As the last major competition faced by the Six Nations competitors before they head to Japan in September, we take a look at each of the countries and how their performances over the last two months may or may not have a bearing on their fortunes at the forthcoming World Cup.
As always the Six Nations dished up its usual fare of twists and turns and downright surprises, perhaps best epitomised by the final match between England and Scotland in which an injury ravaged Scotland defied all the odds and almost pulled off one of the biggest upsets since the last World Cup. The top three finishers, Wales, England and Ireland, certainly justified the hype surrounding them but particularly for England and Ireland, we were still left with more questions than answers. There was disappointment for some, most notably Ireland, who for the most part failed to turn up during the tournament, having entered as favourites. However, Wales lived up to their dark horse billing and swept all aside in a well deserved though not always convincing Grand Slam performance. England clearly showed they have regrouped since their disastrous showing in last year’s tournament, but still left many of us scratching our heads over their disastrous second half showings against Wales and Scotland.
The bottom half of the table was once more filled with the usual suspects France, Scotland and Italy. France continue to be a conundrum. A brilliant performance against Scotland was about the only bright light in an otherwise disastrous campaign. We thought we were witnessing a new era in French rugby in the opening 40 minutes of their campaign against Wales, but their second half implosion soon dispelled such illusions.
Scotland as always played some thrilling rugby, but the injury gods wrought havoc on their campaign and despite a convincing opening win over Italy, they battled for the rest of the tournament. However, it would be harsh to judge them solely on their position of fifth in the table. They gave Wales an almighty scare at one point, and caused Ireland to have to work exceptionally hard for a win. However, the high point of their campaign was without a doubt their final match at Twickenham, and that epic draw with England. To be honest they came within an inch of the biggest upset of the tournament, as England scored the equalizer in the dying minute. However, they can take the honors for providing us with the one of the most spectacular comebacks against all odds in the history of the tournament.
Lastly, Italy ended the tournament winless and as a result set the debate alight once more about their place in the competition and the thorny question of relegation. It is still unlikely to happen given the commercial structure of the Championship, but given that they are winless in the tournament since 2015, something needs to change and fast. However, despite their failings we felt this year’s edition of the Six Nations did offer some hope for Italy as a raft of new talent caught our eye. There was some exceptionally positive play from Italy this year, and we feel there is enough emerging talent that it would still be premature to consider axing Italy in favor of another emerging European nation such as Georgia. We felt there was enough promise shown this year, despite the results to allow Italy another chance to prove us all wrong in the 2020 edition of the tournament.
So without any further ado let’s have a look at what got us talking in relation to the six participants as they head into the World Cup.
In the end worthy Grand Slam champions, and a team that has no doubt got their Pool D rivals in the World Cup into more than just a mild sweat. They weren’t the flashiest side in the tournament, but there is no denying they looked the most settled and seemed better than most at adapting to and playing what was in front of them. If that’s not a recipe for success then we don’t know what is. Masters of the basics, with clever but not overly ambitious game plans that for the most part were superbly executed. Their only real blemish during the entire tournament was a very shaky, almost clueless performance in the opening forty minutes against France in their first match. Sure they looked a little unsure of themselves against Italy, and clearly felt the heat of Scotland’s wrath away from home, but once they hit their straps against France in the tournament opener they never really seemed to look rattled again. Perhaps more than any other team in the championship they showed that rugby is actually a simple game that if played well can get results. Their complete dominance of Ireland in their final match of the tournament was utterly clinical, and an example of a team playing at the peak of their efficiency. Well drilled, well-disciplined and with an absolute understanding of what they need to do and how to do it – in short 15 players acting as one. While they may not have set the pitches alight this tournament, despite some outstanding tries, their composure under pressure and a superhuman defence was what in our opinion got them the Grand Slam.
So how has their Grand Slam finish positioned them for the World Cup? Rather well we think. Of their Group D opponents, based on current form we can’t see anyone challenging Wales for a first place finish. Fiji could pull off the upset of the century, but Wales’ main rivals Australia appear in a shambles at the moment, and with Wales having such a phenomenal defence we feel they are more than capable of containing the potent strike threats the Wallabies do have going for them. From there it is either France or Argentina in the quarter finals. If that goes well and there is no reason to suppose it won’t, then Wales have either South Africa or Ireland to contend with in the semi finals most likely scenario. These are both sides Wales are capable of beating and as a result it is not that difficult to see Wales going all the way to the final. World Cup matches are rarely high scoring affairs, particularly towards the business end of the tournament, where defence under pressure becomes premium, a quality that Wales had in abundance in this Six Nations.
