Something to cheer about
March 24, 2010
England's battling performance in Paris was a long time in coming © Getty Images
We had to wait until the final round of matches but, at last, we got the full red-blooded Six Nations weekend we had been craving - Wales managed a routine victory for once, Scotland upset the Croke Park farewell celebrations by denying Ireland the Triple Crown and England almost upset the French Grand Slam challenge in Paris.
It was a Saturday to restore faith in northern hemisphere rugby because there had been precious little to cheer in the previous weeks. Wales had provided entertainment with their eccentric performances, Italy had deservedly beaten Scotland and France had swept aside Ireland in imperious fashion but most of the rugby been horribly mediocre - not good with less than 18 months to go to the next World Cup.
But here was something to savour. I can now accept that England are a work in progress because we could actually see progress. Instead of excuses and denial we watched a vibrant performance that really should have ended in victory.
When Chris Ashton was through with time, acres of space, support and only Clement Poitrenaud to beat you would have put your house on a try. Put him in the same situation again and he will score 99 times out of 100 but he is young, this was his first start and he panicked.
That was all there was between England and another famous win in Paris but, despite Martin Johnson's frustration, it was more important that this was one of three blue chip try opportunities. England, for once, played all the rugby. At last we saw them winning quick ball and playing the game on the gain line. Their try was a gem because they made three half-breaks, that created the overlap and, glory be, they actually took it.
It was straight out of the John Dawes, Mike Gibson text book. Most modern players feel the need to spin every pass and will usually miss out the middle man if possible, all too often turning a three on two into a two on two. This time Riki Flutey got a simple shovel pass away to Ashton and the young winger showed the art of finger tip passing is not dead after all by releasing Ben Foden with the deftest of touches - brilliant.
It is absolutely essential that England learn the lessons from this. Johnson will probably try to tell us this was what they had been aiming for all along but it was the first time on his watch that they have conspicuously played the whole match at pace. Some of the forwards are not yet comfortable with that but they will be. I shall be surprised if we see much more of Steve Borthwick.
It was a strange performance from France. Perhaps it was the weather, perhaps it was because the first 12 points came too easily but they almost froze in the second-half and could have had no complaints if they had been beaten.
They need to develop further but, once again, the pack was enviably solid, Morgan Parra and Francois Trinh-Duc are potentially the best half-back combination in the world and if they can get Yannick Jauzion and Mathieu Bastareaud combining as they did against Ireland I still believe they are a good bet for the World Cup.
Ireland and Wales will be the two most disappointed nations - both have gone backwards and both have the same problem - they cannot compete up front. The Irish back-row is superb and there is still life in Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan but the front-row is simply not good enough - the fact that John Hayes has won 100 caps is more an indictment than something to celebrate.
If they had the first choice Welsh front row - Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees and Adam Jones - they would still be a force. It is behind those three that Wales have a big problem. Alun Wyn Jones had a miserable season but is the one player with proven class still able to operate in the back five. They have been over reliant on Martyn Williams since he came out of retirement but it looks as if time has finally caught up with him.
Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards were the dream team but are struggling to inject the vibrancy every Welsh team needs to compete. Bradley Davies and Sam Warburton look promising but otherwise the cupboard looks pretty bare.
There is probably more optimism in the Scottish and Italian camps than there is in Wales. Despite propping up the table they have both made significant progress having suffered from the same problem - a lack of tries.
The most gratifying aspect of Scotland's win in Dublin was, again, the pace at which they played. The speed and power of the new back-row - the 'Killer Bs', John Barclay, Johnnie Beattie and Kelly Brown - has been a revelation. It has given the backs some 'go-forward' ball and, suddenly, they look to have pace and penetration as well.
The same goes for Italy. Their forwards have long been a match for most opposition but once the ball went beyond the scrum-half it was entirely predictable. Now they too are scoring running tries and are growing in confidence with every game.
The World Cup is firmly in everybody's sights and they all know they have to step up to another level by the next Six Nations. It will be a busy summer and autumn for coaches and players alike.
John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and a regular contributor to ESPNscrum.com