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ANALYSIS: Why the first week of 6N was a resounding success for the Wallabies and Eddie Jones

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Expert
7th February, 2023
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If it looks like nothing is happening, do not look away: the great World Cup ‘phoney war’ has already started, and the first round was definite win for the Wallabies – without the national team ever setting foot on the field, or Eddie Jones uttering a provocative pre-match chirp.

One of Australia likely opponents in the blue riband tournament – England, in a potential blockbuster quarter-final – stumbled in their opening audition of the Steve Borthwick era. The other – Warren Gatland’s Wales version 2.0, whom they will meet at the pool stage – fluffed their lines completely in Cardiff against the number one ranked team in the world.

Hell, even the game that cost Jones’ predecessor Dave Rennie his job looked better in the light of Italy’s last-gasp 24-29 loss to France, at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome. Australia’s defeat by the Azzurri may have been the final straw that broke Rugby Australia’s back, and the Waikato man’s contract along with it, but Italy proved against the current World cup favourites that their performance in Florence was no fluke.

But it was Gatland’s Wales who came off much the worst in the first-round exchanges. Playing in front of a home crowd with the emotional upswing provided by ‘Gatty’s’ return, against a weakened Ireland side shorn of such luminaries as Tadhg Furlong, Jamison Gibson-Park and Robbie Henshaw, the men in red were primed for a big performance. In the event, they found themselves 27-3 down after the first 25 minutes and that was game, set and match to their opponents.

Although Wales came back into the game in the second period, Ireland were always in cruise control and able to keep the Welsh at arm’s length. They finished the game on the opposition goal-line and were a hair’s breadth away from claiming a record win at the Principality Stadium. A 30-point win for the Irish would not have been an unjust result, or a distorted reflection of what had gone before.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect from a Welsh perspective was Gatland’s attempt to spin the positives out of disastrous first outing in the post-match presser:

“I thought the second half was a huge improvement. We spoke about putting them under pressure with line speed. I thought that definitely improved,” he said.

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“The discipline and soft penalties cost us. We created a number of chances but we weren’t clinical enough to finish them.

“The number of entries for both teams into the 22 were the same. That’s a big work-on for us but there’s a lot of positives out of that performance, apart from the scoreboard.

“I felt in that first half there were a couple of times we could have got over the line and we’ve had an intercept of seven points against us. Potentially it could have been a lot closer.

“I felt in the second half, when we were putting Ireland under pressure at 27-10, if we’d scored then and got it to 27-17 it could have been an interesting couple of minutes…

“There were definitely some good moments. We made some nice breaks and I thought we had some really good momentum in the 22, but just didn’t come away with those points. [Those] will be work ons for us.”

The reality was very different. There was neither a single department of the team, nor a single area of the game where Wales were either superior to Ireland, or could even claim parity. Their backrow, the strongest unit in the original selection was outplayed, and their best back on the day (full-back Liam Williams) was overshadowed by a star-of-the-match performance from Hugo Keenan.

The tight forwards remain a particular concern. Wales lost three scrums to penalty or free-kick against an Irish front row lacking Furlong, they lost three lineouts and took none of Ireland’s ball in return. They gave up five turnovers in the tackle and another seven when the ball went to ground after it. They got little or no purchase at the maul in attack or defence.

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It was one those afternoons where Welsh rugby looked fossilised, the relic of a dying past. It raised questions whether the speed of the modern game (post-2020 breakdown adjustments) has simply passed Gatland’s coaching methods by, and consigned the rump of those illustrious veteran players who represented his core group before 2019 to the history books. Coming in a week where the WRU lost its Chief Executive amid accusations of institutional sexism and misogyny, it has been a very black week in Wales indeed, both on and off the field.

Borthwick fared marginally better in his first game in charge of England at Twickenham. There are clear structural problems on attack and defence to be resolved over the remainder of the Six Nations for the Leicester man and his support coaches.

As with the Borthwick-coached Leicester club, which won the English Premiership title in 2021-22, there tends to be an awful lot of kicking: 70 open-plays kicks in the game against Scotland on Saturday, 34 by England and 36 by Scotland. The difference looks negligible: but scratch the surface, and 13 of the England kicks were launched from positions inside the Scotland half, compared to only two by their opponents.

When you kick as much ball away as Leicester or Borthwick’s England do, you are bound to create opportunities for the better kick return teams.

