Round three of the RBS Six Nations is upon us and the gap week after the second round of matches will have been welcomed by some teams more than others. The fireworks of the opening weekend were always going to be tough to reproduce in week two, and for some teams there seemed to be a bit of a dampener on proceedings in the second round of the tournament. I believe that much of this was based on something that even the world’s very best players can’t control – the weather..
Famous American author Mark Twain once wrote that “everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it”. In rugby, teams must be capable of adjusting to the overhead and underfoot conditions presented on any given day. For the first round of games in Cardiff, London and Rome, conditions were almost perfect. With a dry ball, little wind to speak of and firm tracks, players were able to delight spectators with fantastic skills in fast, free-flowing matches. But seven days later the outlook was very different. Conditions in Dublin were dank and blowy, in Edinburgh a day of drizzle turned the ball into a proverbial bar of soap, while at the Stade de France in Paris it was the underfoot conditions rather than the rugby that caught the eye.
Yes, the match balls available in the modern day are grippy and make handling easier, but moisture, mud and grit on the ball still make it significantly trickier to pass and catch under pressure. As a result teams must be capable of tweaking their gameplan in line with the elements. Week two of this year’s championship showed how the weather has the ability to dilute the potency of attacks. Many teams chose to revert to high pressure, low risk gameplans, kicking for territory and looking to force mistakes from their opponents. Perhaps most significantly of all, all three fixtures showed how defence, rather than attack, can be the most dangerous weapon when the elements are testing.
Very rarely do we only have one Grand Slam contender after two rounds. Statisticians have trawled the history books as England, the only unbeaten team, find themselves in this position for the first time in a long while. They proved that they can play just as well in a dog fight as in the free flowing game of the opening weekend. In filthy conditions at the Aviva stadium they edged out Ireland with a stubborn and uncompromising performance, using a ruthlessly efficient form of high pressure rugby.
Defence wins games. England lost out on the possession battle but attacked the Irish when they had the ball, built pressure, forced errors and reaped the benefits. Ireland, meanwhile, made too many errors in their own half and gave the men in white enough of a platform to edge out a win, in the lowest scoring match in Six Nations history.
For Scotland, their second match accentuated the ability to learn and improve quickly in a tournament that will fly by. Assistant coach Dean Ryan spoke prior to the Italy match about the foundations needed in a successful team. His focus on the fundamental elements of the game – defence and the tackle area – seems to have laid a solid platform and ultimately allowed Scotland to take a huge leap forward in a very short space of time. Admittedly, Italy are a different prospect playing away from the cauldron of the Stadio Olimpico in Rome but, to a man, Scotland rose to the challenges set and fronted up. Like England, they hassled and harried the Italians in possession and forced errors with a tangible energy at the breakdown. Three of Scotland’s tries came from turnover ball with the fourth coming from a set piece lineout executed with cold-blooded competence.
In Paris, France and Wales were both desperate to avenge first round defeats, with Les Bleus keen to display that their old va va voom was not lost. As yet, they have shown nothing to justify their status as pre-tournament favourites. In a match sorely short of highlights a George North try, David North pitch invasion and a farcical grass surface that ripped up like a poorly laid carpet were the talking points. Welsh defence coach Shaun Edwards once again takes much of the credit for the win, with his side preventing France from scoring a try at home in Six nations for only second time since 2000. Astonishingly, it is also the first time since 1982 that France have lost their opening two fixtures.
It is perhaps not surprising that Scotland were able to achieve a win despite the less than ideal conditions against Italy. As a Scot myself, some of my own most memorable rugby wins have come when the weather has been ‘extreme’. The novelist Amelia Barr once wrote, “it is only in sorrow bad weather masters us; in joy we face the storm and defy it” – it’s not that us Scots prefer the rain, but we certainly have the advantage of practicing in it far more often than other nationalities!
A man infinitely wiser than me once said “don’t knock the weather. If it didn’t change once in a while, nine out of ten people couldn’t start a conversation”. I’ve no doubt that after a weekend of six nations showdowns, come Monday morning the weather will be way down the list of conversation topics. Game on.