Bernard Jackman’s five things we learnt from round one of the Six Nations: Andy Farrell’s mind games, France’s ‘serious issues’, England teething, Italy rejuvenated

James While
Ireland head coach Andy Farrell, Bernard Jackman and France lock Paull Willemse.

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell, Bernard Jackman and France lock Paull Willemse.

Following the opening weekend of the 2024 Six Nations, Planet Rugby’s James While sat down with former Ireland hooker Bernard Jackman to pick out five things we learnt from round one.

We caught up with Jackman ahead of the opening weekend of the Championship, during which the popular analyst backed Joe McCarthy to shine for Ireland.

Now, he recaps the weekend’s action and looks ahead.

Farrell mind games

Andy Farrell isn’t just a great rugby coach; he is also an outstanding sports psychologist. Ireland and France suffered heartbreak at the Rugby World Cup, and we wondered how that would have affected them just four months later. Well, Ireland passed the first test with flying colours. One of the first moves that Farrell made when he was appointed head coach of Ireland was to appoint the best performance coach in Irish sport to look after the players’ mentality and mindsets. Gary Keegan was at the forefront of Irish Boxing, becoming one of the major forces at the World Championships and Olympic Games. He is an excellent practitioner, but the players say that Farrell sets the tone in every meeting and every training session, and he is their spiritual leader.

On the field, we saw that when Ireland’s lineout fires, they are next to unbeatable. Ireland were ranked 14th in the Rugby World Cup in terms of lineout efficiency, which was a significant drop from what they had been producing in previous matches. In Marseille, Paul O’Connell’s pack delivered 13 possessions from 13 throws, which is an exceptional repair job.

The lineout is the best source of possession for nearly every team, with about 60% of the tries scored in international rugby coming from that area. On Friday night, 100% of Ireland’s five tries came from kicks to touch and you can be sure that Italy will be considering their kicking strategy (to keep kicks on the field or get them off the pitch) this weekend and also whether they bolster their pack with some specialist defensive lineout jumpers.

Joe McCarthy is the type of second-row that the Irish provinces often look to when they sign non-Irish qualified players. Jean Kleyn, RG Synman, Quinn Roux and Nathan Hines were all brought to Irish rugby because we haven’t produced enough big physical locks, but the 22-year-old Leinster player was outstanding in his first Six Nations start and can go on to have a huge career in not just the blue of Leinster but also the green of Ireland.

Ireland’s defence was much more aggressive than we have seen, and there is no doubt that the Jacques Nienaber influence at Leinster and the focus on the second man’s work in defensive rucks has carried over to the national side, and Maxime Lucu was working off slow ball, and scraps for the majority of the game.

France flatter to decieve

France have a huge test in front of them in Edinburgh on Saturday. It’s as much about their own ability to bounce back as the Scottish team that they will face. Fabien Galthie will have been shocked by how poorly they played – especially considering how good most of his players had looked in the Top 14 and Champions Cup recently.

Galthie is a brilliant technician and tactician, but he is a poor man manager and the former president of the French Federation, Bernard Laporte, who knows Galthie better than most, put a team of people around him for the four-year cycle to Paris that balanced out his personality and led to a more enjoyable atmosphere in the camp.

Now, with his trusted sidekick Raphael Ibanez, who was the team manager, having left following rumours of disagreements on team preparation and Laurent Labit, the attack coach and Karim Ghezal, the lineout coach, joining Stade Francais Paris, it’s a new look management team, and one put together without the suspended Laporte’s direction.

Paul Willemse has always been an enforcer, and I was lucky enough to have worked with him at FCG Grenoble when he first came to France from the Bulls. His indiscipline and body language on Friday night and his two yellow cards were uncharacteristic and may be a sign of more serious issues at play. The one coach that isn’t new is Shaun Edwards, and the man who has only conceded more than three tries in four of his 81 Six Nations matches will have rarely seen one of his teams defend with so little bite. I would love to see the uncensored and uncut version of his review meeting this week on next season’s Full Contact documentary.

An underperformance like we saw in Marseille can happen to any team, but back-to-back capitulations when you have the quality that France have at their disposal is unacceptable, and Galthie is the kind of character that would walk just as easily as he would be sacked.

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Italy rejuvenated

Italy will play attacking rugby under new coach Gonzalo Quesada and have some youngsters that have speed, power, and evasion. The stats tell us that under previous coach Kieran Crowley, they attacked wider more than any other team in the Championship, but expect Quesada, who is a vastly experienced and successful coach, to play with a little more balance.

A learning curve for them will be to try and play that attacking rugby in the right area of the pitch, and the more streetwise English team-dominated territory. They suffered a big blow this week with the news that their most dominant ball carrier, Seb Negri, will miss the Ireland match due to injury.

England’s teething problems

England showed more attacking intent than they had since Steve Borthwick took charge, and getting that cohesion and understanding that is crucial to any highly functional attack will take time.

One of the challenges for England is that they are trying to implement two new systems at the same time. Building a new attack while you tear up your previous defence manual isn’t for the faint-hearted, but Borthwick, on the back of an excellent semi-final performance in the World Cup, is secure enough to do it.

They have my former Leinster team-mate Felix Jones fresh from back-to-back World Cup wins with the Springboks entrusted to implement that high-risk and high-reward ‘Bok’ style defence, and there were a few teething problems in Rome, but none that couldn’t be fixed.

Some people say that to defend like the Boks, you need a certain type of profile of the player, and without that, it’s fool’s gold. I think England have the athletes to do it, and more importantly, Jones and Borthwick obviously do, too. We sometimes forget that the Springbok defence wasn’t perfect, but if you made a line break against them, you were only halfway there as their scramble defence was incredible. That scramble is an immediate area to fix this week, as once the Italians got in behind them, it was far too easy.

Wales fire

Wales may have only won one of their last nine Six Nations matches, but if they play with the type of pace and variety that they did for 35 minutes of the game against Scotland, then they will have another scalp soon.

Gatland has rewarded most of the bench that came on and turned the game on its head by giving them starts on Saturday in Twickenham, but it’s far easier to come on and chase what looked like a lost cause than to play with that reckless abandon from the first minute. It’s a slight concern for me that when Wales brought the score back to just a one-point deficit, there were still 12 minutes left on the clock but yet they never got back in the Scotland 22 from that point.

This is a total rebuild job by Gatland; his squad’s average age last weekend was only 25 years of age. He is trying to build a new team on the back of struggling regional rugby sides, but they still have some quality players to pick from. A respectable and more consistent performance in London may be the best that they can hope for.

Scotland broke their 22-year hoodoo in Cardiff and lifted the Doddie Weir trophy, yet the manner of their 2nd half collapse is worrying. They have a very dangerous backline, but the way their pack failed to deal with those two Welsh maul tries, and some issues in the set piece will need to be fixed if they are to be serious Six Nations contenders.

All the coaches will say that the Six Nations is about momentum. Only Ireland really got that momentum last weekend, with both England and Scotland winning without being convincing. Week two is a great opportunity to right wrongs or get that performance that could launch a title-chasing tournament.

READ MORE: 2024 Six Nations statistics: Numbers expose England’s inefficient attack