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Expert Witness: Six Nations

12th March 2014 07:08

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Expert Witness Peter Winterbottom 6N 12 march 2014

England: On the rise

With France, Ireland and England recording significant wins over the weekend, we're joined once again by former England flank Peter Winterbottom, to review Round Four of the Six Nations.

A glorious weekend inspired some magnificent Six Nations rugby, and none more so was the English performance at Twickenham. With an immense display at both the breakdown and in attack, England put their old foes to the sword in the most convincing of fashion.

Peter Winterbottom believes this win was more than just a turning point.

"This is a highly significant victory for England," enthused the Yorkshireman.

"What is so pleasing is there is a defined style emerging, one played with both tempo and gusto and that is great for English rugby.

"In recent times, we needed somewhere in the region of 65-68 percent possession to be sure of scoring enough points to win a Test. On Saturday England had parity in both possession and territory and won by 11 points! The sides of a few years back would never have achieved that with 50 percent possession and this is down to the accuracy and ambition Stuart Lancaster is catalysing within the team," explained Winterbottom.

"If I'm honest, I believe that we left at least 14 points out there. As an example, Burrell was brilliantly tackled by Leigh Halfpenny, but if you're brutally harsh, you'd say Luther should have gone lower.

"There were other great defining performances too; Danny Care's varied use of both the blind and the open side channels kept the Welsh guessing, the centres really looked to be gelling and the performances of the back three, with their ambition to keep ball in hand, was a delight to see.

"I'm aware of Andy Farrell's view of the importance of the gain line in both defence and attack; England completed 90 percent of their tackles and won that battle in style.

"In addition, their willingness and organisation in using turnover ball was exceptional. It's about how you react to the turnover to get speed and width into the game. This is usually a hallmark of the New Zealand style and I'd wager Stuart Lancaster and his team have been working hard to emulate the All Blacks in this regard."

With Wales penalised ruthlessly by Roman Poite at scrum time, the fortunes of Cardiff 2013 were turned on their head. Winterbottom believes that England's technical excellence stemmed from a robust showing from Harlequin loosehead, Joe Marler.

"If you look at Joe's left arm, it's straight, solid and right over the back of Adam Jones," said Winterbottom.

"This solidity acts as a brace and makes it very difficult for Jones to take the scrum downwards. Contrast this with Gethin Jenkins, who had such a weak left arm bind the only way he could attack David Wilson, who reminds me greatly of my old mate Jeff Probyn, was to come out and drive the angle, which is what earned him his yellow card."

Winterbottom, himself always a fierce competitor at the contact area, also expressed his admiration of England's accuracy in the loose exchanges.

"Another technical feature that pleased me was the length we posted at the ruck; with players of the height of the modern era, having the greatest possible body length in the ruck setup is the technique the coaches are looking for; this makes it very difficult to jackal effectively from behind the rear feet in defence, as to be legal you cannot be on your feet because of the distance you need to reach," he explained.

"Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes were exemplary in this area, creating a ruck length of almost two metres at times. It is detail like this coming from the coaches that is making the difference between being a good and a very good team."

At the centre of England's progress are the coaching staff. Winterbottom believes that Lancaster's vision is a driving force for the side and that there is a lot more to come.

"Stuart has built an outstanding culture," observed the former Lions flanker.

"His commitment to the over-arching ethic is superb. This is all about a long term sustainable legacy, not a quick win. With a host of players coming back form injury the selection will become even more competitive, which is heartening too.

"All the players are playing to a structure and know their roles within that. They know when to go off piste, they know when to close it down. In short, they're beginning to understand both each others' games and the overall match plan," explained Winterbottom.

"What really excites me is I believe that when we get it really right, one of the big sides is going to get a cricket score posted on them, that's how good things are," he grinned.

Wales will go into their match against Scotland in chastened mood. Shorn of their physical game and beaten soundly in every aspect of the match, Winterbottom expresses surprise at how poorly they fared.

"I was staggered at how badly they reacted to England's gameplan. England knew about their favouring of the short side and their 'popping' around the blindside corner and closed that down well. Yet no-one reacted to this and put width on the game on the open side." he noted.

"I think the first time I noticed Faletau running with ball in hand was the 45th minute. They didn't think things through and didn't react to what was happening in front of them"

"I don't want to go down the road of kicking a very good side when they are down and I'm sure Wales will recover from this setback. Indeed, the quality of the English performance is underlined by how many Lions were in the defeated Welsh side, but they were uncharacteristically poor."

