Category Archives: Six Nations

Ireland trio return ahead of Guinness Six Nations

Rob Kearney is back from ‘a dead leg’ to lead Leinster out when they welcome interprovincial rivals Ulster to the RDS Arena in the Guinness PRO14 on Saturday.

The 32-year-old British and Irish Lions full-back has 86 caps for his country and started every game of Ireland’s Grand Slam-winning 2018 Championship campaign.

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Dylan Hartley’s knee injury troubles continue as Six Nations looms

Dylan Hartley has been ruled out for Northampton with a knee injury for the second consecutive week, less than a month before England begin their Six Nations campaign.

The England co-captain has been omitted from the 23-man squad to face Wasps on Sunday, having been a late withdrawal before last Friday’s impressive victory over the Premiership leaders, Exeter. After the match the Northampton director of rugby, Chris Boyd, said Hartley’s omission was a precautionary measure, taken because his knee was “grumbling” but he is among the Saints players considered unavailable for selection against Wasps.

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England’s Owen Farrell is ready to take centre stage in the Six Nations

Put yourself in Owen Farrell‘s boots. Opposite him at Twickenham on Saturday will be the Lions starting fly-half Jonny Sexton, the man who taught him so much during the Lions tour last summer. Up in the coaching box is his father, Andy, who has been coaching him since he could walk. Running on with the water bottles is Mike Catt, constantly at him to improve his game awareness. There are umpteen voices in his ear even before people start talking up his friend George Ford as the coming man of English rugby.

How fascinating, then, a few days before this pivotal Six Nations contest, to hear Farrell insist he has never felt so sure of himself in an England jersey. The louder the tumult and the greater the scrutiny, the happier he is. “I feel comfortable on the field,” he says simply, visibly encouraged by the attacking improvements England are starting to make. As General George Patton once observed: “Pressure makes diamonds.” In Farrell’s case, a glint of high-quality emerald is an opportunity, not a threat.

Because, after a two-year apprenticeship as Jonny Wilkinson’s heir apparent, he is finally emerging as his own man (as opposed to his old man). Why so confident? Partly it is because big occasions bring out the best in him, while England’s last two games against France and Scotland suggested there is more to come. Partly it is a consequence of his two previous starts against Ireland, both of which have ended in English wins. Perhaps most significant of all, though, is that Sexton and Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell, the holy trinity of Irish rugby, now hold no fears. While Lions tours sap the energy of many, they also have a galvanising effect on those on their way up.

The way Farrell tells it, last summer’s Lions tour to Australia will definitely be among the major catalysts if Ireland are beaten. Sexton was the Test fly-half but the 22-year Farrell was like a kid in a sweet shop throughout the trip, squirrelling away all kinds of treats for future use. “Hopefully they thought I was a decent lad and didn’t think I was an idiot,” he says softly. Watching him train at North Sydney Oval in the latter stages of the tour, it was obvious how much he gained from his time at Sexton’s elbow. “He’s a fantastic player and I got on with him really well. We spent a lot of time together and just seeing how players like that work day-in, day-out is the most important thing. He demands people know their jobs and get it right. I had massive respect for him before we even started. I only have more respect for him now.”

It was the same with O’Connell and O’Driscoll, particularly in the tour’s final days when the latter was dropped from the third Test lineup. “If that had happened to anybody else, they could have gone into a massive sulk. It just showed his experience that the team was first for him. No matter how he was feeling, he made sure he didn’t affect anyone else and still added to the group. That was a massive thing for me, watching him as a person and a player.”

He was equally impressed by how O’Driscoll and O’Connell prepared so intently for games even at such an advanced stage of their careers. Such attention to detail is now standard practice within the England camp as well. Catt, Stuart Lancaster and his father have all been stressing the need for their fly-half to be more than just a goal-kicking rock if their team is to fulfil its attacking potential. The upshot has been the nifty show-and-gos which caused both the French and the Scots problems and a developing relationship with his inside centre Billy Twelvetrees. With the lurking running threat of Danny Care and the emphasis on a positive, two-sided attacking strategy, opposing defences can no longer simply sit and wait for England’s midfield to run straight at them.

Little wonder Farrell sounds so upbeat, his 21 caps (he is already in the top 10 English points-scorers of all time) potentially just the start. “It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it before but it’s good seeing it come together. It’s enjoyable seeing what we are doing in training being put into place on the pitch. Everyone’s understanding the detail … for me it’s about making as many correct decisions as possible.”

