With the dust now settled on what for us has been one of the most riveting Six Nations in years, it’s time to hand out the marks. Despite the lack of crowds, the quality of rugby for the most part did not suffer and we were treated to a series of vintage games that are likely to stay on our highlights reel for many years to come.
So who got it right and who got it spectacularly wrong? For most of the participants there was lots to be learnt with the majority taking the lessons to heart and making good use of them. For a small minority of participants it appeared to be a tournament where opportunities to grow and prepare for the next World Cup and even the next Six Nations were completely wasted. For the Celtic nations and France it is a time for optimism. For Italy it is yet another year to forget. Perhaps the most worrying lesson though in all of this is that for England the clock is ticking with increasingly little time left to find the answers to a series of problems that really haven’t been addressed since England’s defeat in the last World Cup final.
So agree to disagree but here’s how we judged the overall performances of this year’s Six Nations participants starting with the top 3 in this year’s table.
Wales – 8/10
Wales are always the tournament’s smoking gun, well except perhaps last year. However, we couldn’t help feeling all along that the Welsh misery of 2020 was simply a bump in the road, and their superb effort this year shouldn’t really have come as much of a surprise as it did to most. Wales has an excellent balance of youth and experience, it just needed to gel with new Coach Wayne Pivac. There is little question that the gel is now set, and Pivac has a team that looks the business as well as one that can grow and develop during this World Cup cycle.
Why not a score higher than eight then you might ask? Wales were rightful Champions, but it was awful close at times, and the odd element of luck occassionally had a bit too much of a say in proceedings for our liking. Furthermore, despite their Herculean effort in the final match in Paris, Grand Slam winners they are not, at least for the moment. There were times in the French match where that trademark Welsh grit just wasn’t enough to overcome a more inventive and arguably fitter French side. Perhaps Wales strongest asset is their ability to remain calm under pressure, something England could do well to copy, but the French match saw it start to weaken slightly.
Wales opened their campaign well against an Irish side struggling with discipline, and the Men in Red benefitted from being able to play against 14 men for almost the entire game after Peter O’Mahony was red carded 13 minutes into proceedings. Next up was an incredibly tight affair against Scotland where once again Wales benefitted from a red card decision reducing the Scots to 14 men for most of the second half. Then it was the thriller against England which saw the Men in Red come out resoundingly on top, even if you took away what some considered were questionable officiating decisions. Their Roman holiday against Italy saw them come away with the inevitable hefty points haul, which would ensure that even with the loss to France in the final round the points difference would see them home.
Their last match against France was an extraordinary game that had more twists and turns than a Game of Thrones episode. However, this time Wales couldn’t use the red card given to France towards the end of the match to their advantage. After holding off multiple French assaults in their 22 Wales themselves succumbed to an inevitable yellow card as fatigue set in and the numbers on the pitch were level again. France got the measure of a clearly exhausted Welsh side and robbed the Men in Red of that elusive Grand Slam. Wales would still emerge champions after France came short against Scotland six days later, but as we suspected given the quality of the opposition this year, Grand Slams were never really on the cards for any of the teams.
It was an extraordinary performance from Wales, and they were deserved winners of not only the Triple Crown but the Championship as well, even if that dream Grand Slam was lost at the death in Paris. Halfway through this World Cup cycle they must surely feel pleased with where they find themselves. They have some extraordinary young talent coming through the ranks, a Coach who has now proven how to get results, and a wealth of experienced and seasoned veterans who have one more big World Cup performance left in them. Perhaps the only question hanging over Wales is who will replace Captain extraordinaire Alun Wyn Jones, who now at 35 is unlikely to be in the running to lead the Men in Red in two years time.
There were a host of notable performances, but here is our list of who made the biggest impression in each department for Wales. In the front row, Loosehead prop Wyn Jones was stellar, providing some much needed stability to the Welsh scrum which last year had proved problematic. In the second row, Captain Alun Wyn Jones was absolutely immense and without a doubt the leader of the tournament. In the back row Josh Navidi and Talupe Faletau put in some massive shifts, but as always it was Welsh Superman Justin Tipuric who consistently stood out both in ability and a work rate that is simply off the charts. In the half backs, fly half Callum Sheedy’s performance in the second half against England showed what talent Wales have in their youth. In the centres George North seems to have rediscovered himself and as a result made a huge contribution to Welsh efforts this Championship and was back to his try scoring best. Finally in the back line, as good as Liam Williams and Josh Adams were, it was newcomer Louis Rees-Zammit who impressed the most off the wing and showed that all the hype surrounding this latest Welsh prodigy was completely justified at Test Level. While these six individuals may be our picks of the tournament, it was a complete Welsh effort and every Welshman who donned the red jersey over the past two months can and should feel proud of their achievements, and we can’t wait to see what’s in store for this remarkable group of players.
