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Guscott column: Farrell is just stratospheric, a class apart from the others

By Jeremy Guscott

THIS Six Nations hasn’t overwhelmed us with sensational attacking play so far, whereas in the 2017 tournament at the outset we had the Stuart Hogg tries and the Alex Dunbar special play against Ireland. It was creative and innovative, and set up an exciting tournament.

The first impressions after Wales v Scotland in the opening round was of a wonderful Welsh attacking display. However, the reality was that it was more about a porous Scottish defence – as well as Finn Russell having a disaster. The Scots fly-half did not improve much against France, and Scotland were lucky to win that one given how far off the radar Russell was.

Scotland showed ambition against Wales, but their execution was as poor as their defence, and you simply cannot afford to make that many mistakes in international rugby and expect to win matches.

With Jonathan Davies, Sam Warburton, Taulupe Faletau, Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb out of action for the Scotland game, and Leigh Halfpenny ruled out just before England, Wales were without many of their best players at the start of the tournament. However, they still went out and played against Scotland, and gave England a tough assignment.

The ball-carrying of the Welsh front five compared to their Scots opposite numbers was day and night. The Welsh did so much more work, whereas the Scots seemed to think they could go wide immediately rather than do the hard graft of punching up the middle and sucking in the defence.

The standard attacking set-up in the Six Nations is to draw in the defence by trying to punch through close to the ruck before going wide (or down the blindside). Ireland have a different approach, where they go wide and stretch the defence quite often from their own first phase lineout, and then go wide again as fast as they can.

What Ireland do is get the opposition to spread right across the field, because the distance between defenders makes them more vulnerable and gives the Irish more weak spots to attack. This results in dog-legs, when a defender makes a misjudgement and rushes up alone, or when a much faster attacker, like Keith Earls, is given the chance to run against two relatively slow front row forwards.

Teams also attack in pods these days, with the forwards deployed to predetermined areas of the pitch. So, for example, if Ireland have an attacking line-out on halfway and set up a midfield ruck, you will see the forwards drop into different pods. Rory Best will go to one tramline and another forward to the opposite tramline, while the remaining six forwards form two pods of three in the middle of the pitch. There are varying formations, for different teams, most common are 1-3-3-1 and 2-4-2, England sometimes go to 1-2-2-2-1, depending on the tactical strategy.

Laced in behind or alongside those formations are the playmakers. In Ireland’s case Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray, in England’s Owen Farrell and George Ford, for Scotland, Russell, and for Wales in the second-half against England it was Gareth Anscombe.

They assess the speed and quality of ball and decide whether to use the forwards as a screen for a backline move, or give it to them to carry over the gain-line. Which skills forwards have, whether passing or carrying, will dictate how they are used in attack.

It’s been harder to force dog-legs and create mis-matches in the 2018 Six Nations, and defences appear to have the upper hand. Teams are not being challenged hard enough to commit defenders to the ruck, so they fan out across the field. The attacking play also seems a bit sterile with too much slow ball and teams relying on lots of phases to force openings.

Leading by example: France captain Guilhem Guirado tops the tackling charts after two rounds of the Six Nations 2018 with 31 (photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

When the ball is slow you often see the scrum-half pass to a forward who is standing still. It is a part of the game that I still don’t get. It’s not clever, it’s dull – and it has to change.

One answer might be using more tip-passes, so that if you get two in a row the third receiver can really burst onto the ball or even the second after receiving a tip-on from the first static player.

Overall, we have seen patience being rewarded with tries after 20 to 40 phases in the opening two rounds, but I still feel that teams should be more clinical. This is especially true in the 22, where there have seen far too many instances of white-line fever – and that loss of clarity is often the difference between success and failure.

In that respect international rugby is the same now as it was in my day. It’s all about having that sense of the game being in slow motion, and having a very clear picture of knowing what you have to do, and when to do it. That’s an instinctive sense, and players relied on it more then than they do now when so many moves are so well rehearsed.

We’ve seen some clinical attack from England, with Owen Farrell’s catch-scan-kick for Jonny May’s first try the most obvious example. His involvement in May’s second try was even better. England were attacking close to the Welsh line, as the ball was coming out Farrell had already seen the bigger picture and was ushering Jonathan Joseph out of the way. He took the ball on the outside edge of a dog leg cutting a beautifully line, got tackled but ran round to take a pass as first receiver and floated a pass to Joe Launchbury who did the rest.

Farrell is playing at a different level now to most of his rivals in the Six Nations. It’s pretty stratospheric, and when it comes to the improvement a player can make he is the benchmark.

France are more a gathering of individuals than a team. That individuality is reflected in Teddy Thomas’ three tries, with the winger showing speed, strength and flair. However, apart from those flashes of brilliance, France have not looked like scoring.

Their biggest advance was not to concede a penalty in the build-up to Sexton’s winning drop-goal in Paris. That showed great discipline.

Now all the French need to do is sort out their attack. They have to recognise that it will not happen as long as they keep chopping and changing at 9 and 10. Inconsistent selection leads to inconsistency on the field, and you simply cannot keep changing your main tactical decision-makers. They’ve been doing it for 20 years, and until they sort it out there will be no change.

Overall, the ball is in play a lot more than it used to be, but for the game to flourish the number of substitutes has to be cut. Let’s have front row substitutes and then just two more.

This game will be strong just as long as it remains true to its values. If coaches started to manipulate substitutions  with fake injuries resulting in uncontested scrums then we would end up with a game very similar to Rugby League and it would be the fault of the coaches for not staying true to the game’s integrity.

If you reduce the bench to five you will have much more space when players naturally get tired, more skills, and more enjoyment for the fans. Most backs can last 80 minutes comfortably, and if we make forwards work even harder on having the fitness to last 80 minutes we will see the benefits.

It is a guarantee of spectacular plays and masses of entertainment.

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