Allan Massie: You can still have a ball without the ball

Owen Farrell kicked England to victory in Dublin last week, but things might have been different if he had been yellow-carded. Picture: Getty
Owen Farrell kicked England to victory in Dublin last week, but things might have been different if he had been yellow-carded. Picture: Getty
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ARE you better without the ball? Sometimes the answer is “yes”. If your scrum-half gets slow ball, with the opposition defence in place, it may be better to kick even if, in doing so, you surrender possession.

At least you are doing this on your own terms, whereas if you try to run bad ball, you risk being turned over behind the gain-line. As Mike Blair remarked the other day, New Zealand kick more than several other international sides, and can usually do so safely because they are confident in their ability to defend. Likewise, in Dublin on Sunday, England were happy to let Ireland have possession because they were incapable of doing much with it.

Looking at the present Scotland team, there is certainly a case for saying that we want to encourage the opposition to kick, and one way of doing so is obviously to kick from the base of the scrum or from fly-half, and invite them to return the kick. Given the running ability of our back three, a poor return kick offers a golden chance to launch a counter-attack. Victory doesn’t always go to the side that dominates possession, and awareness of this explains the preference of so many coaches to have their team play for territory.

This is turning into a fascinating Six Nations. England undoubtedly look the best team so far. There is no obvious weakness in their side and they have shown themselves capable of playing very different styles of game – attacking with ball in hand against us, and playing a pressing game without the ball against Ireland. At Twickenham, they were eager to score tries; in Dublin content to have young Owen Farrell kick penalties.

Nevertheless, matches, as ever, often turn on small things and accidents. Would England have won if Farrell had been penalised and sin-binned as he should have been in the first half when Craig Gilroy charged his kick down and Farrell then took hold of Conor Murray to prevent him from chasing the ball? Would the match have developed differently if Jonny Sexton hadn’t left the field injured? At first, admittedly, one thought this might not damage Ireland’s chances; the conditions seemed made for Ronan O’Gara, who has so often controlled matches in wet weather for Ireland and Munster. But poor O’Gara had a dreadful game. It will be interesting to see if Declan Kidney picks him, in Sexton’s absence, for Murrayfield, or, if like many who have posted their opinions on the Irish Times website, he concludes that, sadly, Ireland’s most-capped No 10 has come to the end of the road.

England now await France at Twickenham, perhaps with eagerness, since France have been dreadful so far, possibly with a bit of apprehension, in case the French spring into life. That’s always possible, but in two matches their pack has looked slow and laboured. There is a danger that England may run them off their feet.

Much may depend on whether the coach, Philippe Saint-Andre, makes changes at half-back. I have always loved watching Freddie Michalak because he is capable of moments of pure genius; sadly, he has been very poor in both matches. There can’t be many in France who agree with Saint-Andre in thinking Maxime Machenaud a better scrum-half than Morgan Parra. But I wouldn’t be surprised if St-Andre obstinately leaves Parra and Francois Trinh-Duc on the bench. Saint-Andre has, however, made valid points in the criticisms he has directed at the Top 14. The scheduling of its matches means that the national side is less well-prepared than other ones. More damaging in the long run is the eagerness of club owners to import ready-made foreigners rather than give opportunities to young French players. There is a shortage now of French – and even French-qualified – props in the Top 14, while Toulouse, Toulon, Clermont Auvergne and Perpignan have all been fielding foreigners at fly-half, as Racing Metro will do next season now that they have signed Jonny Sexton. The Top 14 is in danger of becoming like the Premier League in English football, stuffed with foreign stars to the detriment of the national team.

Meanwhile, here, Scott Johnson would seem to be in the happy position of having no new serious injuries disturbing his team. Euan Murray will, of course, miss the Ireland match, it being on a Sunday, but his absence is cancelled out, as it were, by the indiscretion which has cost Ireland the services of Cian Healy. One supposes that either Geoff Cross or Moray Low will take Murray’s place, and that otherwise the match-day squad will probably remain the same, though Nick De Luca might get a place on the bench if he has come through last night’s game against Cardiff Blues.

Then it will be up to the players to demonstrate that last week’s victory wasn’t a one-off affair. There is absolutely no reason why it should be. Nevertheless, we should all be aware that the Irish Provinces have beaten Edinburgh and Glasgow as regularly as Ireland have beaten our national team over the last ten years or so.