France – 7/10
Magnifique, incroyable, extraordinaire – these were all terms used to describe this year’s edition of France’s Six Nations ensemble. Tipped by many as favourites to take the title, they did not disappoint. However, there were moments where despite all the panache and flair, France looked a little a ways off from being the finished product just yet. At times you sensed they perhaps got carried away with all the hype surrounding them, and still have quite a bit of fine tuning to do before they can consider themselves a shoe in for World Cup glory in two years time. Consequently, despite the fact that we probably enjoyed watching France’s rugby joie de vivre more than any other team in this year’s Six Nations, their ability to blow hot and cold in the blink of an eye cost them a slightly lower score. However, the current foundation is so strong that there is little doubt that France are going to be the team to watch over the next two years.
France got their campaign off to a blistering start against the hapless Italians, and made sure that like Wales they used the fixture to maximise their points haul. Next up however, a lot of the shine of Nouvelle France wore off as they struggled to get past a disjointed but feisty Irish side in Dublin. They got the win but it felt labored and was often error strewn, with star playmaker scrum half Antoine Dupont proving that he is most definitely human and not some extraordinarily gifted extraterrestrial rugby being.
After that France had to live under the self-inflicted cloud of “Wafflegate” after the team was forced into isolation after testing positive for COVID 19 due to a poorly thought out excursion in Rome for said breakfast delicacies, and Coach Fabien Galthie leaving the bubble to watch his son play in Paris. While the latter may be more understandable than the Roman breafast faux pas it is still hard to justify as they both almost scuppered the tournament and meant the postponement of France’s match with Scotland.
After a month break it was time to take on England, and perhaps as a form of poetic justice France’s lack of playing time clearly had an effect as they were beaten by arguably the second worst team of the tournament. Still it appeared to snap them out of both their complacency and sense of entitlement that the tournament was theirs to win. They needed a massive performance to beat Wales and remain in the hunt for Six Nations silverware. They produced it, even if at times it looked as if the day was going to belong to Wales. They held their nerve right to the end and in perhaps one of the greatest final ten minute comebacks in the history of the tournament, pulled off one of the Six Nations greatest wins. With all the attention now on them, they perhaps got carried away once more with the hype and focused more on what they had to do to win the Championship rather than keep a Scottish side that had seemingly slipped completely under their radar at bay. Scotland simply looked like they had a more of a point to prove, and as a result walked away the winners, robbing France of the Championship. France will be back bigger and better next year, but perhaps more than any other team they have embraced change and the huge resources of talent and youth at their disposal. Their squad come the World Cup should be at the absolute peak of their game, and the rest of the world has been warned that the Northern Hemisphere’s strongest contender for the ultimate Webb Ellis souvenir is likely to be singing “La Marseillaise”.
Our department picks were a challenge in this rather talented squad to say the least. However in the front row we simply have to go with Hooker Julien Marchand, who was perhaps one of the most underrated players heading into the tournament but consistently ensured that France were competitive at scrum time and in the lineouts. In the second row we struggled but ultimately, and possibly as a surprise to some, settled on Romain Taofifenua whose performance in the Welsh game was so critical, as well as numerous impact appearances from the bench. In the back row, we really struggled to pick between Captain Charles Ollivon and Gregory Alldritt. Ollivon was an excellent leader but Alldritt went above and beyond in all five of France’s Six Nations games, and in the two games France lost he was the standout performer for les Bleus. In the halfbacks, despite Emile Ntamack’s late return from injury towards the end of the tournament and scrum half Antoine Dupont’s star quality, it was fly half Matthieu Jalibert who got top marks from us. Given that he has had to live in Ntamack’s shadow for the last year, he clearly stamped his authority on the role to the point where France have two very healthy starting options in the number 10 jersey. In the centres Gael Fickou gets the nod by a country mile. He was outstanding at marshalling France’s midfield attacks and defences and the veteran is probably close to the top of his game. In the back line, despite his wobble at the eighty minute mark against Scotland which ultimately cost France the game, fullback Brice Dulin was one of the standout performers of the tournament in the 15 jersey. Even against Scotland you could understand his seemingly inexplicable decision to keep the ball in play at the death, given that France were still chasing the elusive points they needed to get past Wales for the Championship. At the end of the day, given his stellar performances for France in the rest of the tournament and his absolute solidity under the high ball it would be remiss of us not to sing his praises.
France are so close to being the real dea,l and the next year will be all about fine tuning a squad that is destined for greatness. France have fired the opening shots of the next World Cup and the world has been warned.
