Maybe it’s only through the rear-view window that the fascinations of this third Six Nations weekend reveal themselves. Having driven on, I can see that what last time out felt like the death of Gatlandball may be the start of something yet. Suddenly strange to think of an uninspiring but robustly competent Welsh performance in France as in any way pivotal but Ireland’s rumbustious, Sexton-centric win over England had the feel of pressures – maybe edges? – closing in around it. As we all chug along together towards the Rugby World Cup it’s not just us passengers who are shuffling for that energising ride… those mythical box seats.
Broadly, with Ireland playing for forty-something minutes and losing their mighty fulcrum to injury, there may be an argument that Europe’s finest either are or will simply be no match for New Zealand and South Africa when this admittedly significant preamble is over. Meaning the gulf persists. Meaning the ordinariness of the fayre on Sun afternoon (second half, certainly) points to another domestic scuffle played out beneath, behind the level of the elite. This then to be confirmed, cruelly rubber-stamped by events later in the year.
Negative? Okay. But England were so abject at kicking and catching they lost the right to be considered contenders (unless something pretty remarkable happens). Ireland, whilst having the best team pattern (courtesy the best coach) and that tremendous gnarly will, remain a threat but must pray to gods contemporary and celtic that their number ten stays healthy. Wales emerge again into this because their limitations – Gatlandball itself – simply suit group-stage tournament play. Thus the pack(s) ha-ha, are a-shufflin’.
Saturday had its moments – ‘course it did. But the game at the Stade was relatively ordinary and Scotland bombed disastrously back into that third division; it was – despite the possibility that Wales may yet win this thing – a prelude. Sunday in Ireland was the one; that was what we thought. A win for Gatland against the most extraordinarily and perennially badly organised and under-motivated French was no big deal; France are almost hopeless; Wales are solid and powerful and they have Halfpenny. So what?
Well whilst there remains the possibility that Ireland may find another level and go on to boss this championship (and therefore grasp that momentum we all more-or-less recognise) that feels less likely, does it not, than previously? With Wales if not on the march then certainly re-stating something relatively profound, the drift to dominance of the Irish and arguably the English is stalled. Because Wales really might do Ireland at home… and because England once more marked out the distance yet to travel with a shabby performance in Dublin.
I have to emphasise here, as a critic of the Gatland ethos, that Wales’ one-dimensionality will be obstructive, ultimately, in terms of the World Cup. However as we re-calibrate our appreciation for England downwards, the odds on Wales coming through their mutual ‘group of death’ have risen. Because a spunky and solid Brotherhood of Reds really might do England, or at least the seemingly lost England that lacked discipline, nerve and tactical nous yesterday.
At the Stade de France the natives surely could barely believe that Les Bleus could be so Pollockesque. In their flecked swoops and swooshes they lacked again the majestic prescience – or even science – of the great expressionist. They doodled occasionally and never joined the thing up. Again. It was another trauma, a can-can on marbles for the locals.
As this capacity for Frenchness, for swashbuckling misunderstanding, for the art of duffness, soars yet further into parody so inevitably the Wales win is devalued a notch. Gatland, Howley, McBryde and co may beg to differ. They’ll be quietly congratulating themselves on the long, wise game they’ve been playing. The one that gets them to a World Cup quarter-final – and bollocks to their critics.
The game itself was rarely entertaining. Roberts made a point or two, Halfpenny was metronomic and there may have been just the hint of Davies finding his game. Williams had little opportunity, in truth, but his bow-legged scampering seems to add to the whole. North remains the Giant Who Sleeps – or who is concussed, perhaps, by the system? The try fashioned by Webb and Lydiate and finished by Biggar was the stand-out moment. Searing support runs and a mercurial offload from the back-row man. A killer move that deserved to separate these sides.
Ireland started gloriously against the English, the difference in quality between the respective teams kicking and catching being evident almost from the whistle. Sexton and Murray hoisted well and often, with Bowe and Henshaw racing in to threaten and compete. Ford played well enough, but England’s kicking and kick-chase – or lack of it – were shambolic. It may be that they had made the tactical decision not to compete for their own bombs but this of course meant that the Irish backline could gather unopposed, gain confidence and legspeed and energise the hoolie blowing down the pitch. Everything from England was hoisted ten yards too far.
If this was simply poor execution of a relatively basic skill then 9, 10 and 15 have some serious work to do. If as I suspect Lancaster believed his lads would be big enough, tough and well organised enough to play a containing game and look to break out with devastating effect then the suspicion arises that too much coaching has been going on. All games at all levels are simple. Possession and confidence are key.
Ireland could have been out of sight at half-time. Sexton was dominating the whole pitch, being as powerfully present in the hand-to-hand as he was with that boot. Henshaw and Bowe looked a threat and what the Welsh call the hwyl was visibly up – again, partly because England delivered so much possession into Irish paws. At the break an emphatic win for Schmidt seemed overwhelmingly likely. But things did change.
After about 50 minutes, England stirred and Ireland were finally retreating. (It may not have been a coincidence that around this time Sexton walked gingerly from the park reaching for his hamstring). Weirdly, England’s kicking and catching continued to be disastrous but with Easter and maybe Wrigglesworth, things lifted. The backs freed their legs once or twice. Astonishingly for me, the mundane Twelvetrees came on when the deficit at this point cried out for Ford at 10 and Cipriani at 12.
Predictably, England’s bench made a difference but Lancaster’s use of it was as poor as his side’s execution throughout. There was a fleeting sense of a gallant come-back… but then no. The Irish deservedly held out. In the win, however, there were concerns; that reliance on Sexton being foremost. Here’s hoping that the brilliant Schmidt will not be too satisfied with what he saw. Us Europeans will need more than this, come September.