Six Nations 2016 Review

What a difference a few months can make! Just five months after being dumped out of a home World Cup in the group stages, England have come back and secured their first Grand Slam in 13 years. Under new coach Eddie Jones, the English were by far the most consistent team in this year’s Championship and fully deserved their Grand Slam success. In a tournament which perhaps failed to live up to the expectations of many northern hemisphere fans their were disappointing campaigns for Ireland, France and Italy whilst Wales and Scotland will not be too disheartened with their tournaments, if not slightly frustrated at what could have been if chances were taken at key stages.

England

A tournament to remember for the Red Rose faithful, as new captain Dylan Hartley led his team to their first Six Nations championship in five years. A team transformed by the new coaching set-up, England finally delivered on the potential they have shown over the last few years. Having fallen at the last hurdle in Grand Slam pursuits before (2011,2013), the class of 2016 put their demons to rest in Paris with a 31-21 victory over Les Bleus. The fact that they sealed the Grand Slam with arguably their worst performance of the championship shows you just how bad France have been in this year’s tournament. With predecessor Stuart Lancaster having struggled to find a settled side during his reign as coach, Australian Eddie Jones has stuck to the same core group of players throughout the tournament and has reaped the rewards with England going back to basics in this year’s tournament with a strong pack laying the foundations for the backs to flourish. Far from being the most expansive and attacking English team, Jones’ side have simply done the basics better than everybody else with an effective set-piece, strong defence and solid ball-carrying. No better example of this was their 25-21 win against Wales where despite being outscored by three tries to one, Hartley’s men got the better of the Welsh at the line-out and the breakdown where the likes of George Kruis and Maro Itoje excelled. Other hard-fought victories over Scotland and Ireland also showcased England’s defensive resilience, none more so than winger Jack Nowell who produced the tackle of the tournament to prevent Irish centre Robbie Henshaw from scoring a try in the corner at Twickenham. Despite not always flourishing in attack, England did show their capabilities in attack with victories over Italy and France and possess three of the best attacking runners about in Jack Nowell, Mike Brown and Anthony Watson. The likes of Dan Cole, Billy Vunipola and Owen Farrell also excelled throughout the tournament although question marks still remain over George Ford’s place in Eddie Jones’ team following a difficult campaign for the Bath fly-half where he struggled to assert his influence as a play-maker. Overall England can look ahead to the future in good stead and with exciting players such as Henry Slade and Manu Tuilagi to come into the squad, they will be a match for anyone.

Wales

It says a lot about how far Wales have come under Warren Gatland’s stewardship that fans and players are disappointed with finishing as runners-up in this year’s championship. A somewhat frustrating campaign for the Welsh who will look back on what could have been if it not were for poor starts in Dublin and London. Having recovered from a 13-0 deficit to take a 16-13 lead late on in their first match against Ireland, Sam Warburton’s side would have been disappointed to leave the Aviva Stadium with just a point following a 16-16 draw. Given the nature of their performances against Scotland and France following that match, it is fair to say that the result in Dublin took some time to shake off. Despite that Wales still went into round four unbeaten and knew that victory over old rivals England at Twickenham would guarantee a tilt at the title going into their final match at home to Italy. However in arguably the worst 40 minutes of rugby played in the Gatland era, England dominated their opponents and built up a solid 16-0 half-time lead with Wales proving uncharacteristically poor in defence as they fell of tackles all over the pitch. Although a late flurry of tries saw Wales outscore England by three tries to one, England still came away with a deserved victory. Having been slated by the coaches and media for their first-half performance in particular, a response was needed in their final game against the Italians. With Gatland making one or two changes to personnel, the Welsh players came out firing on all cylinders to produce a wonderful attacking display – all be it against a very limited Italian side – that saw them rack up a record 67-14 win and finish a mixed campaign on a high. Looking back captain Warburton and his teammates will know they missed an opportunity to grab another title, but will be encouraged by the improvements seen in attack against the Italians as well as the last ten minutes against England. Having relied too heavily on individuals such as Faletau, North and Roberts in attack in their first three matches, Gatland and his coaches will have been pleased to see a more collective effort in their final matches of the tournament as well as a real stability found in the scrum under young Prop forwards Rob Evans and Samson Lee. With a tour to New Zealand coming up in the summer, Wales will need to show the same imagination in attack whilst also remaining strong in defence and at set-piece time if they are to cause an upset against the World Champions.

