More of my thoughts and ramblings after the third round of the Six Nations which saw Scotland get one hand firmly on the wooden spoon while Wales kept themselves in the running for the Championship and Ireland took another step towards the Grand Slam...
If Italy had fourteen other Sergio Parisse's they'd be challenging for the World Cup. We've heard this said many times over the last decade and it gets no less true the more often you hear it. The Italian captain is quite simply one of the greatest players of his generation and deserves to be mentioned alongside the likes of Mervyn Davies, Brian Lochore and Hennie Muller as one of the truly great number eights in rugby history.
For so long Parisse has been the leading light in Italian rugby, always leading from the front and doing the basics better than anyone else while also bringing more than a touch of magic to his play. Such is his presence on the field that it's easy to overlook the fact that Italy have had some fantastic forwards in his time with the likes of Marco Bortolami, Martin Castrogiovanni, Mauro Bergamasco and Alessandro Zanni as good as any in world rugby. Yet Parisse still stands head and shoulders above them all.
If want an example of how one man can exert his influence on a match you only needed to watch Italy's victory over Scotland at the weekend. Yes the young Scots shot themselves in the foot in that second half but the Italian captain stood out like a true colossus at Murrayfield. While it was a tough watch as a Scotland fan you could not begrudge this moment of glory for one of the greats of our game.
Damned if they do, damned if they don't
Warren Gatland's Wales can't catch a break can they? Lose to the southern hemisphere sides and to fellow Six Nations teams and it's because you're not as good as you're made out to be. Beat them and it's because they're tired/poorly led/in crisis/missing players through injury/the ref was on your side etc and of course you're still overrated.
Warren Gatland got his first win in France as Wales's manager (Rob Howley was caretaker in 2013) and it was a controlled, professional performance with little flair but huge amounts of pragmatism which you've generally come to expect from Gatland's Welsh team in the last few years. While nobody is denying that France are in a serious rut, Wales were comfortable and even when France got back into the game at the start of the second half, you always felt that the visitors were in control.
Yet still there was negativity similar to what we saw when Wales ended their dry spell against the Sanzar nations with victory over South Africa in the Autumn. There it was a case of the Springboks being tired at the end of a long season while Wales were still fresh and battle-hardened rather than battle-fatigued.
This Welsh team aren't going to win hearts with their brand of rugby and that might be part of the problem. Pre-2011 there was still something for the romantic to love about Gatland's outfit where a back three of Lee Byrne, Leigh Halfpenny and the little genius Shane Williams had more than a little bit of devil about it. Now it's about the power of George North, Jamie Roberts and Alex Cuthbert and even Halfpenny has not found the same attacking edge at 15 that many of his rivals possess.
The mysticism around Welsh victories of the past has always been about the genius out wide in Barry John, Phil Bennett, Gerald Davies, Ieuan Evans and others while forgetting that there were plenty of others who focused on the pragmatic allowing the enigmatic to flourish. This Welsh team is focusing on pragmatism first and in a World Cup year that's no bad thing.
The kicking game
Because of Super Rugby and southern hemisphere rugby in general we've been conditioned to believe that kicking is a negative but Ireland and New Zealand are showing that the issue is not kicking itself but rather how you're using it.
These two teams are the best in the world at using kicking from hand to play not only for position but also for possession. Out of the northern hemisphere sides Ireland's kicking game is second to none with Jonathan Sexton at the height of his powers and man for man their backline is probably the best in world rugby under the high ball in defence and attack.
In 2011 New Zealand picked players in their back three that they knew were solid under the high ball which meant that more dynamic runners like Hosea Gear were left out and even Julian Savea has had to improve that aspect of his game since his debut. Ireland seem to be following in their footsteps for their entire backline and don't be surprised if more sides use that as a determining factor when deciding on the make-up of their squads later this year.