There is something changing in Northern Hemisphere rugby. The way the game is being played is changing, the powers of the game may be changing and the quality of the rugby is also changing for the better.
The 2013 Six-Nations got under way this past weekend, and all these things were evident.
Although its still early days, there was plenty to learn about each of the teams from watching, this article looks at five of these.
A change in coaching has done wonders for Italy, completely changing their mindset and game plan. In years gone by there was a feeling that they were playing to lose by as little as possible, rather than to actually win games. They would rarely move the ball wide, putting an emphasis on set piece, forward play and kicking.
The team that has been on show over the past four months has been far from this. They have adopted an expansive game that has seen them give the ball width, looking to put their players into gaps and keep the ball alive in contact.
They have adopted a strategy similar to that of the All Blacks, setting targets either close in or outside of the first five-eighth, before moving the ball and looking to attack through the midfield. Their support play enables them to keep the ball alive and in general they look to play an up-tempo game. On defence too they look similar to the New Zealanders, fanning out and not committing to the breakdown unless it is on to do so.
Using these tactics they delivered some convincing performances in November, but have shown their true worth with an outstanding win over pre-tournament favourites France. They are certainly capable of beating any team on their day if they play to their potential.
However, whether or not they can play at such a high level consistently remains to be seen. They still have a long way to go, but they are heading in the right direction and have come light years in the past 12 months.
It’s not just Italy who are looking to play a more positive game. It was evident that the other teams are beginning to want to use the ball more too.
Wales and Ireland both showed flair in the competition opener, with Ireland in particular looking good running the ball in the first half. England too looked good attacking through the midfield, while Scotland at times showed they could do it, more on that later.
Consequently, the skill level is improving and it seems the teams are beginning to learn when to play expansively too. There were still cases where bad passes were thrown, balls were dropped and reckless play was seen, but this is only to be expected. The encouraging thing is they are improving and heading in the right direction, which can only be good for the game.
Indeed it was Carwyn James’ 1971 British and Irish Lions team that many credit to showing the world, or New Zealand at least, how to counterattack and play an expansive form of rugby. A skilful midfield of Mike Gibson and John Dawes, flying wingers Gerald Davies, David Duckham, John Bevan and J.J. Williams with the impeccable J.P.R. Williams at the back were as good as any at playing the running game. Gareth Edwards provided the service for this team, with the likes of Barry John and Phil Bennett calling the shots in the No. 10 jersey.
As the years progressed they began to take a more conservative approach to the point where the lack of flair in the Six Nations became something of a joke amongst the Southern Hemisphere nations.
But as history shows us, they are capable of playing this form of rugby. If they can rediscover the ability to do it effectively the gap between the two hemispheres will indeed close in the coming years.
Not long ago Sean Maitland was a potential All Black. But a move north has seen one of the world’s most dangerous wingers donning a Scotland uniform, qualifying through a grandparent being born in Scotland.
The weekend saw him make his test debut, playing on the wing against England in a game Scotland never looked like winning.
His performance was hard to judge. He didn’t do a lot. But neither was he given many chances. It’s all very well saying a winger needs to go looking for work, but the rest of his team has a responsibility to get him into space. And they weren’t doing this.
The Scotland mentality seems to be to let the forwards take it up, playing a tight game where going wide seems something of a last resort. Yet when they did let their outside backs attack they looked good.
Maitland in particular only featured prominently twice in the game, each of which resulted in Scotland tries. These were the only two tries Scotland scored, and indeed were the only two times Scotland looked like scoring tries.
Putting two and two together, Maitland needs to see more ball.
There was much criticism when Owen Farrell was nominated for the 2012 IRB Player of the Year Award. And it was probably warranted, Farrell had after all done little at the international level at the time of the nominations.
He followed up with an outstanding performance against the All Blacks just days later, showing just why many rate him so highly.
Some put this down to a one-off. But his performance against Scotland in the weekend was just as good and it’s becoming clear there is something special about this kid.
As would be expected from an English first five-eighth, his kicking is of the highest class. It seems he just doesn’t miss, or rarely misses at any rate.
But there is more to him than this. He is a competent runner and is capable of throwing some outstanding passes. Along with this, he is getting the best out of a back line that has stumbled for the past few years.
To top it all off, he is just 21 years old and will only get better.
It can be dangerous rating players so early in their career. But if what we’ve seen so far is anything to go by, Owen Farrell is going to be a very good player for a very long time.
This may seem like an obvious one, but it seemed to slip the minds of the Welsh players in their match against Ireland. Mistakes that are stamped out of every rugby player from the age they begin playing were being made by this Wales team and ultimately it lost them the game.
They were simply too high going into contact and left the ball too exposed. This is a recipe for disaster against any opposition, but even more so against Ireland who have shown themselves proficient at holding up their opposition to cause a turnover.
From this Wales lost far too much possession and prevented themselves from getting into any flow, particularly in the first half. It was the winning and losing of the game.
So take notice kids, and in this case adults, namely Wales. Stay low going into contact, protect the ball and lead with the shoulder you aren’t carrying the ball with. Such a basic skill, but one that can have a large impact if not performed right.