Rugby Union Expert & Columnist
Stuart Barnes: Alun Wyn Jones' leadership, Dan Biggar's impact and Wales yet to peak
Last Updated: 25/02/19 3:55pm
Stuart Barnes on round three of the Six Nations, including Dan Biggar's impact, Alun Wyn Jones' leadership, and a Welsh team "nowhere near their peak"...
1. Almost too good in their first two games of the Six Nations, England had nowhere to turn when their gameplan was nullified in Cardiff.
Wales won the kicking duel and with it the territorial battle. This ensured that England were forced to play substantial swathes of the game deep within their own half.
Wales narrowed their defence on the touchline from where Ben Youngs pretty much constantly kicked. The home side kept the visitors away from the parts of the field from where England had so hurt France in round two.
As it was Owen Farrell did not kick remotely as well. He didn't play well either. These things happen, he is a human being after all.
The greater concern for England wasn't the form of key men on Saturday so much as an inflexibility; a failure to adapt to circumstances that changed as Wales - rather rudely - decided not to allow England to play it their way. It was a tactical miasma for England, a deserved win for Wales.
2. Dan Biggar came off the bench and altered the way Wales functioned. He kicked clearances vast distances and his cross-field kick for the Josh Adams try (didn't he play superbly?) killed the game dead. His was a meaningful impact.
In contrast Eddie Jones - who talks up his finishers strategy as much as any coach - left both Dan Robson and George Ford on the bench.
Farrell could have shifted to the centre to aid the passing game, he could have been substituted, while Robson could have added an element of running that wasn't coming from the kick obsessed Tiger scrum-half.
Wales won it both on the field and in the stands where Warren Gatland trumped his adversary at every turn.
3. In the leadership stakes Wales also won hands down. Alun Wyn Jones has ensured that Wales have lost absolutely nothing in terms of leadership with the retirement of Sam Warburton. The 123-cap lock is always there, bending down for a polite word in the referee's ear. A little pat, a nod of recognition.
Farrell is a harsher, elemental 'follow me' sort of leader. Inspiring on a good day but invisible as the conduit between the team and the referee on Saturday. The issue of leadership has not yet disappeared.
If England analyse this defeat with an open mind, they'll see the need for more fluid thinking. On an afternoon of intense physical clashes, it was as much mental superiority as anything that won Wales the day.
4. Wales impress me as a team who seem nowhere near their peak. They have not been much to behold for the first two rounds of their tournament but improved when they had to Saturday. There is a sense that there is much, much more to come from Wales.
The Six Nations and a Grand Slam would be the perfect send-off to Japan but it is Japan itself and the World Cup where Wales are planning to peak.
5. Scotland away and Ireland at home are no shoe-ins, even if neither side are in any sort of form. Scotland need the week's break and a chance to strengthen their ranks. The injuries are starting to hurt a nation that has nothing like the depth of talent.
They were poor in Paris and Gregor Townsend let his team know it, in no uncertain terms. Not good enough for the blue of Scotland; that was his verdict. It is hard to disagree.
6. Jonny Gray is one of Scottish rugby's favourite sons but I have long thought that, for all the vast quantity of tackles - many around the fringes with opponents falling into contact even as he makes contact - the quality of the tackling is less than definitive.
Rarely does he rock an opponent backwards and lift team-mates and supporters. His carrying lacks power too. Townsend substituted him within the hour in Paris. Will we see Scotland with a second-row partnership of Grant Gilchrist and Ben Toolis against Wales?
7. France were extravagant in flashes. Thomas Ramos' goal-kicking was dreadful but his dash offered some much-needed French genius on the counter-attack.
Antoine Dupont increased the tempo of the game from scrum-half too. Throw in a tidy performance from Romain Ntamack and a fine finish from Yohann Huget, so much happier back on the wing, and Toulouse can take much of the credit for a game France could not afford to lose.
Oh, and if anyone can explain why Jacque Brunel omitted Wenceslas Lauret for the game at Twickenham, please let me know. He does so much of the hard graft for Louis Picamoles. French international rugby moves in mysterious ways.
8. Peter O'Mahony was again named man of the match for Ireland. He's the sort of 'go to' MOTM when the team - frankly - fails to function. He played well, no doubting that, but the most striking performance on the field came from Tito Tebaldi, the returning Italian scrum-half who kept Italy on the attack with a stream of slick passes and made many notable breaks.
Sometimes MOTM can come from the losing team. I am as guilty as any in picking someone from the winning side but, from the couch, the Italian scrum-half earned my vote. Italy are playing some decent stuff and will hopefully be good enough to force a serious effort from England on March 9.
9. Ireland were poor. The muttering and cursing of Johnny Sexton when he left the field, kicking out at some innocent object beneath the field of vision of the TV camera, told the tale of an Ireland team struggling to get into gear. Are Ireland keeping it all hidden or was 2018 a peak year?
10. Away from the international arena, things are starting to look bad for Newcastle; very bad. Nine points off the next-lowest-placed teams (Bristol and Worcester) in the Premiership table, Dean Richards has to prove he is as good a manager as I have long thought him to be.
His heart would have missed a beat as Worcester nicked the spoils at the death against Leicester on Sunday... wouldn't it be boring if there was no promotion/relegation? Who would have cared that struggling Worcester beat struggling Leicester? As it is, the game had meaning, the league integrity.