Back-row stars take centre stage
ESPN's Gordon Bray
February 14, 2011
England's Nick Easter looks to off load the ball in the tackle during his side's rout of Italy at Twickenham © Getty Images
Thierry Dusautoir Nick Easter Imanol Harinordoquy Jamie Heaslip Ryan Jones Dan Lydiate Sean O'Brien Sam Warburton
The latest round of Six Nations action saw the back-rowers relocate to the front stalls. Whereas the opening weekend thrust the principal backline artists under the spotlight, focus this time was grabbed by the hard-nosed supporting actors.
After leading the charge from the front line in Dublin, French skipper Thierry Dusautoir was named man of the match, an honour that could just as easily have gone to any one of the three Irish back-rowers.
At Murrayfield, Sam Warburton took the plaudits but my rugby Oscar went to No.8 Ryan Jones who was immense in the close quarter combat with his physicality and intelligence, especially when the going was at its toughest.
Sure Chris Ashton stole the show at Twickenham, but make no mistake, the high tempo all-action display of Messrs Easter, Wood and Haskell was the telling conduit between the grafters up front and the speed men trailing behind.
The significance of the Welsh victory cannot be underestimated. Admittedly the much hyped Scots were dreadful at times but that should not detract from the demonstration of self-belief and conviction from the visitors.
Jones epitomized the transformation in Welsh composure, an area that proved their undoing a week earlier against England at Millennium Stadium
When Wales had two men in the sin-bin before half-time and were protecting a 16-0 lead, he singlehandedly diffused the threatening Scottish maul on two occasions.
Instead of conceding a probable 14 points in this period, Wales restricted the exasperated Scots to a lone penalty goal. This inspired defensive sequence equated to the real knockout blow.
Jones plays like a 'keeper of the watch' at the breakdown and although he may not have the explosive ball running ability of an Andy Powell, Wales should salute his effectiveness and big-hearted work rate in their comeback win.
Dan Lydiate and Warburton toiled seamlessly with their back-row mate to frustrate Scotland's revival aspirations while Jonathan Thomas was impressive off the bench in the last quarter with powerful ball carries and clean-out defence.
In the final wash-up, reinstated fly-half James Hook was the catalyst for this excellent turnaround in Welsh fortunes but it was Ryan Jones who provided the glue that held the show together and kept Championship aspirations alive.
Ireland's form reversal at the Aviva Stadium deserved a better outcome. Tight-head prop Mike Ross used his technique to help nullify the threat of William Servat and his French front-row chums. The Irish scrum played smart and won respect.
But it was the ferocious clash of the two back-rows that really left the fans salivating for more. Jamie Heaslip's return at No.8 allowed Sean O'Brien to move to flanker and boy, did he have a stormer.
Opposites Imanol Harinordoquy and Dusautoir were destructive with their unflinching directness in both attack and defence. Both opposing No.8's also produced some intricate handling and aerial skills when linking with the backs.
Two classically balanced back-rows ensured continuity and contributed to both a thrilling contest and spectacle. France deserved their win but if Ireland can reduce their unforced error rate it will be a case of 'visitor beware' in Dublin on March 19 when England pay a visit.
As demonstrated last November at Twickenham against the Wallabies, England are building nicely for the World Cup in New Zealand and will start as favourites against the French in the next round of fixtures.
Just like their World Cup-winning team in 2003, they can now unleash their strike-power out wide yet also strangle their opponents when the situation demands.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Gordon Bray is ESPN Australia's Chief Rugby Analyst