It’s all over for another year, but how did the teams fare against their pre-tournament expectations?
Ireland (above expectations)
Ireland were the best team in this year’s 6 Nations and deserved winners. Before the tournament began, there was talk of a Grand Slam showdown in Twickenham but it was the manner of Ireland’s convincing win against England that means they have even surpassed their own expectations.
Talk of a Grand Slam wasn’t on the cards in the final moments of the opening game, as Ireland struggled to break down a dogged French team, in a turgid encounter in Paris. It took an incredible series of phase play and a wonderful drop goal from Johnny Sexton to secure a win that had earlier looked lost as France took control of the scoreboard.
Sexton has to be the player of the tournament. The drop kick in Paris was an iconic moment but it was his wider contribution that caught the eye; the flat pass against Wales for Stockdale’s try, the high kick against England that Anthony Watson failed to manage, and the little things like the clever pair of restarts against Wales (covered here) that allowed Ireland to keep the pressure on Wales.
Sexton’s style personifies Ireland’s approach. There is the odd flash of high risk rugby but the main impetus comes from doing basic rugby exceptionally well, from continually applying pressure to the opposition until they break and from taking any scoring chances near the try line.
While Sexton may have been the stand out player and Murray and Stockdale deserve individual adulation in the backs, it was the cohesion of the forward unit that provided Ireland with the platform for the Grand Slam.
Ireland’s forwards are very well drilled. Each knows their role and what to do in different scenarios. They have a strong scrum and lineout, a powerful driving maul, a good defence around the breakdown and perhaps most importantly, the ability to keep the ball at the tackle and apply pressure to the opposition.
It may not always be attractive but it is effective. Against Wales we saw the ability of Ireland to have forwards pre-binding on carriers to aid the momentum in to the contact area and get them over the try line. Simple stuff which brought them 2 tries.
This is not necessarily a team in their prime, with a number of young players recently introduced to the test arena quickly finding their feet on the big stage – Jacob Stockdale (21 years old), Garry Ringrose (23), Jordan Larmour(20), James Ryan (21), Andrew Porter (22), Joey Carberry (22) and Dan Leavy (23) complementing the experienced players like Sexton, Murray and O’Mahoney.
The next test will be to win a series against the big southern hemisphere teams in their own backyard.
France (above expectations)
It helps France that their expectations are low. We have previously covered the fall and fall of French test rugby, so we weren’t expecting too much from Jacque Brunel’s team in this tournament. France’s playing base and wealth mean they should be pushing for World Cup victories, not competing with Italy to avoid the wooden spoon.
Their final tally of just 2 wins suggests another poor tournament but we have already talked about the last minute defeat to Ireland, while victory against England and a narrow defeat to Wales suggests the trajectory is upwards.
Although this French team is harder to play against when compared to recent vintages, this isn’t the France of the 1980s or 1990s with carefree, running rugby played by rugby magicians. It is a pragmatic France, whose best player is arguably Mathieu Bastareaud, a tank in midfield who knows one way, run straight and hard.
Stop the likes of Bastareaud running through you and France’s attack becomes very one dimensional, as we saw against Wales.
France’s outside half woes continue as they again juggle their half back combinations, and Trinh Duc’s wayward moments against Wales may have cost them victory.
Wales (on par)
Wales thumping victory against Scotland was supposed to herald the start of a new dawn of running, high risk rugby as Warren Gatland moved Wales’ style towards that of the Scarlets. 4 games later and despite finishing second in the table, Wales seem in limbo; stuck between the Warrenball of old and the more expansive approach.
Warren Gatland would point to the Ireland game – where Wales were within winning distance in the last moments of the game, and to the England fixture – Wales were again not too far behind England in the last quarter, as evidence that Wales are close to being Grand Slam contenders.
This masks the real issues though. Against Ireland, Wales had just 22% possession and 16% territory in the first half, while after 80 minutes they ended up with just 31% possession and 25% territory. They very rarely have the majority of possession and territory. This doesn’t make the game impossible to win but it certainly makes it much harder.
Wales still persist with tactics that mean they give the ball away cheaply. Their clearing kicks from defence are often kept infield, while they frequently adopt a “kick high to compete” tactic in the midfield. This often results in Wales giving up possession and being forced to defend.
