Six Nations 2018 Review

So after another compelling edition of Europe’s premier rugby competition, there are many questions that have arisen from this year’s Six Nations. Are Grand Slam champions Ireland now favourites to knock world champions New Zealand off their perch? Can the entertaining Scots cure their travel sickness to emerge as genuine World Cup contenders? And how will Eddie Jones’ England recover from their worst finish in 32 years? So here are the main talking points from this year’s competition….

Irish eyes gleam bright

A championship to remember for Joe Schmidt’s Irish side as they delivered their first Grand Slam in nine years and just their third clean sweep in history. The Irish may have arrived at these championship as pre-tournament favourites alongside defending champions England, yet they still had much to do in order to secure their third title in five years under New Zealander Schmidt. From Jonny Sexton’s dramatic drop-goal in the last play in Paris to Jacob Stockdale’s crucial match-winning try at Twickenham, this Irish team have provided moments of class throughout the tournament which their rivals have been unable to match.

In half-backs Connor Murray and Jonny Sexton they have two vastly-experienced campaigners whose confidence has shined through in leading their team forward, whilst amongst the forwards new stars have emerged in the shape of James Ryan and Dan Leavy to join elder statesmen Cian Healy, Rory Best and Peter O’Mahony in dominating their opposing packs to deliver the front-foot ball that has allowed their backline colleagues to fire. After a slow start against France – where it took Jonny Sexton’s nerveless drop-goal to steal the win – Ireland’s attack has flourished scoring twenty tries in four games, with 21-year-old Jacob Stockdale finishing with a record seven tries in his debut Six Nations campaign. Injury to Lions centre Robbie Henshaw may have robbed them of one of their top players but in Chris Farrell and Garry Ringrose they had players who filled in superbly to ensure there was no drop-off in performance, New Zealand-born Bundee Aki provided real impact and intensity in the no.12 jersey whilst old heads such as Keith Earls and Rob Kearney have seemed reinvigorated by the younger players around them, providing calm authority throughout.

Having received something of a let-off through Sexton’s boot on the opening weekend, the Irish have not looked back since producing a number of convincing displays where they have shown an accuracy and control that has been too much for their opponents to handle – none more so than in Paris where they patiently went through 41 phases of play to set up a position from which Sexton could deliver that killer blow. The variation in their game has also been something to marvel at, particularly in their final game against England from Jonny Sexton launching a testing high-ball into the England in-goal area where Garry Ringrose eventually dotted the ball down for the opening try, to the immaculately-executed first-phase move off a lineout that resulted in CJ Stander sliding in against the posts for the visitor’s second score. Bonus-point wins over Italy, Wales and Scotland at the Aviva have shown the ruthless streak that has run through this Irish team, a trait not seen in the championship for many years.

With the likes of Sean Cronin, Jack McGrath and Devin Toner providing big-game experience from the bench to go with the youthful promise provided by exciting youngsters Andrew Porter, Joey Carbery and Jordan Larmour, Ireland are developing a squad with a good blend of youth and experience moving towards the World Cup with Schmidt having planted the seeds for this success on last summer’s tour of the USA handing debuts to Stockdale, Ryan and Porter. With Lions star Sean O’Brien having also missed the entirety of this year’s competition, Schmidt has yet another world-class player to come back in and add to an already talented squad that have shown they can deliver the big prizes.

 

Fringe players take their chance as Gatland builds depth ahead of World Cup

As a small country, Wales has always struggled in comparison to the likes of England and Australia when it comes to strength in depth. Over the course of this Six Nations Wales have gradually built up a greater pool of players to choose from with coach Warren Gatland having his hand forced by a spate of injuries.

Heading into the first game against Scotland missing eight of their British and Irish Lions, Gatland was forced to dig deep within the national team’s resources handing first Six Nations starts to Cory Hill, Josh Navidi, Josh Adams, Steff Evans and Hadleigh Parkes, whilst Rhys Patchell earned his first start in the fly-half jersey. Many expected an exciting Scottish side – who arrived in Cardiff off the back of an impressive autumn series – to grab the win in Cardiff, yet the Welsh produced arguably their best display in years as they crushed Scotland with a bonus-point win, with each of the new players impressing throughout. A week later and Gatland named an unchanged line-up for the trip to Twickenham and whilst Wales narrowly went down 12-6 to Eddie Jones’ side, there was still much to be pleased about with Gatland’s side recovering from a slow start to push England all the way in a match which provided more evidence that these players could compete in big test matches.

