As the dust settles on Round Two of the Six Nations, we pick up five talking points that emerged from the weekend's action.
A Kiwi template for Ireland's resurgence
New Zealand coaches are noted for getting the basics right. Pragmatic rugby, in the set pieces, in organisation and in simplistic gameplan are bedrocks of their coaching philosophy and Joe Schmidt is no exception. Get the cornerstones right and the rest of the gameplan follows, is truism that runs through all their sides.
No small wonder then to witness the improvement of the Irish side right now. With the leadership of Cian Healy at scrum time, Paul O'Connell in the line-out and loose and the warrior Brian O'Driscoll in the midfield, Ireland have continued the form shown in November against the All Blacks, added a renewed ambition to their style, and have set the standard for the 2014 Six Nations.
What's great to see is they also learn from their mistakes; a paltry six offloads against Scotland restricted the try-scoring opportunities. However, roll forward a week to the Welsh encounter and you'll see this number increase to 15, which made for a thrilling performance from their back division, led by Johnny Sexton.
Ireland have raised their own bar in this year's tournament and Joe Schmidt is at the epicentre of their ambition and execution.
Size is central to England's plans
Stuart Lancaster is another that learns quickly. Beaten up and bloodied by old foes Wales last March, Lancaster has turned to the behemoth figures of centre Luther Burrell and number eight Billy Vunipola to tilt his team's fortunes. Burrell's intelligent lines and sheer bulk have made him an unstoppable force in this season's competition, scoring two classical midfield tries in as many games.
In the back row, Vunipola's bullocking running and offloading are creating many a problem for opposition defences and creating much needed space for England's midfield to flourish.
"Never peak too early", was one of Jason Leonard's favourite sayings. England, as they find a vital balance to their starting options, are simmering into form just in time for their hosting of the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
Wales have no Plan B
Shorn of one half the Lions' 3rd Test midfield combination of Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts, and with a line-out that fails to impress, Wales have struggled to reach anything like the dizzy heights of their form last year.
Whilst they still have the most efficient side in the competition in terms of points scored for possession achieved, if they lose the contact battle their lack of a Plan B makes life difficult. Against Italy, they completed 94% of their tackles and won by a score; wind forward a week to Ireland and tackle completion falls to 81% and they lose heavily.
Gatland's typical reaction in this situation is throw more size at Plan A. But with a lack of options in selection, Wales need to adapt to the changing rugby landscape to maintain their impressive form of last year.
These days, selection is based upon a match day 23. Already, some players are noted as impact specialists and selected with that in mind.
It's a truism to say that in Paris, in Round One, the relative impact of each bench (or lack of it in England's case) changed the fortunes of both sides, and substitutions continue to have an enormous influence on the sway of each match. Stuart Lancaster learned quickly from this, and his replacements options against Scotland were based upon sound rugby reasoning.
However, when early injuries rear their ugly head, the impact player can become a long-term liability. Witness Liam Williams' cataclysmic 60 minutes against Ireland, when the Scarlets full-back, playing on the wing, stayed at least 10 metres too far up field in defence, and was destroyed by Jonathan Sexton's continual aerial bombardment.
It was a masterclass in tactical kicking by the Irish fly-half and was one of the fundamental reasons Ireland emerged such convincing winners.
Levelling the playing field
Just as a great cricket wicket makes for a battle of skill, so elite rugby players need a suitable surface to demonstrate their wares.
The Millennium Stadium, often criticized for delamination of the top surface of the turf, bring drop-in pitches, delivered in pallets from nearby Treorchy, to cover the mammoth 9,600 sq m playing surface and the WRU are about to invest £3.3m in a 'Desso' based hybrid artificial system.
Murrayfield's nematode worms seem the only Scottish creatures capable of mounting a convincing attack at the national stadium. Whilst a degree of sympathy should be extended to the SRU for the situation, it doesn't obviate the fact that players are risking life and limb on the appalling turf. The good new is the SRU are investing in a hybrid surface.
In Paris, the authorities claim that the paucity of soil depth is an issue due to Stade de France being built on the reclaimed site of a former gas works. Certainly props are struggling to scrummage and runners are careful of opening their throttles as the French soil fails to support any form of power being put down.
The IRB are anxious to change things and for our money this can't happen too soon. Fans want to see high-quality rugby, whether that be in the set piece, in attacking ambition or the contact area. Without the stage to perform, teams are reduced to a slugfest based upon power and fewest mistakes, which makes for limited rugby and dwindling interest.
If hybrids are the answer, the authorities must act now, otherwise the spectacle that is the Six Nations will become a ugly visage of safety first rugby and (player) damage limitation.
By James While