It’s still early days, and form can be a fickle thing, but Wales have shown both depth and resolve in this tournament, allied to a an ability to execute the essentials with almost flawless precision. Add to that leaders across the pitch allied to a committment and sense of purpose that few sides could match this Six Nations, and Wales certainly look the finished product heading into the World Cup.
England showed in November that after a 2018 Six Nations campaign that they would probably rather forget, they are back and mean business. A strong second place finish will give them some solid confidence with which to build for Japan. Some promising new talent has finally come of age, and England are starting to look for the most part a balanced and exceptionally capable team. However, this tournament highlighted some clear problems that England still need to address if they are serious about being World Cup contenders. When they are firing on all cylinders they look like an exceptionally dangerous outfit, but throw some doubt in there and the plot seems to unravel alarmingly quickly.
England got their campaign off to the most spectacular of starts by playing initial tournament favorites Ireland at their own game, and ramping up the intensity another few gears. At times they simply blew Ireland off the park with their speed and brutal efficiency. Ireland seemed completely taken aback by the power and intensity of the English effort and were clearly not used to being made to look second best, especially in the physical aspects of the game. England built on their success by putting a hapless French team to the sword a week later. Cleary buoyed by their success and brimming with confidence, the wheels fell off as they travelled to Cardiff to take on a Welsh side that many were tipping to lift the trophy. Wales had not really looked the part of ultimate Grand Slam champions up to that point, and it is hard to tell if England had underestimated their opponents, but this was not the England that blew France away and ruthlessly dispatched Ireland. England persisted with a game plan that was clearly playing into Welsh hands, and one that their opponents found as easy to read as an open book. It was painfully obvious that England’s kicking game was not working and yet they persisted with it right till the end, allowing Wales to increasingly dictate proceedings, to the point where England hardly had a say in the ebb and flow of the game in the second half. England regained their form against Italy, but in the final match against an injury ravaged Scotland at Fortress Twickenham, England threw away a 31-0 lead in the second half which beggared belief. When things were going England’s way they looked superb, but the minute momentum changed they seemed to lose the plot in the most dramatic fashion.
England have a very good team, make no mistake, but their decision-making and ability to cope under pressure has got the alarm bells ringing for the World Cup. Therein perhaps lies England’s biggest problem – leadership. For such a talented team, they seem rather bereft when it comes to having a cool head to turn things around when things are not going their way. While he may be a very talented player, we have said for a long time that we do not regard Owen Farrell as Captain material, and his performances this tournament have done little to change that view. He seems to lose the plot with referees when things aren’t going England’s way, his decision making is abysmal when the wheels fall off and his tackling skills are rapidly becoming a huge liability for England. He is a gifted player who perhaps is unable to exercise his considerable talents when faced with the burden of leadership. The problem is however, if not Farrell then who is England’s next Captain? At this stage and heading to the World Cup we are sadly still drawing blanks in terms of how to answer that question.
Until this is addressed England remain World Cup hopefuls, but unlikely to progress beyond the semi finals. It looks fairly certain that they will top their group, and get the better of a rudderless Wallaby side in the quarter finals. However, come the semi-finals their most likely opponent is New Zealand, and as we saw at Twickenham last November, their ability to wrestle control of the game back from the All Blacks once the Kiwis got the upper hand didn’t go well, a trait which was repeated in this Six Nations. Leadership is not something you develop overnight heading into a World Cup, and we fear that with less than six months to go before Japan it is England’s Achilles Heel and too little too late.
Perhaps the overriding question going through everyone’s mind this Six Nations was where was Ireland? The all-conquering side of 2018 was nowhere to be seen in this year’s Six Nations. To be blunt they looked a shadow of the side that were ranked number two in the world heading into the tournament. Clumsy, ill-disciplined, unimaginative and devoid of the killer instinct and organisation that served them so well last year, Ireland simply failed to turn up in this Six Nations. Sure they still finished third, but suffered two humiliating losses in the process, and in a match where they should have claimed maximum points against Italy to help them in the standings race they put in one of the most lacklustre, disorganised and half-hearted Irish performances we have seen in a long time. In short, they were lucky to win in Rome. Whether the shock of the nature of their opening defeat to England at the start of the tournament, ended up being such a dent in their seemingly indestructible confidence remains up for debate. However, whichever way you cut it, if you are serious about going for the ultimate prize in Japan this year, you simply have to pick yourself up and come back the better team. Something Ireland simply did not do this Six Nations.