Playing alongside Care – “I’ve loved it” – has helped, too. It is easy to forget the pair had never started a Test together prior to this championship. They will need to be at their best, however, to break the strong axis between Sexton and the in-form Conor Murray. “I think getting to the half-backs is a big part of any big game,” stresses Farrell. “But it’s not just about [getting to Sexton]. We need to make sure we show them what we do rather than the other way round.” On Saturday evening, Sexton may struggle to recognise the quiet, almost shy kid he was tutoring just nine months ago.

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Six Nations: ‘Toughest loss’, says Matt Scott

CALCUTTA Cup defeat hit Matt Scott hard but he tells Iain Morrison Scotland can be redeemed in Rome

THERE are a great many reasons to envy a professional rugby player his life and lifestyle, his money, his Jaguar and his holiday house, but fronting up to the press just days after having your backside kicked by England in front of millions is not one of them.

After several days of much-needed rest and rehab, for his soul and spirit as much as his battered body, Matt Scott still looks a little shell shocked. He was back at Murrayfield last week for some extra training, you’ll be pleased to hear, instead of getting the customary week off ahead of the fallow weekend in the Six Nations.

The centre’s first-ever start for Scotland came in the blue moon win over the Wallabies in Australia two summers back. If that was the high point, last weekend was the low. Scott has been chewing over the 20-0 defeat all week and, if he has finally managed to get it down, it’s fair to say that the Calcutta Cup performance still sits undigested and uneasy in the pit of his stomach.

“We got to the Heineken Cup semi-finals [with Edinburgh] in my first season as a pro. You kind of think, ‘Oh, what’s all the fuss about, this being a professional rugby player’s all right!’” says Scott. “But it’s the old cliché, you’ll have some ups and downs, some real highs and some quite dramatic lows, and I’m quite philosophical about the whole thing now. This is one of those lows and it’ll make me a better player for it.

“Personally, it was the toughest loss I have been involved in for a number of reasons. There was the enormity of the game, the occasion and the build-up. It is a game that your friends and family take more interest in, so you don’t really want to let them down.

“I found it hard to get over the game. Usually, I’m quite a positive character but I was pretty down for a couple of days. I didn’t speak to my mum and dad, I just hid away and kept myself to myself, which is probably not a great thing to do.

“There was no formal sit-down [after the game], it was all pretty quiet, everyone just gets on with it, but it was a really horrible atmosphere. A morbid atmosphere.

“There’s more to life than rugby, but you take it all very personally. For me, it was the first experience like that I had had. I have not been involved in a result where there has been such attention and scrutiny from the media and public. You kind of feel responsible for that.”

That isn’t the only thing. Scott was out of position for England’s first try and missed a tackle on Jack Nowell for their second. He isn’t the type to arm himself with excuses but last Saturday was his first start in any match since turning out against Japan last November, when he broke his hand. It is a measure of Scott’s standing within this squad that he was frogmarched back into the front line with just 15 minutes against Ireland by way of preparation. It is testament to the unforgiving nature of Test-match rugby that he failed to paper over the cracks in his game.

“It was a tough one to come back to, very tough just defending, defending, defending,” says Scott. “It just felt like we were doing that the whole game.

“To be fair, they had something like 20 set pieces in our 22 and we only conceded two tries. It showed good resolve that we didn’t concede more than that.”

Scott may be clutching at straws but there wasn’t much else to keep anyone’s spirits afloat after Saturday’s match. And that same resolve that Scotland showed in the final quarter will be needed in Rome in next week’s Wooden Spoon decider against Italy.

Two years ago, Andy Robinson almost resigned after Scotland failed to turn up in Rome and went on to lose 13-6. It was a familiar story with the Scots losing six of their 12 lineout throws, including a couple of attacking chances late in the game, and managing to make just 76 per cent of all their tackles. Last weekend’s completion rate of 80 per cent against England was marginally better but still a long way off a winning percentage.

That has a hidden significance, because the tackle completion rate is usually seen as a pretty accurate barometer for the overall mood of the squad, with low tackle completion equating to a low morale, but Scott insists otherwise.

“We set a minimum target of 90 per cent,” says Scott. “I think it [the problem] is more technical. If I didn’t think the players were giving 110 per cent, I’d say so.” He wouldn’t, of course, but for perfectly honourable reasons. “I don’t think there is any issue with the mentality of the players. Just to be around them before the game and realise how passionate everyone is and how pumped up everyone is, I mean it’s definitely a technical thing.

“I was probably involved in both of their tries and people say you didn’t want to make that tackle but it’s just not the case. If people knew what it’s like out there… Everyone is giving their all. I would never question the passion of the players.”

