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 the second part of how we judged the overall performances of this year’s Six Nations participants looking at the bottom 3 in this year’s table.
Scotland – 7/10
In many ways Scotland’s fourth place finish somehow just doesn’t add up. They were without a doubt one of the most entertaining teams to watch in the competition who consistently applied maximum effort and wore their hearts on their sleeves. In short, we thoroughly enjoyed Scotland’s romp through the Six Nations and they provided some of the tournament’s best moments. Sadly though they occasionally got a bad roll of the dice, most noticeably falling victim to France’s Wafflegate which arguably had a more detrimental effect on them than France, and threw their Championship momentum completely off kilter. Nevertheless, international sport these days excels at throwing teams curve balls and a measure of a team’s success is how well they cope with such disruptions. Add to the fact that consistency week in week out is still a problem for Scotland and sadly despite some stunning performances, the cards didn’t quite fall in Scotland’s favor this year. But make no mistake this is a very good Scottish team that is only going to get better in the build up to the World Cup, and Scottish supporters can feel excited about their team’s fortunes.
Scotland got their campaign off to the best of possible starts by achieving a convincing win over the ‘auld enemy’ England at Fortress Twickenham, the first since 1983. It got the tournament as a whole off to a thrilling start and proved that its billing of possibly the most open Championship in years had some merit. Next up Scotland suffered a heartbreaking loss to Wales at Murrayfield by one point and were hampered by having to play with only 14 men for most of the second half due to a red card being handed to Prop Zander Fagerson. Scotland were in it to the death however and were unlucky to lose and in the process provided us with an absolute thriller.
After that Ireland made a visit to Murrayfield, but due to Scotland’s third round match with France being postponed, the Scots had been without game time for a full four weeks. A slightly more match fit Ireland got the better of them, albeit by the narrowest of margins. Scotland fought their way back into the match in the second half and were arguably the better side at times. Nevertheless it wasn’t good enough and another match went begging and with it their hopes of Championship glory. However, now match fit they made short work of Italy at Murrayfield and came away with a healthy 52 point haul.
All that remained now was their postponed match with France. With France having put paid to Wales’ Grand Slam ambitions on Super Saturday, all the focus was on whether or not France could rob Wales of the Championship. Scotland clearly resented all the talk about France, especially as Les Bleus faux pas had put paid to their own tournament momentum. In a match full of poetic justice, Scotland ended their Six Nations campaign in the same vein as they started it against England. The thriller in Paris was one for the ages and another one of those 110% team efforts from Scotland. Scotland took the lifeline given to them at the death by French fullback Brice Dulin, and in an epic display of grit and determination hammered away at the French try line for the next 5 minutes of extra time, managing to keep the ball in play for an incredible 20 phases. An impressive end to what had been a solid tournament for the Scots despite only finishing fourth.
Put aside their fourth place on the table and watch the highlights reels of their Six Nations and there is little doubt that Scotland played some of the most attractive, exciting and at times daring rugby of the tournament. Occassionally their inconsistency in decision making or attempting the impossible through fly half Finn Russell cost them, but this is a very good Test team who are already showing signs of causing Ireland and South Africa (their main pool opponents) some serious headaches come the World Cup. Furthermore they will be serious contenders for Six Nations glory in the remaining two tournaments before the next World Cup in France. Scotland seem to revel in the underdog label, though given their performances against England and France this year, it’s unlikely to be one associated with them much longer.
Our department picks this year for the Scots were all fairly straightforward, with one player perhaps being the best back rower of the tournament. Starting off in the front row, it has to be Prop Rory Sutherland. He was already registering on opposition radars before the tournament, and while he may not have been Scotland’s flashiest player he was arguably one of their most quietly efficient and consistent. In the second row, it has to be Jonny Gray until injury sadly knocked him out of the competition after the Ireland match. In the back row, the mighty Hamish Watson was simply Scotland’s best player and one of THE players of the entire tournament. Despite his size the man was simply a monster and one of the hardest working players in the sport. In the half backs some may be surprised to see us give scrum half Ali Price the nod over fly half Finn Russell. Russell may be a genuine magician but he tends to live a bit too much on the edge for our liking. Price had a stellar tournament making quick and sensible decisions and providing fast and accurate service, and in our opinion is one of Scotland’s most undervalued assets. In the centres, despite our initial reservations, you have to give a standing ovation to Chris Harris. He may not be the quickest or sharpest player on attack but defensively he was superb, a trait which was key in helping Scotland seal the deal in Paris. Finally in the back line it’s a hard call to not give winger Duhan van der Merwe top honors as he scored some crucial tries, but we simply have to give it to fullback and Captain Stuart Hogg. Hogg really came of age as a leader of men this tournament and his counterattacks from deep were the stuff of legends this Six Nations. Although these six individuals may have really stood out for their team they were able to do so in large part because of the outstanding team effort made by Scotland as a whole.
