Guest Blogger Jez Denton with some thoughts on this years 6 Nations
As the 2019 edition of the six nations comes to an end, I’m going to take the opportunity to look at each countries performance and review the tournament. Firstly, though, I will say that this was a tournament that had so much going for it. There was excitement, there was quality and most importantly there was competition. Competition that, going into the 2019 World Cup, New Zealand would die to have to ensure their team is battle hardened going into their defence of William Webb Ellis cup.
How did each country do? Did they exceed expectations? Did they perform as expected or was their performance, ultimately, a disappointment. Let’s have a look at the teams in reverse order.
6th Place: ITALY
Each year the question is raised as to whether the Italians should be replaced or play off against Georgia; do they really deserve their place at the top table of European rugby? Well on the evidence of 2019 they certainly do deserve to, though ultimately Conor O’Shea will see this campaign as a disappointment. Playing three games at home Italy would have hoped to at least got one victory; playing a second strength Wales, an underperforming Ireland and a typically enigmatic French side the opportunities were there and indeed very nearly taken in two of those three matches. Being ahead, in particular, at half time to one of the top three sides in the world, but not finishing of the Irish will be seen as a continuing development but ultimately a disappointment. However, it is fair to say that if Italy continue to improve as they have under O’Shea they will start to win those games. Of particular comfort will be the development of a genuine top class half back partnership, a lessening reliance on the brilliance of Sergio Parisse as he enters retirement and the development of grit in the forwards and try scoring ability all over the pitch. No wins and a wooden spoon will be disappointing but, taking out the games versus England and France, still a reasonably promising outcome.
5th Place: SCOTLAND
It has always been known that Scottish teams have both ability all over the park and the desire to put up scintillating performances against the auld enemy England. And thereby is the biggest issue with Scotland’s performances in this year’s tournament. If they could have found the same desire and performance they did in that amazing second half in Twickenham they could easily have beaten Wales, France and Ireland and could potentially have been playing for a Grand Slam against England. Okay, injuries to key players cost them dearly, especially when looking at the strength of player coming in, but the same could be said of Wales who managed those issues so much better. Talk of Finn Russell being the best ten based on 40 minutes against England is erroneous given the lacklustre performances he put in the other games he played in; look at the amount of possession and ball he had against Italy and how poorly Scotland executed. Ultimately, Gregor Townsend has to look upon this campaign as a disappointment again and find away for his Scottish teams to sometimes win the ugly ones.
4th Place: FRANCE
It is a well worn cliché that you never know which France will turn up and right from the start they did their best to live up to that wisdom. In the first half versus France they were imperious and looked like potential champions, and then they threw it all away. And then imploded before somehow finding away to restore some honour against Scotland and Italy to come ‘top’ of the ‘second division’. What is apparent is that those better performances are seemingly in spite of coach Brunel and not because of. Certain senior players stepped up to the mark and led by example but what really saved France’s season was the emergence of the young players, in particular Falgoux and Bamba in the front row and Dupont, Ntamack and Penaud in the backs. The task for France now is to select those players for a good period to allow them to grow without having the pressure of being dropped for one bad performance. Something which is more of a task for the coaches and selectors than the players themselves.
3rd Place: IRELAND
This tournament would suggest that Ireland have peaked too early and have shown their card. England and Wales exploited them through learning from the previous season which, added to my perception that certain players are either too far past their best or played with an arrogance that was brutally exposed, led to a very disappointing six nations. The half back partnership of Murray and Sexton were seemingly picked on reputation rather than performance; indeed Ireland often found their greatest fluency in attack when these players were replaced by younger, hungrier and yes, less arrogant, performers. Joe Schmidt has a lot of hard thinking and some tough decisions to make before September, not only with his half backs but two key positions of hooker, where his skipper’s age has been brutally exposed, and at no.8 where C J Stander just wasn’t the player he has been over the last couple of seasons.
2nd Place: ENGLAND
Prior to the last weekend you could have made a case for England being more worthy winners, if not of a Grand Slam, of the whole tournament. At times their attacking play was imperious enough to have scared even the All Blacks, bonus points racked up before half time and with sublime expansive play that deserved plaudits. And even in the game they lost, against a very good, well drilled Welsh team, with 80% possession and territory against them and a 10-1 penalty count the defensive effort held back the red tide until almost the final ten minutes. I think even the most one-eyed Max Boyce quoting Welsh supporter would have had a grudging respect had England held on in that game. However, the last 40 minutes of the Calcutta Match exposed frailties that has only ever been papered over, and which came home to roost. And to be honest the clues were there through out the whole of the six nations, with England taking the foot off the gas at half time and allowing teams to score two or three tries against them. England are a team often accused of arrogance and these six nations has done nothing to change that perception. And I believe a lot of that is due to the coach. In every game at half time with England ahead comfortably, the message in the break should always be half time lads, lets go again; my impression is that Jones goes into the hut handing out the cigars and brandy as England seem to always come out as the job is done. The Welsh game should have highlighted that, and a decent coach should have picked up on it. The Scottish game proved that Jones isn’t that decent coach with his comments about players lacking the mental toughness or application going some way to prove that he cannot accept that the blame needs to be shouldered by him. Still, England did show enough in those games they did win that there is one hell of a lot of talent at their disposal. What needs to change? Firstly, Jones isn’t the coach to develop that further and second Farrell isn’t a captain; he needs to concentrate on being the top class fly half he is and allow others to take the leadership responsibility, Itoje, George, Kruis or Slade being the options for me.
1st Place: WALES
After Wales played Scotland my comment was that if they won the Grand Slam it would be a travesty. This is a comment I should, and do, apologise for. Wales and their master coach Warren Gatland fully deserved their Grand Slam and I for one applaud them. I will, however, make some salient points which I do think go someway to why I made the erroneous statement I did. Firstly, did Wales play the best rugby in the six nations? I think we can all agree that the rugby they played was the most effective, but the best, I’m afraid, not really. Could Wales have lost games in the competition? To which the answer is again a resounding yes. If Wales had been beaten by France, Italy, England or Scotland (or even 2,3 or all 4 of those games) could they have had cause for complaint? Probably not. However, the fact is Wales didn’t. They found away through team work, dedication, passion, immense leadership from Alan Wyn Jones, astute coaching from Gatland and his team and moments of spectacular individual brilliance that made the difference. Like England and Ireland, Wales really did only have a Plan A. Unlike the other two their plan A was enough to win, with tweeks here and there dependent on opposition. This was a Grand Slam borne of sweat and hard work and is fully, totally and brilliantly deserved. Will it be enough to win the world cup? Well that remains to be seen, but what is for certain is that if Wales carry through with the same levels of commitment and never say die attitudes they will be there or thereabouts. And after the World Cup if Gatland gets the All Blacks job, well, we could be looking at a very painful few years for all the rest of us…Shaun Edwards for England might be an answer though.