It was a weekend where Ireland and Scotland got their Six Nations off to a perfect start with wins over Wales and England respectively. Both defeated teams were beginning their new era under fresh leadership — Warren Gatland back with Wales and Steve Borthwick taking charge of England. And on Sunday, Grand Slam-holders France edged past Italy in Rome.
No immediate bounce from the new bosses
Those wishing for a swift change in fortunes for England and Wales were given a stark reminder of the rebuilding job facing both camps. If we take the Six Nations as a mountain then you have Ireland and France nearing the summit, Scotland a little further behind, Italy making steady progress but England and Wales at base camp.
Perhaps we were too romantic in expecting Steve Borthwick and Warren Gatland to have an immediate impact, leading some to predict (hope) either one, or both, might pull off a remarkable opening round victory. But though the results went against them and the pain of defeat stings as sharp as ever, once the emotion levels out, there is some solace for both.
As Borthwick walked down the stairs of Twickenham’s East Stand at full time on Saturday, the England head coach was already thinking ahead to Italy who they face on Sunday. Borthwick, who has an incredible attention to detail, had thousands of thoughts running through his mind, snapshots of the game where he felt the team didn’t quite click and moments they could have managed better. He was already trying to work out when he could get in front of the laptop and look at where things fell short in their 29-23 defeat to Scotland.
“I think you probably know I’ll be looking closely at the game at the earliest opportunity,” Borthwick said. “That’s what the players deserve.”
As Borthwick gave an early assessment of England’s performance against Scotland, he was comparing the work they’d done in the 11 days leading up to the match with how far they have to grow as a team. He didn’t sugar-coat the mission ahead of him, or the state of the team he’s inherited.
“I’ve been frank from day one in saying there’s a lot of work to do,” Borthwick said. “When I looked at the team in the autumn, when I measured the team and got all the data for the team, we weren’t good at anything. It was as frank as that.”
You can see his point. Take the scrum — England had an 85% success rate in the autumn Tests, the worst of all 11 Tier One nations. On a human level, the pack’s pride wasn’t so much dented, as obliterated.
“That’s tough, it has to change,” Jamie George said post-match when asked about their recent scrum form. The maul had become ineffective: “That also has to change,” George continued.
Their speed of ball at the breakdown was ninth quickest out of the Tier One nations in November. So if that’s the base level that Borthwick says he has inherited, then Saturday’s performance — in most areas — was a marked improvement.
There’s a long way to go in a short amount of time. That’s the challenge facing Borthwick — there are no shortcuts as he tries to get this enormous ship back on course. You could see how much defeat hurts Borthwick, he so dearly wanted to start with a win. But he took heart from some areas of the performance.
“We are trying to rebuild the set piece here. That takes time,” Borthwick said. “You saw some improvement in our attack. In terms of the way we hit in defence, there were improvements there but there were a couple of tries which they [Scotland] took brilliantly, which is immense credit to them.”
It’s a fair assessment. England’s attack did look far more potent than we’ve recently seen with both Max Malins tries the result of patience over panic. But you can also see how much work needs to be done. England’s defence was far too porous — they were caught out for Huw Jones’ score, while Ben White did well to finish off his darting effort, though it came off the back of some awful decisions around the breakdown. Duhan van der Merwe’s wonder try would have infuriated Kevin Sinfield — England’s defence coach — and given the personnel around the winger for his winning effort in the 70th minute, you’d have expected them to halt him before he managed to burrow over.
“There were bits where those cracks appeared and allowed them in won’t be there next week,” Borthwick said.
By the time Scotland were parading the Calcutta Cup around Twickenham, we had already seen Wales been given a chastening reminder of where they are in the earlier kick off.
Changing head coaches nine months out of a World Cup is never a good sign: to activate the emergency protocol, things must be going badly. Gatland knew the scale of the task facing him as he replaced Wayne Pivac and his team was a mix of generations: his familiar old warhorses, and those bright young things who are sparkling for the regions.
You could have forgiven Gatland a momentary thought at half time if he wondered whether he was right in leaving behind the calm of Waikato for the Cardiff cauldron, but he’s back in his element. And given they were 24 points down to Ireland at half time, he was pleased with how they rallied in the second half, drawing that 7-7.
Just like England, Wales are a team in transition and lacking that edge of familiarity which Ireland, Scotland and France benefit from. Ireland were so precise, a well-oiled machine where the parts know instinctively how to click together — and all that without Tadhg Furlong, Cian Healy, Jamison Gibson-Park and Robbie Henshaw.
In short, the start killed Wales. Up until the 24th minute, they were conceding a point-a-minute.
But you sense Gatland doesn’t feel there’s the same size of a rebuilding job at Wales compared to what Borthwick’s contending with. He took heart from Wales’ fightback, and said the errors and mistakes they made are easily rectifiable.
“At the end of the game, I said in my head that I actually wasn’t that disappointed with our performance,” Gatland said. “In the past, we’ve been able to work hard and fix things.”
Before the rugby got started on Saturday, sport had already witnessed a minor miracle. In his first game in charge of Everton, Sean Dyche masterminded a key 1-0 win for his new side over Arsenal. It showed the bounce-effect of a new manager, and how it can rip up rhyme and reason. But rugby’s a less forgiving sport.
“If you look at the nature of the game and the complexity of the game of rugby compared to football you can see there are multiple facets that you need to put in place,” Borthwick said. “You need to build combinations and cohesion together.” Both Gatland and Borthwick have sizeable rebuilding jobs on their hands with a World Cup just nine months away.
Honour in defeat no longer enough for Italy
Italy can no longer find comfort in valiant defeats. They’ve made such strides over the past year, and freed their shoulders from the burden of repeated losses that their 29-24 defeat to France on Sunday will sting.
In the closing stages of the match, Italy had France exactly where they wanted them. Two penalties in the France half, and a chance to get within five metres of the French line. But Tommaso Allan’s kicks failed to get the required territorial gain, and ultimately the distance proved too great for Italy. It’ll hurt, and this is progress.
Their win over Wales in their final match of last year’s Six Nations snapped their 36 match run in the championship without a win. They followed that up with a win over Australia in the November Tests — Kieran Crowley’s fingerprints were all over both victories. They have a strong spine to the team, a group of grafters aided by the magical feet of Ange Capuozzo at the back. But they are bored of the wooden spoon — they, rightly, feel it’s time for someone else to have that ignominy.
France ultimately showed why they are fancied to win the World Cup this year. Even with an uncharacteristically undisciplined performance, they found a way to grind out the win with Antoine Dupont again imperious. They were better than Italy, deserved the victory and have room to improve. That’s the benchmark, and why Ireland and France are ahead of the rest.
For Italy it was another step forward, but one riddled with regret. They are no longer pushovers in the Six Nations, and neither is their status in the tournament up for debate. They are a tricky, well-drilled team and their ambition and self-belief should be a concern for the rest of the sport.
Capuozzo was again brilliant for Italy from fullback, but the performance of the weekend was undoubtedly Van der Merwe’s against England. His two tries were completely different, but brilliant in their own way.
It was not a weekend where defence coaches would’ve been sitting comfortably. England left Twickenham with 20 missed tackles, Wales’ start against Ireland was passive while Italy gifted France early tries.
What to watch out for next week
It’s going to be a blockbuster second round. On Saturday, Ireland open against France in Dublin in what could well end up being a Grand Slam-decider. But Scotland will have their say in that matter when they host Wales in Edinburgh. And England will be desperate to get their first win under Borthwick when Italy travel to Twickenham. It’s going to be fascinating, tough to call and will not want for drama.