Six Nations: Mid - term report
With the championship reaching its climax, Hugh Farrelly gives us the good, the bad and the downright awful in this year's Six Nations
THREE rounds gone, two to go and once again the Six Nations has proven itself to be top-drawer entertainment overflowing with drama, controversy and intrigue.
The southern hemisphere cynics will question some of the quality on display but when the alternative is the touch-rugby dross of 'Super' tournament, where tries are as plentiful as raindrops and just as tedious, then we'll take the Six Nations fare every time.
The pick of the matches thus far was Wales versus France in Cardiff last weekend, a thrilling contest once the French took their foot off the pedal and allowed the Welsh back in, and a match that lived up to the pre-match hype and razzmatazz that arrives with a Friday night billing.
The following afternoon's ties, while less free-flowing, did not want for drama and the victories for Italy and Ireland were both well-merited.
The hierarchy has been well established at this stage and encouragingly for coach Declan Kidney, Ireland sit alongside France at the head of the class in terms of the teams who can challenge the southern hemisphere big three. Italy, Scotland and England are down at the bottom, crippled by their inability to conceive worthwhile tries and Wales are in the middle -- capable of unlocking any defence but carrying a soft centre.
The last two rounds may turn things on their head again but, as it stands, the state of the six nations, in descending order, is as follows.
Mid-term report: Excellent. Still prone to lapses in concentration but the French are comfortably superior to any other side in the competition.
The team oozes raw power. A fearsome front-five is augmented by a fantastically athletic back-row and they now have solidity at half-back to go with the customary potency out wide.
Coach watch: After a couple of years of sustained criticism for his 'tinker-bell' selections, Marc Lievremont is showing there was method to his madness and has settled on a team capable of doing serious damage at the next World Cup.
However, Lievremont needs to eradicate his players' penchant for losing concentration when they build up a lead.
Stand-out: Morgan Parra -- Parra has used this tournament to announce himself as a top-quality international scrum-half. Like many of his predecessors in the No 9 jersey, Parra is typically temperamental but he is quick in thought and action while his passing and place-kicking are of the highest quality.
Under pressure: No one. While Francois Trinh-Duc has had a few dud moments, he has done well overall and is growing into the role with each outing. The wings have chopped and changed but France have such strength in depth here, it is of no real concern.
How will they finish? With a Grand Slam for the mantlepiece. England will believe they can cause an upset in Paris but they will be flayed alive as France take their victory bow in front of their fans.
Mid-term report: Were looking rocky after the hammering in Paris but responded excellently with last weekend's hard-fought win in Twickenham which carried huge psychological significance as the squad builds towards the World Cup.
Ireland's defensive surety was re-established splendidly against England after its Paris aberration while collective self-belief has also been restored.
As they showed with their clinical try-taking in Twickenham, once the pack provides decent possession, Ireland have the backs to exploit it.
Coach watch: The French game got away from Declan Kidney but Twickenham was a triumph. His team section stood up to scrutiny while the end-game substitutions were inspired and game-deciding.
Despite having to work with injuries, suspension and a small pool of players, Kidney is building his squad nicely with clear objectives for the rest of the season -- a fitting Croke Park send-off followed by a win in the southern hemisphere.
Stand-out: Jamie Heaslip -- Going into Saturday's clash, elements of the English media, despite the evidence of last summer's Lions tour, still had to be convinced of Heaslip's progress to the status of world-class No 8.
The talking up of England's 'meat-and-veg' No 8 Nick Easter seemed ridiculous beforehand and even more so afterwards.
Is up with Paul O'Connell as a figurehead in the pack and, although it is not a role he would gravitate towards naturally, if he can be convinced down the line Heaslip has future Ireland captain written all over him.
Under pressure: John Hayes -- After the wonderful achievement of winning his 100th Irish international in Twickenham it is unfortunate to highlight the fact that this wonderful servant of Irish rugby is being successfully targeted by the opposition.
Tim Payne is no Os Du Randt but he had Hayes in all sorts of trouble at scrum-time and this is an issue for forwards coach Gert Smal ahead of the Wales match.
How will they finish? The Wales and Scotland games are far from formalities but with the defence back in top nick, both matches are eminently winnable.
There is a determination to see out three years in Croke Park in suitable style which would leave Ireland second behind France with a decent championship increasing confidence for the tough challenges in the summer.
