The RBS 6 Nations tournament is a wrap for another year, a tournament which started quite slow and conservative in game plans concluded with some flashes of memorable rugby. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the tournament and identifies talking points ahead of the June internationals.
Dour game plans, minimal spectacle
Northern Hemisphere Rugby fans are an incredibly patient lot. The quality of fare on offer in the tournament early doors was pretty low on quality with dour ultra conservative game plans ruling the roost. England were the only team genuinely when presented space decided to play rugby. Wales and Ireland early doors were so ultra conservative and it was their downfall in key moments during the tournament. Wales’ approach to the England match flat out failed as England controlled possession and put points on the board as Wales continued to wait for their opponents to make mistakes and counter-attack. Wales’ last ten minutes at Twickenham when they threw caution to the wind showed what they are capable of as their squad possess the skills to execute a more expansive game plan. Ireland were also guilty of quite a limited game plan, dependency on Murray to box kick to gain territory was an early tournament hallmark. The Ireland game plan did evolve during the tournament but their inability to execute in the red zone was seen in full effect during the defeats to France and England. Apart from the talisman Sergio Parisse, Italy offered little in the tournament. Their rigid one dimensional game plan where the various half-back partnerships misfired and back line defensively inadequacies were exposed continually during the tournament made Italy unfortunately a laughing stock by the time they faced Wales last weekend. France are in rebuild mode, it will take time for Noves to implement the free flowing attacking game plan which the French rugby public demand. As you can see, plenty of issues surfaced in various team performances and the SH teams will not be too worried about the NH challenge leading into the June test matches. The lessons of the RWC for some teams continue not to be heeded but the hope is that with extended time with players during June’s internationals that the NH teams can improve and compete at a better level than shown last October.
Year of the newcomer
The only genuine positive from the tournament was the emergence of several players who were making their international cameos. England head coach Eddie Jones was not afraid to integrate youth into his setup and Maro Itoje was the standout player of the tournament. The Saracens player was outstanding when given his opportunity. His first half performance against Wales was sublime; his physical attributes are freakish, his pace and speed setup Watson’s opening try and he showed skills akin to a back row stealing superb breakdown ball. Itoje is the new breed of second row player, athletic yet losing nothing in aggression and physicality. Itoje is the future which England will build their future upon.
Ireland and Scotland can also look at the tournament with satisfaction that they identified new players who have an international future. Joe Schmidt was forced into looking for new talent given retirements and an extensive injury list. CJ Stander proved that his versatility and temperament to the international game is seamless; a powerful tournament where his ball carrying and work rate was a key attribute for Ireland throughout. Ultan Dillane’s introduction to the Ireland setup has grown from a training ground presence to now getting international game minutes. Dillane’s performance against England in the last twenty minutes was superb, stole lineout from an otherwise stellar England set-piece and his ability to break the game line and offload to colleagues stood out. Dillane’s emergence has suddenly seen Toner and Ryan pick up their performances in the tournament, competition for places breeds success.
Scotland had issues at three quarters early doors but they have identified a potential world class thirteen in Duncan Taylor. The conveyor belt of talent in Saracens is evident in Taylor’s cameo where his ability to attack the game line with speed and intelligence saw Scotland get over the line for merited victories against Italy and France. John Hardie at seven was also a success story. The player continues to grow in the position and his tackle count and breakdown speed were in full view for Vern Cotter.
Italy – What do we do?
While Italy were getting another thumping last weekend, Georgia were clinching another European Cup beating Romania in Tbilisi in-front of 52,000 fans. Given Georgia’s love of the sport and their domination in European second tier competition, surely they should be given the opportunity to compete at the top tier of European international rugby. The tournament at the moment is an extremely comfortable consortium where the bottom side face no ramification for performing so poorly. There needs to be a promotion / relegation playoff system in place to allow the likes of Georgia the opportunity to compete in the tournament. European Rugby needs the Georgia, Romania and Russia’s to emerge and make the sport great but the insular outlook from the tournament organizers is looking glaring with each passing season. Italy need to make wholesale changes to their structures. If Conor O’Shea takes the head coaching job, expect the changes required to take place and performances to improve where a focus on the professional club rugby scene is required. Treviso and Zebre have under-performed since their arrival into the Rabo / Guinness Pro 12 league and would it be feasible for both teams to merge and consolidate their resources to become a competitive side? The influx of foreign talent is not improving the club scene either. Interesting times and the points raised here will not go away.
Citing Commission (or not)
The fact that Joe Marler was not suspended for either his sledging comments directed to Samson Lee or foul play against Wales speaks volumes to the wholly inadequate citing process. The tournament is flat out inconsistent in dealing with foul play where Ireland’s Johnny Sexton took several shots off the ball. The match officiating certainly did not help on both incidents highlighted but the match citing commissioner appears unable to make the right calls due to apparent outside influences. If Joe Marler had committed those charges in the Premiership, he would be facing a hefty ban. The sledging comment particularly was very unsavory and the racist comment and lack of action does little for the image of the tournament. A system which is flat out not working needs to be reviewed and it is time for the IRB to implement consistent citing policy and punishment procedures across all tournaments.
RBS 6 Nations – Tournament Team
15. Stuart Hogg (Scotland)
14. Anthony Watson (England)
13. Duncan Taylor (Scotland)
12. Owen Farrell (England)
11. George North (Wales)
10. George Ford (England)
9. Conor Murray (Ireland)
8. Billy Vunipola (England)
7. John Hardie (Scotland)
6. CJ Stander (Ireland)
5. George Kruis (England)
4. Maro Itoje (England)
3. Willem Nel (Scotland)
2. Dylan Hartley (England)
1. Jack McGrath (Ireland)