Defeat in Dublin in round three ended Welsh title hopes as Ireland ran out deserved winners at the Aviva, although the fact Wales managed to score three tries despite being restricted to just 31% possession and could have snuck victory at the end were it not for a late interception was another timely suggestion that Wales were moving forward with their style of play. A much-changed line-up for the home match against Italy in round four saw the hosts record a routine win over the Azzurri whilst in the final game against France in Cardiff a disjointed display saw the Welsh run out narrow 14-13 winners, a result which saw Wales finish second to Ireland in the championship.

Three home wins and two away defeats may have been what most were expecting from Wales in this year’s competition but given the number of injuries and the level of performance from those five matches, Welsh fans can be quietly satisfied with how this tournament has gone. Having looked to change to a more expansive attacking style of play in the autumn, the signs are there to suggest this Welsh team are adjusting well with the likes of Aaron Shingler, Gareth Anscombe and Steff Evans flourishing in this new style of play. In giving opportunities to players like Cory Hill, Josh Navidi, Rhys Patchell and Josh Adams, Gatland now knows that these players are capable of competing at this level and as a result has built as great a strength in depth as at anytime during his decade-long tenure as Wales coach.

With players like Taulupe Faletau, George North and Liam Williams still building up match-fitness as well as Sam Warburton and Jonathan Davies to return from injury, Gatland will have much to ponder when picking from a full-strength squad but one thing he will know is that all the players can handle themselves at the highest of levels.

 

‘Jekyll and Hyde’ Scots still have long way to go

Gregor Townsend’s first Six Nations as Scotland head coach certainly has not been a dull one. Big wins, bigger defeats, last-minute triumphs and tries galore, if it is entertainment you are looking for then Scotland matches are the ones to watch.

Three wins for the second consecutive Six Nations and their highest finish (3rd) in the table for five years represents consolidation rather than progress under Townsend and whilst Scotland have once again shown they are as dangerous a side as many in world rugby, there is still much work to do ahead of the 2019 World Cup.

After that wonderful autumn series, hope was high amongst Scottish support going into the opening match in Cardiff. Having broken a decade-long winless run over the Welsh with victory at Murrayfield in 2017 and with Wales missing several first-choice players through injury, this seemed as great an opportunity as any to end the Scots’ miserable record on the road in the Six Nations. However with Scotland themselves missing several forwards through injury, a heavily-depleted pack were well and truly beaten up by their opposition leaving the Scottish backline without any good ball, as the hosts ran out 34-7 winners. A week later and having rung the changes, the returning Greig Laidlaw proved the difference as a perfect goal-kicking display from the Lions scrum-half saw the Scots edge out the French in front of a tense Murrayfield crowd and secure Townsend’s first Six Nations win.

A Calcutta Cup classic in Edinburgh followed with Scotland producing their best Six Nations display in years as they comprehensively beat England 25-13 with a performance of ground-breaking intensity and attacking verve that was just too much for an ill-disciplined England to cope with. A brace of tries from Murrayfield favourite Huw Jones as well as another score by wing Sean Maitland proved enough to secure Scotland’s first Calcutta Cup since 2008 and their biggest winning margin in the fixture for 32 years. That victory and performance looked to have set up Townsend’s men for a tilt at the title, but with optimism building their bubble was burst at the Aviva as their poor away form cost them once more with Ireland running out comfortable 28-8 winners. Unlike in Cardiff, the Scots actually had plenty of ball against the Irish in what was an exciting and at times frenetic match but whereas the Irish showed a clinical edge in finishing their chances, the visitors could not repeat their heroics of a few weeks earlier and were guilty of not taking opportunities created in attack.

The final match of the tournament gave them an early opportunity for redemption on their travels as they faced a winless-Italy in Rome. In a thrilling contest that included seven tries in total, another below-par error-strewn display saw the visitors staring down the barrel of a sixth consecutive Six Nations defeat on the road with the Azzurri holding a 12-point lead going into the final quarter. A spirited comeback by the visitors saw the Scots take a slender lead courtesy of two converted tries, yet when Scottish-born fly-half Tommaso Allan knocked over a penalty to put the hosts back in front, it looked like being a familiar story on the road. Luckily for Scotland they themselves had a reliable goal-kicker in the shape of Greig Laidlaw and when the visitors were awarded a late penalty inside the Italian half, the Scottish no.9 stepped up to clinch his side’s first away win in the competition for two years.