While they may have beaten Scotland away in Murrayfield, it often looked labored and the effort against Italy was downright shambolic. They appeared to have regained their confidence in a solid performance against France as they sought to regain honor in front of the Dublin faithful, but all that good work was completely undone a week later as they put in one of the most inept Irish displays we have ever seen against Wales, and essentially gifted them the Championship and the Grand Slam.
Much like England, Ireland’s leaders failed to step up when needed most. Fly half Johnny Sexton was more of a liability than an asset to Ireland in this tournament, and the likes of Conor Murray, Rory Best and Peter O’Mahony were simply not playing anywhere near the standards that we have come to expect from them. In short, despite some solid individual performances at times, Ireland rarely looked like a team and appeared disjointed and demoralised more often than not. Perhaps the only positive you could take from Ireland’s performance in this Six Nations is that it is surely the mother of all wake up calls needed by a team fancying themselves as a potential shoe-in for World Cup glory. The problem is, much like in England’s case, there is not much time left to fix the problems. Ireland will need to pick themselves up off the floor, and be able to do so on a regular basis if things are not going well during the pool stages of the World Cup.
Ireland’s draw in the World Cup is not favorable, and unless there is a dramatic turnaround in their fortunes, Ireland are once more heading for a quarter-final exit. There is no guarantee they will top their pool, especially if Scotland are operating at full strength and show the kind of passion and committment that almost derailed England. Japan at home will require the utmost vigilance and Samoa will pose all kinds of injury threats. If they get through their pool on top and unscathed then they have the unenvious task of having to face either New Zealand or South Africa. If they survive that then a probable rematch with England is on the cards for the semi-finals, with New Zealand or Wales waiting for them in the final. On the basis of the form they showed this Six Nations that is an exceptionally tall order. Ireland haven’t become a bad team overnight and will likely regroup, but if they are to get beyond the quarter-finals for the first time, a great deal of soul-searching will be required by all concerned between now and September.
We all had that fleeting impression in the first forty minutes of France’s opening game against Wales, that les Bleus were finally back, just in time for the World Cup. Sadly it was just that, a fleeting impression and no more. Perhaps most frustrating of all is that there is some genuine talent in this team, who are a joy to watch when things are going well. Endless and misguided tinkering by the coaching staff with selections and players’ roles ensured that France remain a talented but confused side. If France are being coached at all, we’d actually be surprised. France’s performances this Six Nations were characterised by individual flashes of brilliance that provided a spark of momentum that the whole team seemed able to seize on at times. A game plan or exactly what France are trying to achieve on the pitch however, still seems a mystery. There is some genuine raw talent in this French team – Felix Lambey, Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack, Artur Iturria, Damian Penaud, Thomas Ramos – the list goes on. However, therein lies the problem as this talent is not being harnessed effectively by the coaching structures into a unified force with a clear sense of purpose.
France started their opening match against Wales well, but then lost all structure and form in the second half and suffered a humiliating loss at home in a match they should have won. Things got even worse as they put in an almost clueless performance against England a week later that was riddled with errors and woeful execution of the basics. They redeemed themselves against Scotland in what was easily their best performance of the tournament. However, another inept performance against Ireland and a labored effort against Italy, gave French supporters little if anything to cheer about, while the French coaching staff led by Jacques Brunel couldn’t have looked more disinterested if they tried.
There is no denying that barring a miracle, it would appear that France are headed for an early exit at the World Cup. Argentina with the return of many of their overseas based players are likely to be the kind of force to be reckoned with that they were at the last World Cup. Meanwhile England should have no trouble dispatching France based on what we saw this year. In the unlikely event France make it out of their pool, then they would have to face Wales in the quarter finals, and based on this Six Nations, we doubt that would end well. France as they have in the past, may well surprise us, and let’s face it they have the talent to do it, but it’s that complete lack of wherewithal at the coaching level that is most likely to prove France’s undoing in Japan.