Ireland

A very disappointing campaign for Joe Schmidt’s side. Having come into the tournament as defending champions and looking for their third consecutive Six Nations title under the Kiwi coach, much was expected of this Irish side. However with key players such as Tommy Bowe, Iain Henderson and Peter O’Mahony out injured, Ireland struggled throughout the tournament. A blistering start in their opening game against Wales saw them take an early 13-0 lead, only to see Wales storm back into a 16-13 lead before a late Jonny Sexton penalty secured a share of the spoils. Having come away slightly disappointed at not having secured the win at home against the Welsh, round two saw them travel to France. In what was probably the worst game of the whole championship, Maxime Medard’s try saw the hosts sneak a 10-9 win that left Ireland’s title hopes in tatters. Things got worse for the Irish with the news that talismanic flanker Sean O’Brien would miss the rest of the tournament having come off injured in Paris. Travelling to Twickenham next up to face a resurgent English side, improvements were needed from the men in green and despite producing their best performance of the tournament so far, they still went down 21-10. The scoreline itself may have flattered the English who spent much of the second-half trying to stop the Irish attack with halfbacks Murray and Sexton in particular having strong games. The key moment in the match came midway through the second-half with England leading by eleven points. A wonderful break from Jonny Sexton saw Irish centre Robbie Henshaw put in out wide for a seemingly clear run to the try-line only for England wing Jack Nowell to produce a try-saving tackle in the corner. As it was despite the improved display Ireland went into round four at home to Italy still looking for their first win of the tournament. In a total mismatch of a contest, Schmidt’s side took out their frustrations on the Azzurri as they secured a crushing 58-15 victory. Having finally got off the mark at the fourth attempt, Ireland rounded off their campaign with a 35-25 win over Scotland at the Aviva. Once again Ireland were by far convincing against the Scots, and the game may have been a lot different had Scotland not had to play with 14 men for twenty minutes of the match, having seen two of their players yellow-carded. Off the back of a poor World Cup showing these performances have put pressure on coach Joe Schmidt and with a tour to South Africa to come, things will not get easier for the Ireland coach. Despite this, injuries did cost Ireland throughout the tournament and in their absence the likes of CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier and Stuart McCloskey have impressed and with those key players set to return chances are it won’t be long before Ireland are back to their best.

Scotland

Following on from some impressive performances at the World Cup, hope was high amongst Scottish fans for this year’s Six Nations and despite a slow start to the tournament, there were encouraging signs for fans. Under the guidance of New Zealander Vern Cotter this Scotland side is slowly developing into a more competitive team, as seen by performances this year. The tournament itself did not start off too well for the Scots with defeats in their opening matches to England and Wales. Despite those defeats extending Scotland’s winless run in the Six Nations to 9 games, the nature of the performances in both games suggested that Scotland were improving, none more so than in Cardiff where the Scots deservedly led going into the final quarter before tries from Jamie Roberts and George North sealed a narrow win. They didn’t have to wait much longer to break their duck however as they swept aside a poor Italian side in Rome in round three, where their exciting attacking game came to the fore with the likes of Finn Russell, Tommy Seymour and Stuart Hogg impressing as they racked up three tries in a 36-20 win. Buoyed by their first Six Nations victory in two years, the Scots secured back-to-back wins in round four as they overcame France at Murrayfield. Tries from Stuart Hogg, Duncan Taylor and Tim Visser helped the home side end a 10-year winless streak against the French, as they once again showcased their expansive style of rugby. Finishing off the tournament with a trip to Dublin, indiscipline cost Cotter’s men as both John Barclay and Alex Dunbar were yellow-carded leaving the visitors to play 20 minutes of the match with 14 men. In an entertaining match, Ireland’s extra-man advantage proved invaluable as the 2015 champions secured a 35-25 win. Despite the defeat however there were once again encouraging signs for coach Cotter as his side ran in three tries for the third consecutive game, the pick of the bunch being a wonderful solo effort from man-of-the-moment Stuart Hogg. Looking back Cotter and captain Greig Laidlaw will be satisfied with the performances in this year’s tournament with the Scots competing well in each game as well as ending their winless run with comfortable victories over Italy and France. Having often struggled for tries in the past, Cotter will also have been pleased to see Scotland cross the whitewash in all but one of their games this year, whilst the excellent performances from Hogg, Laidlaw and centre Duncan Taylor have marked them out as some of the star performers in this year’s tournament.

