After the nightmare of the World Cup England emerged triumphant in a Six Nations that rarely caught the imagination. Even though all the sides were undergoing transformations of some sort since the events of last September/October, it would appear that England have made the most progress. While few of us here were expecting any side to take the Grand Slam, England surprised us and did just that. While England may not have been the most exciting team in the tournament, they certainly looked the most polished with a clear sense of purpose and direction. The other teams had moments of brilliance, especially the three Celtic nations but inconsistencies and poor execution at times let them down at various stages of their campaigns. Meanwhile France showed some promise as they started a new life under Coach Guy Noves despite a domestic structure that is clearly crippling the national side. Lastly, Italy as expected took the Wooden Spoon as they prepared to say goodbye to Coach Jacques Brunel and sadly got progressively worse as their campaign wore on leaving many people once more questioning their place in the tournament.
Wales vs Italy
Final Score – Wales 67/Italy 14
As exhilarating as it was to watch Wales in full flight, in the grand scheme of things Wales were already assured of second place and Italy the Wooden Spoon before the match had even begun. Italy looked demoralised for much of the match whilst the Welsh just looked angry and with a point to prove after their loss to England the previous weekend which ended their title hopes. Yes, Wales ran in nine tries just as Ireland had done the week before against Italy but it seemed a hollow victory against a side who were more spectators than participants.
The Jonathan Davies try against Wales below is a perfect summary of the match. Italian defences which were for all intents and purposes nonexistent for the last sixty minutes of this encounter, allowed Wales to run Italy ragged for the last three quarters. There was simply no need for the physical approach preferred by Welsh Coach Warren Gatland and which has often stifled Wales’ creative talents out wide. Wales were allowed to run free all afternoon with Italy offering very little in the way of an obstruction.
The first half was a torrid affair for the Italians and was not helped by continuing injury problems causing winger Mattia Bellini and center Andrea Pratichetti to leave the field. Italy occasionally showed some brave defence but it was rarely enough to contain a rampant Welsh team. Welsh scrum half Rhys Webb, who so cruelly missed the World Cup, made a brilliant return to a Welsh shirt and showed that despite a strong performance by Gareth Davies in his absence the competition for the scrum half berth in Wales will be keenly contested over the coming months. Webb would open the scoring for Wales despite there being clear evidence of Welsh players being offside from a kick from fly half Dan Biggar. While it certainly may have made the Italians feel that refereeing decisions were perhaps going to go against them, it still would not have changed the nature of the significant thrashing the Azurri would ultimately get over the next seventy minutes. Wales would steadily ramp up the pressure on Italy causing their defensive structures to disintegrate and with it their discipline. Dan Biggar would make sure that his boot would keep the scoreboard ticking over while continuing to keep Italy under pressure. Despite some poor execution at times from Wales in the opening twenty minutes they were still the more composed and better organised team.
Dan Biggar would get Wales’ next try followed soon after by centre Jonathan Davies as mentioned above who would score one of the best tries of the tournament. Italy were clearly out of ideas and inspiration, even the legendary Sergio Parisse seemed at his wits end. With Wales in a commanding lead at 27-0 as referee Romain Poite blew for half time, you felt it was only going to get worse for Italy as there had been little on display to think otherwise. Italy looked crestfallen while Wales looked like they were thoroughly enjoying themselves.
It would be George North’s turn to be the linchpin of Welsh play as the second half got underway. A superb offload by the winger would set up centre Jamie Roberts for Wales early in the second half. Soon afterwards the Welsh winger would emulate Jonathan Davies efforts in the first half as he sliced huge holes through the Italian defence to score Wales’ fifth try. This seemed to galvanize Italy into action at long last and some positive pressure from them in the Welsh 22 would see scrum half Guglielmo Palazzani profit from a solid Italian rolling maul and get Italy’s first five pointer. The change in fortunes was short lived however, as Welsh fullback Liam Williams would get Wales’ sixth try.
