With the second round of the Six Nations behind us, this week former England and British Lions-full back Tim Stimpson debuts on Expert Witness.
The fixture of the weekend saw Ireland emerge victors at home in a brutal encounter in Dublin, where French lock Pascal Papé saw yellow after a horrendous and deliberate knee to the spine left Irish loose forward Jamie Heaslip with three fractured vertebrae.
Ireland’s game was based more around destruction than creativity, with a heroic display of defence.
The lynchpin of their effort came from returning fly-half Johnny Sexton, who coupled kicking accuracy with immense tackling in the inside channel. Stimpson, a Test Lion in 1997, is a big fan of the Leinster pivot.
“He’s had a lot of issues with concussion and obviously the IRFU have been quick to allay fears he’s returned too early, but he is their absolute go-to man.
“France definitely targeted Sexton with Mathieu Bastareaud crashing the ball time and time again into the inside channel, but his resolve didn’t yield.
“In fact Ireland owed that victory to defence and nous rather than creativity. Sean O’Brien, Peter Mahony and the towering Paul O’Connell were immense. They act as a hunting pack and the fact a lot of the players play domestic rugby together always helps them tactically. The famous choke tackle is a great example of this; each player knows what they’re trying to achieve and works together in harmony,” noted Stimpson.
Joe Schmidt has had a lot of praise in these columns recently and the New Zealander’s attention to detail appears to be matched only by France’s perceived lack of focus. Les Bleus lost again, but this time Stimpson believes they looked more purposeful and composed.
“In previous games, France have been criticized on many levels, from not turning up to playing without a strategy. However, they will see this as a big step forward and the changes in the front row really caused Ireland a headache and almost allowed France to steal the game,” he explained.
“They did have a purpose that seemed, previously, to be lacking. They wanted to do what England do so well and defence behind the gainline; forcing Ireland to crab and to take the hit behind the point of the pass.
“But Ireland have a lot of dynamic runners and gradually, from second and third phase they made inroads.
Schmidt will be relishing England’s visit, but France exposed a real soft underbelly on the tight head side of the Irish scrum. Mike Ross, a combative prop, immediately uses his right shoulder to roll down and under when under pressure and France were ruthless at the scrummage. Whilst Ireland’s line out, ruck work and defence are outstanding, there are huge question marks over their scrum stability and these issues will need to be fixed well before Dan Cole and Joe Marler venture over the Irish Sea.
Scotland and Wales always seem to produce try filled affairs and the Murrayfield encounter continued this theme as the visitors took the honours as the game ended in a slightly farcical situation with confusion over timing.
Wales produced a really inconsistent game; outstanding in aerial combat, barely competitive in the set piece. Without a platform of solidity, the so-called Warrenball game will struggle to flourish, but Stimpson saw areas of improvement for Wales;
“Liam Williams, picked through injury issues rather than choice, brought much needed pace and desire the Welsh backline,” he commented.
“Where Wales were really dangerous was in their kicking and kick chase, with Leigh Halfpenny, Williams and Rhys Webb combined with good effect.
“But looking at the possession conceded and you’ll note that they lost three line outs on their own throw and the scrum was barely competitive against a Scottish pack noted more for foraging than their work in the tight.
“Wales are still a tough side to beat and they’ll give both France and Ireland a good run for their money, but cracks are appearing,” explained Stimpson.
“Scotland showed they can unlock a world class defence and that’s a massive leap forward. Maybe there is a lack of knowledge in how to close a game out. As a team you learn from close defeats; it’s all about game management and you learn how to manage the game better next time around.
“A case in point was the final score. Had they have focused on a quick conversion and another play, they may have squeezed points out of the fixture. In practice, the jostling and unfocused antics post try cost them dearly and I’m sure Vern Cotter, a man of detail, will be raising this in the next few weeks,” said Stimpson.
At Twickenham, England overcame a more creative Italian display with moments of individual brilliance from Jonathan Joseph and George Ford. Despite racking up 47 points, Stimpson believes that England will be far from happy with their showing.
“England have a lot going for them right now. Huge at scrum time, consistent at the lineout, powerful in the phases and now, a backline that’s prepared to beat their opponents with passing and pace.
“Injuries often create coaching options,” mused the former Tiger.
“Barrett and Tuilagi’s misfortunes have handed chances to back line that now looks capable of taking the ball up tight when needed, but with hands and clever lines of running to enable the electric May and Joseph to convert half chances into great tries, something that’s not been evident in English rugby since Greenwood and Robinson retired.
“As I see it, England have two key areas of concern moving forward; defence and line out. James Haskell has been in great form, but playing a back row with Robshaw and Vunipola removes a lot of line out options.
"Both Vunipola and Haskell are well over 115kgs and neither are above 190cm. As Stimpson notes, this makes them very difficult to lift high. Tom Wood, at 196cm and 105kgs is a towering presence and he has been sorely missed in this area.
"Combine Haskell’s propensity to concede penalties around the fringes and despite his barreling form in the loose, and it is a strong view that Tom Wood may well return for the Dublin fixture to the cost of the in-from Wasps flanker."
Returning to the defensive issues, England have conceded early trues too frequently in recent matches. Sergio Parisse again punished England’s sluggish start.
“The backline looked to have a real balance in attack, but there are defensive frailties, whether physical or mental, that haven’t existed before," confirmed Stimpson.
With Ireland set to test England, the selection of the back three, which is informed by Mike Brown’s injury, will be very interesting, with the main conundrum being Jonathan Joseph’s positional start. Rumours from Pennyhill suggest England may well shore up the centres and use JJ on the wing at least for the first 50 minutes of the game.
In terms of Italy, Stimpson was delighted to see a change in mindset within the Azzurri camp.
“They definitely came to play more rugby and the young centre Luca Morisi, outstanding all day, exploited a line out steal to set up the Parisse score.
“We always talk about wearing the Italians down, but this time they looked to run the ball, Parisse was everywhere for the first 50 minutes, and worryingly, they gave us a torrid time at the line out."
With the match of the tournament approaching in Dublin, and an earbashing awaiting the Englishman when they return to Pennyhill Park, England will need to show greater width in defence, plug defensive holes in the middle of the field and shore up their line out to succeed.
“In summary, this weekend has shown some great ambition from the lesser sides but confirmed the superiority of Ireland and England,” noted Stimpson.
“The two-week break in Six Nations leaves Ireland and England as favourites but France, Wales and Scotland have played well enough to have much to build on in this tournament and beyond. Two weeks off will bring some England players back into contention and Lancaster will need to make some selection decisions but I believe the boys that have started so far deserve to keep their shirts if fit.”
That wraps up this week’s edition of Expert Witness. We thank Tim for his time as he prepares to venture into the Polar wilderness with last week’s Expert, Ollie Phillips and look forward to another exciting chapter in Six Nations’ rugby next week when Martin Corry will return in scrutiny.
Tim Stimpson played 19 tests for England and one for the British and Irish Lions. A heavy scoring full-back for Leicester Tigers, in April he treks to the North Pole, in a rugby record breaking event on behalf of Wooden Spoon the Children’s Charity of Rugby. You can follow the Arctic Rugby Challenge at www.arcticrugbychallenge.com or on Twitter @WSArcticRugby – https://mydonate.bt.com/events/arcticrugbychallenge2015
Tim Stimpson was speaking to James While