Six Nations review: England show ambition as Ireland triumph

Sports

You have the chance to buy a ticket to watch a Six Nations team play next week, which do you choose?

Do you go for the Irish juggernaut, where you’ll see a team wrestle the opposition into submission? Or perhaps France who have powered through a hangover? Maybe England who are the ultimate risk/reward team? Then there are Wales who are tackling a marathon having just managed their first Park Run. Or perhaps you go for Scotland who have the most thrilling fly-half in world rugby but are stuck in a perennial loop of leaping forward only to then shoot themselves in the foot? How about a trip to Rome to watch a resurgent Italy side who have finally clicked for the first time in their 24-year Six Nations existence?

Welcome to the ultimate rugby Rorschach test. As for every rugby fan you’ll meet who will be optimistic about their team’s prospects over the next World Cup cycle, you’ll meet another who will argue either their team has peaked, they’re a flash-in-the-pan side, or they’ve hit rock bottom.

But amid all the contrasting views is one irrefutable binding factor: while the Six Nations title has ended up where most predicted it would do before the first ball was kicked, there’s been enough jeopardy across the last five rounds to suggest we’re in for one hell of a ride over the next three years building up to the 2027 World Cup.

Ireland fell short of back-to-back Grand Slams, but they are without doubt the dominant side in the northern hemisphere. The performance level England had to hit against Ireland to secure their famous win was a testament to the team Andy Farrell has built. The two main question marks hovering over Ireland heading into this Six Nations campaign were a) how they’d handle the heartbreak of their World Cup quarterfinal exit and b) how they’d manage the post-Johnny Sexton era. Well, don’t worry: They answered on both counts in ruthless fashion. Ireland were by far and away the best team across the first three rounds, and after their hiccup at Twickenham, managed to drag the game across the line against Scotland.

But the next year is going to be fascinating for Ireland. Expect to see the gradual phasing out of stalwarts like potentially Peter O’Mahony — who is without a contract at the end of the season. “We’re realists as far as that’s concerned. I’ve no doubt we’ll chew the fat on all that over the coming days,” Farrell said on Saturday evening. Then there’s going to be the intriguing prospect of seeing a Farrell-less Ireland this time next year as he’ll be on British & Irish Lions duty.

So amid the celebrations in Dublin on Saturday evening was a note of caution. Teams go in cycles — success doesn’t go in a linear path. So to win, this Ireland team have to know what it’s like to lose. “I reckon the loss last week will be the best thing for us as a group because some of these lads, subconsciously now, not through their own doing, they’ve been used to winning,” Farrell said. “For some of the lads who are not used to losing at all, they get to the point where they’re turning up for games thinking: ‘we’re doing it.’ You’re never, ‘doing it.'”

Elsewhere among the home nations, Scotland are a confusing bunch. They had their monumental win over England slap bang in the middle of the campaign, but that proved to be the moment their campaign pivoted. It started with plenty of promise: they built an incredible 27-0 lead against Wales with Finn Russell wondrous, but then fell a level, leaving them to fend off the fightback to win by a point. They played well against France but lost to a controversial late refereeing call over their non-try. Then there was the 30-21 win over England, where Duhan van der Merwe tormented the red rose.

But that’s where they peaked. Then came the disastrous defeat in Rome — complete with Gregor Townsend fielding questions over his future — and the ultimate disappointment of losing in Dublin. There’s no shame over the last bit, but two wins from five is not the return they envisaged.

“We were really good in phases again, but we gifted them the try in the first half,” Finn Russell said after the Ireland defeat. “It sums up this campaign for us — up and down. We need to get a lot better mentally for next year’s campaign because we can’t afford to be up and down. We will get better, but it’s tough.”

Wales know all about turbulence. Their campaign finished with Warren Gatland offering his resignation to CEO Abi Tierney. Of course, it was turned down. There’s no doubt he’s the right man to lead Wales through this rebuild, but it’s been a painful championship as they picked up their first wooden spoon since 2003.

Gatland purposefully went with youth, blooding several young players — even Evan Lloyd, who hadn’t yet started a match for his region Cardiff in the United Rugby Championship — but they came unstuck. The quagmire they had to wade through against Italy summed them up. It must be incredibly frustrating to be a part of but equally, these are the sorts of campaigns which should make a team. They have a good core of young players, but how they missed the experience of players like Dan Biggar, Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric. You can’t magic that overnight, so it’s why they’re going through this rebuild. They lack power up front, badly need some solidity at tight-head prop but do have the likes of Jac Morgan and Dewi Lake continuing their comeback from injury. A back-row of Aaron Wainwright, Morgan and Tommy Reffell is not to be sniffed at.

There are problems higher up. The regions are underperforming, those in Wales don’t know what it’s like to be part of a winning culture. The whole pathway needs fixing. Despite that, Gatland is an eternal optimist. “We’re probably a little bit at rock bottom at the moment but I honestly do see some light at the end of the tunnel,” Gatland said.

