Six Nations delivers strong message
There 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-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' big names continues. Halfback Mike Phillips, now playing in the set-piece dominated French league, simply does not look fit enough.
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 XI
Each week of the Six Nations Championship, Paul Cully will select the best-performing team of 15 players from Lions-eligible nations.
1. Cian Healy (Ireland)
2. Rory Best (Ireland)
3. Dan Cole (England)
4. Joe Launchbury (England)
5. Donnacha Ryan (Ireland)
6. Tom Wood (England)
7. Sean O'Brien (Ireland)
8. Jamie Heaslip (Ireland)
9. Ben Youngs (England)
10. Owen Farrell (England)
11. Simon Zebo (Ireland)
12. Billy Twelvetrees (England)
13. Brian O'Driscoll (Ireland)
14. Chris Ashton (England)
15. Stuart Hogg (Scotland)