coach and recovery nutritionist.
“France’s idea of a marginal gain coach is a scrum specialist! It is key that we look to extend our ambitions to other types of coaches that add marginal benefit and new thinking,” he noted.
“In England, coaches are open to learning from Eddie Jones and to share his vision for the game, to embrace what he is trying to achieve at international level, knowing that this makes the whole sport stronger. In France, we have internal club politics, owners that want to manage sides and a very disconnected club structure.
“This club inertia is not conducive to a winning national side.
“There is a high level of education of players in English Rugby. I found this out personally when I joined Worcester and learned how to become fitter, how to adapt to different styles and so on. Louis Picamoles has already gone on record on saying he’s fitter now that at any point in his career with Montpellier or Toulouse and he has transformed his performances from being an occasional threat to being a consistent force.
“If you look at talent identification, Kevin Gourdon, an outstanding flanker that links, carries, attacks and defends, almost reminiscent of the great Richard Hill in terms of accuracy, has waited until he is 27 to gain a cap. He should have been in the system two or three years ago.
“In France, sometimes we hear ‘this established player is talented and we will pick him’; in England they say ‘we will nurture this youngster and improve that talent and then pick him’.
“Rob Andrew said in 2015 that England’s young team would be the best side in the world in 2019 but on the basis he knew precisely what talent was coming through the ranks and by the looks of things he is right.”
With England declaring James Haskell and Joe Marler fit for selection, and France unable to field their preferred Clermont midfield axis of Camille Lopez, Wesley Fofana and Rémi Lamerat, Gaël Fickou seems sure to fill the inside berth left by Fofana’s ruptured Achilles.
Lombard believes that selecting club units is key for international success.
“Again, England can pick from some big clubs like Saracens and Bath and picked proven combinations,” he added.
“In their midfield, George Ford and Owen Farrell have played together since childhood and Jonathan Joseph plays with Ford at Bath. They know each other’s games and the style is consistent.
“Fickou will come into this game without having spent much time outside of Lopez; it’s issues like this that have a huge bearing on how players trust each other and react to defensive situations.
“Marler’s fitness is key for England; a newcomer into the front row against France would have been targeted for sure; Marler’s experience will be vital to England.
“In short, whilst I do believe this game will be a lot closer than Paris last year, England’s ability to keep the ball for long sequence, combined with the creativity and insolence of their midfield, will prove telling and I feel they will be the side to beat again this year.”
When In Rome
Lombard is a big fan of the British and Irish Lions, and overall considers that any year that leads up to a Lions Test Series will naturally galvanise the Celtic nations to up their performances as Lions selection beckons. However, Italy are now a stronger team under new management and they face a stern test in Rome.
“Wales’ visit to Italy is timed very badly for them, I feel,” he said.
“They will be starting cold, against an Italian side still riding the crest of a wave after November and a team confident under their new coach, Conor O’Shea who has already proven to be a revelation.
“Again, the danger for any side playing the Azzurri is to try and win ‘big’ too early. Italy are physical, make no mistake; however the talents emerging in the back division are also not to be overlooked, with players like Giorgio Bronzini really putting a marker down.
“Tom Shanklin summed up Wales’ issues very well in this column a month or so ago, where he highlighted the Welsh predictability and their inability to change a gameplan and a lack of high quality game breakers in the mould of Shane Williams to exploit the Welsh power game.
“I believe Warren Gatland’s self-imposed exile for British Lions duties is an opportunity for Wales. His methods are now too ingrained in the Welsh mentality and the new voice of Howley, someone noted for his attacking ambition as a player, may make a big difference,” enthused Lombard.
“A mark in the sand already is opting for the guile of Liam Williams over the brutal power of Jamie Roberts. Making Alun Wyn-Jones skipper will open the door for Justin Tipuric’s link and support play, vital to allow long possession sequences in attack.
“This is a game that should be a win in theory for Wales; but in reality it could go either way; it’s the classic match of form and passion versus organisation and experience, and again, I believe the timing of the fixture favours the hosts hugely and could be the deciding factor,” said the former French centre.
Much fancied Ireland travel to Murrayfield to challenge a strong Scottish outfit hoping to give their outgoing coach Vern Cotter a big send off this season.
A lot has been made of Scotland’s improvement but Lombard believes they still have a little way to go.
“Scotland flatter to deceive,” he said.
“They are a good side, make no doubt but there are too many weaknesses and have not experienced a winning culture often enough to be real contenders.
“In November they were an inch from beating the Wallabies. I believe those final moments in the game, with Scotland camped in the Australian 22, looking to get over the tryline, is almost a metaphor for their entire performance. They don’t have that last step needed to get over the line for a win!
“Yes, Scotland have riches in the scrum and in the centre. Investment into their regional sides has paid dividend but still they do not have that extra percent to beat the best.
“Ireland have recruited and replaced well. Going into the 2015 Rugby World Cup, I commented that their age and also a lack of ability to counter attack quickly would hold them back.
“Yet using the emergence of new combinations, their new back row and midfield, they’ve become a quite complete side, very good in aerial combat, with a strong set piece,” noted Lombard.
“Chicago has given them huge self-belief, and whilst the All Blacks overturned them in Dublin, the manner in which Ireland resisted and responded to New Zealand’s brutal onslaught will hold them in great stead for this championship.
“It is hard to see past them and England fighting for the tournament in Dublin in March, but with France getting better, the Lions factor that raises the bar of performance for the other Home Unions, I believe this could be the most exciting Six Nations for a long time.”
That is it for this week’s Expert Witness; we thank Thomas for his time away from his TV duties and we will return next week with another former international to examine the fortunes of Round One of the 2017 Six Nations.
Thomas Lombard was a gifted runner in the colours of France, Racing, Stade Francais, Worcester Warriors and Racing 92, gaining 16 caps. He is now a commentator on the game with Canal Infosport, where his rounded views and rugby intellect always inspire debate and respect. In 2016, he was voted France’s favourite rugby pundit by the Top 14 coaches and Midi Olympique.
Thomas was speaking to James While