The 2016 RBS 6 Nations tournament draws to a conclusion. A day where the games improved in quality as the day wore on. England emerge from the tournament as Grand Slam champions. Wales dynamic expansive demolition of Italy raising questions on the style of play that the team will implement going forward. Ireland defeat Scotland in an exciting contest and France are left to reflect on a tournament which exposes massive issues in the manner that their domestic game is run.
England – Grand Slam Champions
England get the job done in Paris.Any team that puts thirty points on the French in their own back yard has to be praised. This performance was the best in the tournament, all units performed when it mattered most and the leadership shown by the team when Dylan Hartley was knocked out cold caught the eye. Ford at ten had an excellent cameo and his game management in the last quarter was decisive kicking deep behind the French rearguard when needed and launching his three quarter runners when gaps emerged. The contest was a terrific advert for the competition. France played some lovely rugby in that opening period, offloading at every given opportunity where the likes of Mermoz and Fickout relished the open space afforded. England’s response was emphatic. Their pack had the edge in terms of breakdown and overall physical conditioning. Vunipola, Haskell stood out for England with several important steals and ball carries. England have being the best team in the tournament. Yes, they are far from finished article but the decision of Eddie Jones to place faith in the likes of Hartley and Vunipola in the pack and the decision to move Farrell at twelve has being inspired. Farrell’s goal kicking last night was on point throughout and his tackle count typified England’s work rate throughout. A merited championship. England will only get better as Eddie Jones identifies more young talent to nurture into the national setup where Maro Itoje has announced himself to the world stage. The depth chart in several England positions looks extremely encouraging.
Wales – to be conservative or not?
This is the burning question that Welsh rugby public will ask in the aftermath of the nine try demolition of an Italian team who was akin to a journey boxer taking too many punches and not landing precious little. Wales’s expansive style of play was incredibly eye catching and one wonders with the talent behind the pack why Warren Gatland resorts to ultra conservative game plans which prey on opposition mistakes. Their performance against England for the first hour flat out failed and it was only when the Welsh players decided to open up and create space out wide that we saw the best from the team. George North was immense again yesterday, superbly dominant in the air and his ball carrying gave Italy nightmares throughout. Davies at thirteen is a joy to watch, very elusive for such as big man and his game time decision making to launch runners and straighten the line when need be is superb. Williams at full-back is an all action player, fully commited to the cause and his line speed when in the back line is excellent. Wales have an important decision to make in the coming months. Their skill set demands that they expand their style of play but will old habits die hard during the summer tour? Wales will rue the Ireland and England games. The England game exposed issues in the scrum and lineout. The breakdown yesterday was dominant but questions remain on how Warburton and Tipuric can potentially co-exist in the same side? A pivotal couple of months which could define Wales’ fortunes in the next RWC awaits.
Ireland and Scotland look ahead with optimism
Make no mistake, Ireland and Scotland produced some scintillating rugby at the Aviva Stadium. The Duncan Hogg solo try is a contender for try of the tournament. There appeared little danger when Conor Murray launched his box kick into Scotland territory but the Ireland cover chase was not in synch and did Hogg exploit it identifying Ross and Best in the line using his pace to evade the front row players to turn on the afterburners to score a solo try which Ireland failed to put a meaningful tackle. 10-9 Scotland after Ireland had thoroughly bossed the first quarter. Ireland’s back row had the edge all day and with Stander and Heaslip in excellent form with ball carries and tackle count, Scotland were getting pinged at a regular rate for not rolling away in the tackle at the breakdown. Barclay’s yellow card was a culmination of Scotland indiscretions and Ireland profited with twelve points in that ten minute spell just before the interval. The tries were well worked as the Ireland pack started to maul with some frequency forcing Scotland to commit players to the ruck area and allowing Ireland to profit out wide evident in Earls’ try where Seymour and Hogg got in a tangle dealing with a Sexton kick in behind. Stander and Toner must have watched NFL videos as both made running back dives for the line for their tries and Murray’s party piece of eyeing a gap from close range to score a try clinched victory. Scotland never gave up and Cotter must be proud of his charges for their efforts despite the six day turnaround which did have an effect. Scotland’s sluggish start to proceedings meant that they were forced to play catch-up rugby. They will look to those two yellow cards as absolute key; nineteen points conceded in those twenty minutes is the story of the game. The fiery nature of the contest was evident throughout and it added spice to an atmosphere which was surprisingly vociferous for a mid-table clash. Scotland have improved and go on again. Ireland will look at opportunities lost at the start of the tournament and questions abound on Joe Schmidt’s long term future? The officiating on show at the Aviva Stadium left a lot to be desired. Scotland will feel aggrieved that Ireland did not have another player in the bin when Trimble clearly body checked in the second half. Zebo at full-back continues to impress, loves the open space in the position and his energy and game line yard gains have being a massive plus for Joe Schmidt this season along with the emergence of Stander, van der Flier and Dillane to international rugby.
Italy and France – Reflection Time
Both sides will leave the tournament with numerous questions to ask. Italy were walloped and humiliated in Cardiff. Their lack of fight during the contest will surely spell the end of Brunel’s tenure as national team head coach. The head coach is not the only area that needs addressing; a faltering professional club scene where Treviso and Zebre continue to prop up the Guinness Pro 12 table is damning and this lack of club form is directly linked to the success of the national team who have shown at times fight in the front eight but precious little in attacking and defensive play out wide. There is no quick fix to this problem and Italy’s participation in this tournament is now a burning issue.
France’s tournament performance has being the good (flashes), the bad (plenty) and the ugly (plenty). Guy Noves’ team have shown fight and spirit but the lack of quality cohesive play in this tournament points more to the domestic professional club scene where foreign players are now pivotal for club success. The arrival of the likes of Dan Carter, Quade Cooper does little to nurture homegrown talent who are then forced to ply their trade into the second club tier championship. The lack of conditioning from the French pack after a hour was alarming, no lessons learned post RWC. The back line on paper looks world class but the lack of half-back game management and tactical nous has made their attacking intent extremely one dimensional. Both Continental European teams have issues which will take more than one season to remedy. Professional club structure changes are required but whether the powers that be have the appetite for change is another story. Interesting plot lines await in France where the club owner millionaires will dismiss French RFU association mandates and bring additional foreign talent to supplement their already bludgeoning squads.