Wednesday 13 December 2017

Brendan Fanning: Thaw of diminishing returns

Despite the icy non-event in Paris, it's two games in for most and lessons are starting to be learned -- on and off the pitch, writes Brendan Fanning

Declan Kidney might privately admit that last weekend wasn't so bad after all. Photo: Richard Heathcote
Declan Kidney might privately admit that last weekend wasn't so bad after all. Photo: Richard Heathcote
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

For the last three minutes in the first half of the Wales versus Scotland game last weekend, the away team laid siege to the home line like drowning men reaching for a life raft.

A score at that point would have swept them into the lead, and into a mental state the Scots don't often enjoy in the Six Nations. For a team who rarely enjoy the thrill of touching down -- Greig Laidlaw's try that day would be their first in five Tests -- this was a critical period in their season.

At the start of the sequence, the phenomenon that is George North had hobbled off the field, leaving his team down to 14 men and his wing position exposed. In a series of plays that must have terrified their defence coach Shaun Edwards, the station was left short-staffed until the break.

Not that it mattered too much. With Toby Faletau and Jonathan Davies covering an increasingly wide space -- Faletau was so shagged he couldn't even summon extra defenders to the cause -- Scotland ignored the lame ducks. Instead, they picked and jammed the ball until they knocked it forward, courtesy of Gethin Jenkins diving off his feet for what should have been a yellow card. And from the scrum Mike Phillips knocked it out of play.

The Scots ended up getting tonked. And in the process, Welsh stock has risen to the pitch of 2008 when they were en route to their second Grand Slam in three seasons.

Warren Gatland's team have become the talk of the Championship so far. When they have the ball, they give depth to what is a massive backline and pretty much let them at it. And when they don't, they start by depriving the other team of space so fast that opponents find it hard to breathe, let alone think.

It worked against Ireland and it worked against the Scots, and it will be interesting to see if one half of it -- the blitz defence -- is still working by the time they take on France in the Millennium Stadium on St Patrick's Day.

The line on blitz defence used to be that the higher up the game you used it, the less effective it became. So while it would terrorise schoolboys, and unsettle senior club players, at Test level it was no more than an inconvenience to the opposing attack.

During his Ireland incarnation, defence coach Mike Ford never had it as his first trick in the box, and he didn't change when he moved to England.

"My rule of thumb is you either go over the top of them or you use your kicking game and it's beyond me why (Mike) Phillips is such an aggressive defender/player -- he's always in the defensive line -- that they don't take the line speed away from them early doors (by attacking the space he has left) and use grubber kicks or chips over the top," he says. "The other option is to go over the top out wide to the likes of Tommy Bowe, or else you play through them. They want you to attack where their strength is, which is where Jamie Roberts is.

"It's like anything else. You're playing international teams so you're up against very good players. If you've got 80 rucks a game on attack, you ask yourself what would be a good score in the number of line breaks. So you might say that you'd be happy with three line breaks. Okay, so what are you doing in the other 77 rucks if you're not making line breaks? You're building pressure, you're trying to manipulate the opposing defence so that three line breaks can become four. You can't score off every play. At this level you're up against good players and you have to be patient and maintain your discipline."

Two yellow cards would suggest the Scots didn't do so well in this department, but in the teeth of the blitz they actually did pretty well. They attempted 20 offloads (twice as many as Wales) and completed 19 of them. Rather than dink the ball in behind the red tide, they tried to surf it. This will involve getting wet because the Welsh defence is so good. Shaun Edwards has modified it so that unlike a couple of seasons ago, when they would rush on a narrow front, now they keep more space between their defenders. In turn this makes it harder to go around them. And because there are so many of them -- Phillips for example is leading the charge instead of covering in behind, as most scrumhalves do -- they can swallow up surfers.

The downside is that it's enervating stuff. All that rushing off every breakdown makes for tired bodies. And that explains why Faletau and Davies looked so wrecked when they were exposed on the blind side in that last play of the first half, and how Scotland -- who clearly are very fit themselves -- finished so strong.

Wales go to Twickenham on Saturday to play the Saracens-esque England who -- up until now at any rate -- defend less aggressively, and whose attack is as sterile as it was under Martin Johnson. Two is England's magic number: two wins from two games with two tries coming from two Charlie Hodgson blockdowns. If Wales put the hammer on them as they did to Ireland and Scotland, then they will have two chances of winning.

Earlier in the day, barring last-minute postponements, Declan Kidney will get the show back on the road against Italy. Having set out his stall for the white house in the Phoenix Park with his defence of the put-upon Ireland fans, Kidney might privately admit that last weekend wasn't so bad after all.