The Stadio Olimpico will be close to its 73,000 capacity, not least because the Italians smell blood and the Roman crowd has always enjoyed a good slaughter of the innocents. The Azzurri target the Scottish match each year and, while they have lost their last two encounters, the hosts have not been beaten by Scotland in Rome since 2006. Moreover, Scotland’s miserable defeat two years ago will be on everyone’s minds, if only because the performance was almost exactly the same as last weekend’s show. Scott was there on the day but only as a travelling reserve.

“I actually remember going into the dressing room afterwards and there were boys crying. Everyone was just completely gutted and it was just a horrible place,” recalls the centre. “That’s why I mentioned pressure. The whole enormity of that occasion and the pressure of it being the Wooden Spoon decider just got to everyone.

“I think there has just got to be the mentality that we know we can play good rugby. Our confidence has taken a bit of a dent but the big emphasis this morning was ‘everyone get a smile on their face’. It’s hopefully going be a nice day in Rome. It’s not going to be a heavy pitch. It’s not going to be lashing down with rain. Fingers crossed, we play with a bit of confidence, trying to put them under pressure with our skill rather than trying to absorb their pressure.

“We just can’t be bogged down by beating ourselves up too much after the England game. We’re used to it, it’s professional sport. This happens week in, week out. We lose, we work out why and focus on the next game. That’s all we can do really.”


Rome record


SCOTLAND have not won in Rome since 2006 and have won just two out of seven in the Italian capital since the Six Nations began.


2000: Italy 34 Scotland 20

Diego Dominguez, pictured, was the tormentor-in-chief, with Italy’s Argentina-born stand-off kicking 29 points as Italy made a winning bow in the Six Nations.


2002: Italy 12 Scotland 29

Scotland took a measure of revenge two years later when Brendan Laney enjoyed his finest hour in a Scotland jersey, scoring 24 points.


2004: Italy 20 Scotland 14

Matt Williams’ Scotland crumbled in Rome en route to a Wooden Spoon. Roland de Marigny kicked five penalties for the hosts and Fabio Ongaro added a try. Simon Webster’s late try was a mere consolation for the Scots.


2006: Italy 10 Scotland 13

With Frank Hadden in charge, Scotland enjoyed their best-ever Six Nations campaign, winning three out of five. The only away victory came in Rome thanks to Chris Paterson’s nerveless late penalty.


2008: Italy 23 Scotland 20

A last-minute drop goal from Andrea Marcato condemned Scotland to defeat but they avoided the Wooden Spoon on points difference thanks to an earlier win over England.


2010: Italy 16 Scotland 12

Pablo Canavosio scored the only try of the game but Andy Robinson’s Scotland dodged the Wooden Spoon thanks to a wonderful win in Dublin and a gritty home draw with England.


2012: Italy 13 Scotland 6

Italy switched base from Stadio Flaminio to the bigger Stadio Olimpico and enjoyed a deserved win which left Scotland with the Wooden Spoon after five defeats.

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England facing home truth against Ireland and Wales in Six Nations

England move from the potato field formerly known as Murrayfield to their home at Twickenham, a site that before being bought by the Rugby Football Union in 1907 was used to cultivate cabbages, for the next two rounds of the Six Nations. The venue for next year’s World Cup final will be the location for 11 of their 18 Tests before the start of the tournament and their fixtures against Ireland, next Saturday, and Wales in the next round will provide an acid test for the hosts.

Twickenham is not be as impregnable as it was in the buildup to the 2003 World Cup, won by England – they went into that tournament having won 22 consecutive Tests at headquarters – but the men in white do not lose there often, and when they do it tends to be by a single-figure margin. Australia, New Zealand and South Africa have won at Twickenham in the Stuart Lancaster era, but the first two southern hemisphere giants have also lost, while the only side to triumph there in the past three Six Nations was Wales in 2012.

Even though England have only two home matches in this year’s championship, two victories would be a significant landmark. In cabbage terms, the green of Ireland and red of Wales have done so much better at Twickenham than any of the other teams involved that the last time home advantage was made to tell against the Celts in the same campaign was back in the days when the only question asked about visiting sides was how many they would lose by.

Not since 2002 have England defeated Ireland and Wales at Twickenham in a campaign and, in the past 10 tournaments, they have been responsible for five of England’s six defeats at home: the Irish in 2004, 2006 and 2010, and the Welsh in 2008 and 2012. The defeat 10 years ago ended a run of 14 consecutive home victories in the championship at the ground.

