Here is my lovely post-mortem on an extraordinary tournament that chugged along without any fireworks or spectacular rugby, before exploding into life like a good volcano, on the final day. I shall provide an ‘end-of-term report’ on each competing nation in alphabetical order, so strap yourselves in for this bumpy little ride. Before I do so, I would say that the player of the tournament is arguably a toss-up between three gifted, but quite different scrum halves: the dynamic Ben Youngs, the commanding Conor Murray, and the enterprising Rhys Webb. I think that as a non-Englishman [though Yorkshire-born] that I shall have to nominate, through gritted teeth, the player of the tournament to Ben Youngs who got better and better as the competition unfolded. In fact, what probably separates the top three teams of England, Ireland, and Wales from les autres is that the top three possess excellent half back pairings. England have the luxury of choosing between the absent Farrell and the current incumbent of Ford to partner young Youngs. Biggar has been immense for Wales alongside his Ospreys partner, Rhys Webb, while Ireland are similarly blessed with the authoritative pairing of Murray and Sexton. Until France find the right formula at half back, they are going to trail in a distant fourth in the European pecking order, thinks me. Finally, I reckon that if England, Ireland, and Wales played each other again in a month’s time, the reverse results could easily occur, as there is little separating them. Right, here is my pseudo-analysis:
John Bull has been mighty consistent in recent Six Nations tournaments after suffering a post-2003 nosedive. Now the men in white seem to perpetually win four out of five matches each season. This is both encouraging and frustrating for their followers. The trouble with the English media [which occasionally masquerades as the British media] is that ‘England expects’. Unfortunately for a very good and improving current team, they are almost perceived as failures if they do not grab themselves a grand slam, or a championship at the very least. However, England are not currently head and shoulders above the rest [unlike the England of Carling and Guscott or the England of Johnson and Wilkinson], and therefore they have no right to expect a clean sweep. They are not far superior to the likes of Ireland and Wales, and recent history suggests that they are always liable to come up short against one of these opponents. Nevertheless, although England are not operating in an era of total dominance [yet], they sure have gone up a level in recent weeks in terms of delivering potent, running rugby that delivers lots of tries, and more crucially, loads of points. Where England in the past might have been reasonably expected to venture into opposition territory and grind their opponents down and then win a penalty, they are now accelerating into enemy territory and heading straight for a try and seven points from the subsequent conversion. This is a huge step-up for the England team and bodes well for the World Cup.
Les Bleus remain the ultimate sporting enigma. Only they, it seems, can go from brilliance to a shambles in about ninety seconds, and then back again. Could it be that the influx of prestigious foreign players into their top league is adversely affecting the emergence of new talent? Or is it that the coach is simply being dealt a bad hand at present, having to make do with a mediocre squad, devoid of world-class players? Or is it that the players are more than adequate and are failing to combine as a team, as a consequence of inadequate coaching? Answers on a postcard! It’s my estimation that if one appointed a Schmidt, or Gatland, or Lancaster, or Cotter to oversee the French first XV, then the improvement would soon come. This suggests that the intelligent Saint-Andre should stick to being a rugby pundit, as his coaching is not paying dividends. There appears little strategy. There is no cohesion. There is no half back partnership taking control of matches. In the past, the French rugby contingent would have regarded four wins out of five as a failure, as they craved a grand chelem and would not settle for less. All of a sudden, it seems acceptable for a coach to preside over three defeats and a none too convincing win over Scotland. Saint-Andre simply must be relieved of his duties, unless two wins out of five is no cause for concern. Or could it be, that like the playing personnel, there isn’t even an obvious homegrown alternative to Saint-Andre? Perhaps it’s time that France swallowed its pride and appointed a foreign coach.