The downside is that they will have six days post-France to recover for the Scots who will try and run them off their feet. The upside of course is that he avoided the same six-day turnaround in Paris, and the likelihood that his team would have been emptied.

Who knows how that might have affected the troops for the Italy Test, which will be a physical slog? And against a team with no outhalf, scarcely losable.

"I've been impressed by their keep-ball tactics," he says of Ireland's next opponents. "They are holding onto the ball for much longer periods than they did before. Against England, it was 15-6 and they had that block-down kick go against them and I think what he (coach Jacques Brunel) would say to them is 'why panic?' We were still winning 15-13 and once he instils that in them, then they they will be all the better. Sometimes you have to go through that as a team.

"The big worry for me now about Italy is that two years ago, you always reckoned that if you could stay with them until the last 10 minutes that you would catch them (out) whereas now, you don't do that anymore. The benefits they have got out of the league matches, as well as the Heineken Cup, has been -- you can see that coming through to their national team now."

Not so sure about that one. It will be a while yet before they get the benefit of the Pro 12/Heineken weekly sustenance, and with Castrogiovanni now out injured and no 10 to run the show, they are already struggling. The mental baggage of having blown such a glorious opportunity against England, however, is their heaviest weight.

The scene was set for them: over 50,000 in Stadio Olimpico and England offering nothing aside from the excellent goal-kicking of young Owen Farrell. An Italy win and a decent game in Paris would have made for a sweet day for those who run the tournament. Oh dear.

Last Tuesday, Six Nations chief executive John Feehan fronted the media, as they say in the southern hemisphere. We won't say it had been a long time coming but if he hadn't appeared in person to say his piece then his position would have been untenable.

If the Six Nations are guilty of falling asleep at the wheel, then we are also partially to blame for presuming that it would roll on season after season with full houses and bigger tv audiences and everything kicking off on time. It was ironic that on the day the tournament got sight of such an appealing new vista, it ground to a halt in Paris.

It is only in recent years that rugby has become brand aware. The Six Nations is one of the most powerful in the stable, and it has been damaged by this fiasco. We won't be calling it the jewel in the crown again any time soon.

"Well, that's entirely a matter for yourselves," John Feehan said. "It's a statement you've made. Has it damaged the brand? Of course it has -- it's ludicrous to say otherwise. But is it recoverable? Of course it is. Every brand -- if you want to put it in those terms -- has bad days, and that was a bad day for us. Can I just say, when we're on the subject, the England/Italy game that afternoon had a record television audience in the UK. The Welsh/Scottish game was up -- with over a million people watching it. We've had record numbers of people downloading apps. It's (the fiasco) damaged the brand particularly in Ireland, and it's damaged the brand particularly in France. In those two markets in particular it's hurting and it will continue to hurt for some time, but we've just got to deal with it and get on with it."

There are two issues now: understanding clearly how the crash happened, and fixing it so it doesn't happen again. In the days that followed the call-off, comparisons were drawn with ERC where there is a palpable urgency to play games that are pushed back beyond the scheduled time. So while the Six Nations council were moving with the speed of snails to get all concerned on the blower at the same time, European clubs, in the same situation, would be running around with their hair on fire making arrangements to get their matches up and running.

The comparisons are not altogether appropriate. Firstly, the Six Nations is a much bigger beast to move and, in the case of the French, not owning the stadium, or the food and beverage rights that go with it, this makes late changes extremely expensive.

Secondly, the tournament has been trundling along with four, five or six participants since 1883. In that period host unions have done things the way they wanted to do them. It is their cash cow and they all want to use their own milking methods.

With ERC on the other hand, the competition was only born in 1995, so there was uniformity from the start. And even then, there were painful lessons along the way from the protocol on postponements to the introduction of TMOs and independent citing procedures.

So what you have now at club level is a fairly robust tournament that has grown up fast. Its parent meanwhile has nodded off. It is waking up now to the benefits of uniformity. Incredibly there is no provision for a financial penalty for a union whose negligence discommodes many thousands of fans, as France's has done. Perhaps it will be changed in the new order to follow.

"I don't think there's a huge problem about understanding the procedures we need to put in place," Feehan says. "It's not rocket science. The issue is getting all of the unions to agree to do it. I think this is pretty seminal. I think this will move it along significantly, yes."

We think the Scots will be wide awake the next time they get an opportunity as presented itself with the clock closing the first half in Cardiff last Sunday. And surely the Six Nations won't fall asleep at the wheel again either.

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