Back then, England did not just beat Six Nations opponents in front of their own supporters, they tore them apart. Wales conceded 156 points in their three matches during the period, Ireland 130 and Scotland 107; Italy leaked 120 points in their two visits and even France went for 48 in 2001. Lancaster’s team are emerging from the stage where judgment is based on victory rather than the manner of it: the 20-point win at Murrayfield last Saturday over unexpectedly passive opponents prompted introspection rather than celebration.

“We let Scotland off the hook too many times and did not convert many opportunities into points,” said the England captain, Chris Robshaw. “We were in their 22 more than the scoreboard showed and we will not get as many chances against Ireland. We are in a pretty good place after the first couple of games and we now have two matches at Twickenham. We are desperate to put on good performances for our supporters.”

England’s biggest Six Nations victory in the Lancaster era came against Ireland two years ago – 30-9 – just beating the two 20-point margins over Scotland this year and last. Four of that starting lineup are likely to take the field next Saturday – Owen Farrell, Dylan Hartley, Dan Cole and Robshaw –with one of the bench that day, Mike Brown, featuring in match-day squads this year.

There has not only been a turnover of players in the past couple of years, but a change in emphasis, and while England still have the capacity to take on teams at forward, as they did in the London rain in 2012 to subdue the Irish, they have become more adventurous.

“Back then, our defensive energy was very high and we had a lot of enthusiasm, but we were lacking in understanding and execution,” said the flanker Tom Wood. “We are getting to the stage where our attacking game is improving, along with our general shape, and as individuals we have a much better appreciation of given situations and our relationships in the team, such as reading each other’s body language and everything else. We are getting a better knowledge of one another. I came off the field in Scotland really disappointed because we left at least 15 points out there: we need to get everything right against Ireland.”


Owen Farrell personifies England’s burgeoning confidence. One of his predecessors in the fly-half jersey, Rob Andrew, once said that it took 20 matches to come to terms with the demands of international rugby. There was something mechanical about Farrell up until last autumn, adept at implementing a gameplan, but slow to react to what was in front of him. His try against Australia, exploiting a defence that was drifting across, expecting him to pass rather than run, was a seminal moment for the young Saracen.

“Owen’s getting a lot more support from Billy Twelvetrees now,” Lancaster said. “That second person organising the back-line is taking some of the pressure off him and it gives us a two-sided attack. Another thing is the influence that Mike Catt [the attack coach] and his dad [Andy Farrell] are having on him. Mike is getting him to do lots of work on scanning, seeing space and varying the speed at which he runs to the line.

“Owen used to be 100mph in defence and attack, but he is a lot more composed now and is seeing the picture unfolding a lot more clearly. The line-break he made just before half-time at Murrayfield, when Luther Burrell nearly scored a try, was a good example; he is getting players running good lines off him and, after doing a show-and-go, he went through and slipped Luther the ball. His general game management – when to kick and when to pass – has improved. It is down not just to experience, but design.”

Ireland will challenge England’s attacking intent, not just with a pack capable of dominating possession, as they showed against Wales when they backed up strong set-pieces by ruling the breakdown, but a wealth of know-how behind, where their triangle of Jonathan Sexton, Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll is one of the most experienced in international rugby.

England are chasing a first Six Nations hat-trick in the fixture since 2000 and it is more than three hours since they conceded a try to Ireland. More than that, they need to fortify Twickenham against the storms that will blow in during the World Cup. Ireland’s next visit after Saturday will be on 5 September in 2015, the final game before the start of the tournament less than two weeks later.

“We are a difficult side to play against home or away,” Lancaster said. “Our defensive work-rate, organisation, line speed, commitment and drive to work hard for each other make us hard to beat anywhere. Other than Wales last year, we have not been beaten by more than 10 points in 20-plus internationals.

“We are at the opposite end of the scale to Ireland in terms of Test-match experience, but we are not daunted because we have self-belief.”

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Six Nations 2014: Owen Farrell is tough enough to take the lead

“I really like the way England are playing at the moment,” said Wilkinson, who was present at the two-point loss in France a fortnight ago which was followed by a 20-0 win in Scotland, while Ireland beat the Scots and Wales with points to spare.

“The whole thing looks solid and professional,” he added. “I’m looking at every player and they seem to know where they’re supposed to be and what they’re supposed to do when they get there. Not playing like robots, but having A and B options and doing it damned well.”

The Irish are difficult to read, not because their results make no sense, as the late Milligan referred to, but because last week’s subjugation of Wales’s defending champions confounded everyone who pigeon-holed their coach, Joe Schmidt, as wedded to creative rugby and insisting on every player being able to pass.

Ireland made big tackles, drove hard in the maul and deployed their lavishly talented Lions fly-half Jonny Sexton mainly to belt the ball downfield. “Ireland have got that fire of the Grand Slam possibility, when every game is do or die,” said Wilkinson. “England know if they beat Ireland they might win the tournament. And they are at home.