In the backs Liam Williams has looked a shadow of his former self, Scott Williams has struggled for form while the defence in the back 3 – regardless of personnel, has often been shaky.
The real issues though are in the front 5 where Wales lack of power, control and organisation give them a big disadvantage against the top teams. Of all the top nations, Wales’ driving maul is the least potent, while a lack of ball carriers means they struggle to get the forward momentum that will give their backs space.
Wales have had worse 6 Nations campaigns than this but the jury is still out on whether Gatland is getting the best out of this pool of players.
Italy (below expectations)
It has been a grim couple of months for Italy. Off the back of improved performances from Benetton and Zebre in the Pro14, there was renewed optimism that the Azzuri could take positive strides forward after a few lean years, but Scotland aside, this has been a tournament where Italy have gone backwards rather than forwards.
We were critical of the style of rugby Jacques Brunel brought to Italy and Conor O’Shea has been guilty of the same mistakes. Test teams should be set up to make the best of the assets they have, not to play a game plan that brought success to different players in far away countries. Put simply, Italy don’t have the players to adopt a fast paced, wide game plan.
It took them until game 5 to go back to their strengths; forwards carrying and hitting the ball at pace, driving mauls and an emphasis on retaining the ball. They looked a rejuvenated team against Scotland.
Matteo Minozzi and Sebastien Negri have been the stars of the show, with the former a real threat with the ball in hand and the latter showing numerous barnstorming runs and a real physical presence.
With the under 20s team showing some good form and the potential to develop a good crop of new players, the future is perhaps looking up for Italy?
Scotland (below expectations)
It was like watching the 6 Nations of a few years ago, with Scotland and Italy scrapping it out for the victory, but this was supposed to be a Scotland team who were going to be real Championship contenders. What went wrong?
This is tricky to answer but there is no doubt Scotland’s opening day hammering by Wales derailed their whole campaign and allowed those doubts about Scotland’s strength to resurface. In the Wales game their forward frailties were exposed but wins over England and France (both at home) shouldn’t be overlooked.
Maybe expectations were too high, or perhaps Scotland suffer from an inability to win away from home. Away victories have been hard to come by in this tournament, and Scotland find it harder than most.
Last season’s capitulation in Twickenham was thought to be a one-off, so heavy away defeats this season against Wales and Ireland, plus a scrappy victory in Rome, suggest that there is something in Scotland’s psyche that is inhibiting them away from Murrayfield.
Questions about Scotland’s best scrum half remain, Huw Jones has been a menace with the ball, while Finn Russell’s form swings from the sublime to the ridiculous. Like Wales, the front 5 continues to be a concern and it’s here that Scotland need to evolve to compete with the best home, and away, in the build up to Japan in 2019.
England (way below expectations)
It was always going to happen wasn’t it? Eddie Jones has led a charmed life as England coach, with northern and southern hemisphere teams being brushed aside with relative ease but that has come to an abrupt end.
Three successive defeats against Ireland, France and Scotland has meant this is the worst 6 Nations campaign for 12 years. The opening fixture against Italy was patchy and they also looked lethargic against Wales, but by the time they arrived in Twickenham to face Ireland, England looked devoid of ideas and energy. To be beaten so convincingly in the final game, at home, would have been unthinkable a few months ago.
So what’s happened? There has been talk of England not adapting to the new laws around the breakdown but this is questionable. The new “interpretation” says a player must release the ball at the breakdown once an opposition player arrives, but we haven’t seen that being refereed at all this season, in any competition. Also, referees from the Aviva Premiership aren’t applying this interpretation when they adjudicate 6 Nations or European games.
England don’t have a true openside, but then again they haven’t for the last few years and it didn’t seem to harm them.
There were clues to England’s potential decline back in January, when the Aviva Premiership teams failed miserably in the Champions Cup, with a jaded Saracens scraping through to the quarter finals. We asked then on Twitter, if this would have an impact on England in the 6 Nations and it looks like it has.
We will post a separate article in the coming days, but the way England’s Lions players have been managed since the Lions tour and in particular the number of minutes of rugby they have played may have had a large factor in England’s below par performances.
Eddie Jones hasn’t made many friends outside England over the last few months. After this 6 Nations he may find fewer friends at home.
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