France

Another year, and another disappointing campaign for the French. Having endured four years of failure under previous coach Phillipe Saint-Andre, new coach Guy Noves has carried on where his predecessor left off with another poor tournament only saved by two unconvincing home wins. Having seen their talismanic skipper Thierry Dusautoir retire from internationals following last year’s World Cup, hooker Guilhem Guirado had the unenviable task of replacing the Toulouse flanker as captain and despite his best efforts it proved a thankless task. The writing was on the wall for this French side after the opening game where they scraped home with a nervy 23-21 victory over Italy. A week later against Ireland and there were signs of slight improvement as a late try by Maxime Medard saw them secure their first championship victory over the Irish in five years. Despite leading the table alongside England going into round three with a 100% record, the nature of Les Bleus’ early wins did nothing to suggest they could last the pace. Round three saw Noves’ men on the road for the first time in this year’s tournament as they travelled to Cardiff looking for their first victory in the Welsh capital since 2010. With Wales themselves struggling for form this looked as good a time as any for the French to break their duck, but in a match of poor quality Wales came out on top 19-10 as despite putting Wales under lots of pressure, the French attack never really got going with fly-half Jules Plisson continuing to struggle to ignite his backline. Next up for Les Bleus was a trip to Murrayfield to face a rejuvenated Scotland. Having not been beaten by the Scots since 2006, French fans were hopeful that their long unbeaten sequence would continue and keep their title hopes alive. Despite taking an early lead through captain Guirado’s try, Scotland came back to score three tries to end French title hopes as France lost a second consecutive game on their travels. With opponents England already confirmed as champions before the final match in Paris, pride was the only thing at stake for the French. Having struggled to find any sort of coherent game plan in the previous games under Noves, the hosts produced their best display of the tournament with attackers Virimi Vakatawa and Scott Spedding proving particularly difficult for the English defenders to handle. Early English tries from Danny Care and Dan Cole set England on their way to the Grand Slam, but ill discipline in defence gifted Maxime Machenaud opportunities to reduce the arrears from the kicking tee, and his successful kicks kept France in touch as England went into half-time leading 17-12. Machenaud continued his fine kicking form in the second-half, however Anthony Watson’s try and Owen Farrell’s penalties pulled England clear as they secured their first Grand Slam in 13 years. For France, the culmination of the tournament saw them look back on a campaign that started positively (if not convincingly) with two wins, before tailing off dramatically towards the end with three consecutive defeats. Despite the changes in coaches, it was the same old story for the French with a number of talented individuals seeming to play on different wavelengths throughout the championship. Ironically they seemed to play better in their defeats than they did in their victories, and can count themselves lucky that they won any games given their performances against Italy and Ireland. While there were signs against England that they can still trouble teams in attack, their frailties in defence continue to undermine them and much work is needed to restore this current side to title contenders.

Italy

A tournament to forget for the Italians as they collected the dreaded Wooden Spoon following a dismal campaign. A complete whitewash with five defeats and an embarrassing points difference of -145, this may just be the worst Italian side to have competed in this historic competition. 16 years after being introduced into the competition alongside the other five european nations, never before has Italy’s place in  the competition been under this much scrutiny. However, it all could have been so different for the Azzurri had captain Sergio Parisse not lost his head in the first game of this year’s tournament. Two points down against the French in Paris and all Italy had to do was keep going through the phases with ball in hand before putting fly-half Kelly Haimona in position to drop a shot at goal to secure a first Six Nations victory on French soil. However in a moment of madness, Parisse took the game into his own hands and decided to go for an audacious drop-goal that unsurprisingly sailed wide and got the French out of jail. Despite that, hope was high – given that performance – that Italy could spring a surprise back in Rome against England in round two, only for the English to withstand the hosts’ pressure before running riot in the final 30 minutes to secure a convincing victory. Round three followed a similar pattern as despite their best efforts Italy lost again as Scotland secured their first win of the campaign. Two crushing defeats on the road in Dublin and Cardiff followed as injuries took their toll in Italian ranks. With the likes of Georgia and Romania knocking on the door for inclusion in Europe’s premier rugby completion, the idea of promotion and relegation has gathered pace given Italy’s woeful performances this year. Despite beating every nation in the competition except for England, the Italians look in serious danger of losing their place and much change is needed to make the national side competitive once again. These initial warnings have been heeded with the arrival of Harlequins coach Conor O’Shea to replace Jacques Brunel from next season, however O’Shea will face a tough task in maintaining Italy’s place at the top table in european rugby.

 

 

 

 

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