Ireland's tactical masterclass
February 10, 2014
Ireland's out-thought and out-muscled Wales © Getty Images
Another round of the Six Nations down and it was a weekend when home truths were emphatically handed out by Ireland, England and France. There was proof that simplistic rugby is sometimes the most effective game plan. Monday Maul looks back at the weekend's talking points.
A tactical masterclass
Ireland's win over Wales was an exercise in intelligent rugby. Sometimes doing the basics right and efficiently is enough to unpick impressive outfits. Ireland's attacking lineout drive was executed perfectly - an area of Welsh weakness they must have targeted pre-game - while their back-row out-thought their Welsh counterparts. The breakdown was painted green and Wales were left frustrated with George North and Alex Cuthbert having barely any chance to do some damage.
Fantasy team of the round
At the centre of everything Ireland did well was Peter O'Mahony. He bullied the opposition and was just a menace. Jonathan Sexton knocked balls into space - Ireland made 34 kicks from hand. He also slotted his efforts from the tee. Paul O'Connell, so often the talisman, also brought a calming physical presence.
It was one of those performances where everything clicked. Ireland were tactically superb, never really pushed the pace of the match and were accurate in all facets of their play.
England did not have to do much to beat Scotland. But what they are increasingly showing over the past two matches is a newly-developed backbone. England have toyed with their options at No.8 - Thomas Waldrom is unlikely to ever wear a red-rose shirt again while Billy Vunipola has successfully seen off Ben Morgan to emerge as the country's long-term option at the back of the scrum. He offers an unrivalled physicality and at times was a one-man wrecking ball through the Scottish defence.
But while Vunipola makes these breaks, England are gradually developing an attack which can see them utilise the yard-gains. Danny Care offers quick ball from the breakdown and moments of quick-thinking which confuddle the opposition. Alongside Vunipola, England's No.8 and No.9 are working well in tandem. It's a new steely backbone that could serve them well from now until the 2015 World Cup.
Let's make no bones about it, the Murrayfield pitch was an absolute disgrace. The match should have been moved to a turf that could handle the rigours of the modern game. The scrums were a farce though referee Jérôme Garcès deserves some praise for the manner in which he presided over what could have been a dangerous Test.
The pitch is just one of a number of concerns for Scotland. They were woeful against England. They failed to put together an coherent attacking play and that winger Sean Lamont was receiving praise for his defensive work shows how absent their offensive threat was. Stuart Hogg was never given a chance to show-off his wonderful talent while the Scottish lineout disintegrated from the first minute. It's hard to see where they go from here. They will go into the Italy Test as underdogs and Vern Cotter's arrival cannot come soon enough.
The last complete performance Wales put together was against England in the final match of the 2013 Six Nations. Against Ireland, when Wales' Plan A failed, there was no back-up option. Nothing clicked and Mike Phillips' visible growing frustration personified the mood of the team. Sam Warburton looked off the pace while the decision to leave James Hook on the bench was also baffling.
While some have been quick to hammer the nail into Wales' coffin - former fly-half great Barry John wrote "this Wales team now no longer represents a viable threat to the big boys in the world" - they still have an abundance of talent. After the rigours of the summer and the constant battle engulfing their domestic game, the best thing Warren Gatland can do is give his team some time off this week before they regroup ahead of the threat of the French.
The loss to Ireland could be the perfect tonic for this Welsh team. They will be hurting but they need to use that as a focus for round three's game against France.
Don't mess with O'Driscoll
The clock had just ticked over to the 12th minute of the match as Scott Williams lined-up veteran centre Brian O'Driscoll for some rough justice. As Williams flew, illegally, into O'Driscoll's 35-year-old frame, the world slightly shifted on its axis. Dublin held its collective breath as O'Driscoll lay prone on the turf, but he took some time to readjust his battered torso and rose back to his feet, complete with a little grin, as the stadium exhaled.
For Williams, who must have thought he would come off the better in such an exchange, it proved to be his final action in the match. This might be O'Driscoll's final campaign for Ireland, but he is still 'nails'.
Individual talent the match-winner for France
After a dreadful first-half of rugby in the Stade de France on Sunday, it was individuals in the French team that proved to be the catalyst they needed rather than any semblance of team play. Louis Picamoles' effort was down to his own brute force and perseverance while Wesley Fofana's score was a solo effort. During the first-half France played without any sense of game plan but finally they came to life as a unit for their third effort when Fofana's break teed up Yoann Huget whose basketball pass put Hugo Bonneval over.
Italy's performance was a hark back to the days when they first joined the Six Nations - a showing built on the power of the pack and nothing else. It was a shame as last week they played with endeavour but this round they failed to get the superb Michele Campagnaro on the ball.
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