My predictions for this tournament were wrong. I predicted that England would win the championship. I also predicted that the Twickenham factor would work against Ireland and that f would have a mid-table finish. I got all that wrong. Moving on.
Going from the bottom up on the table, Italy haven’t got much better overall. One could argue that improved handling and cohesion in the three quarters, wings and fullback has slightly improved Italy’s attack and they have scored against all their Six Nations rivals, including three against Ireland and Scotland respectively. This is not without qualifiers, though. Very few teams afford Italy the same respect defensively, resulting in miscommunications because teams switch off when Italy are well beaten.
All due respect to Conor O’Shea who is a decent coach, but Italy have had 18 years in the Six Nations without any meaningful progress and some form of accountability has to be put in place. Perhaps Italy need to fast track some of the form players from Treviso and Zebre and put some of the old guard under pressure. This would also help remove some of the losing mentality of the Italian players. Italy may also benefit from a specialist fitness coach during pre-season camps to turn themselves into an 80-minute team. Expansion also needs to be looked at as means of removing any Italian complacency about their place in the championship. Improvements have been made, but not nearly at the rate required to make Italy a force in the next decade. It is more a question of how long the patience of the rugby community can hold out.
Now, moving on to England. To a point, the backlash Eddie Jones has received after overseeing a fifth place England finish is a reflection of how cruel sport can be. Despite a dismal Six Nations this season, Jones still has an 86% winning record as Head Coach. The problem for the chariot is that they were tactically left behind. England rely on solid set piece and the ultra-physicality of key individuals to bully teams. When these attributes are matched by their opponents, England are in trouble.
Furthermore, the English players failed to plan for the eventuality where Plan A didn’t work, meaning that they looked bereft of ideas when Europe figured them out. For example, England failed to readjust the balance and shape of the defensive line to account for the increased number of bodies in the post tackle area. A lot of this comes down to the coaching staff. The ability of the coach to prepare players for adverse situations and coming up with innovative plays to surprise the opposition. It has been well documented that the English players looked tired mentally and physically. New Zealand are consistently the top side in the world a reason: they evolve physically and tactically to stay ahead of the game – like an entrepreneur staying ahead in a very competitive market. If England fail to do the same, it may be awhile before England can expect to see a title.
France have improved loads under Jacques Brunel. Indeed, their final table position was partly out of their control due to the ill-discipline of a group of players off the field, including prolific finisher, Teddy Thomas. The key to their improved finish has been their defence. Both Ireland and England struggled to break France down with their balanced and suffocating defensive line speed. They are also capable of producing moments of sheer attacking brilliance. However, as has so often been the case with French teams in recent years, their discipline undermined all their good work and cost them dearly. In all three matches as they fell repeatedly to the boots of Leigh Halfpenny, Johnny Sexton and Greg Laidlaw. Arguably, France should have been penalised a lot more by Nigel Owens for illegally slowing down the ball supply to Ireland’s halfback, Conor Murray.
As well as that, there is an uncontrolled, disjointed and overly instinctive to France’s attack. Whereas the top teams in World Rugby devise attacking plays that tie the strengths of several players together in order to create space, France’s attack is very individualised which makes it very easy for defences once the individuals are shut down. As a result, the French are often at their best when they drag opponents into a scrappy and attritional dog fight. They nearly beat Ireland in this way, but this requires an enormous intensity level. France need a gameplay template that is more efficient and smarter, as well as sustainable throughout a championship that consists of five straight Test matches over seven weeks.
I think Scotland’s third place position in the Natwest Six Nations is a fair reflection of where they are at the moment. They have a backline with some of the slickest hands in world rugby. Their centre partnership, as exemplified by Huw Jones, were experts at devising the lines of running necessary to split defences open, Scotland vs England being a case to point, with Finn Russell’s long, arcing pass setting up a try from more than 50 metres out.
However, while their backs provide endless entertainment, the inconsistency of the Scottish back row forwards mean that Scotland still have a good bit of progress to make before becoming champion material. Indeed, during wins against France and England in Murrayfield, he Scottish forwards thrived off the emotional energy of the home crowd to squeeze out those extra metres and secure the possession needed to win the famous Test match.
In Dublin, with the vast majority of fans supporting Ireland, it was the men in green who proved their ability in the forwards division and their superior defence. The Irish solidity at the ruck, lineout and scrum squeezed the life out of the Scots. This had the knock on effect of putting more pressure on the Scottish backs against a resilient Irish rear-guard, as demonstrated by Sexton’s brilliant one-on-one defence that stopped a certain try by Stuart Hgg. As Ireland’s pool rivals in the next World Cup, it will be interesting to see how quickly Scotland progress.
Wales finished second in the Six Nations because they were the most second most clinical team in the tournament. Bringing almost the entire Scarlets’ team to Test level worked a treat for Warren Gatland’s men. They also had the leadership and the confidence to perform away from home as they pushed an Ireland side all the way in Dublin, with Jacob Stockdale’s intercept flattering Ireland slightly. From a defensive point of view, Wales will be disappointed. Two defensive lapses early on cost Wales victory early on, where England looked very beatable. They will be disappointed not to have coped with Ireland’s forwards unit better as well, given that Shaun Edward’s men pride themselves on set piece defence, having stopped Ireland at crucial times in that department. Overall, though, Wales have a bright future and possess the potential to win championships in the future.
When you hear talk of Joe Schmidt walking straight into the All Blacks job and New Zealand legend, Conrad Smith, acknowledging Ireland as the main challengers to the All Blacks, you know the Green machine is ticking along nicely. With the record breaking finishing of Jacob Stockdale, the discipline and the possession stats, it will require a very mentally and physically fit side to beat Ireland at present. The only blip has been the tries conceded out wide, but Schmidt has plenty of time to ponder that before the summer tour to Australia.
Conor Lynott – Sports Editor