Ireland – 7/10
Once Ireland found their groove this Six Nations, they finally looked like a team starting to go places once more after what can only be described as two years in the wilderness. The transition to new Coach Andy Farrell has raised many an eyebrow, with many pundits ourselves included, being less than convinced that he was the right man for the job. However, after this Six Nations Irish supporters may just be feeling a tingling sense of optimism. Some of the youngsters are really coming to the fore, the veterans are stepping up to the plate once again and players who have been overlooked in the past are finally getting the recognition they so fully deserve. Lastly add into the Coaching mix an Irish legend and patron saint of forward packs Paul O’Connell, and Ireland are definitely once more on the rise.
Ireland got their campaign off to a poor start it has to be said. The ill disciplined and shambolic effort against Wales had all the hallmarks of a team at sixes and sevens in terms of direction. Their next encounter showed a more positive effort against France, as they put the title contenders under pressure and forced them into uncharacteristic mistakes. However, it wasn’t coherent enough to get the win, and the error and penalty count were still too high. There seemed to be very little evidence of any sort of plan in attack as Ireland dominated possession and territory but did little with either.
Their trip to Rome however, saw them finally come together as a unit and give them something to build on. Given Italy’s woeful defences it was always a golden opportunity to try out an attacking style of play and Ireland seized the opportunity with both hands running in six superbly executed tries. Next up it was Scotland and Ireland continued their run of form against their fellow Celts with a hard fought victory at Murrayfield against a clearly rusty Scottish side, after their enforced COVID 19 break courtesy of France’s Wafflegate. Ireland saved their best performance for last however, and put in the most solid effort we’ve seen from them in the new Andy Farrell era. They dismantled England from start to finish in a masterful display of defence, discipline under pressure and attacking prowess. Ireland’s performance in this Six Nations was very much a case of an improved showing from one match to the next. The second round against France was a marked improvement which culminated in a complete team effort against England in the final round earning Ireland a well justified third place.
Our department picks were pretty straightforward for the Men in Green and we doubt they’ll raise too many eyebrows. In the front row, the return from injury of Tighthead Prop Tadhg Furlong had an enormous impact on Irish fortunes at the coalface. Add to that his rather dazzling dance moves in the loose and Ireland have a real live wire in the front ably complimented by the likes of Cian Healy, Andrew Porter and Ronan Kelleher. In the second row, our choice could not have been more obvious – Tadhg Beirne. The second row monster was immense for the Men in Green, dominating lineouts, creating turnovers, making line breaks….the list goes on and he’s also equally capable in the back row. No matter what kind of day the rest of his team was having Beirne was having a day to remember, and is justifiably one of the players of the tournament. In the back row despite some very healthy competition from the likes of Josh van der Flier and Jack Conan it has to be Ireland’s favourite South African, the mighty CJ Stander in his swansong Six Nations appearance in an Irish jersey. One of the hardest working back rowers in Test rugby over the last five years, Stander did his adopted country proud from start to finish this year. In the halfbacks, it was Conor Murray’s return to form in the scrum half berth that would have got Irish eyes smiling culminating in his superb final round effort against England. In the centres, another nominee for player of the tournament, Robbie Henshaw, gets the nod. Another player who has suddenly rediscovered his form and is arguably now playing at the top of his game. Lastly in the back line we were severely torn between veteran winger Keith Earls and newcomer Hugo Keenan at fullback. Keenan has clearly made the 15 jersey his and was one of Ireland’s most consistent performers all tournament and best finds of the last year. However, we have to hand the honor to Earls who we think has always been one of Ireland’s most underrated players. He produced some spectacular tries this tournament and can often be relied upon to shore up Ireland’s problematic last line of defence. Perhaps not one of Ireland’s most talented players but arguably one of their most capable and reliable.
Under Andy Farrell, Ireland have clearly shaken off the rather rigid shackles of the Schmidt era, and appear to be revelling in the new found freedom to be slightly less structured and as a result more unpredictable on the pitch. It appears to be paying dividends, whilst the the discipline and defensive systems put in place during their time with Joe Schmidt are serving them well when under pressure. There are still question marks around some key positions in the build up to the next World Cup, most importantly around the fly half berth, but after this Six Nations, Irish supporters can breathe a little bit easier as like Wales, they are developing a healthy balance of youth and experience.
That’s it for now. We’ll be back next week with part two as we look at the three residents of the bottom half of the Six Nations table, Scotland, England and Italy. Sorry that it has taken so long to get this out, but with the pressures of work and COVID lockdowns it’s been a struggle to get our thoughts together. To keep you going till next time here’s a highlights reel of all the best tries of what was a remarkable tournament.
Take care and stay safe everyone!