“If England are serious about their own World Cup next year, they’ve got to put a marker down in this game that says, ‘This is where we belong, and here we don’t lose’.”

Wilkinson won the Slam once, in Dublin in 2003. He has begun coaching at his club, Toulon, in preparation for his retirement from playing, and in Paris he caught up with his former team-mates, now England’s backs coaches, Andy Farrell and Mike Catt. Midfielders all, and what an area of influence it will be next Saturday.

“Sexton’s a huge competitor,” said Wilkinson. “When I’ve played against him, you can hear him – he’s never happy, he demands a huge amount of everyone around him, and is a massive leader in that Irish team, more so now that guys like Brian O’Driscoll are getting to the latter stage of their careers. Sexton is in an amazing position, in great form.

Of Sexton’s opposite number in the England ranks, Owen Farrell, the former No 10 said: “He is younger, and he’s building into that role. He’s had a hard journey to begin with, under a huge amount of scrutiny over who should be starting. He’s dealt with that enormously well, and not only that but he’s done the kicking and never let himself down in that respect. Hopefully now he’s benefiting from having a structure in place where he can say, ‘I’ll do this, then this’ rather than full-frontal panic.”

But there is caution in Wilkinson’s assessment. “Owen has young backs around him and there’s no one there, I think, who’s able to tell him, ‘This is what we’re doing’. When I joined that England team at 18, I had Jeremy Guscott, Mike Catt, Paul Grayson and Matt Dawson. I’d make decisions and they’d say, ‘No, we’re not doing that’, and I’d say, ‘Fine’. At his age [Farrell turned 22 earlier this month], that’s a hell of a responsibility.

“I remember facing New Zealand at Twickenham in 2009 [aged 30 and with 72 caps]. I was edgy about it but I told myself I didn’t have the right to feel like that because there were younger guys in that team looking to me. So I made it my inspiration to say, ‘Follow me, I’ll make the decisions’. Owen has had to say, ‘I don’t have the right to be nervous’, even though he is. That’s tricky. I’m admiring it because his mental toughness is beyond where I was at that age, to say, ‘Sod it, let’s get on with it’.”

The rugby-loving Milligan’s approach to wing play was based on evasion: “If a 16st player was about to catch me I usually tried to knock on or step into touch.” Now, with England’s Luther Burrell and Billy Twelvetrees around, that 16st player can be a centre.

Ireland’s O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy are not of the same monstrous dimensions but they are the world’s most capped centre partnership, and against Wales they were focused, unflashy and dominant.

“Twelvetrees is Mike Catt-ish,” said Wilkinson, “he’s knocked about at No 10 and will know what Owen Farrell is going through. He can say to Owen, ‘Just give this one to me’ or ‘You go right, I’ll go left’, as Catty used to do for me. Twelvetrees can also smash the ball up.

“Then you’ve got your athletes outside, your Burrells. He is going to take defenders off you because he’s got footwork, he’s got strength, he’s got a handoff, he’s got ability to crash through tackles.

“The key there is experience. The danger for England lacking experience is a lack of cohesion. O’Driscoll and D’Arcy have seen every eventuality on a rugby field. England have to make up that difference by understanding of the gameplan, talking to each other and sticking together. There’s no reason why that England midfield shouldn’t go in thinking, ‘Why are they going to break us?’

“Ireland have a lot of belief and passion and drive, and I’ve felt the full wrath of that in the past, when it doesn’t matter how structured you are, if these guys keep running at you, eventually you’re going to go backwards. It’s almost beyond human.

“England need to maintain their understanding and discipline but get close to matching Ireland’s passion and ferocity. They need to fire it up to meet the Irish guys head on, to even out that playing field – then match gameplan for gameplan.”

Key contests at Twickenham

Mark McCall was a centre for Ireland in the 1990s and played twice against England at Twickenham. Now director of rugby at Saracens, who have six players in the England squad for next week’s match, he picks the key areas of confrontation:


It all flows from this. Ireland’s pack haven’t come up against anything like England’s yet. Ireland won’t be able to maul them like they did against Wales. The English have six top ball-carriers. Their set-piece needs to improve, and probably will.


Ireland this season rely less on the choke tackle. They’re going lower. If you choke-tackle a big guy like Luther Burrell and get it wrong you find yourself five metres behind the gainline. They will chop-tackle the big men early and get over the ball.


England’s defence is the best. The more ball Scotland had, the worse it got for them. But Joe Schmidt’s too clever for that to happen. Ireland have a variety which won’t allow England just to come off the line and smash Ireland behind the gainline.

