The opening round of the 2024 Six Nations showed just why Ireland are so far ahead of England — and the other countries — and that’s not just because of the way they played in Marseille.
Anyone with even a passing interest in rugby must have been impressed by what they saw from Andy Farrell’s side in their quite brilliant victory over France. But what I like about Ireland and, Farrell in particular, is the rhetoric and decision making coming from their camp. Farrell is light years ahead of his rivals.
There’s been a lot of talk already in this Championship about teams building for the future, the 2027 World Cup and the next four-year cycle. England are guilty of it as much as anyone.
Eddie Jones spent far too long talking about the World Cup as an end point only to totally forget about the here and now. The result was he never made it to France last year — not with England anyway. It is a mindset that has rooted itself into English rugby and I’m concerned his successor Steve Borthwick is falling into the same trap.
Borthwick will be happy enough with the opening win over Italy. Victory in your first game of the Six Nations is everything.
England boss Steve Borthwick is falling into the same trap as his predecessor Eddie Jones
But messages about the future and saying that players in the current squad can be around for the next four years are worrying indications to me that the present is being forgotten.
The players in the England squad won’t be — or definitely shouldn’t be — around for the next four years if they don’t deliver results. In international rugby, the next game is the only thing that matters. And that brings me back to Ireland. They’re not looking at the next World Cup.
Perhaps that’s because losing in the quarter-finals in France last year, despite being world No 1, showed them there are no guarantees in elite sport. The mindset of Ireland and Farrell is spot-on. The decision to make Peter O’Mahony captain after the retirement of Johnny Sexton was brilliant and showed Farrell isn’t looking ahead. He could easily have gone for a young captain.
But Farrell is pragmatic. He wants to win and he wants to win now. Of course he has a brilliant team at his disposal, but the other Six Nations coaches could definitely learn a thing or two from him in terms of the way he is approaching the job.
England’s campaign started well enough in Rome. When he wakes up this morning, Borthwick will be pleased, although I’m sure he would have liked a four-try bonus point. But England showed signs of improvement.
Their attack was promising at times. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a platform to build on. Ethan Roots did very well on debut and was named man of the match. Tommy Freeman also impressed. But for me the star man by a country mile was Maro Itoje.
One of the biggest positives for English rugby in the last six months has been Itoje getting back to his best after a period of poor form.
England won, but it was only Italy. And if they lose to Wales at Twickenham on Saturday — a team they should beat comfortably — then it will all fall apart again. This is what I mean when I say your next game should be the only focus.
England showed signs of improvement in Saturday’s narrow victory over Italy in Rome
England must plan for the Wales side which nearly produced an extraordinary comeback in the second half against Scotland and not the team which played the first 40 minutes in Cardiff.
Warren Gatland said the Welsh first-half display was one of the worst of his coaching career and he was right. I have no idea what Wales were trying to do tactically.
It didn’t help that they lost five line-outs in the first 40 minutes. You can’t win in international rugby with no set-piece. But when Wales did manage a few phases, Sam Costelow just sat in the pocket and kicked the ball up in the air. I was shaking my head in disbelief and thinking, ‘What on earth are you doing?’ You wouldn’t teach a schoolboy team to play like that.
At 27-0 down, Wales had no choice but to go for it and they very nearly pulled off an improbable result. Scotland thought the game was done and came close to paying the price.
If Gregor Townsend’s side had lost, then they would have been ridiculed. Again, I come back to mindset.
When Wales had nothing to lose, and perhaps many of their players thought they would be dropped, they turned up to the party. That approach is something they will have to bring from the off to win at Twickenham.
I can’t see England making many changes for Wales, but Gatland will. George North will surely come in and Tomos Williams must start at scrum-half. He made a big impact from the bench. I’d also expect Elliot Dee to start at hooker over Ryan Elias.
Wales should be furious about their first-half display and France should be equally angry. Ireland were very good against them, but it was as poor as I’ve seen France for a while. Their head coach Fabien Galthie is another who has been talking about the future. He’s mentioned what the average age of his side will be in four years’ time. Who cares?
France were so off the pace it was frightening.
Andy Farrell’s Ireland kicked off Six Nations defence with record-breaking win over France
In fact, you could see the French have failed to shift their mindset and move on from the emotion and ultimate disappointment of their home World Cup.
They had no intensity to their game and I’m sure defence coach Shaun Edwards would have been going mad.
Paul Willemse’s sending off summed it up. To get one yellow could be considered careless, but two was plain stupid. It wouldn’t have made any difference to the result had Willemse stayed on the field as Ireland were too good. But France, who were nowhere near Farrell’s men in terms of physicality and speed, didn’t help themselves in the build-up with too much talk over the future.
They are not the only ones guilty of it, but it is a cautionary tale. All that matters is the present.