Tom English: Six Nations hits ground running

Scotland debutant Sean Maitland (second right) attempts to find a way through the England defence. Picture: SNS
Scotland debutant Sean Maitland (second right) attempts to find a way through the England defence. Picture: SNS
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The opening gambits of a Six Nations championship can be riddled with rust and caution – undercooked teams not so much exploding from the blocks as coming out in instalments. Not this year. This was something special.

Three games and three seismic victories. On day one in Cardiff, Ireland’s ferocity and accuracy in establishing an unassailable lead over a befuddled Wales was jaw-dropping. At Twickenham, England’s ambition and intensity swatted Scotland aside. Neither of these, though, had the turbulent brilliance of Italy’s ransacking of the French in Rome.

We saw some elan, so many things that made you smile. The daring of Billy Twelvetrees on his debut for England, that piece of football skill from Simon Zebo in his first Six Nations match, the vision and glorious execution of Brian O’Driscoll when giving Zebo a try-scoring pass earlier in the day at the Millennium, the same eulogies applying to Owen Farrell when drifting a long-range right-to-left pass over the heads of two Scots and into the hands of Geoff Parling for a score at Twickenham. And, yes, the effervescence of Stuart Hogg, too. His was a performance of the highest class, a glimpse at the sun on another dark day for his country.

The only contest Scotland won came post-match, when Scott Johnson triumphed as analyst of the day in his summation of what went wrong. It was hardly the prize he was looking for, but it’s the only one he got. The sound of nails being hit on heads could be heard in the room when Johnson spoke of Scotland’s woeful inadequacy at the breakdown, a problem that is threatening to become a calamity with the news that Alasdair Strokosch has been invalided out of the championship. Where to turn to now ahead of the colossal challenge of halting the Italians? David Denton is more bark than bite, and in any case he is not what Scotland needs.

Wanted: One groundhog. Must have uncanny ability to break the rules at the breakdown and not get caught. Previous experience in wrecking with the heads of opponents when the ball is on the floor essential. The Poles swear by the healing powers of their cryotherapy chambers in Spala. Somebody get Ross Rennie on a plane pronto.

The breakdown is the beginning, the end and the in-between of these Test matches. England know what they are doing when the ball is on the floor; Scotland do not. Ireland know the technique and the power and the downright lawlessness (at times) that is required to speed up your ball and to mess with the opposition’s. Scotland are not at the races. Italy pulled it off against the French. Johnson’s team have much work to do.

It’s about numbers at rucks, it’s about a bit of science and a lot of belligerence and doing what needs to be done, it’s about making yourself the biggest pain in the arse you can possibly be. Dan Cole did it for England. Tom Wood did it. Chris Robshaw did it. Strokosch might have done it for Scotland but he departed early. In his absence, Scotland were easy meat. Johnson said that his team weren’t bullied, but they were. In the collisions, and across all points of physical confrontation, England made small boys of their visitors. Their superior grunt gave Twelvetrees and Farrell the confidence, and the space, to play. Their essential toughness created an environment whereby both of their second-rows scored tries within minutes of each other at the height of England’s performance, albeit one of the tries being disallowed.

There was bullying in Cardiff, too. The preamble to that was dominated by Ireland’s hat-trick of defeats by the Welsh in the recent past, the loss that most haunted them being the quarter-final of the World Cup in Wellington. Honesty poured out of the Irish pack when talking about that loss. Why did Wales win that night? Because, said the Jamie Heaslips and the Sean O’Briens and the Cian Healys, they out-thought and out-fought and beat Ireland up. That was the backdrop. Ireland went to Cardiff with vengeance in mind. And how they had it. For 45 minutes they played with remarkable pace and gave Wales a lesson in the physical stuff.

Rory Best was an unconscionable ball-breaker at the breakdown. O’Driscoll and Zebo provided the box-office moments in attack but Best’s masterclass on how to get your body into a ruck and cause mayhem was one of the great catalysts for Wales’s demise. The Ulster hooker got stuck in with such zeal that the Welsh couldn’t shift him no matter what they did. By the time they came up with some answers they were 27 points behind and in need 
of a miracle that was never likely to come.

Dominance on the floor means that teams can launch their big runners, means that if it wasn’t tries they get, it’s penalties and momentum, lots and lots of momentum. Front-foot ball created because of control in the tight. As Johnson said on Saturday evening: “Simple.”

Ireland have had a troubled time of it. In their heart of hearts they know that they have badly underachieved, that if Wales could have three Grand Slams in the last eight years, then they should have more than the one they have. This eats away at them because they know they have it within themselves to be better and we saw that on Saturday.

O’Driscoll remains the top 13 in the northern hemisphere, Jonny Sexton is the best fly-half (Farrell is a contender now, though), Healy the best loosehead prop and Best the pre-eminent hooker. They have brought in new blood, and one of the great achievements of Saturday was that nobody but nobody mentioned the names of Paul O’Connell and Stephen Ferris, previously their totems up front. Yet without two of their toughest characters, Ireland still had too much firepower for Wales.

Their aggression was typified by O’Brien, the farmer from Carlow who topped the tackle stats with 23, who carried the ball a dozen times, who not only played the role of ball-carrier and defender in chief but who also chipped in at times at scrum-half and as lineout thrower when Ireland started to lose men to the bin.

The strength of Ireland’s defence was one of the great features of a remarkable opening weekend. The strength of England’s defence is still unclear as Scotland couldn’t test it often enough, couldn’t win the war on the ground, the one war you must win. The three winners in week one look a street ahead of Scotland.

On Sunday, it’s Ireland versus England, the meeting of the two best teams in the competition. So many flair players, but so much of what happens there will be decided at the bottom of rucks by two impressive packs, two sets of forwards who know what they’re doing.

Make that three. Before the meeting of the Irish and the English comes the visit of the reborn Italians and the beleaguered Scots, a prospect to make all of Murrayfield gulp. Truly, this championship is a thing of wonder. Beauty, brutality and an upset in Italy that shook the ground under our feet. Four more rounds of this left. Hallelujah.