Six Nations Review
The annual rugby fest is over for another year, but before we cast our eyes to the horizon and the forthcoming World Cup, we take a look at this years championship.
So, we are done for another year! What a climax we had to the championship this year too; treated to a seemingly insumountable 81 points in Italy, before seeing 60 points at Murrayfield, and then an astonishing 90 points at Twickenham. I had the privilage to be at Twickenham, and while I thought 26 points seemed unattainable, there was a lot of nail biting towards the end. I remarked to my brother before the second half kicked off that England just needed to keep France at bay, and as if they were listening, France scored almost immediately.
Despite the growing concern that rugby is in danger of becoming less of a spectacle, the last two years of the Six Nations championship have produced 61 and 62 tries respectively. This is up from 37 in 2013, 46 in 2012 and 51 in 2011, reversing the downward trend. Yes, more than a third of these tries came in the last 3 games of the tournament this year, but given the requirement for a points difference cushion to see anyone of three teams through to the end, it comes as no suprise. I heard murmerings in the shadows that both Scotland and Italy had rolled over for their final matches, which I believe to be disrespectful to the championship as a whole, and takes away from the splendid rugby that was played by the winning teams. While Italy and Scotland had little mathmatically to play for in the championship, given that this is a World Cup year, they would have been keen to get some good results to put them in a good position before shifting their focus to the autumn competition.
Ireland will be hugely enamoured by their performances this year. They demolished England, and were unlucky to lose to Wales given their dominance in the second half, narrowly missing out on the Grand Slam, which would have given them a great confidence boost heading into the World Cup. Their game against Scotland was the same as the game against Wales as far as the stats; they dominated the second half and put in the performance that they needed to in order to see out the championship.
New Zealand born Joe Schmidt worked wonders during his time at Leinster and has continued the trend with the national side, proving at the highest level that he is one of the greatest coaches in the game. Looking ahead to the Rugby World Cup, if Ireland are ever going to be in with a chance of progressing beyond the Quarter Finals, and indeed win the competition, this is the team that are going to do it.
I have been told by more than one person that England just didn't score enough points against Scotland or Italy, and made it hard for themselves on the last day. I would disagree with this; England stuttered against Scotland, and in many respects against Italy too, but before the final round of matches, Ireland had scored 4 tries, Wales 5, and England were way out in front on 11. Creativity is not something this England team are lacking, especially as George Ford and Jonathan Joseph brought their club relationship to the national area, both of whom have cemented themselves as leading candidates for their respective positions in RWC selection. Indeed in George Ford, England have the true heir to Jonny's throne.
Back to the point though: there are doubts about England defensively. While their defending has for the most part been adequate, they will be disappointed less with the points they scored against Italy than the three tries they let slip. Indeed, they will look towards the early points lost in their matches as the real reason they came so close in this championship. They were, however, worthy second place finishers behind Ireland.
Wales will undoubtably look back on their opening day loss to England as a potential sore point for the rest of the year given that the teams will meet in the pool stages of the World Cup, and with great disappointment that they couldn't shut England out as they did in 2013. Since the 2008 championship, England v Wales games come in pairs, and with England having won the last two meetings between these sides, history suggests that it could be Wales year next year; and if that were the case, I can see a Grand Slam on the horizon.
Despite that loss against England, there must have been a lot of nail-biting from the Welsh this year, with tight games between Scotland, France and Ireland. Beating France in Paris is certainly a good result in any year, let alone a cup year, given their dogged defence.
When Forrest Gump talked about chocolates, he might as well have been talking about France. For the second year in a row they have finished fourth, just about scoring the same points/tries but losing 3 games rather than two. However, any way is up given their last place finish in 2013. The French have been criticised this year for lacking creativity, but their focus has been on defence and getting the basics right, and indeed in neither of their games (bar the freak England game) have they lost by more than 7 points.
They will be disappointed to have lost against Wales in Paris, but will perhaps look favourably on scoring 35 points at Twickenham. Looking ahead to the World Cup, France are in a great position to come first in their group if they can overcome Ireland, and the difference in that game might be how many travelling fans can get to the game in the Millenium Stadium.
The delight of the Italy team at any victory in this competition is highly commendable, and they are continuing to improve. While they have only won one match this year, and none last year, we must not forget that they beat both France and Ireland in 2013, and given that they are paired with both in their World Cup Pool, it will be interesting to see how those fixtures pan out. This year though is one to forget, shipping a lot of points, but a good World Cup campaign would set them up for a great year next year.
Calum has already covered the woes of being a Scottish supporter. Scotland can usually be relied upon to beat Italy and avoid the ignominy of the wooden spoon, but sometimes it just slips away and they are left looking up at what could have been. Is there something endemic in Scottish rugby, or Scotland as a country that is having an affect on the field? Perhaps but that is too long to cover off here. And indeed, what of the prospect of relegation to Europes second tier tournament - it would be a travesty if Scotland should be allowed to fall from grace, but it is something that might happen.
That said, I thought Scotland's rugby this year has been very good, and they have been unlucky to lose to France, Wales and Italy. Vern Cotter has got them playing very well and despite propping up the table, I think they can approach the World Cup with some optimism.