Last week brought the curtain down on the Nat-West 6 Nations. With the middle four positions to be decided, all three matches had something to play for. Scotland were two minutes away from finishing 5th, but thanks to Greg Laidlaw’s penalty they finished third. France who started slowly, were a whisker away from finishing second, had to settle for 4th, and Wales their victors in the last game, finished second. England, champions for the last two years finished fifth, and Italy who again lost all the matches, propping up the table with only a losing bonus point (against Scotland) to show for their endeavours.
With the Rugby World Cup (RWC) on Japan in under 18 months’ time, this year’s championship could be pivotal in the development of the pretenders to New Zealand’s crown.
Looking at the teams, you could say that 4 of the 6 of them would be at least content with the outcomes and performances. Starting with the Champions, Ireland. They are on an upward trajectory, being unbeaten in the last twelve months including victories against Japan (twice) and USA with weakened teams due to the British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand. With their last defeat being against Wales in the penultimate week of last year’s championship. Over this period, they have brought on new faces and have developed the strength and depth. Wales, I have to admit surprised me during the championship. I thought that they would struggle, as they appeared to be in transition, and with a changing game plan that Warren Gatland was trying to implement. He has moved away from the traditional ‘Warren Ball’ and is employing a more adventurous outlook. I fully understand the change, as it would be the only way that Wales would be able to challenge at the RWC, as they inevitably come up short against the Southern Hemisphere big hitters. It has been quite successful and could have seen them win the championship. They were a late interception against Ireland from getting a potential victory, and a debatable TMO call from winning at Twickenham. They will be frustrated in the away matches outcomes but are clearly on the correct lines and similar to the Irish, they are blooding players in preparation for Japan. They will be a force to be reckoned with come September 2019.
As for third place Scotland…. The final game against Italy basically summed up Scotland’s 6N championship. Some good play, some decent stuff and some, how to be polite awful play. The key is that four years ago, Scotland would have lost the game in Rome easily. Through the work of Vern Cotter and now Gregor Townsend, Scotland are developing a mental toughness that allows them to win when not playing well. Of all the games, Scotland played well for the full 80 minutes against England, and in stages against Ireland and France, and I thought for most of the first half against Wales (the two tries aside). What had a major effect of the games in Ireland and Wales was the concession of interception tries. In both games conceding these tries swung the momentum in the oppositions favour. It is these mistakes that are costing Scotland dear. When they haven’t made mistakes, they have been successful. I do think that Townsend will have learnt from his first set of competitive fixtures. Scotland still need to temper their exuberance so early in a game and do the hard yards first. I can see Scotland’s build up to Japan being very similar to Townsend’s own playing career. So many highs and lows, with absolute magical play mixed with downright awful play. It will be exciting and a roller coaster and has always been the case following Scotland.
France, who started with a last gasp defeat to Ireland and a mediocre performance against Scotland, kick started their championship beating Italy before grinding out a win against England and a close loss to Wales. Like Scotland, Jacques Brunel was in his first competition as French coach (though he has experience with Italy), so the upturn in performance over the duration is no surprise, considering he only took the role at the tail end of 2017. They will be building and their performance in their summer tour to New Zealand.
As for England, where do we start? A solid start against Italy, followed by an inconsistent but ultimately victorious performance against Wales. There was much to worry Eddie Jones at this point as Wales could have / should have won. It could have been put down as a one-off performance, as happens to all teams, but the following game against Scotland, where you would have expected some sort of backlash, the only fire in the belly shown by England was pre-match, when Owen Farrell had an altercation with Ryan Wilson (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/rugby-union/43185147). Unfortunately for England, that was the sum off their efforts for at least for the 1st half at Murrayfield. They came back into the game in the second half but never really put sufficient phases of play to trouble or threaten the Scottish defence frequently enough. Considering this performance on the back of the Welsh match, Paris was probably the last fixture they wanted and while it wasn’t the highest in quality, France came through, but England had their chances to win. In past year’s (even last year), England would have won. There appears to be a lack of belief in the English ranks. Many people have had their say, but from my point of view, it is that England have developed a too stringent game plan. They can go through the phases and develop space against the lesser teams quite easily. When they come up against the top teams, they can be too predictable. Has Eddie Jones been found out? Have the top tier nations worked out how to nullify them? They need to keep evolving if they are to justify their 3rd favourites tags for RWC 2019. Similar to the way that Wales are changing (as evident in the championship), England need to adapt and change if they are to continue their success. This 6Ns will be put down as blip (correctly), and 18 months out there is plenty of time to sort any issues that there may be. Of all the comments made about England’s underperformance, Clive Woodward’s musings seem the most apt. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/rugby-union/43450454). Unlike Ireland and Scotland and to a lesser extent Wales, England’s national team have limited power over the amount of game time their internationals have. While the Irish and Welsh British and Irish Lions were able to rest properly after the arduous tour of New Zealand, most of the English Lions, were back playing for their clubs. This will have had a major detrimental effect on their well-being going forward. With the tour of SA then another full season, their top players will not get the rest that they need. If they are running on empty now, they may be a team full of car wrecks come November 2019. What the Celtic Nations (and NZ) have are central contracts where the best players are given sufficient end of season rest, along with breaks throughout the season. I don’t think that will ever be the case in England, as similar to football, the clubs hold most of the power. By the end of 2018, the position of England building to RWC will become clear.
Finally, to Italy. With only one win in the last 25 matches in the 6Nations, Italy appear to be treading water, if not swimming against the tide. The appointment of Conor O’Shea was a shrewd call, and despite their performances they are going in the right direction. Unfortunately for them the other five nations are improving at a greater rate. If they had defeated Scotland, it would have shown a positive finish, but it also shows where Scotland have got to winning ‘ugly’ as they say. They are slowly building up their player pool and are no longer a ‘one-man team’, with the emergence of Matteo Minozzi as an outstanding full back, and the improvement of the Italian teams in the PRO-14, the RWC in Japan might be too soon, but come France in 2023, they may be a bigger threat.
So, England are stalling, Wales and Ireland coming along nicely, Scotland and France showing shoots of positivity with their new head coaches, it looks like the Northern Hemisphere teams will have a major say in who will win it. Apart from New Zealand, the main contenders are from Europe.