It was a fitting conclusion to one of the best tournaments in years, that England should travel to Dublin in search of not only a Grand Slam, but a world record winning streak that would have seen them eclipse New Zealand’s run of 18 on the trot. Given Ireland’s ability of late to bring record winning runs to a short and dramatic halt, it was always going to be a tall order for England to make rugby history this time around, especially on Irish shores. Ireland despite injury concerns and last-minute changes, showed that they can still pull out all the stops to rain on anyone’s parade, and in an outstanding and passionate display in front of their home crowd that is precisely what they proceeded to do at England’s expense. The title had already been sown up by England, but there was no question that all eyes were focused on Dublin last Saturday, and unless you were an England supporter it is unlikely you would have walked away disappointed. Despite there being only one try scored, the intensity particularly from the Irish was off the charts and as a result it was a worthy end to a tournament that has left us breathless at times. The other matches over the weekend were equally important for the teams involved and their supporters, especially as standings were at stake in relation to the draw for the 2019 World Cup pools which is just over the horizon in May. In short, an epic final Saturday of Six Nations rugby which built to a nailbiting finish in Dublin.
In the end England were Six Nations champions, but there was no doubt that the loss in Dublin last Saturday took the shine off a successful Six Nations campaign. England had got the job done, but had often been lucky rather than convincing and rarely spectacular. It had been a workmanlike approach that ensured that they got results, but there had been far too many close calls. The opener against France saw them struggle to adapt at times and in truth they were lucky to get the win. Their next match against Wales wasn’t much better and had it not been for Welsh centre Jonathan Davies kick to touch not finding its mark in the dying minutes, England may not have ended up hoisting the trophy last Saturday in Dublin. In the match against Italy, England made a hash of the first half as they struggled to understand some fairly obvious Italian tactics leaving them to have to play catch up rugby in the second half. It was only in the game at Twickenham against a weakened and uncharacteriscally inept Scottish team that England really looked like a world-beating side. Still for the first four rounds they had managed to hold their composure to find the resolve to get results under pressure – a quality that their opponents often lacked. However, against Ireland it was a different story. The momentum was all about Ireland from the get go and while England seemed rudderless and leaderless for much of the match, Ireland were the opposite. It is this aspect of the game in Dublin that should concern English Coach Eddie Jones the most. Nobody really stood up in a white shirt in Dublin to take charge of the situation and without that quality when up against serious opposition, England’s aspirations for World Cup glory will remain purely academic. It was made all the more puzzling as England is blessed with a multitude of players who could take on that role, but none were in evidence on Saturday in Dublin.
In short, a successful campaign for England, but if they are really going to go toe to toe with the All Blacks in 2018 and beyond, then there is still plenty of work to do albeit with a stable boasting some of the most exciting talent in the Northern Hemisphere. England have shown they have the potential for greatness, the next two years are all about finessing it. In that respect, England should feel pleased with the progress they have made under Eddie Jones, but also take the loss to Ireland as an important and valuable measure of the work still to be done.
Ireland must feel slightly disappointed that after such a heroic performance in Dublin last Saturday, it was England lifting the trophy and not them. Booked as joint favourites with England at the start of the tournament, they produced some epic performances but consistency, as it so often is, was once more their Achilles Heel and what would ultimately see them finish a strong second. Ireland have two problems it would seem, the first being consistency despite an abundance of experienced and up and coming talent, and secondly an inability to really score big points. Despite dominating possession last Saturday in Dublin, they were still only able to cross the English white line once in eighty minutes. They threatened on numerous occasions, but too often would just not complete that vital last phase. It is that lack of finishing, coupled to a seeming inability to string together five world-class performances in a row that is holding Ireland back from becoming a serious contender for Rugby’s ultimate prize the World Cup.
Irish Coach Joe Schmidt is a smart operator but even though he is seen as the Messiah of Irish Rugby, he needs to find some answers to the above issues and take himself out of his comfort zone. Ireland is blessed with some enviable depth as this last match of the Six Nations showed in more ways than one. The loss of influential scrum half Conor Murray seemed to have little if any impact as Kieran Marmion took his second Test start under the most intense pressure completely in his stride, as did his replacement Luke McGrath. The last-minute change required as a result of injury to seasoned veteran and number eight Jamie Heaslip if anything added extra fire and intent to the Irish effort in the shape of Peter O’Mahony. Schmidt needs to rely less on reputation and more on form. This last match showed that in abundance. If we were the selectors, the Irish back row would be a given, especially as it is doubtful that Heaslip will still be in his prime for the World Cup. The leadership qualities and inspiration that O’Mahony brought to his teammates was worthy of the great Paul O’Connell. For us the way of the future was clear in the back row – Stander at eight and O’Mahony and O’Brien as flankers. Heaslip still has some valuable service left to the Irish cause but an increasing investment in the future needs to be made now. Part of that equation is the development of Marmion and some of the other youngsters aspiring to half back positions, like Paddy Jackson, Luke McGrath and Joey Carberry, as well as giving lock Ian Henderson a much greater say in proceedings. The centre partnership of Robbie Henshaw and Gary Ringrose is a clear signpost for the future as well as more time in the fullback position for Jared Payne and youngster Tiernan O’Halloran.
The next year will be critical for Ireland, and the time to take risks and look less to reputation and more to form and the future has never been stronger.
