With the northern hemisphere sides still recovering from their various disappointments, the World Cup is inevitably casting a bit of a shadow over the start of this Six Nations. The retirement of the likes of Paul O’Connell, Thierry Dusautoir and, though it pains me to say it, Mike Phillips, has also left us with a bit of a legend deficit this year. Montage editors at the BBC and ITV must be scratching their heads as they scour the squad profiles for instantly recognisable faces.
England’s team doesn’t yet contain any truly talismanic names such as those mentioned above, They do, however, have genuine quality in every position, and a clutch of players – George Ford, Joe Launchbury, Anthony Watson, Mike Brown – with the ability to poke their heads above the parapet and change games. Even coach Eddie Jones, who initially seemed to think he was here as the saviour of a real basket case, looks to have altered his opinion on the talent available to him after just a couple of training sessions. It is interesting that, after watching hundreds of hours of live Premiership matches and poring over a terabyte’s worth of stats and video footage, Jones has drawn almost exactly the same conclusions as Stuart Lancaster.
Picking the same old faces reflects the fact that a Six Nations match, even against a side for which Jones clearly has so little respect, is no place to be learning on the job, and also that the previous regime, implicitly derided by Jones in his first press conferences, might have had a clue after all.
One area which has been slightly tweaked, and I would say improved, is the second row. Playing George Kruis alongside Launchbury gives England probably the most all-round athletic and dexterous pairing they have had. Their selection also highlights that talk of England coming to bulldoze Scotland may be misleading. Launchbury and Kruis are huge men, but are just as likely to look for the extra pass or offload as to charge into a brick wall. Of course, their pack will drive a fair share of lineouts and look to milk penalties from the scrum (apologies for reminding you of this scintillating feature of the Six Nations), as will every other team. But, in open play, England’s only truly destructive runner in heavy traffic is Billy Vunipola. Elsewhere, if I was defending close in, I’d be more concerned about the soft hands of those locks and Chris Robshaw. Even James Haskell can play a bit when the kitman gives him the right size of jersey.
England are very good at that stuff, which is what made their reversion to mindless one-out hitting in the World Cup so surprising.
Scotland, meanwhile, are clearly working hard to improve their defence, but, perhaps specifically, their work at the defensive breakdown, an area for which Richie Gray has been brought on board. We struggled in 2015 partly because teams were getting such quick ball against us, and no defensive system can cope with rucks lasting two seconds. The word on the street is that, during the last Six Nations, Vern Cotter brought in a ban on going for steals, as we were being penalised off the park at the ruck. I have played in teams where the coach has done the same, or perhaps given only a couple of players licence to go for ball (Francois Louw being one of them). Everyone else was allowed counter-ruck after the tackle if it was on to do so; if not, simply resume your spot in the defensive line.
The problem at Test level is the intensity of the carry and, more importantly, the clear-out is so great that it is almost impossible to impact the speed or quality of the ball by counter-rucking.
That’s why having a couple of good stealers or “jackals” is so vital. With Alex Dunbar, one of our best, still missing, you get the feeling that this is partly why John Barclay has been brought back. I think he has just got the edge over Blair Cowan, who often gets in good positions, but doesn’t always manage to withstand the onslaught of the cleaners.
It is a truly hellish place to put your body, yet the likes of David Pocock and Richie McCaw make it look like the comfiest spot in the world. Maybe the terminology shapes the mentality: in the southern hemisphere he’s a “fetcher”, just going about an unpleasant but necessary task, a functionary of the team. Similarly unglamorous, in France he’s a “gratteur”, or scraper, while the Argentines go for the slightly more poetic “pescador” (fisherman).
Whatever you call it, it’s a rare skill, combining timing, bravery, flexibility and pure strength.
Apparently, in their session with George Smith, the English back-rowers were amazed by the judo-like speed and body awareness of the 35-year-old around the contact area. You just hope they didn’t pick up too many of his hard-won secrets in that much-publicised half-hour.