England – 5/10
We have to admit we never really thought England would be duking it out with Italy this Six Nations for the Wooden Spoon. However, we were convinced that the reluctance to blood new talent and look to the future would seriously dent England’s chances this year. In that respect we were not proven wrong. England were way off the mark in terms of performance and creativity. Eddie Jones and his staff have completely wasted a golden opportunity to blood new talent in preparation for the next World Cup. Instead they now run the risk of having it all to do in a very short space of time, while at the same time continuing to rely on a group of players that increasingly look like something from the dinosaur age.
The other Six Nations competitors embraced change this year – England did not and it cost them dearly. There is a basic trend with this current England squad that when things are going their way they can hold their own against the world’s best, but the minute they are either found out or the opposition starts playing in a way they can’t understand England’s wheels fall off quickly and dramatically. We don’t think we’ve ever witnessed a team so bereft of a Plan B let alone C and D. Very good when a game goes according to script but at sixes and sevens the minute the opposition starts to improvise. Is this over coaching or a simple lack of imagination and creativity? England need to find the answers quickly before South Africa shows up at Twickenham this fall, especially given the fact that very few English players are likely to be on the plane to South Africa this summer for the Lions tour.
England got their campaign off to an ominous start against Scotland and recorded their first defeat to the Men from North of Hadrian’s Wall at Twickenham since 1983. England looked lethargic and completely bereft of ideas in attack. They made a much better showing against Italy a week later, but Italy are usually a golden opportunity to haul in the maximum amount of points while conceding none of your own. On this count England failed miserably as although they scored six tries, they only managed to convert 4 of them while allowing Italy to get two tries against them. Although it was an emphatic win the points difference was only 23, the smallest by any side against Italy during this year’s tournament.
England then travelled to Cardiff to take on a Welsh side brimming with confidence and on song for a possible Grand Slam. Put aside some of the more controversial refereeing decisions and Wales would still have won as a shambolic and exceptionally poorly disciplined English side never really fired a shot, and in the final quarter simply capitulated. Licking their wounds they headed back to Twickenham and finally found some redemption by beating tournament favorites France. It was a tense and close run affair and France almost snatched it at the death. England won but it wasn’t overly convincing in the process, while France were clearly suffering from a lack of fluidity and cohesion after a month out of the Test window courtesy of their earlier ‘Wafflegate’ antics in Rome.
England’s last hurdle was a difficult trip to Dublin to face an Irish side who was rapidly gaining confidence after a shaky start to their own tournament. However, the Irish showed all the invention, organisation and resilience with England showing none of the same qualities. Ireland dismantled England comprehensively and the Men in White spent much of the eighty minutes looking completely out of their depth in how to respond. In their confusion, their discipline also went out the window. In the end an abject England team wandered off the pitch in Dublin clearly at a loss as to how to explain what had just happened yet again.
Put a picture of England’s facial expressions after the World Cup final up against one taken after the final whistle in Dublin and they are disturbingly similar, with almost no lessons learnt in what has been a year and half. It begs the question as to what what is going on in English rugby? Eddie Jones complete exoneration this week after the Six Nations inquest, leaves us wondering if any learning is likely to happen between now and the next World Cup. There is no reason for England to be as poor as they were this Six Nations. There is a wealth of young talent in the country which would be the envy of most rugby nations and Coaches. Sadly however, none of it is being tapped and there seem to be no plans in place to do so and develop it into the World Cup winning resource it could be come 2023 which is only 24 months away. Until England learn how to adapt under pressure and develop an effective Plan B using the right talent at their disposal, the next two years could sadly be very lean ones indeed for the Men in White. It’s something that both existing players and Coaching staff must take responsibility for equally.
Given England’s rather lukewarm performance this year, we really struggled with picking our department heads from the Championship but here goes. In the front row we ultimately settled on Hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie. Although he wasn’t always consistent when he did produce, most noticeably against France, his presence was really felt and his youth lent some dynamism to England’s front row efforts. In the second row, the choice was easy, Maro Itoje. As we said in our piece on the Welsh game, although the giant lock led England’s penalty count that was more due to the fact that he was one of the few players actually putting in an effort. Consequently by being at the centre of every piece of action on the field he was bound to catch the attention of the referee. It doesn’t excuse his digressions, and he is lapse to letting his emotions and frustrations get the better of him, but his value to England simply cannot be underestimated. He is the right side of the age curve for the next two World Cups and as a result given his undeniable raw talent, one of England’s most important assets for the future. His work rate is phenomenal and he is quite simply a massive thorn in the side of any opposition. In the back row we really struggled once more. Tom Curry is usually our go to man, but at times his discipline and understanding of the laws of the game was laughable this tournament. Nevertheless, like Itoje his is such a raw and powerful talent that he is integral to England’s future. In the half back department, we have to offer up George Ford who although outclassed on numerous occasions did at least attempt to offer England some creativity in attack. In the centres, we’d go with Henry Slade over Owen Farrell. Once again although Farrell has the greater experience and in theory has the better rugby brain, Slade we feel has the potential to make a greater contribution to England’s future if coached properly, whereas Farrell has been in a constant rut since the World Cup final. Lastly in the back line we are going to salute the return to form of winger Anthony Watson. While his colleague Jonny May scored some trademark spectacular tries, it was Watson when unleashed on attack with some exceptionally powerful runs that impressed the most. May’s talents are a given, but England seemed desperately short on skill out wide until the resurgence of Watson this year. Like we say we really struggled with this short list, from a group who sadly defined mediocrity this Championship.