Kicking game

Schmidt’s so clever; nobody saw what was coming against Wales. If England drop players back to counteract a kicking game Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy and Johnny Sexton will put the ball into different channels where there are weaknesses. Either way, Jonny May’s positioning will be tested.

Generating momentum

If England have to play with average set-piece ball, and play off three-second rucks, do Billy Twelvetrees and Burrell have the nous and experience to do what D’Arcy and O’Driscoll can do? D’Arcy gets over the gainline with brilliant footwork, O’Driscoll is a master kicker.


Peter O’Mahony is storming but Ireland have lost a game-changer in Sean O’Brien. Remember that try in France, when Billy Vunipola got the ball back in two hands after a hand-off and then made the right pass? It was phenomenal skill. He is a game-changer – if he’s on the front foot.

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France hooker Kayser ruled out of Six Nations

France hooker Benjamin Kayser will miss the rest of the Six Nations after suffering a serious knee injury in Clermont’s 16-13 defeat to Grenoble.

Kayser partially ruptured his right knee ligament during the Top 14 encounter, which will frustrate France boss Philippe Saint-Andre after he asked clubs not to field players who started in both Six Nations games against England and Italy. Clubs had not been happy with the request and Clermont may well have thought that Kayser was fine to play as he was only a replacement for the 30-10 victory over Italy.

“Injured at the end of the Grenoble match, Benjamin Kayser suffered a partial rupture of the internal ligament of his right knee,” Clermont said in a statement.

“The injury will see him ruled out of action for between five to six weeks and bring to a premature end his interest in the Six Nations.”


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Wales must weather the storm up front in Six Nations clash with France

The reaction in Wales to defeat in Dublin has been as unrelentingly doom-laden as the weather. Black-cloud midfield mournfulness at the loss of Scott Williams and the continuing unavailability of Jonathan Davies have coincided with gale-force lashes to the half-back hides of Mike Phillips and Rhys Priestland. Camp Gatland, the training facility in the Vale of Glamorgan a few miles west of Cardiff, was built as a haven from the bleaker elements of the Welsh sporting experience but its mighty perimeter walls have taken a pounding.

The trouble with storms so broad-fronted is that they lay waste to everything. It may well be difficult to find a partner for Jamie Roberts in the centre and it is true that Phillips was (again) caught in possession and Priestland at times wore the look of a fly-half seized by doubt, but the problem lay in numbers smaller than 9. That is 1 to 8, the forwards.

Adam Jones, a tighthead model of candour, lifted his burly frame above the parapet in the week and said (to paraphrase): “We had a good old-fashioned hammering up front. What went wrong will be put right.”

The real damage to the defending champions was inflicted at the line-out. There were regular steals on the Welsh throw and horrible sliding retreats before the driving mauls that followed safe catches on the Irish. Ireland’s lineout set up everything else: the precise kicking game of Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton; green control, verging on the absolute, of the breakdown area.

Now, building a defence against a rolling maul is a technical exercise, a matter of finding the right blend of collective response and the infiltration of individuals into the gathering swarm, disturbing its compactness. This is what pouring money into elite facilities is all about – identification of all possible threats, repetition ad nauseam of all responses. Nothing should come as a nasty surprise. Camp Gatland exists to lift Wales to preparedness on all fronts.

Last summer Camp Gatland left the haven of the Vale and became the peripatetic Lions workshop around Australia. No doubt the coach and his Welsh players took care not to reveal all their mysteries but the best players from three other countries still had an extended insight into the ways – into the heads – of the Six Nations champions of the past two years.

It is hardly surprising that somebody as attentive to detail as the Ireland coach, Joe Schmidt, should have revelled in sifting the impressions of his Irish Lions until he found a point of weakness. Ireland out-prepared Wales.

France come next for the battered Welsh. Their coach, Philippe Saint-André, as a former coach of Gloucester and Sale, understands the place of the Lions in the hearts of English-speaking rugby players, but he has enough on his plate trying to manage his quintessentially French troupe that he will probably not have time to pour over the spilt secrets of Camp Gatland.

France, like Wales, have beaten Italy. Wales were off-colour in their victory. France, thanks to a breezy 10 minutes after half-time, scored three tries, secured the result and Wesley Fofana became the wonder of the championship, in precisely one of the places where Wales are ill at ease, the centre. Add all that to the opening victory over England, the only other team in the Six Nations that the French treat with anything approaching respect, and it would appear that, if they can stretch their attention span to, say, a quarter of an hour, all will be well and they will remain on course for the title. If they can be bothered to know anything about the Lions, it is that in the seasons that follow a tour, they, the French, win the Six Nations.