Italy would make one more spirited attack in a brief interlude of positive play from the Azurri, and centre Gonzalo Garcia who has been one of the few shining lights in Italy’s Six Nations campaign would get Italy’s only other try. From then on till the final whistle Wales simply took the game by the scruff of the neck and it was all about the Men in Red. Flanker Ross Moriarty who replaced the injured Justin Tipuric would go on to score two more tries for Wales as Italy for all intents and purposes simply ran out of gas and gave up. Scrum half Gareth Davies would end the match with Wales ninth try and a reaffirmation that, despite a fine return to the Welsh shirt by his rival Rhys Webb, he is still a force to be reckoned with in the number nine jersey.
While there was plenty of excitement in this match from a Welsh perspective it was ultimately a very one-sided contest. Wales were in a league of their own while Italy failed to make any statement whatsoever. Although it was an impressive comeback by Wales after the debacle at Twickenham the week before, against such inferior opposition it was hard to say what it really means in terms of where Wales find themselves after this Six Nations and with the prospect of an extremely challenging tour of New Zealand awaiting them in June. Against better opposition Wales seem to revert to type and the adventurism we saw, albeit too late against England, and clearly on display against Italy gives way to a more conservative physical approach seemingly favoured by Coach Warren Gatland. While Wales may be sound defensively which will stand them in good stead in New Zealand they will need to have the attacking confidence they showed in the last ten minutes of the England game and in this match if they are to make any kind of an impression against the All Blacks. When given freedom Wales suddenly look very exciting but they seem reluctant to use their obvious attacking potential especially in space and out wide. Wales are without doubt a good team and one, as we saw in the World Cup, who can hold their own against the Southern Hemisphere sides when they are allowed to be creative. However, without this creativity they look exceptionally predictable and one dimensional, two traits that New Zealand will exploit to the full resulting in a potentially painful four weeks for Wales this June. A New Zealand squad fresh off the rounds of Super Rugby will be an exceptionally difficult proposition for a Welsh side at the end of a very long domestic and international season. Creativity will be the key, but under pressure Wales may be effective but not imaginative enough to ultimately get results – we wait and see.
As for Italy, it is back to the drawing board for them as Coach Jacques Brunel leaves and Conor O’Shea takes over. Italy need to build on some of the skills of their younger players who showed some promise in this Six Nations, and learn to rely less on Sergio Parisse to constantly bale them out of trouble or create that initial go forward spark. It is hoped they can tighten up their execution and decision making under a new coaching regime and play as a more cohesive unit. The next few years will see Italy under the microscope of International Test Rugby as calls for other European emerging nations such as Georgia and Romania to take their place in the Six Nations will grow. Italy desperately needs to show some real progress as the results since their inclusion in the Six Nations in 2000 are few and far between. I still think it is early days to perhaps talk of relegation even though post the World Cup I did put forward the idea of such a system in the Six Nations. However, if Italy holds onto the Wooden Spoon again next year then I can’t see how they can argue against it. As a result, the pressure on them is enormous but hopefully it will be a positive catalyst for change and improvement. Italy clearly has talent of that there is little doubt, but they need a structure and the support to help them realise this potential. It won’t be easy but I still think they have a core of younger players who have shown the hunger and the basic skills needed to help get them there in the future. There have been some promising developments in the management structure of Italian rugby in the last few weeks, and it is hoped that the foundations needed to finally get Italy living up to its potential are slowly starting to be put in place.