A solid campaign for new coach Gregor Townsend, a third place finish represents another step in the right direction for this Scotland side, however if they are to seriously challenge at next year’s World Cup than they must develop a meaner streak and become more resilient away from Murrayfield. The Scots have been a soft touch on their travels once again with chastening defeats in Cardiff and Dublin, whilst only Greig Laidlaw’s boot rescued them from embarrassment in Rome. With players of the quality of Jonny Gray, Hamish Watson, Huw Jones and Stuart Hogg and a strong leader in captain John Braclay, Scotland have the basic ingredients to compete with the very best at this level. In Finn Russell they have one of the game’s great mavericks, who ran the English defence ragged in the Calcutta Cup at Murrayfield, yet his laid-back unstructured way of playing has often been problematic away from home and it is those same inconsistencies that need to be solved if Scotland are to progress further and fulfil their potential.

 

So near, yet so far for Les Bleus

Having won three and lost twice in last year’s tournament, a return of two wins from five matches may not represent tangible progress for France under new coach Jacques Brunel, yet the close margins of France’s defeats this year suggests Brunel may yet be able to turn around the fortunes of French rugby.

Having seen Ireland’s Jonny Sexton snatch victory with the last kick of the game in Paris, before going down to another defeat this time through the boot of Greig Laidlaw in Edinburgh in round two, French supporters could have been forgiven for thinking this campaign would be yet more unbearable viewing to go with the rubbish served up far too often from previous regimes. Victory over Italy in Marseille got Les Bleus on the board in this year’s tournament and the French managed to build on that with an impressive display against England in Paris that saw them record their first victory over the English in four years. Rocking up in Cardiff on the final weekend of the championship, France were looking to win a third consecutive Six Nations match for the first time in four years and with it potentially seal a second place finish. In a tense and turgid affair, despite having plenty of ball especially in the second half the Welsh defence held firm to secure a narrow 14-13 win that resulted in France finishing the tournament in fourth place.

Losing three matches by a combined margin of just nine points, France may well be disappointed not to have come out on top in those tight encounters, yet this year has seen a marked improvement in performances from the French squad. In the likes of Guilhem Guirado, Yacouba Camara and Mathieu Bastareaud they have had some of the best players in this year’s tournament. Indiscipline proved to be France’s biggest issue with a succession of silly needless penalties conceded against Ireland and Scotland ultimately proving costly, but the margins have been so fine for the French this year that if they can solve that issue they should not be far off competing for the title once again.

 

Eddie’s England crumble in pursuit of three-peat

Defending champions from the previous two campaigns, many punters had Eddie Jones’ England down as pre-tournament favourites as Jones’ side went to do what no other side has done in Six Nations history in winning three successive titles. Yet by the end of this year’s championship they have found out just why no side has won this competition three years running, as three successive defeats left the former champions with their worst finish for 32 years in 5th.

On paper at least the first few weeks went smoothly enough with back-to-back wins over Italy and Wales leaving them in a strong position early on. Yet even in those victories, cracks were beginning to show in the England armour with the Italians running in a number of tries in the first match, before a heavily-depleted Wales recovered from a poor start at Twickenham to nearly steal an unlikely win.

In round three there was a return to the scene of Eddie Jones’ first test as England coach, as the reigning champions headed to Edinburgh for the Calcutta Cup. Going into the match in high spirits following a perfect start to the campaign, not many could have predicted what eventually unfolded at Murrayfield as roared on by a passionate home support the Scottish players produced their best display in the tournament for years in smashing England to secure their first Calcutta Cup triumph in ten years. With the hosts dominant in every aspect of the game, the English just could not live with the intensity with which their opposition came at them particularly in attack where the Scots ran in three first-half tries to take a commanding lead which they never relinquished as they ran out deserved 25-13 victors. Another tricky away trip followed in round four as England travelled to Paris to play France, looking to resurrect their now-slim title prospects after the hammering in Edinburgh. Another poor display followed however as the English attack struggled to function and once again an unbalanced English back-row were second-best throughout at the breakdown as France won a scrappy contest 22-16 for their first win over the English in four years.

The final weekend saw the English playing solely for pride as opponents and newly-crowned champions Ireland arrived at Twickenham in pursuit of their first Grand Slam in nine years. Facing their worst run of form under Jones’ tenure and looking to protect an unbeaten home record under the Australian, the Irish proved too strong easing to the Grand Slam with a convincing display of control and accuracy that saw them rack up three first half tries to lead 21-5 at the break. England may have hit back in the second-half but in truth Ireland never looked in danger with a late consolation try by Jonny May making the final score-line of a 24-15 Irish win flattering to the hosts.

