TTT recently had the pleasure of attending an exclusive Q&A event with some true rugby greats. Five international legends, boasting over 250 caps between, them were on fine form at an event hosted by QBE.
In the second blog of the series, the panel of Martin Bayfield, Scott Quinnell, Serge Betsen, Conor O’Shea and Kenny Logan chatted about their respective nations’ performances and prospects in the current Championship …
Martin Bayfield: In a weird way I was actually quite glad France beat England as I’d just arrived in France on a skiing trip. We were in a restaurant and they were showing the game and the chef came up to me and said, “If you win, your food will be shit!” But I think they’re looking very good. What I’ve been impressed with England is that, while they lost to France, they came from behind and retook the lead and did so against Ireland as well. After Rob Kearney went over for that try early in the second half, they showed huge guts to do that. Conor, you must be so proud of the Harlequins boys in that side who are just playing some spectacular rugby.
Conor O’Shea: It was brilliant. Before the game I wanted the Quins boys to be the best players on the pitch but I still wanted Ireland to win, so at least I got one half of that. They were magnificent. I’d have loved to have been inside Danny’s head as he got that ball and realised he was clear. To score a try of that quality in that sort of match was terrific and you could see him with 20m to go thinking, ‘There ain’t anyone catching me!’
MB: And what about Mike Brown, I’d say at the moment he’s the player of the tournament.
COS: People call him ‘My Angry’ because he’s confident in himself and not afraid to front up to the biggest players in the game like Dan Carter. But I think he’s ‘Mr Competitive’ because he extends so much emotional energy. Whenever he plays, he plays for the team, whoever that is. When he hasn’t been selected [for England] in the past he’s put everything into Quins.
MB: Serge, I’m going to jump to you as we’re talking about looking comfortable but the French team just looked the complete opposite against Wales. Was that a one off or is this a problem within the team?
Serge Betsen: France played decently for the first two games. They were lucky to beat England but I was really pleased to see that result. In Cardiff in the big picture they didn’t really deliver and I was frustrated. So I hope it was just an unlucky game, like the Welsh in Dublin. It’s very difficult to watch the French play like this; without flair, without passion, without aggression…
Kenny Logan: … Are you talking about Scotland? I keep getting flashbacks!
SB: Yes it’s true there are a lot of questions to be asked. I think the fact that Philippe Saint-Andre spent time during his career here in the UK seems to show he has a vision of English rugby – without flair and passion! That’s how Sale played and they won the Premiership.
COS: With the sides that he’s coached he’s gone for big men. He likes to batter people and he did that at Sale. He had a massive pack with the likes of Chabal and Sheridan. But then you also had Jason Robinson and Mark Cueto, at the absolute peak of his career, that were able to provide the magic.
KL: But when Philippe Saint-Andre was playing for France, he had so much talent; he was a flair player.
SB: This is why I’m hoping at Murrayfield at the weekend they’re able to react differently than they did against Wales.
KL: When they see the pitch they will!
Scott Quinnell: Apparently they put garlic on the pitch to kill a disease in the grass but that’ll just make the French feel at home!
MB: Talking about teams that are lacking flair; Scotland! Kenny, what are your thoughts?
KL: Look you just can’t compete with two professional teams that aren’t even full of Scottish players; they’re full of South Africans. I think the big thing in Scottish rugby at the moment is that the set-up is not right. There are some good players there. The lineout used to be great, the scrum used to be great and they’ve brought a coach in who used to be with Wales…
SQ: Yeah we’re paying him! We’ve told him to go up there and make them even shitter! We thought he was a cracking coach!
MB: Scott, what about Wales’s performance against Ireland?
SQ: We went out to Ireland and they absolutely battered us and I think in hindsight it was a good thing. People talk about ‘touchstones’ these days and it’s given us a touchstone, something to go back to and say, “We never want that to happen again.” It’s given the players a bit of reality because the 6 Nations has been a bit of a comfort blanket for us the last couple of years. While the autumn internationals haven’t gone very well for us, we’ve won a Grand Slam and then the Championship last year.
MB: Let’s look at Ireland. Conor, what sort of reaction are you expecting after the result against England?
COS: You talk a lot about the performance levels and they’d have been gutted coming away from there and losing. But it was an incredible Test match between the two sides that I think are the best in this year’s Championship. So yes, it was disappointing but Italy are up next and if we can get a result and a good score against them, we’ll go to France knowing exactly what we need to do and I think that’ll be just to win it.