Ireland vs Scotland
Final Score – Ireland 35/Scotland 25
Ireland may have won the game but once again it was Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg who stole the show. This game lived up to the hype surrounding it as both sides played with ambition and flair. Ultimately though, Ireland’s better organisation and execution would see them come out on top. Scotland challenged to the end, but once again we saw some of the basic errors creeping back into their game that have haunted them at crucial times in the last year. Scotland have made enormous progress under Coach Vern Cotter in the last twelve months and are without a doubt one of the most exciting sides to watch in the Northern Hemisphere. However, it is a lingering lack of finesse that seems to get the better of them in big games such as this one. Ireland may not have been as exciting to watch in open play, but everything they did was just slightly more clinical than the Scots. The match provided plenty of thrills and spills but Ireland clearly pulled away in the last quarter and took charge. Scotland have had a fabulous Six Nations and scored some spectacular tries, but have sadly just not found that consistency yet in the basics. They are clearly better at the end of this tournament than when they started and the progress has been there for all to see but there is still a way to go before they can really take the bigger teams to task on a regular basis.
Ireland were clearly the better organised team in attack and defence in the first half and Irish fly half Jonathan Sexton’s boot would keep the Scots in check as Ireland led 6-0. However, some sterling Scottish defence was effectively blunting the Irish attack and keeping the Men in Green at bay. Scottish scrum half Greg Laidlaw would see the Scots get on the board with a finely taken penalty kick and after a frenetic first fifteen minutes and considerable dominance of possession by the Irish the score was only 6-3 in favour of Ireland. Sexton would bag another penalty and the score seemed to be creeping inexorably in favour of the Irish, especially as they were playing the territorial game so well and having the majority of possession. Then this happened and reinforced just how dangerous Scotland have become.
To say that Stuart Hogg is perhaps a force of nature is rapidly becoming an understatement. Give the man the ball anywhere on the field and he is more than likely to do something spectacular with it. Not only is he possessed with an exceptional skill set he is now probably one of Test Rugby’s greatest entertainers and in our opinion, along with many others, has been the best fullback of the tournament.
Scotland were now ahead 10-9 and you sensed that this match was about to really open up. However, sadly Scotland would suddenly find themselves slipping back into their old ways as discipline and decision making would get the better of them. Flanker John Barclay was sin binned and a man down Scotland found themselves having to defend a ferocious Irish assault on their lines, which ended in Irish flanker and ball carrying sensation CJ Stander pole vaulting over a pile of Scottish bodies on the white line to get Ireland’s first try. Minutes later a clever kick from Sexton would see two Scottish defenders have a communication breakdown as the ball went loose allowing winger Keith Earls to scoop it up and dot down Ireland’s second try. Scotland would have the last laugh in the first half from a successful penalty kick from Greg Laidlaw to restore some respectability to the score line as Scotland trailed 21-13.
The second half would see Scotland essentially try to contain a confident Ireland who clearly had the measure of how to rattle their opponents and play on their perceived weaknesses in decision making and discipline. Scrum half Conor Murray would, as he does so often, spot the tiniest of tunnels in the pile of Scottish bodies defending the line and squirt through to score Ireland’s third try early in the second half. Scotland would hit back quickly through Ritchie Gray and some well worked pressure in the Irish half as the big lock would saunter over between the posts and keep Scotland well in touch of the score line trailing 28-20. Scotland looked well in contention until a moment of disciplinary weakness would see them get a second yellow card as centre Alex Dunbar would make a pointless tip tackle on Irish fly half Johnny Sexton, even if it was milked for the cameras slightly by the Irishman. As the game ebbed away, a tired and weakened Scotland finally started to cave. Ireland would capitalise on them being a man down and lock Devin Toner would crash over from a lineout for Ireland’s fourth and final try. Scotland still tried to make the most of a bad situation till the final whistle but those costly lapses in discipline and execution had once more proven to be their Achilles Heel and Ireland simply played a more comprehensive game which would see them worthy winners at 35-25.