Two of Scotland’s tries at Twickenham came by way of KR, and both were converted by their giant naturalised South African left wing Duhan van der Merwe. The first was an outstanding individual effort worthy of the great Jonah Lomu:

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The run itself is spectacular and involves Duhan breaking five separate tackle attempts. But it all begins with a superb wall-off block by Scotland hooker George Turner on England chaser Owen Farrell. The view from behind the posts amply illustrates the difficulty with chasing long upfield kicks:

The chasers come up in a line, but the spacings are wide enough to allow two Scotland front rowers to funnel back in the spaces between defenders. All Turner has to do is run to the gap between Farrell and Van der Merwe and stop, without deliberately stepping into Farrell’s running line and attracting a penalty for obstruction.

The South African’s second, game-winning score started from a kick return within the Scotland 22 and ran through four phases, 14 passes and the best part of a minute:

These clips from the last two phases of the try indirectly underline England’s limitations on attack compared to their opponents. As ex-British & Irish Lions coach Ian McGeechan pointed out in commentary, the speed-of-width the Saltires are able to get on the first two passes from the base, principally via their first receiver Finn Russell, takes play quickly beyond the midfield block England want to erect in defence. Van der Merwe’s power takes care of the rest near the left corner flag.

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Russell was the outstanding attacking number 10 of the three on the field, with the Marcus Smith-Owen Farrell axis once again looking clunky and lacking in natural synergy. At least Smith was allowed to play first receiver more often than he did under Eddie Jones. He enjoyed 20 touches at the primary pivot position as England racked up a mountainous 130 rucks, 178 carries and over 1,000 metres in offensive yardage, forcing their opponents to make 214 total tackles. Once again, the statistical skull lies just beneath the skin: England only created two line-breaks, compared to Scotland’s six from half the number of rucks.

It was a good Saturday afternoon on the left wing for both Scotland and Ireland, with James Lowes showing a lot of the all-round skill, on both sides of the ball, which characterizes the modern Irish backline.

Lowe kicked down the outside channel to create the 5m lineout position for the first try of the game:

He was used as an extra inside passer to create width for others:

Lowe was even better on defence, picking up a critical intercept try when Wales were pressing in the first half:

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It is typically good modern defence. There is no point in Lowe sticking on the outside attacker and relying on the interior defenders to catch up on the drift, so he steps up at the right moment into the space between the passer (Dan Biggar) and the intended receiver (Liam Williams) instead.

The ex-Mooloo man also had two important turnovers at the tackle and post-tackle:

In the first clip, Lowe slides from the inside out to pilfer over a prone Biggar near the goal-line, in the second he rips the ball off Joe Hawkins on a one-handed carry in the Ireland 22. It exemplified the complete skill-sets Ireland now expects in all of its back-line players.

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Summary

Saturday was a good day for the Wallabies in the 2023 Six Nations. The two opening matches, between Gatland’s Wales and Ireland, and Borthwick’s England and Scotland, showed just how far the two nations Australia could play in pool and quarter-final have to travel in order to be competitive at the World Cup.

Wales unquestionably have much more work to do than England. Warren Gatland’s men were no better than Wayne Pivac’s side in the autumn, in fact they were worse. There was no ‘bounce’ under the old mastermind behind so many previous Six Nations triumphs, quite the opposite. His coaching methods have not been adapted to take account of the quicker ruck resolutions since mid-2020, and most of the experienced Welsh players in his core group simply looked old and tired, rather than savvy and resilient.

For a team lacking the comfort-blanket of Alun-Wyn Jones’ presence and possibly the scrummaging ballast of Tomas Francis also at Murrayfield next weekend, things may get ugly indeed. The Red Dragon no longer breathes sulphurous fire in the tight five, and you’d be lucky to get a more than a cough or a hiccup out of the starting unit as it stands.

If Eddie Jones is rubbing his hands with glee at the prospect of selecting a pack to take on those Welsh forwards, he will also be wagging his finger at the Bill Sweeney and the RFU, who were in such a hurry to sack him that they forgot to include a non-compete clause in his severance package.

Borthwick’s England look like they are going to be modelled after the club he coached so successfully at Welford Road, but there are ample teething problems. Kevin Sinfield’s defence has to cover an awful lot of ground chasing the 35+ kicks which will be launched routinely during a game, and the Smith-Farrell double axis came off second best to Finn Russell on attack, despite receiving twice the amount of ball.

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Borthwick will not be looking forward to a tripwire encounter against Italy at Twickenham this weekend. The Azzurri have nothing to lose after taking France to the final play of the game in Rome, and they will be looking to build on their away upset in Cardiff at the end of last year’s tournament.

If England lose, the boos will be louder for Borthwick than they were for Jones after his last game against South Africa in November, and that will bring a smile to his face too. It may even trigger a barbed comment or two in the media. What goes around, comes around, and it spins around very quickly indeed in the unforgiving world of international rugby.

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