The final weekend in this years Six Nations provided an improvement in the quality of play as the final reckoning brought a superb performance from Wales in Cardiff whilst Italy cemented a well deserved mid table spot after a first ever win over Ireland. A late Tim Visser try in Paris condemned France to the Wooden Spoon as Les Bleus got a win but by not enough to avoid finishing bottom of the table.
With a full house of predictions, I finished with a respectable final score of 12 correct predictions from the 15 games played. During the course of the tournament I have been happy with my predicted margins but I think it fair to say that nobody expected a record Welsh win over England to ensure they retained the title.
Italy vs Ireland
I will start in Rome where Italy did cement their progress with a second win in this year’s tournament. Some of the Italian build up play was superb and whilst they still miss some class in their backline, the world class talents of Parisse and Zanni galvanised the Azzurri to a more comprehensive win than the score line suggested. At one stage it looked as though Ireland may run out of bodies. Three further injuries severely disrupted them and the men in green looked beaten well before the final whistle. Injuries are part and parcel of the game but Ireland have been decimated by absences this year. After a promising start they have fallen off the pace. However a number of players have now been “blooded” and this has to be used as the first stage in their (delayed) rebuilding process.
France vs Scotland
In Paris the home side flattered to deceive once again. Fofana showed that he is one of the world’s best talents with a great finish for his try and when Les Bleus made it 23-9 it looked like they may yet avoid the Wooden Spoon. I have been critical of Scotland’s style in previous games but the Visser try showed what they are capable of. This was a flowing movement made by their back three and Scotland must work out a way of using them more in games. The tournament has confirmed that France have big problems to overcome from their unsustainable club system to the make up of their national coaching team. Scotland meanwhile can look ahead with guarded optimism. They have a base to work from but they must find extra creativity if they are going to make the next step.
Wales vs England
To the Millennium Stadium where the atmosphere crackled and the noise was deafening. This was the theatre of sport at its best. In my pre-match column I hoped that the game would be won by the side that could throw off the shackles to score some tries and this proved to be the case. On Saturday we saw what I believe to be the best all round performance I have seen from a Welsh side. This is not because it was England on the receiving end but simply because I cannot recall the Welsh team delivering such an accurate high quality display. This was not a poor English team display either. This was not the turgid encounter that I had feared with the first 40 minutes played at a frenetic pace as both teams gave it everything. Both teams missed opportunities during the opening half that may have provided either with additional momentum had those chances been taken.
Some of the rucking and tackling from both sides was ferocious but where as England started to fall off in the third quarter, the battle hardened home side were able to use their experience to pick off the visitors. The sustained physicality of the Welsh performance throughout began to tell and having kept the visitors under the cosh, they then put them away with some aplomb.
England will have learnt a lot from Saturday’s game. In the build up I think too little attention was paid to the gap in experience between the teams. This is a young England side with the front five particularly inexperienced. Wales exploited this area to the hilt with the Welsh scrum yielding nine penalties. It was a chastening afternoon for Marler, Youngs and Launchbury who were all replaced during the third quarter.
England will need to look at the balance of their back row (a natural open side is a must) and the midfield if they are to build on what they have. The standard of England’s performances dropped as the tournament went on. The summer tour to Argentina in the summer will be the perfect environment for a number of young players to show if they have the mental toughness to sustain their performance levels when the heat comes on.
In contrast, Wales got stronger as the weeks went by. How they must rue the first half shambles against Ireland. When Wales are at full strength they are a match for anyone but when they are shorn of some key men, then they have shown that they will struggle. They have improved the areas of their game that have been their Achilles heel in the past, most notably their defence and their set piece with the scrum now a formidable weapon.
So what was my overall view of the tournament? Despite my pleasure at seeing my team retain their title I have to say that for the most part the championship was a grind rather than a pleasure. The styles of play were in the main oppressive whilst there seems a real reluctance from most sides in the Northern Hemisphere to pick true opensides. The skill levels (in particular in the middle three weeks) were poor and I refuse to accept that top level players can use the weather as an excuse.
The breakdown and scrum are areas of continuing debate but for the most part I felt that the sides were set up to be unyielding and totally over coached as to what options should be taken on the field. The handling ability of the forwards also has to be improved if the game is to become more of a spectacle.
The Welsh performance on the final weekend will provide food for thought, but I doubt that the Southern Hemisphere giants will be quaking in their boots after what they have seen over the last couple of months.
Team of the Tournament
I hope you have enjoyed my blog. I finish by picking my team of the championship which is listed below.
1) Jenkins (Wales)
2) Ghiraldhini (Italy)
3) Jones (Wales)
4) A W Jones (Wales)
5) Evans (Wales)
6) O Mahoney (Ireland)
7) Warburton (Wales)
8) Parisse (Italy)
9) Phillips (Wales)
10) Farrell (England)
11) North (Wales)
12) Fofana (France)
13) O Driscoll (Ireland)
14) Halfpenny (Wales)
15) Hogg (Scotland)
8 from Wales, 1 from England, 2 from Ireland, 2 from Italy, 1 from Scotland, 1 from France.