Loose Pass

Date published: February 9 2016

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with a few notes on the Six Nations and some other action from the weekend…

Notes from the Six Nations

It was, in the cold light of day, never actually going to be the barnstorming tryfest beginning that English fans so desperately wanted. After only seven training sessions under their new mentor, you were hardly going to see the kind of end product that Jones’ Japan took South Africa by surprise with.

English players should not get ahead of themselves in believing a lot of the hype about their being favourites for this tournament either. Both Wales and Ireland delivered performances significantly higher in quality and intent than any of the fare served up to the Murrayfield fans. Tight and cohesive England were, threatening or invincible they were not.

A better opponent would have set about exploiting England’s lack of a specialist openside by building up better continuity and giving the uneasy 10-12 combination a sterner examination. A better opponent would have taken its chances too; whatever the lesson in communication or decision-making that needs to be learned from the Finn Russell-Stuart Hogg debacle should be the one that Vern Cotter has plastered in big red letters all over the training sheds this week as the Scots head to Wales.

Eddie’s England ought to be a lot less happy about travelling to Rome on the basis of the opener in Paris too. Utterly anonymous during the World Cup, it would seem Italy’s young team has found a competitive edge many might not have expected, but backed that up with an eyebrow-raising level of performance.

The Azzurri matched France in every statistical department and really should have won. The lack of a dependable kicker came to haunt them – Carlo Canna’s only major failing on an excellent day where several new Italian faces provided a good foundation for the future.

France may have squeaked past Italy, but their actual performance was a step up from anything seen from them in the past couple of years. The imported talent of Virimi Vakatawa on the wing shone brightly and there was a clear sense of everybody knowing where the ball would go next, an utter mystery to most under Philippe Saint-André. They’ll get better.

Which brings us back to the clash in Dublin, from whence – injury crises or surprises notwithstanding – this year’s tournament winners will surely come. Many have cited Wales’ lack of ability to cut and weave, but the Welsh created more overlaps this time and spread the ball much wider than they have at times in the past. They also had a superior scrum, an aspect few expected. The supposed disruptions to Ireland’s continuity were also tough to discern, however.

Both teams had a signature tactic to add competitive advantage to their performance which they worked extremely well: Wales passing wide and well behind the gain line to draw up a rush in the 13 channel and exploit the seam just outside and behind it, Ireland with some careful pivoting loop runs around the 12 channel to put the defence on its heels briefly and create uncertainty.

In terms of preparation and performance, both looked streets ahead. The second week will tell us more – the Ireland-France clash in particular should be fascinating.

Meanwhile, in corners of some foreign fields…

John Mitchell’s time in charge of the USA began with a bang, as the Eagles and Argentina’s ‘A’ side fought out a belting 35-35 draw in Houston in the opening match of the Americas Rugby Championship (ARC).

A side featuring six new caps played its part in a thriller that ebbed and flowed, with four tries to the hosts and five to the visitors as well as missed late potential match-clinching kicks from both sides.

“It wasn’t pretty,” Mitchell said of the first half after the match. “That was to be expected, but there was some good stuff, as well. We had a good start. The catching in our exit area was costly and that allowed them back in the match, and then we were slow to set our transitions. We got ourselves back in the fight after halftime.”

Meanwhile, Canada, still without a permanent Head Coach after the surprise exit of Kieran Crowley, got their ARC campaign off to a winning start with a 33-17 win over Uruguay in Langford, coasting home after opening up an impressive 19-0 lead in the first quarter.

“We worked together and came up as a team,” interim coach Francois Ratier said. “That’s the spirit we want. I am pleased for the boys.

“We talked about living in the moment and not thinking about number of caps or whatever. Just play rugby.” In the other ARC match, Chile beat Brazil 25-22.

While Italy were busy proving all the detractors who woud have had them replaced by Georgia in the Six Nations, those self-same Georgians were – after a brief intake of breath caused by Oliver Paine’s early try for Germany – busy building on their World Cup success with a 59-7 that keeps them at the top of the European Nations Cups Division 1A (or Six Nations B as it is increasingly viewed as).

A Portugal side weakened by the loss of their sevens players proved little match for Romania, who retained second place behind Georgia with a 39-14 win, while Russia just pipped Spain 22-20.

The most significant thing about all the games mentioned above however, was the fact that they were all available to view online, live or for some time after.

There can be little doubt now just how much the game is growing globally, helped in no little way by the willingness of the administrators to ensure that fans are able to watch their teams wherever they may be. And there’s some cracking rugby going on – just have a gander at the Georgia-Germany match here.

Or the Chile-Brazil match here.

The need for speed

Back to the Six Nations – this has been mentioned within this column before but it was again striking this weekend just how far behind the Southern Hemisphere the Northern Hemisphere is in terms of scrum-half development.

The southern teams’ games at the World Cup were marked by the likes of Aaron Smith and Tomás Cubelli ensuring permanent stresses on defences’ organisation by arriving at the ruck with panther-like speed and whipping out deliveries of wide, bullet-hard, arrow-accurate passes to whomever was running the best attacking angle.

Contrast that with much of this weekend’s Six Nations half-back crowd, who are often found loitering around the back of rucks having a drink and a snack – admiring the kaleidoscope of colour and noise around them – before crouching down, picking up the ball, taking a couple of seconds of backlift while they make up their minds and then frequently chucking the soggiest of steak-and-kidney pies to the most static and lumbering pie-eater of all infesting the 9-10 channel.

Do I overstate myself? Perhaps. Certainly Gareth Davies and Conor Murray rose above such caricature – the former with some searching sniping running especially. But while the strategies and open play have both improved markedly north of the equator, the hesitancy of the half-backs continues to hold the Six Nations teams back.

Loose Pass compiled by former Planet Rugby Editor Danny Stephens.