Elsewhere, Scotland narrowly failed to beat a below strength French outfit, shorn of many of their stars through injury and indiscipline.

Winterbottom believes that Scotland finally established a platform and put in their most convincing performance thus far.

"Ryan Grant, Kelly Brown and Dave Denton had big games in defeat for the Scots and they'll take a lot of pride from their performance, even if they fell short at the end," praised the flanker.

"Grant really troubled the French front row and made some big carries too, whilst Denton was excellent with ball in hand and Brown very effective at rucktime.

"International rugby is all about establishing a platform to play off and the Scots finally did that, with a note also to Richie Gray and Jim Hamilton in the line-out. They'll be rightly heartened by this and have, at last, something to work with and an idea of who their best side is," noted Winterbottom.

"France continue to frustrate me. It's a well-worn adage, but you simply don't know which team is going to turn up.

"But the astonishing thing is their mis-use of talent. As I said about the Scots, you need a platform of set-piece and of collective vision to maximise the talent you have. The French seem to turn up and believe that their ability alone will see them through, without much though as to quite how they'll achieve it.

"That simply doesn't work in the modern era. The coaching team doesn't seem to be able to find the same commonality of purpose that's so evident in the England camp. It's just ad-hoc rugby, played without a contiguous structure or organisational plan.

"If they want to be serious challengers, they need to bolt on the basics of the game to their undeniable talent. It all seems to be done on the whim of the coaches or players. I have pointed out my thoughts regarding some of the selections and don't intend to repeat those; what is more pressing and concerning is the lack of common purpose they are displaying."

In Dublin, the predicted BOD-feast took off with some sublime handling by the veteran centre. Italy were by-standers as O'Driscoll worked his magic with hallmark offloads, pop-passes and line breaks. Inspired by the retiring legend, the Irishmen played party rugby and Winterbottom confessed to enjoying the display.

"It was so apt, and somewhat inevitable, that Brian O'Driscoll got his Man of the Match in his last home appearance. The way he played makes you wonder if he should be trying to push on the RWC 2015, but I think his shoulder and calf have finally said no more," he quipped.

"It's been an amazing career and it was so close to a Grand Slam for him, which would have been fitting. However, you should also take note of some of the other Irish displays; Jamie Heaslip was back to his rampaging best in the loose. Rob Kearney was outstanding at the back and made some huge gains. But the player that really impressed me was big Devin Toner, who supplied his old mates in the backs with such quality of line out ball that it was almost impossible not to use it effectively.

"Yes, it was Drico's day, but it was also a superb team effort."

With Ireland going into Round Five with a vastly superior points difference and England travelling to Rome to meet a beleaguered Azzurri, only the unpredictable French can rob the Irish of a Championship trophy.

"I think England are well capable of a big win in Italy if they maintain tempo and don't get drawn into the physical contest. I would suggest a 20-30 point margain will be on Lancaster's agenda, and then it's all down to the Paris game," said Winterbottom.

"France can beat anyone on their day, we know that. They'll have some high quality players back in with Louis Picamoles and Dimitri Swarzewski restored, but I believe Ireland will take it by ten.

"In Cardiff, I think Warren Gatland will use the dead rubber to experiment a little; expect to see Wales making a few changes but Scotland looking to build on their progress, with the hosts emerging victors by a score or so.

"What we can conclude, looking back at the last four rounds, is England and Ireland are the pick of the crop, with England making the biggest gains. Italy, despite their drubbing, have a mixed season to look back on, but progress has been made. Wales have stagnated a little and perhaps are slightly below par, Scotland need to kick on, and France have been frustratingly poor at times relative to their talent," explained a pragmatic Winterbottom.

"It's been a great season with a good finale to come and I've once again enjoyed speaking on Expert Witness."

Our thanks to Peter for his time once more; Expert Witness will be back next week to review the Six Nations season with former England skipper and Leicester Tigers' stalwart, Martin Corry.

Peter Winterbottom was speaking to James While.

A world-class flanker, Peter Winterbottom won 58 caps for England and seven for the British and Irish Lions. An iconic figure in the number seven shirt, his intelligent support play and hard tacking were features of his game. Peter now runs the Rugby Marketing Communications Agency Full Contact

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