Italy – 4/10
We were so optimistic about Italy at the start of this Championship as we vainly hoped that maybe, just maybe, this year would be different. As the tournament wore on and such hopes and dreams rapidly sounded like yet another broken record, we realised with a crushing sense of disappointment that come the end of the Championship we would once again be struggling to find something positive to say about another miserable year of Italian Six Nations trials and tribulations. There are one or two glimmering lights in Italy’s performances this year, but they are all individual and as a team Italy sadly have little to offer in terms of a new dawn for rugby in a land more renown for its skills with round rather than oval balls. They have plenty of passion of that there is no doubt and at times some genuine skill in attack, but overall their discipline makes England look almost saintly and they seem positively incapable of any kind of defence. Until some traction is made in both these areas, then the talent that Italy does have will simply be wasted. As much as the responsibility for this lies in the Coaching box, it equally lies with the players who have consistently failed to collectively address these frailties for over twenty years now.
Italy’s campaign got off to the worst possible start with a 40 point deficit against France, with an understanding of the offside law clearly something completely beyond the grasp of most of the Italian squad. Next up was England and to give Italy their credit they did make life complicated at times for England, but given England’s abilities this tournament that wasn’t exactly a vote of confidence, even if they were doing it at Twickenham. Italy then hosted Ireland who finally got their campaign on track with a thumping defeat of the Azurri who simply had nothing to offer. Things continued to go from bad to worse as Wales paid them a visit and ran in a similar score against them as Ireland had managed. Their tournament ended with a whimper as they were annihilated by the Scots at Murrayfield. The only positive thing you can say about this Italian squad is that the vast majority of them are barely out of rugby kindergarten. So they definitely have youth on their side, and if Coach Franco Smith can finally get them to grasp some of the key basics of the game such as defence and discipline then there could just be hope for this generation of Italian players. Nevertheless it’s a big ask and one which their fans and every rugby neutral have been making for the last two decades. It’s time for the players to exercise that famous Latin expression “carpe diem”. If they don’t Italian rugby is to be permanently cast as International rugby’s greatest failure in the development of a global game.
As woeful as Italy were as a unit, it was a slightly easier task to pick some players who stood out in Italy’s Six Nations campaign this year. In the front row, although he struggled to keep his emotions in check we still hold that Prop Danilo Fischetti is a talent to build on for the future. In the second row, we really like the look of David Sisi and England’s loss is clearly Italy’s gain here. In the back row however, Italy does have reasons to get excited in both their imports from Southern Africa Johan Meyer and Sebastian Negri. For us though Negri was arguably Italy’s most consistent performer this Six Nations. In the half backs scrum half Stephen Varney is worth getting excited about for the future but fly half Paolo Garbisi was without question Italy’s most enterprising and accomplished player this tournament, all at the tender age of twenty. In the centres, although we saw less of him than we would have liked due to injury Marco Zanon remains a genuine threat on attack, but new Argentinian import Juan Ignacio Brex showed some real promise. Lastly in the back line winger Monty Ioane produced a handful of spectacular tries and if he can learn how to defend as well as he can attack then Italy could get some consistency finally in this part of the field. Like our England selections though we struggled to group all these individuals, as talented as they may be, into a team that can actually use them properly, and until that happens Italy will remain a loosely knit collection of mercurial talents.
So that’s it for this year’s Six Nations and what a ride it’s been. We enjoyed every single moment of it, and if we get the privilege of adding fans to the experience next year, the 2022 edition could be even better. However, even without the fans this year it was a tournament we’ll remember fondly.
Last but not least it’s time for us to echo our support for the man who earned Player of the Tournament and is a definite fan favourite and folk hero here at the Lineout. Yes you guessed it Scotland’s very own the “Mighty Mish”. Back rower Hamish Watson turned in power house performances in every match of the Championship no matter where Scotland was on the scoreboard. The man is a legend plain and simple! Scotland and the rugby world as a whole are genuinely privileged to have him grace or more appropriately chew up pitches across the globe!
We’ll be back in the next week or so as we start to unpack the Toronto Arrows performances this season and look ahead to the British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa. Till then stay safe everyone!