With the Six Nations back in full swing, Planet Rugby welcomes back the Expert Witness, a column that looks to delve deeper into the tactical areas of the game from the eyes of former internationals.
Our guest for this round is the mercurial talent of Leicester Tigers' skipper, Geordan Murphy. Murphy, capped 72 times for Ireland and twice for the British and Irish Lions, has long been seen a visionary attacking force, whether on the wing or his favoured full-back position, and we welcome him to Expert Witness.
With the first round of Six Nations games concluded, the shop window of Northern Hemisphere rugby appears to be thriving. Superb displays from Ireland, England and, most surprisingly, Italy, each game produced its own cliff-hanging moments, some rare skill from forwards and backs alike, and committed displays from all six teams.
Not one to sit on the fence regarding his home nation, Murphy understandably was excited about Ireland's first-half demolition of the rudderless Welsh.
"What a hell of a game!' he exclaimed.
"In the opening Six Nations weekend, it's so important to come out of the blocks otherwise you can ruin a season and blow a whole campaign in 40 minutes of rugby"
"Ireland, led by a very robust and physical performance from Sean O'Brien, really made those opening exchanges their own, with O'Brien prepared to take the ball at pace into a blitz defence, something that can create a lot of holes outside, as the blitz is rushing at pace, and find it difficult to change direction. That sort of power into the blitz causes players to get wrong footed and that leaves open channels around the contact area to exploit" explained the Irish full-back.
"O'Brien made a ridiculous number of carries, and topped the tackle count at 23, a real testimony to the all round quality of his game. In fact the top five tacklers of this weekend were all Irish, which says a lot for how we defended, but in fairness, how Wales came back at us in the second half. Our defence was massive in every way"
"I was also extremely impressed with Brian O'Driscoll. People were writing him off all week, saying he'd lost form, been stripped of the captaincy, yet here's a player that's been at the top of the game for 14 years. That criticism would have been a red rag to a bull and, although he's a quiet and modest guy, I think he took a lot of pleasure in raising a subtle two fingers at those that had written him off!"
And what of Wales? A side that eight months ago could have won a World Cup, yet since then have slipped further and further down the rankings, and look a shadow of their former selves.
"I think the French-based player situation is a real issue for them. They don't look cohesive as they're not spending enough time together. The biggest difference for me is the way they're playing. Two years ago, they flung the ball around and ran sides ragged. Now, they're playing power rugby, route one stuff, and they simply don't have that type of personnel to play that style.
"I put it down to the disjointed coaching with half the side missing for important team training sessions, and a general lack of confidence caused by a few injuries to key players. Gatland's issues with his ankles, plus the Lions have not helped, but he's a pro to the last so I don't read too much into that. I just see they're playing a different style and one that's easier to play against"
"France will be a big challenge for them next week. I expect both sides to make changes, and France simply have to pick a regular 10, and I expect Trinh-Duc to start in place of Michalak."
Over at Twickenham, Stuart Lancaster's Red Roses continued to bloom as England put in a very impressive performance against a perennially under-achieving Scottish side. With Tom Wood, Geoff Parling and Owen Farrell in compelling form, Murphy believes England are starting to evolve a more expansive game:
"Another great game to watch from the armchair supporter's viewpoint! England really cruised through that game and always looked as if they had another gear should they need it," said Murphy.
"What did impress me was the manner in which they offloaded, little close quarter pop passes that keep defences moving around. They tried to keep the ball in hand and alive before going to contact or ground. They have expanded on the conservative approach we saw in 2012 and, by being together, have learned a lot, and importantly, a lot about themselves; although by saying that, I do believe they'll reign it in against Ireland and play slightly more conservatively.
"Tom Wood continues to impress me, a real grafter at 6, who has great rugby intellect, and also, my Tigers' team-mate, Dan Cole, showed yet again why he's the best tighthead in world rugby. Yes, he's a great scrummager, but his turnover and tackle count is immense too, which is a real bonus for a prop. Geoff Parling, a man often considered to be a little lightweight, has really come of age and has been the outstanding lock in the home unions this season."
"The England v Ireland Lansdowne Road encounter will be fascinating; a very tight game with two very good sides. I'd call it Ireland by a score, but it'll be a tough game and very physical.
"On the other hand, Scotland really are in a dark place, and despite a few breaks in the second half, they never really threatened. I feel sorry for the outstanding Kelly Brown and emerging talent of Stuart Hogg, both of whom were immense in defeat. But they don't have the strength in depth in terms of playing numbers, and a few players seem to have gone backwards from their form in 2012, without anyone to pressure them for their place.
"With a fired up Italian side coming to Murrayfield, this weekend could be a corker of a match. The Italians have nothing to lose, the Scots have everything to lose. It could be a classic, and if Parisse and Masi play like they did on Sunday, it could be another upset on the cards."
On Sunday, we saw probably the best game of the weekend. A fired up Italy coming out on top over a rudderless France, hampered yet again by the perennial issue of rather 'interesting' French selection.
"You cannot deny Italy the plaudits," explained Murphy.
"They had the lions' share of possession and they really are starting to play a more varied brand of rugby. They've always been physical. Indeed, on a Monday morning after the Italy fixture you'd know you'd been in a game, such is their physicality. But make no mistake, they were the better side on Sunday.
"What they did this time was challenge the French right in their faces from moment one, and moved the ball around from contact a lot more. They targeted Freddie Michalak, inexplicably picked out outside half after playing at scrum-half for his club all season, and the Italians really dominated the tight/loose exchanges. They played with width and pace, and used their power runners to run into the deep channels to draw the French defence, with Parisse, Masi and Castro at the fore.
"When I was interviewed before the Six Nations, I was asked who was the most skilful player in the tournament. I thought about it for a bit, and wanting to be a little left field, so I answered Sergio Parisse. Here's a man that can do just about everything in the game. A real rugby genius, and he was everywhere on Sunday, sometimes even as the acting fly-half! What a performance. Andrea Masi too, showed what a powerful player he's become, truly world class at 15 or 13 and always a threat to the gainline. He's a great signing for Wasps and I think Premiership Rugby will be all the better for his presence.
"What I would say in closing, was this weekend was truly a great advertisement for the Six Nations. Three crackerjack games, a major upset and big performances from Ireland and England. I hope the rest of the tournament is just as compelling."
So that's it for the first instalment of Expert Witness for this week. Thanks to Geordan for his forthright and incisive views and we wish him and Tigers all the best for the season.
We will be back before the next round of Six Nations games, with the thoughts of another rugby legend, discussing the slings and arrows of outrageous rugby fortune!
Geordan Murphy was speaking to James While