Wales facing unenviable task
February 9, 2011
Richie Gray was a major plus for Scotland © Getty Images
Two weeks ago I was worrying about the Six Nations having lost its allure - I should have known better. After the opening round of matches the scene is set for an epic contest.
For that to happen you need every country to be competitive and after last weekend the bookies will have been hurriedly revising their odds. England and France, the pre-tournament favourites, both started impressively and put down the expected markers but the rest of the pecking order is much more difficult to predict.
I was pretty confident that Ireland and Wales would be battling it out for third and fourth with Scotland and Italy fighting yet again to avoid the wooden spoon. Now, I am not so sure.
Italy should have beaten Ireland and although Scotland were beaten comprehensively by a very good French side I believe they will have taken more positives than negatives from their performance in Paris. Both countries have found a cutting edge in attack - something I, for one, despaired of and huge credit must go to the coaches, Andy Robinson and Nick Mallett, who have made the most of very limited resources. Wales and Ireland are now the countries under real pressure because their foundations looked very shaky.
It is 40 years since I kicked the goal that was dubbed 'the greatest conversion since St Paul' at Murrayfield for Wales to beat Scotland 19-18 in the final minute. To my constant amazement it is one of those moments that every rugby fan over the age of 50 seems to remember and this week everybody wants to talk about it, which is lovely but, to be honest, about as relevant as the dinosaur.
Except for one thing - it does illustrate just how difficult Wales have found winning at Murrayfield down the years. We had a great side in 1971 and went on to win the Grand Slam but, even though I felt we were always the better side, we almost came to grief.
Wales are certainly not favourites this time round. Against England they fought tooth and nail until the end but there was no real platform without Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones so they were always struggling for possession.
The class of '71 always said we needed only 40% of possession to win but there is no such self-belief in the current side. They kicked the ball away two or three times when they had England down to 14 men and Shane Williams' (of all people) chip through on the stroke of half-time - a 100-1 shot - instead of keeping the ball in hand to open up England spoke volumes to me.
In contrast Scotland have a totally new mindset. The pack has been improving for the past couple of seasons and now they have a second-row pairing to match any country in the world. We all knew Alastair Kellock was pretty useful, and the captaincy seems to have lifted his game to another level, but Richie Gray was a revelation against France. His tackle count in open play was unbelievable for a lock and I would bet he covered more ground than the average flanker.
There was also much more penetration from the backs. The whole game was played at an extraordinary pace, easy if you are the side in the ascendancy but very difficult when you are on the defensive. If Scotland can carry on where they left off in Paris, Wales are in trouble. Their losing sequence has sapped confidence and they will have to step up the pace and offer far more in attack if they are to win in Edinburgh.
England, who nearly always looked short on confidence last season, seem comfortable with their gameplan and their ability to execute it. Italy will test them up front but I cannot see beyond an England victory and, having gained that all-important victory in Cardiff, I expect them to become more expansive and adventurous.
The only cause for concern is the centre partnership. It would be wrong to describe Shontayne Hape and Mike Tindall as a weakness but they are certainly not a strength and I am not sure they are skilful enough at the very highest level.
What Martin Johnson would give for Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy as his midfield pairing. Although neither had a great game against Italy I am sure they'll last through to the World Cup and Declan Kidney will be worrying much more about his props.
Irish scrummaging has been a weakness for the last decade but now it looks dire and I dread to think what the French front-row is going to do to Cian Healey and Mike Ross because they demolished what was previously considered to be a fairly powerful Scottish front three. France were awesome against Scotland after the inexplicable catastrophe against Australia and the subsequent tales of Marc Lievremont having lost the confidence of the senior players.
This weekend it is a question of consolidation for France and England but the most significant match will undoubtedly be at Murrayfield. Wales would happily settle for another 19-18.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton talks to World Cup-winning captain John Smit about life after rugby, his fears over the South African exodus and the World Cup
The reopening of the openside debate, a dominant wolf-pack and a sublime performance in defeat - Monday Maul looks at the weekend's talking points
The latest Week in Pictures takes in the Rugby Championship alongside the best photographs from around the domestic game
Amy Perrett, the Australian referee who whistled the Women's Rugby World Cup final after handling only six Tests, talks to Jamie Lyall