It was a solid performance from Ireland and capped off two good displays at the tail end of the tournament which showed what Ireland is capable of. While it was always going to be unlikely if not impossible for Ireland to lift the title for a third consecutive time, a strong finish in third place sets the tone nicely for a challenging tour to South Africa in June. As Coach Joe Schmidt contemplates his future after the South African tour going into 2017, he surely must be pleased with the talent he has at his disposal should he choose to remain in charge of the Men in Green for the World Cup in 2019. Flanker CJ Stander’s work rate and athleticism has been a marvel to behold all tournament, while Ultan Dillane and Josh van der Flier had impressive starts in the green shirt in the back row. I still must confess to being disappointed at not seeing more of Ulster centre Stuart McCloskey in this tournament but hopefully the South African tour will redress this. Meanwhile prop Jack McGrath was outstanding and it was good to see Donnacha Ryan and Tommy O’Donnell back in action in the forwards and they will be key resources going into the future. Ireland may be rebuilding, but there is more than enough potential to see them return to the lofty heights they reached last year. I personally feel that with the disarray in the Springbok coaching department at the moment, the Irish trip to South Africa could be a profitable one. South Africa will still be an immense challenge and a country bursting with talent but the possible candidates for the Springbok coaching job don’t leave us with much optimism, leading us to believe that Ireland could sneak more than just the one win most are predicting they will get. Either way it should be an excellent opportunity for Coach Joe Schmidt to set the team he or his successor will need to work on building as they start the long road to Japan in 2019.
From Scotland’s point of view, it has been an encouraging tournament, but lingering doubts remain as to how much Scotland have managed to fix some of their core problems. This is an exceptionally talented team guided by a visionary Coach in the shape of Vern Cotter. However, the sea change in Scottish playing styles has been so dramatic since Cotter took charge that there are still some kinks left to be ironed out as the team still struggles to adapt at times. Scottish execution and decision making still remains a problem even though as evidenced in the game against Wales and especially against France and Italy there have been wholesale improvements in this area. In the game against France for example Scotland finally put in the complete performance they have been searching for since Cotter took charge. If they can replicate that kind of effort and composure for the rest of the year, then Scottish fortunes on their tour of Japan and in the November Internationals look promising indeed. Scottish supporters will no doubt feel frustrated that their team is so close but still relatively bereft of results, but I would argue that they are clearly getting there. This tournament following so close after a tumultuous World Cup campaign for the Scots has been a very positive learning curve and there is plenty to take heart from. Scotland possess one of the most exciting back lines in Test rugby, a solid and promising halfback partnership that blends youth and experience and a forward pack that is rapidly developing into a powerful and highly agile unit. All the ingredients are there for success. Furthermore, look at the increasing depth on the Scottish bench in any of the Six Nations and the future looks bright indeed. Scotland know what they need to do, simply tighten up the discipline, maintain their composure and decision making under pressure and finesse their execution. If they can do this consistently then a very exciting future awaits. While it didn’t quite come to fruition in this Six Nations we saw more than enough evidence that it is surely not very far away!
France vs England
Final Score – France 21/England 31
We’ll be completely honest while we never really expected England to take the Grand Slam we had little or no doubt that they would be the side to lift the Six Nations trophy on March 19th. As the tournament wore on England’s steady march to the ultimate prize seemed inevitable. Wales looked like they might have derailed the English Grand Slam express at the death, but ultimately it was too little too late, despite English supporters wincing in the stands at Twickenham in the final ten minutes. After that match it was left to France to try and produce some miracles in Paris, and they certainly made the effort but by this stage England were simply unstoppable. If you have to look for a complete team display over five matches then England for the most part gets the nod, despite the defensive horror show of the final ten minutes against Wales and a seeming inability to really assert any kind of authority over Italy in the first half in Rome. Disciplinary issues still remain, but Captain Dylan Hartley who has been a disciplinary pariah in the past, led admirably from the front in this department and worked hard at bringing his charges into line. England looked good for the most part but are also aware that they let many opportunities slip past them. A fact that Australia will be keenly aware of as they prepare to meet them in June. Meanwhile France have made a relatively positive start to life under new Coach Guy Noves, but clearly have a long way to go before they can once more claim to be a dominant force in the Six Nations. Captain Guilhem Guirado has been a revelation for France this tournament and was clearly one of the most inspirational Captains of this Six Nations, his work rate and never say die attitude has provided France with some solid leadership in a challenging campaign. Winger Virimi Vakatawa has proved to be the danger he was built up to be, but his prowess in breaking open defences was often a solo effort in this tournament as the rest of his teammates struggled to catch up with him and his blistering speed and strength. Vakatawa is a clear threat for France but his team has yet to figure out how to use him effectively, but once they do he should be the spark that sets alight some promising back line players. Up front France is competitive but without that powerhouse front row of Guirado, Rabah Slimani and Eddy Ben Arous, they often looked vulnerable. In short, plenty to work with but for now France is very much in the design stages.
