IAIN Morrison gives Stuart Lancaster’s side the edge at the midpoint of the Championship, but reckons Wales won’t give up their title without a fight.
Overall: Barring 22 minutes of madness in their opening-day defeat in Paris the English could have been contemplating their first clean sweep since 2003. Still, they have passed two other tests with flying colours and the victory over a hard-nosed Ireland is being seen as a watershed moment for Stuart Lancaster’s young and inexperienced team.
Could do better: The midfield trio still look like they met five minutes before kick-off and stand-off Owen Farrell’s petulance will get him into trouble one day. With “Smokin” Sam Burgess, Manu Tuilagi and George Ford all to come into the mix at least Lancaster has options down the line.
Coaches’ Corner: Lancaster took the brave step of asking his players to take several hundred of the same through a Twickenham car park noted for its G&Ts rather than its ability to gee up the troops. The stroll with the fans paid off and Lancaster was rewarded last weekend against Ireland with the most animated crowd at HQ anyone can remember, a big bonus with a World Cup looming.
Overall: Beating England in Paris was a good start but Les Bleus were lucky with the bounce of the ball and they struggled to subdue an ordinary Italian XV before being kyboshed in Cardiff last weekend. Worse than the loss was the petulant attitude of Louis Picamoles and skipper Pascal Pape. Picamoles is out on his ear for sarcastically applauding the referee and Pape, who was also disrespectful, survives by the skin of his teeth. Meanwhile, coach Philippe Saint-Andre’s reputation remains in the mutt house.
Could do better: What happened to the fearsome French set scrum? It used to frighten the bejesus out of every prop from from Dundee to Dunedin but the beast is either lifeless or perhaps just sleeping.
Coaches’ corner: An appropriate phrase in the case of Saint-Andre who is well and truly cornered. Bottom of the class last year and struggling to make an impact this season, he will take this squad into next year’s World Cup regardless.
Overall: You have some sympathy for the Italians who scored two tries in Cardiff and have unearthed a gem in outside centre Michele Campagnaro. They followed up that Welsh game with a decent showing against France, especially in the scrum, but the second-half meltdown against Scotland should never have been allowed to happen. Throwing away one lead may be unlucky but throwing away two is more than a little careless, as Oscar Wilde didn’t quite say.
Could do better: Tommy Allan is a very decent stand-off but Matt Scott softened him up and Sean Lamont ran right over him for Scotland’s second try. He needs some tackling practice and Ireland are sure to give him it.
Coaches’ corner: Jacques Brunel has his team playing some rugby and attacking with the ball in hand but the locals wanted the veteran Luciano Orquera on earlier against Scotland and they might have had a point.
Overall: It’s been a good Six Nations for the Irish, especially bearing in mind they have been without the injured Sean O’Brien, Donnacha Ryan and Tommy Bowe. Turnover specialist Peter O’Mahony is a doubt after tweaking his hamstring. The Irish did for Welsh hopes of a Grand Slam and they could have won that epic at Twickenham. With a healthy points advantage they remain strong title contenders but La France await in two weeks’ time and the Irish rarely return from Paris smiling
Could do better: Johnny Sexton has only shown his best in glimpses and he might not get an opportunity to put things right after injuring his thumb against England.
Coaches’ corner: Joe Schmidt still looks a canny signing for the Irish, even after taking second place in the Twickenham stakes. Under his guidance Ireland’s backline looks menacing but he may need to replace one or two veterans this side of the World Cup.
Overall: The Scots saved some face with that stirring and dramatic climax to the Roman thriller but what went before, in the unlikely event you have forgotten, was beyond awful. The Scots must bare their competitive teeth in every Test and, so far, they have done so for half a match in Rome and a little less than that in Dublin. At least Alex Dunbar and Matt Scott look like a handy pair of midfield prospects.
Could do better: Both half-backs need to improve their decision making. Chris Cusiter looks sharp so why not start him at scrum-half against France?
Coaches’ corner: It took Scott Johnson two and a half games (almost exactly halfway through this tournament) to field a team that could win its own set-piece ball. That is two and a half games too many.
Overall: They have lost their Grand Slam chance and, instead, Wales have inherited the title of “enigmas” from the French. Woeful against Ireland, wonderful against France, Twickenham will prove a real test of Welsh resolve on Saturday. If they aren’t suffering a full-blown hangover after contributing the bulk of the Lions Test team, the Taffs are still a little off-colour after all their efforts down under. Jon Davies’ return from injury will allow George North to return to his favoured role out wide.
Could do better: Sam Warburton is short of matches thanks to injury troubles and, while he got pass marks in his French test, there is more to come from the Lions skipper.
Coaches’ corner: Warren Gatland has not fired any of his usual barbs at the opposition and, instead, he kept his powder dry for scrum-half Mike Phillips who, the Kiwi coach has finally realised several years after everyone else, can be a liability.
FIXTURES TO COME:
Round 4 - Saturday 8 March: Ireland v Italy (2.30); Scotland v France (5.00). Sunday 9 March: England v Wales (3.00).
Round 5 - Saturday 15 March: Italy v England (1.30); Wales v Scotland (2.45); France v Ireland (6.00).