Watching last weekend’s Six Nations games I was struck by a huge contrast between two of the teams on display.
Once again France provided the highlight of the weekend, beating Wales 27-23 in a thrilling contest in Cardiff which kept the youthful visitors’ Grand Slam hopes alive.
On Sunday it was a different story, as a sloppy, off-the-pace Ireland were beaten 24-12 by England at Twickenham.
France have been a delight to watch in their three games and their renaissance can only be seen as a positive thing for the Six Nations.
Their new defence coach Shaun Edwards has rightly received plaudits for the way he’s improved the side, but it is their attacking which has stood out the most, seeing them score 86 points so far.
Credit must go to head coach Fabien Galthie, who has been brave enough to wipe the slate clean and refresh the side through the addition of exciting young players.
Their No9-No10 axis has been exceptional, with Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack at the heart of all of their inventive attacking play. Both are exceptional talents and I’m sure they have bright futures in the game.
It is true that, having underperformed for so long and not won the Six Nations for 10 years, Galthie’s side have not been weighed down by the burden of expectation, and also that they have been blessed by good fortune in games, but the turnaround is still impressive.
Fearful of change
Their achievements are enhanced when you look at Ireland, who have chosen to stick instead of twist under Andy Farrell.
Farrell took over from Joe Schmidt after the World Cup and, having come from inside the set-up, he has gone with continuity.
That approach was undone in brutal fashion in the first half at Twickenham, where Farrell’s faith in the old guard appeared flawed.
I am a huge fan of both Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, who have for so long been mainstays of Ireland, but they were far off the intensity required in international rugby.
The decision to keep them at the fulcrum of the side, at scrum-half and fly-half, is all the more baffling when Farrell has young, talented alternatives in John Cooney and Billy Burns.
I’m not saying it is as easy as ‘out with the old and in with the new’ and one defeat should not spark massive upheaval, but it seems Farrell is fearful of making changes.
The same cannot be said of Eddie Jones, who continues to make some strange selection decisions which I simply don’t understand.
His insistence on fielding players out of position is confusing, with Tom Curry starting at No8 against Ireland and only reverting to flanker when another non-specialist, Charlie Ewels, came off the bench to fill in at the back of the scrum.
With Billy Vunipola injured there is an obvious alternative to Jones’s approach. Alex Dombrandt has been in great form for Harlequins but is apparently being ignored.
That said, even with players out of position, England executed their game-plan well against Ireland, kicking into space behind the defence to exploit their opponents’ weaknesses.
You can only beat what is in front of you and they will be confident going into next weekend’s clash with Wales.