There are few obstacles in the way of French reason. Last year Wales used France as a first stepping stone to recovery. Victory in Paris led to a second consecutive title. The year before, Wales used France as the finishing touch to their grand slam.

France do not have the driving maul of Ireland to hurt Wales. Their scrummage, so long feared, came off second best to Italy. They like the handling skills of Dimitri Szarzewski at hooker, but he lacks the set-piece technical proficiency of Benjamin Kayser. For 60 minutes against England they looked pretty ordinary everywhere. And the joy that came with the two victories may have been dampened by the return of some of their number to club colours this weekend. The Top 14 clubs and the Fédération Française de Rugby are still squabbling over access to players.

At some stage on Friday night under the closed roof of the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Fofana and Louis Picamoles will start or finish moves that threaten to blow their opponents away. It always happens and is wonderful to watch. Perhaps it will be a night for Brice Dulin at full-back to display his daring as a counter-attacker.

But will 10, 15 or even 20 minutes of enlightenment be enough? Wales are in Camp Gatland, where it is unlikely the coach will yield to the mournful wind and make changes. Phillips has a history of excelling against France. Jamie Roberts, whoever plays alongside him, can halt Mathieu Bastareaud and cut down Fofana.

Such players’ numbers are, however, too high to be of primary importance. You do not need the tools of elite preparation to penetrate to the heart of the matter. Forwards, those between Nos1 and 8, need simple reminders of what they suffered in Dublin. And an even simpler instruction: “Put it right.” Adam Jones has promised. And in Adam, doom-laden Wales must still trust.

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Setbacks, pain and fury put England’s Danny Care on the road to Six Nations …

Danny Care has drawn on memories of pain and fury to catapult him back on to England’s ‘most wanted’ list .

The Harlequins scrum-half has been a driving force in the first two rounds of Six Nations matches, tormenting France and Scotland with his trickery.

Prior to those games he had started just one for England in a year, slipping down the pecking order behind Lee Dickson and Ben Youngs.

Yet he will be one of the first names on the team sheet when Stuart Lancaster picks his side to face Ireland at Twickenham a week today.

It is a fixture to send a shiver up his spine after what happened in 2009 when his sin-binning in Dublin caused then boss Martin Johnson to explode.

Johnson smashed his fist on a bench in fury at the sight of Care costing England their chance of victory by charging recklessly into a ruck.

That was followed in 2011 by a broken toe ruling him out of his first World Cup.

David Rogers

Back: Care scores a drop goal during the RBS Six Nations match between Scotland and England


In hindsight, however, that ordeal has been the making of the player he has become.

Care’s renaissance is a triumph for ambition over adversity.

“The coaches have now put their faith in me,” he said. “It’s a great thing to go out there knowing they believe in me.

“I look back to when I was sin-binned in 2009. I don’t think I’ll ever get Johnno’s face out of my head.

“As for the World Cup it was heartbreaking for me to miss it – so hard to take.

“It didn’t go great for the boys, but I’d have still loved to have been there.

“Representing your country at a World Cup is everything you dream of.”

There have also been off-field issues for Care, 27, along the way, but with the full support of Quins boss Conor O’Shea he has come out the other side.

“When you go out in an England shirt there’s so much pressure to perform,” he added.

“There’s times I’ve just been given a game to come in and make a big impact and probably tried too hard and ended up making mistakes.

“Experience has taught me you’re a lot better off just relaxing into it and going out there to play your game.

“That’s what I’m trying to do at the moment.”

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Six Nations 2014: England stroll as Scotland take backward step

Five minutes before kick-off at Murrayfield, local favourites the Red Hot Chilli Pipers chose to entertain the masses by blasting out their bagpipe-heavy version of Journey’s soft-rock anthem Don’t Stop Believin’.

It was perhaps, in retrospect, an inauspicious choice of tune. Within 10 minutes even those Scots who had arrived believin’ – and that wasn’t many – were draining of hope.

Before the half was up, things had got so bad that there was only disbelief – at the bungled line-outs, at the plague of penalties, of the panic to kick the ball away to nowhere on the few occasions it could be snatched back off the English.

Just 3% of the match was played in England’s 22. Those are the sort of numbers that even ageing soft-rockers from San Francisco can understand as ugly.

They kept coming. Scotland lost five of their own line-outs, missed 27 tackles and conceded 16 penalties. The infamous parasitic worms that have wrecked the Murrayfield turf held onto the ball for longer.