The score line in this match perhaps doesn’t do justice to how hard France made England work for the full eighty minutes, and they surely must take heart from this performance even though they lost and sadly scored no tries, despite pressing agonisingly close on numerous occasions. England on the other hand held their nerve, were the more clinical of the two sides and, just as they have all tournament, demonstrated just how far they have come in the three months since new Coach Eddie Jones has taken over after the World Cup debacle. England were clearly the best side in the tournament and deserve all the accolades they have received in the last two months along with the Grand Slam. Whether they are good enough to take apart Australia in two months, only time will tell but the foundations they have built in this tournament will certainly put them in good shape to make a serious impression on their Antipodean hosts.
France got the upper hand in the opening quarter of the match, as a lack of English discipline allowed scrum half Maxime Machenaud to put France ahead and he would continue to remain a reliable source of points with the boot all match for Les Bleus. France looked the more enterprising of the two sides as they were ambitious and the more dominant of the two sides in attack. After England’s Owen Farrell leveled the scores with a penalty kick France looked promising with some fine work from winger Virimi Vakatawa who was proving to be a handful for the English defences though sadly his colleagues were having trouble keeping up with him. However, it was England and scrum half Danny Care who would ultimately make the statement as to how this game was going to unfold.
I have always found Ben Youngs to be a more reliable scrum half for England, but there is no question that Danny Care adds an X-factor that Youngs perhaps lacks. With a keen eye for opportunity Care took advantage of a hole in the French defences that you could have run a legion through. With only French prop Jefferson Poirot there to stop him there was really no contest. Continuing English ill discipline especially in the scrums continued to cost England as France’s Machenaud kept them in touch. However, England were increasingly getting the better of territory and possession despite French fullback Scott Spedding and winger Virimi Vakatawa’s efforts to the contrary.
It would be prop Dan Cole who has been a real part of the bedrock of England’s success in this tournament who would get England’s second try after some determined efforts by the English pack deep in the French 22. England ended the half in charge at 17-12 but repeated incursions by the French had ensured that Machenaud were keeping France in the game. As the teams headed into the tunnel it was still anyone’s game, especially if the French were able to keep up their obvious enthusiasm for the task at hand.
France certainly started the second half full of intent and had the English defences scrambling to contain them. A penalty battle ensued in the first quarter with both sides trading accurate shots on goal and the score line remaining so tantalisingly close for both teams. If anything it looked like France were getting the upper hand in attack despite some alarming errors starting to creep in as the frenetic pace of the game started to catch up with a French squad who were clearly not as well rested as their English opponents. However, it would be Mr. Reliable, scrum half Ben Youngs who would come to England’s rescue after some solid ball carrying from Billy Vunipola. The scrum half made a clever little break and then put a perfectly weighted grubber kick through for winger Anthony Watson to pounce on. The winger held off France’s Wesley Fofana who himself was playing out of his preferred position at centre, much to the dismay of French supporters. France however still managed to keep themselves in the game as another English indiscretion allowed Machenaud to bag France’s seventh penalty. The scrum half was proving to be spectacularly accurate with the boot and surely that has answered one question for Coach Guy Noves about who gets the kicking duties in the future.