A desperately poor campaign for England, and Jones’ first real setback as England coach the Australian has much to ponder from this year’s tournament. His side look jaded throughout with key players Maro Itoje, George Ford and Mako Vunipola struggling to find the right intensity and influence, whilst their lack of balance and guile amongst the back-row saw them lose significant ground at the breakdown particularly in defeats to Scotland and France. An over-reliance on Owen Farrell also saw the Lions star’s form decline as the tournament wore on with England lacking in imagination and creativity amongst their backline for the duration of the tournament. Jones’ constant chopping and changing of team selection by the end of the tournament also undermined his side’s chances, with his players often looking clueless against Ireland as to how they should play.

A little under 18 months before the World Cup, England supporters will be worried about the nosedive in form as well as the direction their side seem to be moving in. Jones clearly has much work to do over the next six months to restore the fortunes of his side, with the need to find a natural open-side flanker the most pertinent issue, along with finding a way to give some of his key players enough rest to allow them to return to the form that saw them play a key role in the title wins of 2016 and 2017. With captain Dylan Hartley under increasing pressure from the likes of Jamie George and Luke Cowan-Dickie, Jones must also think carefully as to whether Hartley is the right man to lead England into Japan, and if not give sufficient time to allow a new captain time to develop in the role.

 

A step in the right direction for the Azzurri

On the face of it another 6th place finish and Six Nations whitewash, is not something to be pleased with if you are an Italian supporter. In his second Six Nations campaign as coach, Conor O’Shea has yet to oversee a victory in the competition with his record reading, played ten, lost ten. Despite this 2018 has offered up plenty of hope for a brighter future under O’Shea with the emergence of a number of young players a major plus point for Italian rugby.

Heavy defeats in the opening two weekends to England and Ireland respectively may have seen the same old defensive errors resurface but in scoring five tries across the two matches there were at least signs that their attacking game was making strides. A more competitive performance against France may have still resulted in defeat, but having conceded seven tries against England and eight against Ireland, restricting the French to just three tries in a 34-17 loss signalled a slight defensive improvement. A bonus-point defeat in Wales in round four wasn’t much of a surprise but the Italian performance in their final game against Scotland in Rome did shock a few people. A highly-entertaining contest yielded seven tries with Italy putting in their best display of the tournament, which saw them lead at half-time and go into the final quarter of the match with a 12-point lead. A brace of tries from Scotland saw the visitors take a slender lead but when Tomasso Allan booted Italy back in front with a penalty kick at goal, it looked as if the hosts would be celebrating their first Six Nations win in three years, only for Scotland’s Greig Laidlaw to kick a late penalty to seal a narrow win for the Scots and prolong Italy’s losing streak.

Whilst the results may have been the same old sorry story, the performances of Italy this year have been a significant improvement and have provided tangible evidence that the Azzurri are moving forward under O’Shea’s stewardship. Italians Sebastian Negri, Matteo Minozzi and Jake Polledri have impressed throughout in their first Six Nations campaign. Flanker Negri’s ball-carrying often provided Italy with a greater attacking dimension in a season where their attack look much-improved from previous campaigns, whilst his defensive work relieved some of the pressure on veteran skipper Sergio Parisse. Full-back Minozzi has been another star this year, lighting up the tournament with his dazzling footwork and impressive finishing ability which saw him end the campaign with four tries, a run which included scoring in four successive games. Gloucester flanker Polledri may have only made his test debut in round five against Scotland, but the Italy no.7 produced an-action display that warranted more than defeat in his first test match and suggests he can become a regular fixture in the Italy back-row in years to come.

With Tommaso Allan also impressing from the no.10 position – scoring three tries and amassing 41 points during the championship – Italy have been a much-more threatening presence in attack, with their tally of 12 tries scored in the championship their best return for many years. Defensively they remain too soft with their 27 tries conceded seeing them concede five tries a game on average, and their discipline has also cost them with the Italians conceding 58 penalties in the championship – joint-highest with England – yet O’Shea’s side are showing signs of improvement from previous years.

Moving towards the World Cup there is still much work for O’Shea to do but in unearthing a few gems in the likes of Negri, Polledri and Minozzi Italy have found players worthy of building a team around and that offer hope for a bright future. With Tommaso Allan pulling the strings well from fly-half and showing a greater control in attack and Sergio Parisse and Allesandro Zanni providing years of experience at this level, Italy have as good a squad of players as they have had in some years. The debate about Italy’s place in the Six Nations will remain as long as the Italians remain at the bottom of the pile but whilst improvements are obviously needed to be made by O’Shea and his coaching staff, the performances from many Italian players has proven that the tournament would be worse off without their presence.

Feature Image c/o Getty Images

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