France can feel more than happy with their third place finish, though had they beat England in their opening match, then so much more could have been on offer. Still compared to the wilderness years of the Phillipe Saint-Andre years, France are in a very exciting place once more. This tournament has showcased plenty of French flair and inventiveness with scrum half Baptiste Serin taking full marks in this department, although ably assisted by some exceptional backs in the shape of Virimi Vakatawa, Gael Fickou and Remi Lamerat. Add to that one of the most devastating and powerful forward packs in Test Rugby right now led by the extraordinary Louis Picamoles, and French rugby has once more catapulted itself back into Test Rugby’s higher echelons.
Coach Guy Noves has given this French team structure and consistency as well as a clear direction for the future. There is still plenty of work to be done, but the road map is now very well signposted and we firmly believe that France are going to be serious contenders once more for Six Nations glory in next year’s edition of the tournament. The sleeping giant that is French rugby has woken once more and the ride to the World Cup should provide us with plenty of excitement from the Men in Blue.
At the end of the day, it is hard to understand Scotland finishing in only fourth place after such a bright start to the tournament, and three solid wins over Ireland,Wales and Italy. However, Scotland at home was a very different team to Scotland on the road. Nevertheless, they still managed to produce some of the most exciting rugby of the tournament which makes it all the more difficult to understand their fourth place finish. Scottish rugby has made enormous progress under outgoing Coach Vern Cotter in the last two years and his presence will be sorely missed. Furthermore, although Scotland is not quite blessed with the depth of up and coming younger talent that say England and Ireland are, the performances of players such as fly half Finn Russell and scrum half Ali Price will have given Scotland enormous hope for the future. The Scottish backs in this tournament were electric and often lethal, displaying some skills that were breathtaking at times. Their forward power was also nothing to sneeze at and the likes of John Barclay, Hamish Watson and the irrepressible Gray brothers all had plenty to say about what Scotland was capable of.
Coach Vern Cotter leaves behind an impressive legacy which his successor Gregor Townsend must ensure is built upon, as an exceptionally talented Scottish side seeks to carry their momentum forward with an eye to the big prize in 2019 in Japan.
Wales are another side who perhaps are struggling to understand why they find themselves so far down the standings in fifth place after the dust has settled on this year’s tournament. We share their confusion as Wales are blessed with some truly remarkable talent. However, under interim Coach Rob Howley, Wales impressed at times but rarely looked like making a statement. Based on some of their performances, most notably against England and Ireland, Wales should have finished much higher than they actually did. Wales were slow out of the blocks against Italy, made fools of by the Scots and had it not been for the boot of fullback Leigh Halfpenny, Wales would have had nothing to show for their efforts against France. They did look the better side for much of the match against England but at crucial times their execution and finishing skills were simply not there. Against Ireland they finally found their groove but just couldn’t repeat it a week later away from home. Like Scotland they looked poor on the road and only really seemed to rise to their game at home.
When they did click as in the match against Ireland, Wales looked like a great side but for the rest of the tournament, with the exception of the match against England, they were distinctly average and against Scotland truly awful. This is a very good team with some genuine world-class players, but one which is struggling with direction in terms of coaching. Interim Coach Rob Howley is clearly out of his depth in the modern game, and regular Coach Warren Gatland has become too set in his ways to allow his players to develop and adapt to the changing demands of modern-day Test Rugby. It’s been a tough year for Wales and it doesn’t look like it is going to get any easier in the near future, but make no mistake once they figure out their management problems, like France they are likely to be back with a vengeance.
Despite once more holding aloft the Wooden Spoon in this year’s tournament, it hasn’t been all doom and gloom for Italy. They have produced some spectacular opening forty minutes of rugby in this year’s Championship which left England and Wales in a real lather. Let’s be honest who would have predicted that Italy would be leading England at Twickenham at the end of the first half? Whatever you may think about the tactics, what new Coach Conor O’Shea has done is to get Italy to dream big once more again and occasionally convince both themselves and the rest of us that they could just pull off the unexpected. There is still a long way to go before Italy’s fortunes turn from pain to gain, but we feel they have made the right tentative steps in this tournament and as a result need to be given the chance to build on what they have learnt in the last year. While their last place finish will once again raise the spectre of the debate of their possible relegation from the Six Nations in favor of a country like Georgia, we still feel that enough promise was shown in this tournament that such debates should be shelved for one more year. If after next year’s Six Nations, no further progress has been made, then Italy will have to face the music whichever way it ultimately plays out. However, for now we feel that they have earned the right to some breathing space based on the work that Coach Conor O’Shea and company have done. The clock is ticking but we believe that Italy is finally in a position to answer their critics and as a result must be given a realistic time frame in which to do so.
To sum up, we’ll let you judge for yourselves through the official highlights of this final weekend of Six Nations action.
Once more we provide you with the Tight Five’s excellent round-up of Round 4 action on YouTube. The competition is heating up with New Zealand’s Hurricanes, Chiefs, and Crusaders setting the benchmarks. In the African conference the Lions and Argentina’s Jaguares are really looking like forces to be reckoned with this year. Meanwhile the Australian teams continue to get off to a slow start but are likely to start building some important momentum as the tournament progresses especially when it comes to the Waratahs and Brumbies.