Mid-term report: Incredibly frustrating. Wales are so brilliant in certain aspects of their play and so lax in others.
No one questions the talent in the Welsh squad but, for all the ability, there is a tendency to push the self-destruct button (Alun-Wyn Jones' trip against England, Lee Byrne's criminal failure to find proper touch against France). At the moment, the bad and the ugly outweigh the good.
Coach watch: Perhaps it was having to play second fiddle to Ian McGeechan on the Lions tour, but Gatland has lost the air of authority that surrounded him on the way to the 2008 Grand Slam.
The way a team plays reflects the man in charge and Gatland needs to instill focus to bring this squad forward. Fail to do so and the, already sharpened knives, will be plunged in by an exacting Welsh media.
Stand-out: Richie Rees -- A real find at scrum-half. Injury to Mike Phillips was not in Gatland's Six Nations script but Rees has taken his chance splendidly with his unrelenting energy crucial to Wales' second-half surges.
Under pressure: Martyn Williams -- Since he first adorned it 10 years ago, Williams has been one of the players of the Six Nations and the northern hemisphere open-side who has come closet to challenging New Zealand's Richie McCaw.
However Williams, in his mid-30s and dragged out of international retirement by Gatland two years ago, is looking weary this campaign and has lacked the influence of before.
How will they finish? They will give it a go in Dublin but come up short and finish with a flourish against Italy at home. Two wins from five could still be enough to finish ahead of England in third as their point-scoring should be better once Martin Johnson's men are opened in Paris.
Mid-term report: The English papers were full of reports of England's Grand Slam dreams being ruined by Ireland but it was never on. Wales were beaten because of Alun-Wyn Jones' idiocy, Italy were barely seen off in Rome and they lacked the invention to see off Ireland.
England's innate conservatism and lack of game-breakers has been exposed.
Coach watch: Manager Martin Johnson calls it a "work-in-progress" but the progress is painfully slow and the media are finally tooling up to give him a shoe-ing. A rough finish to the championship and something will have to give -- likely to be limited to the axeing of Johnson's lieutenants John Wells and Brian Smith.
Stand-out: Dan Cole -- The young tight-head has come from good stock at Leicester and benefited from the attention of England's scrum coach Graham Rowntree -- set to be a fixture for years.
Under pressure: Steve Borthwick -- Johnson needs to make the tough call and change his leader. Once the captaincy goes it will be hard to justify Borthwick's place in the second row.
How will they finish? Badly. Everything is all set up for a Scottish mugging in Murrayfield and France can rip the English to shreds in the final match in Paris.
Mid-term report: Had moments against France without threatening victory, and threw away the Wales and Italy games. However, Scotland are better than their results show with their scrum and back-row particularly impressive.
Coach watch: One cannot but feel sorry for Andy Robinson. After his fine work with Edinburgh, Robinson is doing a good job with the national team but is being let down by his players. Not under serious pressure but beating the English would increase security.
Stand-out: John Barclay -- Has come on since first impressing as a teen. Finest Scottish open-side since Finlay Calder.
Under pressure: Chris Cusiter -- A good player but three defeats from three does not look good. Taken off after just 54 minutes in Rome.
How will they finish? They will be underdogs after last weekend but Scotland are a smart bet to beat England in Twickenham. Scotland will be aggressive, have the better back-row and Robinson will have a plan to see off his former charges. Defeat against Ireland in their final match will not then be as significant.
Mid-term report: Encouraging. The limitations are obvious but Italy have put in two good showings in Rome and got their reward with the win over Scotland.
Coach watch: A silk-purse, sow's ear operation for Nick Mallett. Utterly committed to the Italian cause, the South African can enjoy the rest of the championship with a victory under his belt. Key calls at half-back have been a qualified success.
Stand-out: Alessandro Zanni -- Stepping into the shoes of Sergio Parisse was a big ask but Zanni has been fantastic at No 8.
Under pressure: Martin Castrogiovanni -- Not the scrummaging wrecking ball he has been in the past with Cian Healy, Tim Payne and Allan Jacobsen all handling him comfortably.
How will they finish? With two defeats but France have a history of sub-par displays against them. However, if Wales hit form in the final match, it could be a long afternoon for Mallet's men.