Jeff Probyn: I’m starting to believe in a Grand Slam for England

Owen FarrellIt has often been said that a week in rugby is a long time. Two weeks ago I sang the praises of the Six Nations as the best competition in the world with three games that more than lived up to that billing but last week it was a mess!

Scotland and Wales laid their ghosts to rest as Scotland ran in a record score against the Italians, Wales finally won a game under interim coach Rob Howley, while England won an error-ridden game in Ireland for the first time in years.

Great for fans from those Celtic countries who can now all breathe a collective sigh of relief and pontificate on whether or not this is a turning point in their team’s fortunes, but for any unbiased spectators the rugby was dire with a number of mistakes and some slightly questionable refereeing decisions.

In the Scotland v Italy game, South African referee Jaco Peyper’s interpretation of the laws was totally different from that of the Northern Hemisphere referees in previous games and those interpretations, particularly at the breakdown and at the scrum, completely disjointed the game and took away any advantage for the attacking team.

Fair play to Scotland, they took advantage of his lax attitude and adapted better than the Italians and thoroughly deserved their win, even if it was a bit disingenuous of interim coach Scott Johnson to praise the fact that all Scotland’s tries were scored by the backs (as if planned), even though one was an interception (Stuart Hogg) and another (Sean Lamont) from a kick through round the side of a ruck, which was dubious to say the least.

The other two were of the highest quality with Tim Visser and Matt Scott finishing well-worked moves.

A part of me feels sorry for Italy because every time they looked like getting back into the game the referee stopped them, including failing to pick up debutant Robert Harley illegally kicking the ball out of Sergio Parisse’s hands at an attacking five-metre scrum.

In Paris the French were awful, dare I say as bad as the worst days of Marc Lievremont’s reign, as players failed to turn up – not that the Welsh were that much better.

Both teams succeeded in not living up to what should have been a classic game, as they both sought to repay disappointed fans from the previous week.

Wales at least had the excuse that they were coming off the back of eight losses so they were always going to be prepared to dog it out and win ‘ugly’ if necessary, but the French had no excuse.

Yes, they lost to a magnificent Italian performance the week before but their autumn was better than most and they looked like a safe bet to kick on as everybody’s early favourites to win this year’s Championship – but they didn’t.

There is an expectation with the French that they will play Champagne rugby that is both pleasing to watch and effective, but Philippe Saint-Andre’s team are a shadow of the one that pushed New Zealand all the way in the final of the 2011 World Cup.

Even though they created plenty of half chances they failed to convert any of them  and Saint-Andre’s insistence on keeping an out-of-sorts Frederic Michalak at fly-half despite him not playing in that position for  Toulon, has left the whole of the French rugby community baying for his head.

One of the reasons Saint-Andre was appointed was because he had coached in England and for some reason the French want to bring a bit of English stoicism to their rugby.

They tried it before with some success when they appointed Le Petite General Pierre Berbizier but he was sacked after falling out with FFR president Bernard Lapasset.

It is said that no matter how bad a French team, they will always produce one magnificent game per Championship, but unless Saint-Andre makes some changes I think even that will be beyond them.

As for the England win in Ireland, it marked a moment that not only showed that this team are getting closer to being something special, it shows that tactically they know their game.

Played in a torrent of rain it was never going to be pretty, but of the two sides, England made the least mistakes and took what chances came their way.

The style that England are playing is very traditional with a powerful display up front and a physical back line that is well organised.

That enabled the team to apply pressure and force a number of Irish mistakes that were punished by the accurate boot of Owen Farrell. I must admit I was not convinced that fly-half was the best position for young Farrell but he has shown a maturity that is beyond his years and made it his own.

In Farrell, England have found a match winner who many will compare to Jonny Wilkinson but I think he is a better player at his age than Wilkinson was.

Farrell is a better reader of the game and is able to control it with a mix of distribution and kicking that is reminiscent of his father Andy.

Most Rugby Union fans will not be that aware of Andy’s career in League, where he played fly-half and centre for Wigan, amassing 3,135 points in 368 games.

He was a prodigious goal-kicker with a success ratio slightly higher than Wilkinson, a skill that he seems to have passed onto his son.

At the start of this Championship, I thought England could win the title but not a Grand Slam. Now, having seen the way that the other teams are playing, and in overcoming their biggest obstacle in Dublin, I am beginning to change my mind.

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