We make no bones about it – we LOVE watching Scotland play, and their epic draw with England at the end of this year’s Six Nations was the stuff of legends and had us raising the roof. If Scotland had not been crippled by injuries just imagine where they could have finished. The fact that they were able to stage one of the greatest comebacks in Six Nations history with so many of their key players missing, shows that they have developed some remarkable depth. Some of the younger players really stepped up and embraced the opportunities they got with both hands and left us spellbound in the process. Perhaps no player exemplified this more than young winger Darcy Graham who was utterly outstanding every time he came on. Scotland’s results in this Six Nations are hard to judge as some of their play was exceptional. Apart from a purple patch of ten minutes in their opener against Italy, they looked very impressive. While things did not go their way against Ireland and France in their next two matches, their fight back against Wales in the second half was noteworthy. However, it was that final match in Twickenham against England with a relatively green and inexperienced squad that produced one of the greatest comebacks in Six Nations history, and gave us a glimpse of the true potential of Scottish rugby. Scotland were very unlucky to lose a match that they almost won against all odds. Nevertheless to come back from 31-0 down in such an emphatic display of imaginative attacking rugby and ultimately draw the match, and do it all on the road with a half strength squad is no mean achievement, and deserves the utmost praise.
Scotland are a very good team and a joy to watch. What they need more than anything is consistency. However, they are well coached and blessed with some remarkable talent, all of which bodes well for a strong showing in the World Cup. If they were to top their pool then they could well be in with a shot at the semi-finals. To do that they would need to beat Ireland, something which they have shown they can do in the past, especially if Ireland have not solved their performance issues by the time Japan rolls around. Scotland have run both New Zealand and South Africa close in recent years, so although knocking either of these two giants out of contention would appear a stretch, it is not beyond the realm of possibility. Beating Wales in a semi-final may well be a bridge too far, but we still can’t help feeling that Scotland have the potential to surprise. Either way we won’t be missing a moment of their endeavours, even if it is only for the sheer enjoyment of watching a team that loves to run the ball only slightly less than Fiji.
We really enjoyed watching Italy at times during this year’s Six Nations, but felt utterly gutted for them, as once more they emerged with absolutely nothing to show for their efforts in terms of results. While they looked spritely and enterprising at times, there is no denying that we felt they never looked like they were going to win a match. Although they were blown off the park by England and Scotland, let’s look at the results a bit more objectively. At times they rattled ultimate Grand Slam winners Wales, and denied them a massive points haul. They did the same to Ireland, and clearly unhinged one of the top three teams in the world in the process. Finally, they came close to once more making life miserable for France. Are they competitive? Yes, but sadly lack the wherewithal to finish the job. However, what we were impressed by this year was the fact that Italy invariably tended to play their best rugby in the second half of every match, as opposed to simply fading into oblivion in the final forty minutes, as has been their habit in years gone by. Some much sought after staying power and stamina finally seems to have been achieved and over time it will start producing results.
Much like France there is some exceptional talent in this Italian team, and some names really stood out this tournament. Tito Tebaldi, Tommaso Allan, Federico Ruzza, Sebastian Negri, Braam Steyn, Marco Zanon and Jake Polledri all demonstrated an exciting new backbone and core of leadership to the Italian team that has been long overdue. They have an exceptionally challenging World Cup ahead of them and no doubt know that anything other than a third place finish in their pool is wishful thinking, and that a place in the knockout stages is no more than a pipe dream. The likelihood of them dispatching either South Africa or New Zealand is not really on the cards. However, Canada and Tonga should be theirs for the taking. A strong third place finish in their Pool in Japan should set them up well for a more competitive showing in subsequent Six Nations and future World Cups. While some will once more be calling for their heads and a role for worthy up and coming contenders like Georgia in the Six Nations, we feel that on the basis of this year they still deserve more time to show us what they are made of in the long run.
There is not much Test rugby on hand till the abbreviated Rugby Championship in July and the World Cup warm ups in August, now the Six Nations is over. However, we’ll be having a look at the recently concluded Americas Rugby Championship as well as what the forthcoming European Champions Cup and Super Rugby tournaments might tell us about form heading into the World Cup. So lot’s more to come as we get closer and closer to the BIG ONE in Japan.
Till then courtesy of BSPORTV on YouTube here’s a look back at some great moments over the last two months. Make sure you give them a big thumbs up and subscribe.