Six Nations coaches set to roll the dice
February 20, 2008
"As Super Saturday and the mid-point of the Six Nations looms there are signs that even the most conservative thinkers realise it is time for a touch of adventure." John Taylor looks ahead to the latest Six Nations action
As Super Saturday and the mid-point of the Six Nations looms there are signs that even the most conservative thinkers realise it is time for a touch of adventure.
Every Scots supporter you speak to wants Chris Paterson at fly-half and, at last, Frank Hadden has given in. Dan Parks may be the better kicker out of hand but he offers nothing as a runner himself or as a passer who can unleash the backs outside him.
There have been precious few glimpses of Scotland on the attack recently - they have scored just one try in their last five matches - but Paterson has always been the danger man if they have created any sort of opening and he still has a turn of speed that can exploit any defensive weakness.
Eddie O'Sullivan has also bowed to pressure and made the changes everybody else was clamouring for. Mick O'Driscoll was the talisman in that Irish fightback against France two Saturdays ago and Tommy Bowe has looked more potent than a fading Geordan Murphy all season.
O'Driscoll's promotion to the starting line-up is all the more significant because Paul O'Connell is fit again. Technically, O'Driscoll simply cannot match him and O'Sullivan has a reputation for sticking with his tried and trusted for too long - look at Peter Stringer and Simon Easterby - but there comes a time when aggression and sheer determination are what a side needs most.
That is what Ireland have to show in the backs as well as the forwards. The return of Shane Horgan (to the bench) will help there but nothing will do more to restore the faith than a couple of surging runs from the skipper, Brian O'Driscoll.
I expect a rip-roaring, almost old style Irish performance on Saturday which, I'm afraid, is very bad news for Scotland.
Warren Gatland, the Welsh coach, has a very different problem. He inherited a group of players who probably believed they were more talented than they really were because they took everybody by surprise and won a Grand Slam in 2005.
His job has been to bring them down to earth and stop them running from impossible positions, to create a platform that will allow the 'Welsh way' to flourish instead of being a catastrophe just waiting to happen.
Pre-Gatland Wales were so loose they were always a wayward pass away from disaster - I still shudder in disbelief when I recall the World Cup game against Fiji - but his New Zealand pragmatism aided and abetted by the sheer aggression of Shaun Edwards seems to have won the respect and attention of the whole squad.
It has been something of a culture shock but they've responded well and there will be no complacency against Italy. It was an 18-18 draw when the two sides last met in Cardiff and Italy won 23-20 in Rome last year so Wales are looking for their first win since 2005. I do not expect them to slip up this time.
Finally, there is resurgent France against enigmatic England. On form it should be a shoe-in for France on home soil but we all know England are capable of so much more - or are they?
Brian Ashton built his reputation on producing innovative, attacking back divisions but on the evidence so far, Marc Lievremont - renowned as a destructive back-rower in his playing days - has stolen his mantle.
Lievremont has been adventurous in every way. His selection has been bold to the point of foolhardiness and he has backed that up by changing the players' mindset completely. Suddenly French flair is back in fashion and the back three, Cedric Heymans, Aurelian Rougerie and Vincent Clerc, are already being called 'the Three Musketeers' because of their exciting counter-attacks.
Meanwhile, under Ashton, England stutter along looking confused. I would love to believe he will come out with his own muskets blazing to offer the perfect riposte but the selection indicates he will be relying on the heavy cavalry to stop the French in their tracks.
It worked in the World Cup but that was against Bernard Laporte's French side which was trying to play in the same sort of style.
England also beat France in last year's Championship with their best performance of the season but that was a very different story. Having been humiliated by Ireland at Croke Park Ashton did ring the changes and the youngsters, Toby Flood and Shane Geraghty, stole the show.
Hopefully, he has picked a bench which will allow a similar change of game plan. If plan 'A' fails Danny Cipriani and Matt Tait can come off the bench to spice up the back division, Tom Croft, quicker and even more explosive than James Haskell, can replace Nick Easter in the back-row and England will be equipped to play a far more adventurous game.
Please, please Brian - if it is not going well give it a go in the second-half. You might just discover that English rugby can be exciting too.