English supporters would hold their breath as Captain and Hooker Dylan Hartley was taken off the field with twelve minutes to go, and given the fact that he had hit every target all night in the lineouts the concerns were valid. English centre Owen Farrell would boot one of the longest penalty attempts of his career and seal France’s fate as the game closed out in England’s favor at 28-21. However, France suddenly seemed to run out of steam and as French replacement forward Xavier Chiocci headed to the sin bin the writing was clearly on the wall. Farrell landed another penalty and as referee Nigel Owens blew for full time the relief and joy for England was there for all to see. It seems hard to believe that this is the first Grand Slam in 13 years for England, but as a result it will be one of the sweetest they are likely to get for a long time.
Whether an England fan or not, you cannot deny that for the most part they were the best team by a country mile in a competition that often left us wanting for so much more. England played with enough ambition and adventure to lay down the marker for other teams to beat in the Northern Hemisphere and while they may not have had as much flair as the Celtic nations at times, they were brutally effective when it mattered most. Coach Eddie Jones has more than enough to work with as he prepares to be a tourist in his native land in June. The second row combination of Maro Itoje and George Kruis is a bright beacon for the future while Jack Nowell proved his weight in gold on the wing. England’s scrum still creaks somewhat but Hooker Dylan Hartley as Captain has been outstanding. England’s back row still remains a problem, as they are essentially having to ask too many questions as to who really is their number seven? However, with the burden of the Captaincy removed from his shoulders Chris Robshaw has really come back into the fold as one of England’s most reliable and experienced assets. However, Billy Vunipola at number eight is playing some of the best rugby of his career and as seen against Ireland is akin to a one-man panzer division. Questions still remain around the halfback partnership with Danny Care and Ben Youngs having equal amounts to offer to the number nine jersey, but the questions surrounding George Ford’s lack of form in this tournament in the fly half berth need to be answered before England make the journey to Australia. Owen Farrell, Mike Brown, Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson are all proven commodities but the question of what England’s centre pairing really should look like still remains up in the air. In short, England are in a very good place as they look ahead to an exciting tour to Australia and a full slate of top drawer Internationals in the Fall. The progress that Eddie Jones has made in three short months is remarkable and England look in very good health. However, before England and their supporters get too carried away, it’s only once the Australian tour is over will we really know how far England has come, but so far the omens look good.
As for France, they have been ambitious and exciting at times but are clearly still very much a work in progress. Captain Guilhem Guirado has rightly been labelled one of the standout performers of the tournament and he has provided France with some exceptional leadership in trying times. However, the problems that continue to plague French rugby are still no closer to being answered despite Coach Guy Noves’ best efforts. Until the domestic structure allows France to rest and train a national squad in line with the demands of International Test Rugby, it is unlikely that France will achieve much more than one-off spectacular results. The likelihood of them stringing together a set of consistent wins still looks like a flight of fancy. On their day they soon will be at the stage where they can beat anybody but then still proceed to implode a week later. France needs consistency and so far it doesn’t look like they are going to get it. They face a challenging tour to Argentina in June which has already been sacrificed to the needs of the domestic competition. Up against a Pumas side revelling in their Super Rugby exposure and champing at the bit to set the right tone for the Rugby Championship in August, this is going to be an incredibly difficult tour for an exhausted and depleted French side. However, it could be turned to France’s advantage if they use it as an opportunity to blood a new generation of up and coming youngsters. France at least for this year will need to learn to work in spite of their domestic structure and as a result could end up learning some interesting and perhaps encouraging lessons for the future. There is enough talent in France that the future should be viewed with a healthy dose of optimism especially now they seem to have in Guy Noves a Coach who is learning how to work with the constraints imposed on him. There is still likely to be more pain than gain in the French camp over the next year, but I genuinely believe that France will be back and sooner rather than later. For a nation with such a proud tradition in the sport we hope that this is genuinely going to be the case and that the management problems plaguing France regarding club versus country debate are hopefully worked out for the greater good.