Stuart Barnes reflects on the Sydney Sevens, the form of Montpellier’s Nemani Nadolo and chats everything Six Nations ahead of the tournament’s return on Saturday.
1. Before we get to the serious stuff, a word about the party game – sevens. I see Australia won the Sydney Sevens. The women won the truncated version’s Olympic Gold, now the men are beginning to get a feel for the game.
It is a long time since Australia were the team everyone booed in Hong Kong. The team to beat when Campo was king back in the 1980s. If I was tasked with keeping the Wallabies near the top of the 15’s game I would be worried by the Sydney success.
They are a superb sporting nation but an extremely patriotic one. I say ‘but’ because Australia could easily refocus its union priorities. The women have already done so. What price the men one day doing likewise and saying to hell with scrums and lineouts if there is Olympic Gold at the end of the line instead of a battering at the hands of the All Blacks?
2. Getting nearer the serious stuff but still not quite there; Montpellier went top of the French league at the weekend with a late matchwinner from you know who: yes, Nemani Nadolo.
The giant Fijian is one of the most exciting and best attacking players on this planet. He was outstanding in the European pool stages. After six rounds he is without question the European Player of the Year. Yet he’s not in the fifteen-man long list.
This is no criticism of the panel (it would be hypocritical as I am a member and didn’t vote for Nadolo) but a sad reflection. Everything is linked to winning. Out of the tournament at pool stage, a vote for the winger seemed like a wasted vote, but really, didn’t he at least merit a mention for his crowd-pleasing efforts?
3. …and finally, the Six Nations. Devalued by the staggering injury list? Teams at half strength? Fans not getting their value? That’s not the Barnes take.
International sport is as much about the blind patriotic impulse as the quality of the event. The Six Nations has been a load of tosh for quite a few years but nobody seemed to mind. It is one of the world’s great sporting parties. If Wales beat England, the number of first-team members missing will not matter one single iota. More a case of ‘I was there.’
4. Yes, a lot of crucial players are missing: here’s one from each nation and briefly why he will be missed.
Billy Vunipola: England are about the gain-line and power – he gives them the gain-line in giant dollops. Gary Ringrose – A little something different in an Ireland team that plays with control.
Camille Lopez – A smart brain with a 19-year-old rookie the next best alternative (in the mind of the coach). Leonardo Sarto – He adds punch and a broken field game to an attack that lacks many alternative cutting edges.
Dan Biggar – Coming back to his best form, playing flatter just as Wales experiment with a little more variety and width in their attacking game. WP Nel – Scotland have kaleidoscopic skills behind the scrum but the prop lays the foundations. The absence of so many other props only magnifies the problem.
5. Six men to keep an eye on.
Hamish Watson: In an age where out and out sevens are a rarity, the stocky Scot is likely to punch way beyond his weight, especially at the breakdown. Wales may not have Sam Warburton but with Justin Tipuric expected to start for Wales against Scotland, this is one of the key individual head-to-heads in Cardiff on Saturday.
6. Gareth Davies.
The Scarlets scrum-half was lined up for impact duties. Now, with Rhys Webb out, Davies is sure to start. He is as good a running number nine as there is – anywhere. But making the sort of breaks that left Bath for dead isn’t the core of the scrum-half’s game.
A tighthead has to push, a scrum-half has to pass and kick with accuracy. Davies has a tendency to throw the odd poor pass. With a fresh 10, he needs to make life as easy as possible for his fly-half.
7. Carlo Canna.
The Italian has some lovely bits and pieces to his game, but the Zebre fly-half needs much more on the international stage.
In a side that frequently struggles for shape beyond what is usually a fairly competitive set-piece, he has to put them in the right parts of the field while breaking up the predictability of their play with the odd burst, of which he is more than capable.
8. Sebastien Vahaamahina is one of the few French players producing the goods week in and out.
There’s no risk to his selection. When Clermont have been at their European best – not often in France – his powerful running and subtle offloading game has been a prominent feature, but one lost amidst the brilliance of men like Raka.
He can jump, push, hit a ruck and add the odd open field party trick. The French front-five needs to dominate. He is at the centre of French hopes. For those of you of a certain age and with a retentive memory, an Olivier Merle with skill.
9. Johnny Sexton.
In recent years, Conor Murray has overtaken Sexton as Ireland’s crucial halfback component. That is a reflection of the way Ireland has tended to play. Tight around the fringes with a lot of controlled box kicking.
It has taken them to number three in the world. If they want to push to the very summit, Sexton’s ability to kick, run and open a defence with his clever passing game needs to take centre stage and deliver an extra attacking edge to a supremely organised team.
10. Dylan Hartley is as important as any player in the England set-up.
He needs to show the world and his teammates he is hooker and captain on merit. The murmurs of discontent are irrelevant while coming from press and ex-players (or both) but if the team start to wonder, Eddie could end up with internal strife.
Then, all the tightness of the squad and the family feel with which it has been expertly imbued unravels and England’s two years of success are put away on the history shelf.
Jones has invested much in his man. Time to repay the Australian on the field as well as off it.