These Calcutta Cup contests in Edinburgh’s cold, damp embrace aren’t supposed to be pretty. They often fail to produce a try. No-one really minds, because it is about the ferocity of rivalry and battle rather than sweet hands and swallow dives.

What they are not supposed to be is quiet, or a stroll, or an untroubled passage to unarguable victory.

England’s 20-0 win

on a typically bleak Saturday evening was all those and more. That the margin could have been doubled without too much fuss was both a source of relief and pain for the chastened home support.

Luther Burrell dives over to score England's opening try at Murrayfield

Luther Burrell dives over to score England’s opening try at Murrayfield

Both Luther Burrell and Mike Brown could have had other tries to add to their second in two championship matches. Replacement scrum-half Lee Dickson slipped with the try-line within reaching distance. Owen Farrell’s uncertain footing and aim left nine points out there in penalties alone.

If that speaks of a little profligacy, it is almost the only criticism that can be aimed at Stuart Lancaster’s men. If

last week in Paris

had been a case of what if and what should have been, this was a statement of what they are: a powerful and dynamic pack, allied to an increasingly exciting backline, linked by a scrum-half in career-best form and a fly-half whose distribution and dash continues to surprise his critics.

Not since the glory days of a decade and more back have England possessed a forward unit with as much potential and depth. As against France seven days before, Dylan Hartley was accurate and energetic, Courtney Lawes ferocious in the tackle, Chris Robshaw dogged at the breakdown.

None still were as eye-catching as Billy Vunipola – not just for his 16 carries, or the way that defenders seem to bounce off him or get dragged along, even if attached, like rugby’s version of remora fish, but for his endless off-loads: back of the hand, round the defender, brain and ball always alive.

It produced possession at pace for England’s half-backs to relish. Care, just as he did in Paris, kept that tempo high. Just as in Paris, he nailed a cheeky drop-goal; after his tap and go had led to a try for Brown then, so his run and pass into the angled run of Burrell brought England’s first this time.

The backs have not always been the most conspicuous success of Lancaster’s reign. With the pace of Jonny May and precocious running of Jack Nowell, the battering force of Burrell, the hands of Billy Twelvetrees and the continued dash and step of Brown, that may be about to change.

Official match stats









5 (0)

Scrums won (lost)

6 (0)

7 (5)

Line-outs won (lost)

22 (2)


Pens conceded


72 (1)

Rucks Mauls won (lost)

80 (6)


Possession kicked


111 (27)

Tackles made (missed)

109 (11)





Line breaks


(provided by Accenture)

Pickings against a

revitalised Ireland

in a fortnight are unlikely to be as easy.

Scotland rugby supporters are not instinctive barricade-stormers; defeat has become an unwelcome but familiar habit. But in the dank Edinburgh air, among the well-heeled and naturally conservative, there was genuine anger at what their team have become.

Coach Scott Johnson admitted afterwards that the scoreboard had flattered his team. He also wryly admitted to a stiff neck from looking exclusively at one end of the pitch, which rather ignored the fact that his side were as trapped on their own doorstep in the first half as they were in the second.

Little that he has done this week has made much logical sense. Despite the sorry showing in Dublin last Sunday, the only forward he dropped was captain

Kelly Brown,

for a match that was crying out for his experience and leadership.

Those he did pardon gave him no excuse to do so again. Supporters can forgive rare lapses under extreme duress. Scotland instead made them incessant and rudimentary.

There was dog-legged defence. There were knock-ons and passes thrown into touch. There were spills, minimal thrills and plenty of bellyaching.

David Denton, almost alone among his team-mates, was having a decent game – more carries and more metres made with them than anyone else in a blue shirt. Johnson’s response was to take him off with almost half an hour still to play.

There have been limited Scottish sides in the past. What they have almost universally managed to find for this fixture is a passion that has been transformative; witness the

rain-soaked battle in 2000

that both denied England a Grand Slam and dodged a Wooden Spoon, or the

15-9 slog in 2008

that humiliated an England team that had been World Cup finalists less than six months before.

Not this time. Maybe the old nationalistic certainties have been eroded. Second row Jim Hamilton, born in Swindon, plays for Montpellier; winger Tommy Seymour, born in the United States, played for Ireland at under-19 level. The coach is Australian and the forwards coach Welsh.

But these trans-border complications are not exclusive to Scotland, as




own routes into the white jersey illustrate. Once again, just two matches into the Six Nations, only a trip to Italy is likely to stand between them and further ignominy. New coach

Vern Cotter

cannot start soon enough.

And England? They will believe there is more to come, just as they may end this championship regretting that late loss to France even more than they do now.

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