In the first of two Expert Witness columns this week, former B&I Lions flanker Richard Hill gives us his insights into the Six Nations.
With Round Four of the 2013 Six Nations completed, Planet Rugby's James While catches up with a group of former international stars to get their views on weekend past and the matches approaching.
This week we welcome back to Expert Witness legendary former England and British and Irish Lions flanker and one of the true greats of the modern era, Saracens' Richard Hill.
Look out for Thursday's edition featuring Martyn Williams.
With an Arctic chill covering all parts of the UK over the weekend, Round Four of the Championship saw three games of attritional battle rather than exhibition rugby. Wales halted the Scottish resurgence in a close encounter at Murrayfield, France and Ireland conspired to draw in the sleet and rain of Dublin, and England emerged narrow victors in a bruising clash against a Parisse-inspired Italy at Twickenham.
Richard Hill believes that, whilst the conditions made attacking rugby hard, Wales and England will both arrive at Cardiff in confident mood:
“After that nightmare first half against Ireland in their first game, Wales have steadily improved, and re-found their mojo!,' observed the ex-Saracens flanker.
“They've shown great character to overcome that lapse and their confidence is improving steadily again, and they are a side that relies on belief to play well.”
Scotland, who have shown a new lease of life since the arrival of interim coaches Scott Johnson and Dean Ryan, kept Wales honest right down the final quarter. They might perhaps rue their own indiscipline in the second half, which allowed Wales and Leigh Halfpenny to keep the scoreboard moving, but they were in the game right until the end.
“Yes, Johnson and Ryan will be disappointed with that penalty count against them, especially considering how well the Scottish defence held out. It's fine margins like that that wins or loses Test matches. With 15 minutes to go, I thought Wales were close to breaking from the grip of the Scottish defence but they didn't and Scotland had the chance to fight till the end.
“Sam Warburton, was a major thorn in the side of the Scots, with some outstanding interventions at the breakdown, winning steals and penalties. With one of many battles to watch this weekend for Lions selection, it was a timely boost of confidence and form for him. Saturday's title decider in Cardiff promises to be a cliff-hanger of a game,” remarked Hill.
In Dublin, a filthy day produced a game that many would be happy to forget, save for the fact that it was probably the last time one of the greatest of Irish backs will grace the Lansdowne Road turf:
“If speculation is to be believed, that could be Brian O'Driscoll's last home game for his country. It's a shame for him that he was unable to go out on a real high, and, looking at the condition of him in the latter stages, I am sure he'd have been replaced in any other circumstances, but he just would not give up, which is typical of the man.
Hill toured with the British and Irish Lions three times, and O'Driscoll played on two of those trips:
“Having toured twice with Brian, I am well aware of his warrior-like qualities and leadership ability and it is a mark of the man's character that he wanted to be there until the bitter end”, commented Hill.
“Great, is an oft-misused word in our sport, but BOD, is exactly that, and I still believe he will tour with, and even potentially lead, the British and Irish Lions to Australia. It was a privilege to play with Brian and he's a player who's work ethic, sportsmanship and conduct I have great admiration for. However, if it is his last game, it opens the door for the younger Irish players and they now need to pick up the baton left by the likes of O'Driscoll and O'Gara.”
And what of France? Hill quietly admits he expected great things of this French side and had them earmarked as one of his favourites to win the tournament:
“What on earth has happen to France?,” exclaimed Hill.
“They just appear to lack confidence, but importantly also lack structure and a game plan. They have some seriously big athletes in both the forwards and the backs, and Picamoles has proven that he's a world class back rower with some massive displays, but their decision making has been poor and their game plan lacking.
“Ironically, whilst their scrummage has gone well at times, they've not had the platform from the breakdown nor the decision making in half backs to utilise their power. It is very frustrating to watch as you know they have the talent to be a lot better than this,” observed Hill.
On the topic of scrummaging, Richard is another player that is frustrated at the number of infringements creeping in to the game at scrum time.
“Yes, the scrum issues continue to frustrate,” he admitted.
“I am a great believer that the side putting the ball in should have the advantage but it should then be a physical as well as technical battle.
“I am unsure to the answer, but at the moment, I don't believe the scrummage is working as a spectacle that the fans want to see.”
With all eyes focused on Cardiff this weekend, Hill believes that Wales, display against Scotland ensures the home team will go in as favourites against the Grand Slam hopefuls, England.
“Cardiff has a unique atmosphere, and never more so when England visit!,” commented Hill.
“There are many sub-plots within this game; Grand Slams, Triple Crowns, championships, Lions selection. It has it all really!
“Wales will want to impose themselves physically early on against England. They'll want a massive performance from Adam Jones at prop to dominate the England scrum, and further, will want to try and get doubt into England's mind quickly and get confidence of their own legality in the referee's mind too.
“Wales will throw everything at England in the first quarter and England must be prepared to roll up their sleeves and deal with the onslaught. If Wales have early success, the crowd will rise with their team and the environment becomes very inhospitable for an Englishman, that I can assure you!” quipped Hill.
“Another sub-plot in the game will be the one to one match ups in terms of Lions selection. These will spread throughout both teams and also I believe one or two off the bench! At tighthead, there's a monumental battle between Jones and Dan Cole, and at openside, Robshaw and Warburton's confrontation will be epic.”
“We may be over three months away from the first Lions Test, with plenty of variables between now and then, but this match provides the coaches with a shoot out selection opportunity.
“In Lions terms, Robshaw and Warburton are first and foremost contenders for a starting position(s), but then captaincy is another issue. Both players at their best offer huge workrate and influence at the breakdown.” commented Hill, an expert himself in both the number seven and number six shirt.
“Going back to the game on Saturday, England have a few