Paul Williams: Guinness Six Nations opening weekend reflections

Will Jennings
05 February 2020

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Each game week Paul Williams ‘Black & White’ column will take a look around the world of the Guinness PRO14 and beyond. Known for his contributions to Rugby World, his obsession for the game and his notorious tennis elbow, as an independent columnist Paul will bring his unique takes on rugby to pro14rugby.org. With no grey areas, entertainment and enlightenment are assured. A must follow on  Twitter  @thepaulwilliams

Scotland can’t blame an individual

Make no mistake, Scotland were very close to beating Ireland in Dublin.

The gap in possession, territory, line-breaks and number of defenders beaten was as small as the gap between Stuart Hogg’s hand and the ball.

Many will blame Hogg for the entire loss, which would be hugely unjust. Others would blame the individual handling errors that were made in Ireland’s red zone, but even those hands can’t shoulder the entire blame.

If you’re looking for an individual error for Scotland’s defeat, it’s that so many of their ball carriers were allowed to carry into double tackles as individuals – with no latch or clean-out in sight. Carrying without a latch or pod on the halfway line is one thing – there are bigger gaps in that part of the field and the collision is easier to win.

But when you’re carrying on the try-line, where defenders are more closely fused than a bag of out of date Wotsits, the odds are stacked against you. If you’ve got giant lumps at No. 8, No. 6 and No. 12 then you can maybe get away with a single carrier, but Scotland don’t have that luxury, sadly.

Nick Tompkins has opened-up Wales’ midfield

Gavin Henson may have an issue with Nick Tompkins playing for Wales, which is strange, given that Tompkins qualifies for Wales via blood not residency.

However, after Tompkins’ debut performance in Wales, Henson may be a lone voice. He has opened up Wales’ midfield in two regards.

Firstly, he has added a much-needed layer of pressure to the existing centres and given Wales depth in their shallowest position. But secondly, and most importantly, he has brought them a level of distribution that we haven’t seen since James Hook.

Tompkins’ pass to Leigh Halfpenny was beautiful. The Saracens’ centre didn’t need to check his stride and more importantly neither did Halfpenny – it was like watching an arc of Devonshire Cream pouring across the halfway line.

But perhaps Tompkins’ greatest asset appears to be that he is already ready for Test rugby and little is going to stand in his way.

He has the look of a man who is sick of standing at the back of the rugby queue – at club and international level – and is now pushing his way to the front desk regardless of who is standing in front of him and how long they’ve been waiting.

Well played, Nick, and welcome to Wales.

Hat tip for CJ Stander

No. 8s are always under pressure. Not only are eight other men trying to drive you backwards in the scrum and make you fumble the ball – like Donald Trump trying to repeat a two-syllable word – you also have two of your own locks squeezing your head together like a 240kg flesh vice.

But the pressure has increased further recently for CJ Stander. With Caelen Doris and Max Deegan breathing down his girthy neck and Andy Farrell clearly looking to spring clean his squad further, the Munster No. 8 has been getting it from all angles.

Yet, you would never know it given his performance against Scotland. Stander’s display may not have featured any 30m YouTube line-breaks, or any ‘Gooseneck’ offloads, but it was exactly what Ireland required and exactly when they required it.

Those who are calling for CJ Stander to be replaced may need to appreciate that Test rugby is very different to provincial rugby and he still has a lot to offer Andy Farrell. Well played CJ.

Two tens rarely add up to twenty

As much as Super Rugby sycophants like myself love a ‘passing’ No. 12, playing two No. 10s is an experiment which rarely works at test level.

The All Blacks struggled with it, South Africa have never made it work, no-one in the Northern Hemisphere has ever mastered it and it was main reason Sir Clive Woodward’s British & Irish Lions’ tour to New Zealand failed in 2005.

The only team ever to manage it has been Australia when Matt Giteau or Quade Cooper featured at No. 12. And even then, most Wallabies supporters wore precautionary brown underwear any time Cooper started at inside centre.

With such a glaring list of failed experiments it was a big risk for Italy to start Carlos Canna at No. 12 and Tommaso Allen at fly-half, and so it panned out. The switch may have seemed logical given Wales’ injuries at centre, and the thinking was probably to get the ball to the No. 13-channel as quickly and possible and see how George North coped from there, but in reality, it went the other way.

Wales hit Canna like a Black-Friday sale, forcing him to make a staggering 18 tackles in midfield – just three less than Justin Tipuric.

Italy simply don’t have the set-piece or the carriers to cope with losing an inside centre or who can punch through midfield, and it would be a shock to see the system used again during the Six Nations.

Shaun Edwards is all over France like shingles

Rugby just doesn’t seem like rugby without France, but hopefully that may be about to change – their win over England was fantastic for their nation, the tournament and the sport as a whole.

In truth, it was an unusual victory. France has 39 per cent of the ball and just 30 per cent of the territory.

France’s set piece was as flaky as Labour’s Brexit policy, and held together by the military grade carrying of Gregory Alldritt. Their young backline played as billed, with Antoine Dupont and his gang of hot steppers causing chaos in England’s wider channels.

However, the victory was all underpinned by Shaun Edwards’ immediate impact on France’s defensive line.  They had a defensive completion of 90 per cent, which is the minimum that Edwards will accept but a number that France have regularly failed to achieve in recent seasons.

We must of course state that England played badly. Quite why they continued to run Manu Tuilagi’s plays for Jonathan Joseph is a mystery, and choosing not to take a proper ball carrier at No. 8 is either stubborn or stupid.

But either way, France deserved that win and rugby is better for it. Well played France.

Bring back the spiral kick

If you were born after 1995 then there’s a good chance you don’t even know what a spiral kick is. The safer, more predictable ‘end-over-end’ kick is now the go-to and the spiral is reserved for tales of yore when 50-year-old men tell their kids of Lee Byrne and Barry Davies.

That was until Sunday, when Anthony Bouthier delivered one of the finest spiral-kicks the game has seen.

Cutting a lone figure on his own in front of his try-line, Bouthier launched the ball to England’s 5m line, which is a distance that you simply cannot achieve with the end-over-end.

The beauty of the spiral is that it allows for a reasonably predictable roll when the spin releases, on contact with the ground, and it is a skill that rugby needs to rediscover.

The game is constantly looking for game-changing moments, and revisiting the beauty of the spiral could be key. Well played Bouthier, you made my weekend.

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