Blessed with an intelligent coach and an experienced team, Ireland are nothing if not streetwise. Adjectives such as ‘accurate’, ‘efficient’, and ‘clinical’ have been ascribed to their displays. In some respects Ireland have reverted to bygone days of yore by proving to be the masters at the art of defending, except that nowadays they are a fitter bunch and don’t run out of steam in the last quarter, like previous teams used to do. There is still a subtle conveyor belt in operation which is easing new faces into the set-up as the revolving door shows older hands the exit. For example, the transition from the legends of O’Gara, O’Driscoll, and soon O’Connell will prove to be less burdensome than might first have been feared. Henderson and Foley are likely replacements for the latter. Similarly, Heaslip has been around for ages now, but Jordi Murphy proved himself an adequate replacement. This proves that Ireland have strength in depth, a necessary ingredient, as they prepare to do battle in the forthcoming World Cup. There is now a lot of hype around the Ireland team. Fortunately, the team possesses a level-headed captain who won’t allow the collective ego to be distracted by the promise of glory this autumn. Ireland have a bad knack of shooting themselves in the foot in World Cups. However, now that they’ve reminded us that they can score tries too, then the team look set for further progress in September and October, provided that Murray and Sexton continue to combine so well behind a well-drilled pack.
Everyone wants to see the Italians win matches, so long as it isn’t against their own team. The men in blue do consistently manage one win per year, but after their fine triumph in Edinburgh, the Six Nations newbies were crushed at home to France and Wales in the space of six days, so it is a case again of one step forward, two steps back. Regrettably, the Italians have been plying their trade at Europe’s top table for more than fifteen years, and still they appear to be little more than makeweights. If they don’t get their act together and step up a level in the next year or two, then a case has to be made for introducing a relegation from the Six Nations and replacing the bottom club with another European nation. Admittedly Italia did not finish last this year, but their points difference tells its own damning story. Furthermore, the continued lack of progress of the Italian clubs in the Pro12 and European rugby in general suggests that the Italians remain light years away from becoming a formidable force in European rugby. Is it realistic to permit them to compete year after year when they are, a few exceptions aside, little more than the annual punchbag.
If Italy experienced a cataclysmic end to their Six Nations campaign, then Scotland’s own efforts were considerably more forgettable. In their defence, the Scots had to make do with a depleted squad and they came up narrowly short against France, Wales, and worst of all Italy. However, just when we all reasonably expected a determined attempt to avoid being whitewashed, the Scots meekly surrendered against the Irish. Hogg is a star turn for the tartan troops and they now possess genuine try-scoring capacity. Unfortunately, losing can become a habit, akin to an addiction. The Scots need to learn to win close matches, as they often did in happier times in days gone by. Regrettably their fortunes remain hampered by only having a paltry two professional clubs to choose from. While Edinburgh continue to underperform in the Pro12, then the burden falls upon Glasgow to be the predominant supply line for the national team. Scotland desperately needs to revive a Borders team, from an area that has produced many of the great rugby heroes of yesteryear. Or alternatively, a north of Scotland team, based possibly in Aberdeen, has been mooted. Failing this scenario, the only other solution is to pump more finance into grassroots and schools rugby, but such an approach is unlikely to reap rewards for a decade or so, requiring the Scots to muddle on through for the next ten years or so. In the mean time, Scotland will have to build their team around Glasgow, although even their progress in the Pro12 is a bit of a distortion.
Like England and Ireland, Wales have a glass half full, glass half empty view of the past tournament. Had they been able to respond more effectively to England’s second-half heroics in Cardiff, then a grand slam might have been achieved. However, to bounce back from a first weekend defeat to finish with four successive wins [also accomplished in 2013] is highly commendable. While England are sometimes rusty at the start of matches, Wales appear to be slow starters in Six Nations tournaments. Confronted with the group of death in the forthcoming World Cup, Wales cannot afford to make a sluggish start in a pool that contains Australia and England. Although the Australians have experienced fluctuating form in recent years, they always appear to be canny enough to excel when push comes to shove, in a major tournament. England’s chances are being talked up, not least because of so-called ‘home advantage’. Nevertheless, I think that this Welsh team are more than capable of producing a successful invasion of Twickenham. They were second best against England back in early February, but there is still little to choose between these two protagonists, so English optimism about overcoming Wales is a bit misplaced, even allowing for a couple of recent triumphs. The Welsh lack nothing in the goal-kicking department and have a strong half-back partnership, a good back division and very capable back row forwards. Perhaps they only lack strength in depth in prop forwards. Otherwise Wales are well-placed to upset England.