It matters less whether the current “big bang” in rugby’s evolution in Test rugby is down to design or serendipity but rather that the sport satisfies several criteria in terms of general appeal, that it is technically engaging to the purist while becoming more aesthetically pleasing as a spectacle for the casual supporter.
It is also arguably heading, pun intended, towards a safer space inside the white lines, although as Garry Ringrose’s tackle incident demonstrated, nothing can be taken for granted.
The Irish centre embraced the low, power tackle technique but just as he accelerated into contact Blair Kinghorn shifted his body slightly and the upshot was a head on hip collision. It was a rugby accident.
The increased ball-in-play time and quicker rucks is stress-testing the work of beleaguered defence coaches desperate for structure to set their alignment. The number of line breaks has shot up as defences are more fragmented. There is now space on a rugby pitch for those able to identify it.
Instead of having to run the gauntlet into heavily manned defences, there are now gaps between defenders and around the rucks as both Conor Murray and Wales scrumhalf Rhys Webb discovered and utilised last weekend.
The laws previously rewarded dominant defences, allowing them to build their shape before the attack was able to release the ball. We now have disorder; the safety of the defensive system has dramatically been reduced, forcing players to make decisions. If you want to hunt a soft shoulder it is much easier to do so.
Ireland and Scotland have embraced this concept, and France delivered a brilliant performance against an England team that chose contact rather than space, at odds with the shape of the current game.
The French were superb, mentally and physically attuned for the rigours of what they would face at Twickenham and therefore able to engineer a first victory in London in 18 years.
The quality of the display simply overwhelmed their hosts and, to be honest, few teams globally would be able to live with France in full cry. I’ve been in that wonderful head space when everything clicks into gear, probably our most famous victory over England at Croke Park.
A catalyst for the visitors’ performance at Twickenham was the return of centre Jonathan Danty to French colours. I was curious to note just how much Fabien Galthie’s side had missed him and I didn’t have to wait long to receive my answer. He was exceptional.
He had been available for a little while, February 18th to be precise when he returned from injury to play for his club La Rochelle in the Top 14. However, the French coaching team was happy to watch him compile match minutes before restoring him to the starting line-up for Le Crunch, perhaps an example of Galthie looking to keep a balance in culture terms within the squad; nobody bigger than the group type of thing.
Danty managed to smash the highly-touted – certainly amongst the English media – Ollie Lawrence in a tackle, win a penalty turnover and subsequently gave France front-foot ball, largely when required. He provides the glue that attaches all the other parts to the central attacking mechanism.
The spotlight is generally trained on the halfbacks Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack but there is a conspicuous difference to the backline with and without him.
England were very predictable in possession, relying on the direct carrying of Lawrence and fullback Freddie Steward, seeking contact rather than space with very little deception or subtlety. The solitary try that they scored could easily have been disallowed had there been any sort of review.
Owen Farrell tackled Gregory Alldritt off the ball at the ruck just before Steward barrelled into a couple of bodies at that breakdown close to the line, exactly where the French number eight would have been had he not been pulled back by the English replacement.
I’d imagine it’s a very worrying time for whoever instigated the removal of Eddie Jones back in December, and, if it’s a different person, whoever started that first conversation that championed Steve Borthwick as the Australian’s successor.
Borthwick was obviously able to convince the English RFU power brokers that he had the capacity to do the job in a similar way he did the Leicester Tigers executive in succeeding Geordan Murphy.
The former Irish fullback and Tigers icon Murphy had done much of the recruitment for the following season and Borthwick benefited from that foresight as the club would subsequently win the English Premiership.
He is now able to fully appreciate the difference between coaching at international level, as a head coach rather than an assistant, and the club game.
You can’t buy in talent to fill holes in Test rugby. I’ve said before that I believe that the most important part of coaching at an international level is being able to motivate the person to be the player you want ahead of any brilliant tactical acumen.
I’m not convinced yet that he has the gravitas required to fill this seat. By any metric he has very little experience as a head coach. It will be extremely interesting to see will the powers-that-be in English rugby afford Borthwick the latitude that wasn’t granted to Eddie Jones before Christmas?
At the moment it is hard to see any progress in their approach, if anything it feels more of a regression. That doesn’t mean that England can’t pose a formidable challenge at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday. My gut feeling tells me that bold calls like starting Marcus Smith at outhalf will be reversed for a more conservative approach in chasing a one-off result.
In that scenario Owen Farrell will be restored to the 10 jersey, with Manu Tuilagi restored to the centre to try and guarantee gain-line success. There is an unknown quality to England this week, which carries its own threat, one for which Ireland must prepare.
Success for England isn’t coming from the coaching room this week, save perhaps from Kevin Sinfield trying to find a tone for the players to take and run with. This week will be led by Farrell, and he will be asking for players to take responsibility and to stand up and be counted.
While the pressure isn’t off them, it has shifted slightly and there is a freedom in that; the message will be clear, “do whatever you need, just win this match”.
Ireland have become extremely responsive to unplanned events, and the threat that England pose this week will be welcomed by Irish head coach Andy Farrell and his squad. How to prepare for an unquantifiable threat? Focus on yourself and back yourself to do the basics well. There is plenty of form in the locker over the last 12 months, and plenty to build on from Sunday in Edinburgh.
The ball in play time, as well as quick rucks, have been a calling card of this Irish team for some time now. They went just under 40 minutes of ball-in-play time against Scotland, with 60 per cent of the rucks at 0-3 seconds, compared to 35 minutes in the English/French match. Ireland will look to replicate those metrics again at the weekend.
The build-up for Jack Conan’s try was a great example of Ireland’s simple skills with and without the ball. Each of the ball carriers in the eight phases tried to find a soft shoulder and the quality of the rucking complemented this endeavour each time.
Jamison Gibson-Park was ready and waiting to move the point of attack, as did Johnny Sexton with a trademark wrap around shimmy to the wider channel. What happened next was not necessarily made in Ireland but should be used as the template for the next generation.
The Irish scrumhalf, Gibson-Park looked over his shoulder on the way to the final ruck to spot an opportunity on the short-side. Mack Hansen’s footwork fixated three defenders, the damage done, the flying winger casually delivered a sharp cut-out pass to Conan on the touchline, which allowed the number eight to muscle his way over.
This type of vision, mixed with the skill set, is what we need to develop more broadly in Ireland. There is being able to pass and then there is knowing when and why you are passing.
While it is unlikely to be acknowledged by Johnny Sexton that this is a special week, it is also not the end, just another milestone for the Ireland captain that can be reminisced about when the work is done.
His selfless attitude resonates strongly among his peers, and there will be a part of every person involved that wants this for him. That level of respect is hard won, it goes unspoken for the most part, but it is exactly the type of philosophy that Farrell has developed within this squad; actions speak louder than words.
They have backed it up over the last four rounds. The expectation is that Ireland will win but what I love about this Irish team today is that they wholeheartedly embrace that pressure. It’s a rare quality.