There was an ad from a car maker that went out in Dublin before the game at the Aviva. It depicted a broken-down chariot with the wheels off and was a mighty fine joke and fun advert. However as someone pointed out it may have been better to have waited until after the game. The England chariot was far from broken with the men in white driving full working bull dozers on Saturday afternoon at the Aviva.
It was a victory not many saws coming including the normally astute bookies - although there were sneaky bits of confidence popping up here and there especially after the team was announced. Looking at it you had to think ‘Wow – that is a strong side’. It featured for the first time Eddie’s preferred line up and I for one could not see a weak spot apart from the bit of unknown around how Elliot Daly would deal with the high ball.
Thinking about it maybe it is less - where did that performance come from - and more a question of where that performance went last year! I think we now have the answer with a sheepish Eddie admitting he got the balance wrong in training and over did the beestings. He has been vindicated to a large extent if England carries on this level of performance as they looked so powerful and fit. The coaching team would not have planned for the run of losses they incurred but I would say Eddie had been prepared to lose a few last year in the pursuit of an unbelievably fit team. Part of that conditioning is pushing players to play full blown tests when there is tiredness in their legs. World Cup finals mean playing seven huge games on the bounce and it requires an unbelievable level of fitness. Our England side in 2003 had that necessary fitness and that played a part in taking us through a bruising and exhausting final that ran into extra time. I suspect Eddie has been preparing this England team for exactly that scenario.
How good was it also to see an England team finally with their best players all in their right positions? After the last few years of playing 6.5’s at openside and locks at number six we now have two potential World Cup sevens in the locker - Curry looking to the manor born and Mark Wilson doing a very good imitation of the legendary Richard Hill. Suddenly almost without anyone noticing we have got some serious depth and options right across the team in areas we thought we lacked it such as centres and back row.
Despite the temptation for Irish fans and pundits to feel they were just bullied off the park it looked more like England just had much, much more intensity. Yes, Manu is a big lad but, in the backs, he is the only one built like that and the packs were similar weights. It was England’s tactics which cemented the win and Eddie got his own back for being outsmarted by the wily Schmidt last year at Twickenham. Credit to Eddie it was a brilliant tactical game plan and delivered perfectly by the players.
For Ireland it was clear they lacked the emotional intensity to deal with England’s increased levels of ferocity and desire. Being favourites did not suit them and because in their own minds they did not see this match as their biggest challenge of the Six Nations they failed to raise their game. We all know Ireland are slow starters, so it was the perfect time for England to play them. The feelings the Irish lads would have had in the changing room would have been deeply unpleasant and it is those emotions that live with you and force you on, so you don’t ever experience them again. That hurt pride will be parcelled up and taken over to Scotland this weekend and I suspect Scotland may find themselves dealing with a mammoth backlash.
Scotland themselves played impressively against Italy with some scintillating backs moves especially by the twinkle toed Stuart Hogg. Their weakness may come in the forwards with some big names out but that can be balanced by Ireland also missing quite a few of their key big men.
For Ireland the game at the Aviva was one game when nothing went right for them and they did not deal with England’s blistering defensive. Smart teams absorb the learnings and become better and Ireland are a very smart team. As much as Scotland are a real threat you must back Schmidt’s men to right the wrongs and get the win.
You could hear the collective sighs of exasperation around the French national stadium on Friday night as Les Bleus in their random and almost exquisitely French way managed to, literally in one case, throw away a 16-point lead. As one pundit put it ‘it was the best France win ever seen and quite amazing how they so comprehensively beat themselves’.
It was also the largest lead ever thrown away in a Six Nations game and if you were a Wales fan and saw that result coming you must be physic! Warren Gatland said after the game that his side have ‘forgotten how to lose’ but if he is honest with himself, he had not only had a get out of card free card but the hacksaw and secret tunnel. Fair play to Wales however as they picked themselves up after their uncharacteristic sloppy and well below par first half. Although it was two beautifully gift wrapped tries that France handed over, Wales were able to capitalise because they had still not given up. George North’s chase looked like a lost cause, but he still made it and got his reward from the comedic clean up of French winger Huget.
Wales get a chance to now straighten out their game plan and shake off the rustiness by going up against Italy who despite massive improvements are huge underdogs. Wales nail this one, as they should, and when England come calling at the Millennium it could be a Grand Slam decider. However, first England must take on the not inconsiderable weight of a French team also looking for redemption.
Twickenham on Sunday will be rocking, and England will need to see if it is possible to get themselves in the mental state to deliver their high intensity game plan and give the fans the expected home win. I know how hard it is to go two games in a row with that level of emotional energy, but England are more than just emotion with plenty of skills and smart tactics. Lovely selection dilemmas for Eddie Jones with players like Chris Ashton and Dan Robson about to self combust with frustration and stellar players such as Jonathan Joseph, Chris Robshaw, Dylan Hartley and Danny Care all desperate to get back into the fold. I would like to see some small changes and perhaps subs given more time to show what they can do but it’s a brave man that wants to disrupt too much that XV that took to the field against Ireland. As for France, that eccentric and wonderfully schizophrenic team, it is hard to see them being organised and clear headed enough to hold out this England side packed with such power, pace and skill. Is the Grand Slam on for the Red Rose – I’m not betting against it.