“Some exciting players who with some time are going to be excellent internationals. This rebuild isn’t harder than we thought. We knew the inexperience we had in the squad and the players we asked to step up to leadership roles. It’s about taking the good out of the games and showing what we need to do.”

France are going through their mini-rebuild. But the entire picture will change when they get Antoine Dupont back from his Sevens sojourn, and the injured contingent of Mathieu Jalibert and Romain Ntamack. They also missed Thibaud Flament for the first three rounds and then had Jonathan Danty suspended for the final three. So they’ve been without some key personnel, but given they had changed almost their entire coaching staff ahead of this Six Nations, they’ve been going through transition.

They’ve gone for physicality to ditch the World Cup hangover, fielding the 1,000kg pack against Wales and England. They have young players coming through and provided one of the moments of the tournament in Nollan Le Garrec’s 40-yard reverse pass against Wales.

Fabien Galthié was under pressure ahead of the Wales match, given they had already lost to Ireland and drew with Italy — coming within a post’s width of losing that — but they answered that with a powerful performance in Cardiff. So Galthié should be safe for the summer as France continue their resurfacing.

“The team fought even if, at times, it was tough,” Galthié said. “We started the tournament with 14 men [Paul Willemse was red-carded against Ireland] and it was not a good idea. We paid dearly for those mistakes but the team continued to be resilient. After the draw against Italy, we had two important matches left in six days. It was major. The players stood up and said: ‘This is for us.'”

Then there’s Italy. This was the campaign where they turned potential into proof of progress. They have played some wondrous rugby, the sort which can’t help but make you smile and sit a little higher in your seat. We’ve seen the best centre partnership of the championship in Juan Ignacio Brex and Tommaso Menoncello, while they still have the brilliance of a group of backs mixed with a pack which hits with a punch, headlined by their brilliant captain Michele Lamaro.

The key for them now is to build on this. No longer can they be bracketed in the annual relegation debate. They finished with 11 points, their best-ever Six Nations return, thanks to two wins — against Scotland and Wales — and that nail-biting draw against France. They should’ve won three — and this is a testament to the work done behind the scenes over the last handful of years and the tweaks Gonzalo Queseda has made since taking charge. They are playing with confidence and are no longer the perennial recipients of the wooden spoon. It’s brilliant for the sport.

“We want to achieve even more, we know we have had a good Championship but we know we can do a lot better than this,” Queseda said. “There are a few things we have changed. The mindset we go on to the pitch with is something we never had before, we have lots of confidence. In the last few years, we have worked so hard for each other, we went through lots of difficult moments and now have to celebrate the good ones.

“Two games don’t define a team, we said it after the World Cup and it’s the same now. We still have to be more consistent and be competitive with every team in the Championship. That’s what we want to do to earn the respect we want.”

Which leaves us with England. In the past two matches, we’ve seen more attacking endeavour than in recent memory. The new-look blitz defence is bedding in under Felix Jones, while Jamie George has been inspirational as captain. But they can’t afford to take a backwards step. Their record of three victories is the basic minimum expected from this group and they need to be challenging for the title on an annual basis from herein. We saw them edge out wins over Italy and Wales but then their wake-up call came in Murrayfield in Round 3. The team froze, made uncharacteristic errors and cut a frustrated group.

They had some frank discussions in the build-up to the Ireland match and vowed to play with more attacking ambition. George Ford was at the centre of those discussions and though they still kicked more than others, they were ruthless with ball in hand. The likes of Ollie Lawrence and Tommy Freeman have bought into the no-fear approach, while others like Ben Earl and Ollie Chessum will help form the spine of the team for the next three years at least. They all contributed to that brilliant win against Ireland at Twickenham. They’ve made progress this tournament and their heartbreak at the narrow defeat to France will stick with them. But, whisper it, there’s reason for optimism.

“We’ve got a mix, this a new team,” Borthwick said. “Some players have incredible experience and some with only a handful of caps. [There are] Young players so we’re going to make mistakes. The environment we’re creating is one where players can come and bring their point of difference onto the pitch and understand that within our framework mistakes can be made and the players have that ability to get into the next battle.

“We’ve taken on two teams in the top four of the world and we’ve shown how we can compete with them. To be clear here, we don’t just want to be competing, we want to win. We have shown the team has taken a step forward.”

So after all that, if you were to travel to watch a team next week, who would you pick? Ask a pool of rugby fans and you’ll have several different answers and each with a different rationale; some will be swayed by heart over head, others will look to whatever guarantees they can find in this sport of immense variables, while some will flip a coin. But that’s the beauty of this Six Nations. Yes, the trophy ended up where we predicted it would, but it went on some journey getting there.

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