The Final 20
Both Scotland and Wales are guilty of falling off the pace towards the end of their matches this week. For Vern Cotter’s men, the game was finely balanced at 16 all, they had just scored a (slightly dubious) try and should’ve had the momentum going into the final quarter. But instead, the French pack turned the screw, offering no further openings for Scotland to exploit and for all of last week’s enthusiasm as to how five teams were now in the running for the tournament, the thistle wilted once again. Even more crushing was Wales’ loss at home to England. For an England team firing on half its cylinders and without a fit captain, the holders were there for the taking, but as against France, England found a way to win, the Welsh exhausted by an effort disproportionate to their points scored. Warren Gatland knows all too well that New Zealand tend to pull away in the second half, producing a burst of momentum that moves the game from ‘in the reckoning’ to ‘confined to history’. England’s knack lies in the ability to dominate the final quarter, having scored 122 points and conceded only 46 in that time period whilst being coached by Eddie Jones. It will be worth the while of Vern Cotter and Rob Howley to impress on their troops the importance of being ahead at the 80, not at the 60.
Attacking and defensively, to stand a chance against the All Blacks, the Lions need to be able to out-think their opponents as well as dominate them physically. A large part of this is staying cool whilst under the screw, and Wales’ Jonathan Davies made the crucial error in gifting England open field ball in the final 5 minutes against tiring Welsh defenders. To say that this was what lost Wales the match is an overstatement, but it is its manifestation. Under sustained pressure, the ball should have been fed to either Dan Biggar or Leigh Halfpenny to smash the ball into the stand, denying England any chance of a counter-attack and allowing the forwards to get their breath back. Despite the plaudits attached to the Welsh performance after the game, this is not something that Davies will look back on with any fondness. For the Scots, Finn Russell may want to slow down his kicking routine, for Jaco Peyper was decidedly uninterested in French appeals for a push by Tommy Seymour. Those two points dropped, so went the psychological advantage.
It’s an old cliché, but attack is the best form of defence, particularly in rugby where a wildly differing tackle count has a massive negative effect on the team under the cosh. Eventually the dam will burst, as Wales discovered, and all the energy expended keeping the opposition out for 20 phases earlier in the match will have been for very little. The best example of this mentality was from Ireland this weekend, as they pummelled the Italians into the floor in the most one-sided Six Nations match I’ve seen in years. Conor O’Shea has talked about opposition teams ‘going for the jugular’ against the Azzurri, seeing not a wall but a thin blue line. This in itself goes a long way towards winning. With the Irish pumped up following last week’s disappointment, there was only going to be one conclusion, but there was never a point at which Ireland reigned themselves and settled for what they had, they were always looking for more.
The Scots were still struggling against the French at scrum-time, although Jaco Peyper did rule in their favour on a couple of occasions when he could have easily gone the other way. Gatland will be concerned that his scrummaging platform will fall apart against a dynamic Kiwi front-five, and the Gray brothers will need to show more in this area to ensure they board the plane in the summer. On a more hopeful note, even in defeat, the Welsh front-row showed up well against the English, with Rob Evans and Tomas Francis both winning plaudits for their scrummaging and enthusiasm. In Rome, CJ Stander must have confirmed his place on the tour. Yes, it was against Italy and yes they were there for the taking, but Stander was relentless and totally deserved his man-of-the-match award. Ross Moriarty also broadened his prospects, delivering some killer defensive interventions in Cardiff, until he was surprisingly replaced by Toby Faletau. This week’s big winner though has to be Dan Biggar, who was masterful across the park in a game that he looked unlikely to take part in. His performance has made Finn Russell’s spot on the tour appear even more tenuous, particularly if Gatland decides to stick with only two fly-halves as he did in 2013.