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Expansive England send message


Paul Cully

Conductor ... impressive England five-eighth Owen Farrell.

Conductor ... impressive England five-eighth Owen Farrell. Photo: AFP

There are a couple of ways of looking at the opening weekend of the Six Nations.

First, you can pick out some individual performances, and there were several that elevated themselves above the crowd. Second, you can evaluate the quality of the rugby as a whole. There was ambition, pace and width. This was a good weekend for Six Nations rugby and, by extension, the British and Irish Lions. Coach Warren Gatland sleeps a little easier.

Gatland was in the crowd for the Wales v Ireland game in Cardiff, and he would have liked much of what he saw, even if more wounds were inflicted on the side he helped to build. The stagnation of some of Wales's big names continues. Halfback Mike Phillips, now playing in the set-piece dominated French league, simply does not look fit enough.

15. Stuart Hogg (Scotland) Click for more photos

Lions team of the week - Feb 4

Paul Cully selects his Lions team based on performances in the first week of the Six Nations. Photo: AP

Of the men in green, three auditions for the Lions were put forward most forcefully. They might play in vastly different positions, but outside-centre Brian O'Driscoll, loose-head prop Cian Healy and openside Sean O'Brien have something crucial in common: superb body position.

All built naturally low to the ground, they use this gift to outstanding effect: O'Driscoll to move swiftly over the ground and bewilder defenders with the mere threat of being able to change direction quickly; O'Brien to chop down attackers and bounce back up to meet the next challenge, and; Healy to give power to the scrum and carry the ball with bruising regularity around the fringes.

Healy is working under the set-piece tutelage of Greg Feek, the former All Blacks prop who played under Robbie Deans at the Crusaders and now coaches the Irish scrum. At times Deans must wonder ruefully if he passed on a little too much knowledge to his former players.

There can be no better selling point for this trio than that they are exactly the sort of players the Wallabies have recently struggled against: aggressive, relentless and direct. O'Brien must get tired of being told he is not a natural openside but Richie McCaw showed last year there is more to the role than foraging.

Besides, O'Brien is no mug on the ground, being strong over the ball. It is just that his other attributes overshadow this part of the game. In recent outings for provincial side Leinster, it appeared he was being paid on commission such was the frequency with which he carried the ball. He repeated that against Wales. He gives Gatland another option to the struggling Sam Warburton and England captain Chris Robshaw.

It was interesting to note an observation from Fairfax colleague Matt Burke last week on the importance of combinations for the Lions. Put O'Brien together with Ireland captain Jamie Heaslip and the destructive Ulster blindside Stephen Ferris – who is not far off a comeback following a serious ankle injury – and you have a potential Lions back row bristling with menace and knowledge of each other's games.

England were highly admirable against a surprisingly timid Scots team, whose back three – with New Zealander Sean Maitland scoring on debut – provided the only highlights.

England five-eighth Owen Farrell played the conductor's role with aplomb, albeit behind a completely dominant pack. Farrell has the reputation of maturity beyond his years, although critics have held reservations about his ability to play attacking rugby. He put at least some of that to one side with a wonderful, looping, right-to-left 20-metre pass to second-rower Geoff Parling to set up a try in the 54th minute. Farrell was playing with his head up, and that is not as easy as it sounds in the Test arena.

“They [England] used the ball a lot like a southern hemisphere team,” Maitland said afterwards, in a message that will be heard in Sydney.

The adventure England showed against New Zealand last year – and Ireland against South Africa and Argentina – has clearly continued, and the Wallabies must take note.

Cully's Lions XV from round 1 of the Six Nations
15. Stuart Hogg (Scotland)
14. Chris Ashton (England)
13. Brian O'Driscoll (Ireland)
12. Billy Twelvetrees (England)
11. Simon Zebo (Ireland)
10. Owen Farrell (England)
9. Ben Youngs (England)
8. Jamie Heaslip (Ireland)
7. Sean O'Brien (Ireland)
6. Tom Wood (England)
5. Donnacha Ryan (Ireland)
4. Joe Launchbury (England)
3. Dan Cole (England)
2. Rory Best (Ireland)
1. Cian Healy (Ireland)

13 comments so far

  • You maybe right Cully and I hope you are for the good of the game developing but............. I really only saw England beating a sad Scotland (what is wrong with these guys as they have a monster pack? ) and a charged-up Ireland who played as if ghosts of the former 6 Nation Champs Wales.
    I must admit, as Maitland says, the width and the crisp passing of the Poms was very impressive but they were PLAYING sad Scotland.
    Early days though and therefore this coming weekend contest between the Poms and the Irish should be a cracker....and I ain't referring to the Irish crack.
    Talking of crack....nice new photo Cully :)

    inner west sydney
    Date and time
    February 04, 2013, 5:10PM
    • I left out a word as in...'Ireland who played as if AGAINST ghosts of the....'

      While I'm at it ....congrats to the Italians for their victory against the French whom many thought a good chance to win the 6 Nations. It wasn't so long ago that a former Penrith Panther, Graig Gower, was their half-back !

      inner west sydney
      Date and time
      February 05, 2013, 8:42AM
    • that was the same Scotland who beat Aus in Aus a couple of months ago!!

      Date and time
      February 05, 2013, 9:02AM
    • @ John

      It certainly was (wasn't) the same Scotland as you state.....but as I stated...'what is wrong with these guys'.
      I was hoping before the match that this might be a defining moment (of sorts) for the brave Scots but alas just another sad episode in their recent Rugby history.
      What would a proud Princess Anne be thinking ? Who cares...maybe !

      inner west sydney
      Date and time
      February 05, 2013, 10:06AM
  • Generally agree with the Lions choices, would be tempted to swap zebo for a bigger winger but his footballing skills in the first half were impressive. I'd like to see Heaslip as captain but would also like to see Johnnie Beattie in the team, another strong aggressive runner. Hogg had some impressive runs but need more ball time. A few welsh on bench maybe.

    Melbourne (formerly Scotland)
    Date and time
    February 04, 2013, 10:03PM
    • Here I was thinking the Six Nations actually included six teams. Clearly the author doesn't think so!

      Date and time
      February 05, 2013, 11:13AM
      • It is a team of players eligbile for the Lions tour.

        Date and time
        February 05, 2013, 8:56PM
    • I take it this is merely a "what we saw this weekend" form type pick, as to be honest I would disagree otherwise ina few places. Twelvetrees was good but would you have him or Tuilangi?

      Otherwise I agree with your assessment of this weekends rugby. Scotland Engalnd is usually a tight affair so I enjoyed seeing more open rugby. To Machooka, this was not as sad a Scotland as I have seen having watched 6N all my life! I see it as a continuation for England (you can only play who is infront of you) from the NZ game, and encouraging from Scotland in terms of scoring the first try but need more work in defence.

      Date and time
      February 05, 2013, 12:47PM
      • Off point i know, but worth mentioning here, just bought my test tickets to the Lions in Melbourne and Sydney, price of two silver class tickets for Sydney test (corner of deadball) $350....THREE HUNDRED AND FIFTY DOLLARS...its going to be a great tour but those who come down here will never come back....bearing in mind the price of tickets and the price of beer...B&I lions supporters in for the rudest of awakenings

        Date and time
        February 05, 2013, 3:12PM
        • Sport is fun!

          Bobby Tables
          Date and time
          February 06, 2013, 1:34AM

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