So where's all the excitement?
February 23, 2004
Italy players had something to cheer when they defeated Scotland © Getty Images
Just over a week ago we were eagerly anticipating what was being talked up as the most competitive Six Nations Championship since its inauguration in 2000. Now we are almost at the halfway stage and the sense of anti-climax is palpable.
In the first round of matches Ireland proved a huge disappointment, caving in tamely against a French team which itself took a long time to spark into life. Wales raised hopes that their World Cup revival was going to be sustained by outplaying Scotland in almost every department and England duly demolished Italy with Jason Robinson the star at outside centre (where I've been telling Sir Clive to play him for the last year).
Round two was horribly predictable. France made comparatively hard work of dispatching Italy but only because they decided it was a day to showboat. At times the loose forwards were spread so wide it appeared as if they were playing with five forwards and ten backs.
England completely dominated Scotland but produced only one quality try in a performance reminiscent of several in the World Cup and Ireland crushed all the Welsh optimism by taking on the Welsh forwards in the tight and exposing a very soft core.
Basically, the old maxim - that forwards win matches and backs decide by how much they are won - is as true as ever. Speaking to Graham Henry a couple of weeks ago in New Zealand that is the strongest message that came out of the World Cup for New Zealand rugby and the Six Nations is emphasising it yet again.
Italy had no line-out against the French so, for all their ferocious and valiant defence, they could never create an attacking platform and, ultimately, were doomed to failure.
Wales were taken apart in the scrums and the driving mauls by Ireland then missed so many tackles it was hard to believe this was the same team that we all thought had rediscovered its pride and heritage in Australia.
It was so bad I just cannot let the post match utterances of Welsh coach, Steve Hansen pass without comment. 'It was the young guns trying to poke their noses in with the big boys and they got a good slap,' he said. 'We haven't arrived yet and we're going to have some bad days.' What does that mean?
'We've got to be more aggressive up front and we've got to make our first time tackles,' he added which was slightly more objective before finishing by assuring everybody, 'I still have complete faith in this side…..we're not back in the old dark ages again.'
I wish I had as much faith. What about the shambolic line-out and the inability to defend against a rolling maul? I have to say I still find it baffling that Hansen is so highly rated as a forwards coach.
The Irish forwards were rampant but it should not be forgotten that they were not at all dominant against France two weekends ago and were even more outplayed by the French in the World Cup where they were 27-0 down at half-time.
Then, when France met England in the World Cup semi-final, having been lauded as the form team of the tournament and promoted by some as the new favourites to win the trophy, they were rendered impotent by the power of Martin Johnson's men. That leaves Ireland adrift of the big two and the rest even further off the power.
Scotland improved a great deal against England without ever threatening their supremacy but after that mauling against Wales they have to be vulnerable and their next match, against Italy in Rome, could be very difficult.
The Italians have had to play their two toughest fixtures first and although they did not threaten England or France they might have enough power to worry Scotland (and Wales but at least they have home advantage this year) if only they can sort out that line-out. They certainly defend in very determined fashion and are showing much more confidence in the backs.
So, after all the hype it would appear that nothing has changed from last season except for a shuffling of the bottom three. A showdown between England and France for the Grand Slam on the final weekend already seems inevitable. What a disappointment.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and currently the managing director of London Welsh
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