Italy are always obdurate and you can go into the game with the wrong type of mindset. I think Ireland though will go into the game thinking they can put a decent score on the board. They will be very motivated. I don’t think Joe Schmidt will make a massive number of changes. They’ll be aiming for a win of 15-20 points – but it will take time to break them down – and that will separate them and set them up to need just the win against France.
MB: What does Brian O’Driscoll mean for Ireland?
COS: You can’t compare his talent to the likes of Mike Gibson and Willie John McBride through the generations but he’s been singularly the biggest influence on Irish professional rugby bar none. Warren Gatland brought him to an Ireland training session in 1999 aged just out of school, and he brought Gordon D’Arcy who was a bit younger. It was in Galway, a pre-tour camp and he took four or five of us to one side and said, “Would you just keep an eye on these two?” After one training session we wanted to pick him; he was incredible. He was spindly, skin-and-bone at the time but the talent he had and the things he could do with a ball were amazing. And he had this impeccable warrior spirit. 15 years at the very top says it all and I could not speak more highly of him.
SQ: He’s not one of those scrum-halves who never takes contact, he’s not one of those wingers who just passes the ball; he is a brute. He’s not a big man but he’s muscular and he’s in every contact area.
MB: Looking ahead to the weekend, Serge, how do you see France going in Scotland?
SB: I think because Picamoles has been dropped we are going to struggle. Scotland will be confident from their victory against Italy – perhaps there was a bit of relief at that drop goal – and I’m scared of how France will turn up at Murrayfield and how they will challenge the game. I think it will be difficult for us and it will be a close game but we should just get the win.
KL: The pitch will be a real leveller and Scotland have always done quite well against France at Murrayfield. France don’t have the flair they once did and Scotland will be buoyed on from last week. Again it will be close but I’m going for Scotland.
COS: There seems to be a lack of cohesion in the French team. In the last Round [against Wales], at half-time the French team came out four minutes before the second half started and they were worse than any amateur team you’ll ever see. There was one player doing press-ups, there was no coach on the pitch at all, players all over the place and there wasn’t even a ball. For four minutes they were just standing around on the pitch without a rugby ball. They had no unity at all and that’s something Scotland will want to threaten. Louis Picamoles is one of the great no.8s with ball in hand.
KL: For what he did in the last Round, you should fine him. Not drop him.
COS: Another example is Pascal Papé, who was captain. He threw the ball forward and into touch and had a visible go at the other player even though it was his fault.
MB: Scott, what about Wales, up against England?
SQ: Too close to call. [Groans from around the room.] OK then, Wales! In fairness I thought the pack were a lot better against France, though I don’t think we were as good as the French game suggested. The one thing that Welsh players have in the 6 Nations is confidence. We won the last time at Twickenham and we have the ability to bring out big performances. Warren Gatland and the players love those big occasions. I thought Rhys Webb was absolutely outstanding so he may go for Webb again over Phillips and then you’ve got the impact of Phillips when he comes on. There will be some great match-ups like George North and Luther Burrell in the centres [Ed’s note: Jonathan Davies has been selected in the centres, straight back from injury and North moves back to the wing] – I’ve been very impressed by Burrell. I’ve been impressed by Lawes and Launchbury, though Dan Cole is a big loss. He goes for 80 minutes week-in week-out and he scrummages well. He’s an extra back-rower in the contact area in way the gets over the contact. But if the Welsh back row can go to Twickenham and do a job like they did against France – they were very visible against France – then we’ve got a chance of winning.
COS: You talk about touchstones and the game last year is a big touchstone for England.
SQ: Oh it’s massive and it’s a touchstone for Wales too, as they have that benchmark.
MB: I think England will just edge it. You talk about 12 months ago in Cardiff and if the England team go out there thinking, ‘We’ve got to seek revenge,’ that will be the mistake; they will lose their focus. They’ve got to prove to themselves that the England team we have now is far superior to the England team that played a year ago. From that moment we’ve seen the team improve and improve. And thanks to coaches like Conor, we’ve got some truly world-class players in the side, like Mike Brown. Chris Robshaw is another example of a man who had a difficult year last year with that Welsh defeat and not getting on the Lions tour but he has just kept delivering. The whole England team is starting to gel a bit. Is it the finished article? Of course it’s not but it’s getting better and better.
Here are Scott and Bayfs previewing the England v Wales game in more detail:
The rugby legends were speaking exclusively at an event hosted by QBE, official insurance partner of England Rugby. For more great rugby videos and interviews, go to: www.qberugby.com and follow @QBErugby on Twitter.