Make no mistake, this was one of the most competitive Six Nations tournaments since its inception. All of Ireland, France and Scotland with two defeats and were level on points. Not for the first time, what separated the three of them was points difference, with the Men in Green winning that battle. In hindsight, despite being condemned to a wooden spoon, Italy ironically played a big part in the battle for second place. The tournament became a three horse game about who could ‘take Italy to the cleaners’ the most, as England Head Coach, Eddie Jones put it. Ireland’s emphatic 63-10 victory over Conor O’ Shea’s Italian outfit was more points than their rivals could muster, proving crucial to the final table. Enough of the maths, though, where do Europe’s top nations stand going forward from this Six Nations.
When on their game, as they were for much of this Championship, they have a superior speed, rucking and passing ability that will test the fitness of most teams. Often times decoy running in midfield, particularly by Jonathan Joseph, is the undoing of most teams. The vast majority of England’s emphatic 60-plus points win over the Scots came from strike plays off the lineout.
Despite deservedly winning the championship, however, it was Ireland who exposed the limitations to England’s game. When they are deprived of set piece platforms, breakdown dominance and possession, they look decidedly ordinary. They appear to get rattled when they don’t have the nudge in the attrition battle, as well as when the opposition are well disciplined. Joe Schmidt’s side rarely if ever kicked to touch from open play, frequently opting for scrums instead to starve the English of the throw in’s to the lineouts and deny them their favoured platform to launch momentum. The Red Rose are worthy champions, no doubt, but they are nowhere near World Champion material. They will meet their match against New Zealand this November.
Ireland’s attack has been hot and cold in this year’s Six Nations. It has often, and correctly, been criticised as one dimensional, as was the case against Scotland and Wales. Defences, more often than not, were up to the task of smothering one pass receivers like Sean O’Brien, C.J. Stander or Jamie Heaslip. Compounding this was a lack of speed in clearing out rucks. This made it difficult for even a world class scrum half like Conor Murray to get any clean ball off the deck in order to start quality attacks. Yet at the same time, they did more points on Italy than any other team in the tournament, including England. That’s Six Nations Rugby, folks. Graduates of UCD ‘Collidge’ rugby team did themselves credit of the international stage. Garry Ringrose had a shaky start and went missing at times against Scotland, but redeemed himself with a strong aggressive performance in the win over England. Luke McGrath likewise committed himself well against the Three Lions, coming on in scrumhalf for Kieran Marmion towards the end of the game. His quick supply helped Ireland keep up the tempo as Ireland secured their lead in the final quarter of the game. A beautiful choice box kick from the scrumhalf found touch in England’s corner excellently in the final minutes to knock back any English last ditch comeback.
There is positivity and perspective to be placed on the Championship result, though. Every team lost away from home. England won the Six Nations because they won more away victories than everyone else. Also, there is something positive to say about Ireland’s attack, given Ireland had a higher points differential than France, Scotland or Wales. If Ireland’s huge performance against England tells us anything, it is that the game plan is not the problem. If Ireland’s level of basic skills is high enough, it doesn’t matter how ‘predictable’ the strategy is, very few teams, bar the All Blacks, will be able to stop it. So Ireland do deserve to be second, based on their last performance against the reigning Champions. The position is also a vindication of Ireland’s game plan and Schmidt’s tactical nous.
French flair is back, there’s no doubt about it. When the French get a few phases of attack together with a creative combination of backs and forwards, as they did in moments against Ireland, England and Wales, they are a nightmare. Their offloading and evasive running stands up defences and keeps them guessing about where to commit tacklers. Defences are also left with minimal time with which to decide whether or not to commit to breakdowns or to stand off and protect wide channels. A third place finish is just reward for the brand of rugby they are trying to play.
Where France have their problems are fitness and discipline. France looked tired at half time against Ireland, as they did later in the game against England. Once fatigue kicks in, mistakes start creeping in and the penalties start coming. Top teams know this and will drain their energy by starving the French of possession, focusing on their own game and going through the phases. France need to learn to play the 80 minutes and win the physical battle in the early exchanges, before gaining the right to play the game the way they want. But this Six Nations shows the side which have languished in recent years, may be coming back to their best.
Scotland are going places, but they are not there yet. True, their expansive brand of rugby caught Ireland cold defensively in Murrayfield. Furthermore, possessing a fullback like Stuart Hogg gets you in the right positions to play that brand of rugby.
However, the loss of Captain Greg Laidlaw was crippling for them. He is another world class number nine and, like all good halfbacks, he is a leader offensively and defensively. Sure enough, Scotland’s defence was found wanting against England. Regular miscommunications at the lineout result in the shipping of a cricket 61-21 score against England. Scotland do rely very heavily on key players. The Scots also lacked a Plan B against big packs like France and England, who tore into them physically to stop the creative handling skills and the fancy footwork. A bit like Ireland, the development of a depth in all positions is imperative for Scottish rugby.
Even with Warren Gatland as Lions Head Coach, we can be certain that there won’t be an all-Welsh Lions team facing New Zealand. This was surely one of Wales’ worst tournaments. They were mentally not in the right place against all the teams except Ireland, when they were forced to perform out of fear of their fortress in Cardiff collapsing altogether. That failure to kick the ball dead in the last exemplified the Welsh season. Complacency also set in against France, as Les Bleus showed more desire than Wales to deal with the bizarre circumstances that saw the match go into twenty minutes injury time. Expect Wales to come back next year, but, for now, they have a bit of soul searching to do.
If questions were asked about Italy’s position as a Six Nations team before, they most certainly need to be asked now. They offer precious little going forward and are easy targets defensively. Conor O Shea has spoken at length about his long term project for developing the game in Italy. The problem is that this has been going on for the better part of ten years and people are running out of patience. They were the subject of praise against England in Twickenham. However, it has to be said that Italian intentions were to stop England playing, as opposed to playing any positive rugby. Six Nations organisers need to scrap conservatism and bring in Georgia in order to motivate Italy to up their game.
Conor Lynott Sports Editor