Wales and France the early stars of the Six Nations

Spiro Zavos Columnist

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    The French take on England in the City of Light. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

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    The first round of the 2012 Six Nations tournament has been completed, with Wales, France and England (particularly the first two rugby nations) claiming impressive victories.

    While England are gamely trying to put together a new team from last year’s shambolic squad, Wales and France are consolidating on their strong performances in the 2011 RWC and setting themselves up for the next tournament in 2015.

    Both England and Wales won away from their home grounds.

    This is an important consideration when trying to work out how impressive their victories were. It has to be said, though, that England’s task was easier than that of Wales.

    Poor old Scotland has not scored a try at Murrayfield in a Six Nations tournament for four years.

    And sticking with the Scotland-England match for a bit longer, England never really looked like scoring a try from a series of plays or from a back movement. Their sole try, which came right after half-time, was the result of a sort of Scottish own goal.

    Scotland’s Australian born and bred number 10, Dan Parks, had a kick charged down. The ball bounced kindly for Charlie Hodgson. This fluke try was enough for England to scrape home.

    England blooded 8 uncapped players, which provides an explanation, in part at least, for some of the incoherency and lack of clarity and skill in much of the team’s play.

    Scotland, on the other hand, squandered chance after chance.

    As Paul Ackford noted in his UK Daily Telegraph report: “Yes, Scotland were awful, unable for the umpteenth time to fashion a try from a bucket load of chances.”

    The atmosphere at Murrayfield for the traditional fixture between the ‘auld’ enemies for the Calcutta Cup was marvellous. There was an edge about the play, sharpened by historical atrocities and territorial resonances, that used to be part of England-Scotland football matches when the Hampden Park roar could be heard almost around the British Isles.

    The fact that this Six Nations match has replaced the traditional football contest gave the contest a ferocity which, for those of us who like our rugby played passionately, provided a certain pleasure. But the actual skill levels, physical and mental, shown by players in both teams was below the usual standard expected of Test sides.

    As the late John Reason, the acerbic rugby writer for the UK Telegraph, used to say, especially when decrying a performance by the All Blacks or Wallabies (two teams he despised for some reason): “This was a match played between two poor teams playing poorly.”

    Still, England won.

    And given the state of rugby in England, this victory has to be put in the category of “a win is a win is a win.”

    I would say, though, that England’s back play won’t improve until someone coaching in England begins to understand that the number 10 must stand flat, especially when turnovers are achieved. For decades, England five-eights, with only a couple of exceptions, have stood deep, rather like a gridiron kicker, and then booted the ball from this safe haven.

    Someone should rush Geoff Mould or Mark Ella across to England to teach them the theory and practice of the flat backline.

    Meanwhile, terrific attackers, potentially, like Chris Ashton and Ben Foden, hardly get their hands on the ball to run with it. But under the way rugby is being played and refereed in 2011, with a tolerance given (and rightly so) to sides that run the ball, England can’t hope to be a dominant team in the world again, as they were btween 2000 and 2003, until they can get a backline to work as a cohesive and dangerous unit.

    This brings us to Wales and France, two teams that do employ a flattish backline.

    As a consequence, their backlines are often lethal.

    France scored four tries against Italy and did enough under their new coach Philipe Saint-Andre to suggest that a fifth Six Nations crown in the last 11 years is on the cards.

    Wales, despite the fact that they had to kick a penalty to win with seconds remaining in their match, were even more impressive.

    Warren Gatland is probably the best coach in Europe right now. He has got the pack doing what a pack should do and that is challenging the rucks and mauls and securing clean and quick ball for the backline.

    The only real weakness in the forwards is the lineouts, where a number of Welsh throws were won by Ireland.

    But the real strength of the side is an exciting, young and punishing backline.

    There is great size in this backline, especially in the massive frame of 19 year-old George North, who played like a young Jonah Lomu literally smashing through tacklers. North frequently made breaks, two of them in the phases leading up to the last try scored by Wales.

    He also showed a flick pass on one occasion to put a runner through a gap that SBW himself would have been proud of.

    As a schoolboy, I had the pleasure of watching Bleddyn Williams playing for the British Lions, with his Cardiff and Wales team-mate Dr Jack Matthews. Both these players were chunky battering-ram runners, with plenty of pace.

    It is the highest praise that can be made of a centre, especially a Welsh centre, to say, as I do about Davies, that he reminds me of these Welsh greats.

    One further point should be made about the opening rounds of the 2012 Six Nations tournament: all the games were intense, often exciting and despite the inept play on occasions (especially from Italy and Scotland), the ball was in play for long periods of time, the driving play was tough and uncompromising, and from time to time (especially from Wales and France) there was some wonderful running play from the outside backs.

    Rugby played with this spirit and skill and intelligently refereed (and, yes, Wayne Barnes in the Ireland-Wales fixture was a stand-out) is a prince of games.

    Bring on the second round next week.

    Spiro Zavos
    Spiro Zavos

    Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.