After the first week of the RBS 6 Nations I wrote a blog criticising the experts who, I thought, had got their predictions for the tournament completely wrong. It turns out I didn’t do much better!
I predicted England would win the Championship ahead of Wales, although I did state it wouldn’t be a Grand Slam. Little did I know that this was still a theoretical possibility going into last night’s big decider. But England did what we as a nation do best and threw away victory with an uncharacteristically poor performance after what had been a solid, if uninspiring, tournament. Tackles were missed, rucks were not contested, the lineout was poor and England just seemed flustered with ball in hand – it was painful to watch. You may be asking yourself why this sudden turnaround in performance happened, but did it? England were poor against Italy last time out too, scraping a narrow victory against a side they should have comfortably beaten. The truth is, though, that England choked in this game – they let the pressure get to them and these young, inexperienced players just couldn’t cope. They made basic mistakes, dropping the ball (as Manu Tuilagi did early on after running a fantastic line that could have seen him go under the posts) and passing into no-man’s land, as Owen Farrell was culpable of a few times, and this meant that as long as the Welsh remained calm then they would secure victory, and that they did.
Up to this point in the tournament England’s performances had been gradually decreasing in terms of effectiveness. They were awesome against Scotland and performed well against Ireland. The first signs of their defences creaking came against France but they replied wonderfully in the second half, before a real dogfight saw them scrape past Italy. This, however, gave the fans hope as the great teams are normally the ones who can still win when they aren’t performing well. England were doing just this – key players weren’t performing as they should have been yet they were still unbeaten going into the final game. This would have filled the players with some confidence, but perhaps too much. Were England too complacent last night? That, I’m afraid, we’ll probably never know.
You cannot take anything away from the Welsh, though, as they were absolutely awesome. They got their tactics right, spotting that England weren’t committing to rucks and deciding the pick-and-drive was the best way forward. The monumental pressure they placed on the English led to the mistakes that allowed them to score and I think 30-3 may be a result that actually flatters England as the Welsh could have scored four or five tries. The whole of the Welsh team was superb – the front three were brutal, Alun Wyn Jones and Ian Evans were reliable in the lineouts and Sam Warburton, Jason Tipuric and Toby Falatau were monsters, battering the English defence time after time. Mike Phillips and Jamie Biggar were sensible and composed, linking up beautifully with centres Jamie Roberts and Jonathon Davies on many occasions. George North was denied the chance of a try by a superb tap-tackle from Mike Brown, but fellow winger Alex Cuthbert went over twice after some great play by his forwards. Finally, Leigh Halfpenny was Mr Dependable, looking secure under the high ball and kicking supremely. For me he is the player of the tournament, his one-man beating of Scotland (where he scored 23 of 28 points) being the stand-out performance, and he must be the first choice full-back for the upcoming Lions tour. In fact, all 15 of these Welsh players could easily make that team to tour Australia – they look a complete side, a unit with no weak links and I think they have the potential to cause the Southern Hemisphere sides some real problems in the next few months and years.
I may have been right about Wales but I could not have been more wrong about Scotland. After England beat them in the first week I thought they would be securing the Wooden Spoon but their scintillating victory against Italy just one week later proved just how well their great rivals had actually played. Under Scott Johnson the Scots have really changed turned their performances around – their defence is now much more secure than ever and their backs are exciting, with the electric pace of Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland mixing nicely with the tenacity and level-headedness of Greg Laidlaw and Duncan Weir. The future is looking much better for the Scots and the third place finish in this year’s championship is highly deserved, if a little unexpected.
Italy should also be very proud of their efforts with well-earned victories against the French and the Irish. However, they have an ageing team and, while there are some bright talents coming through, one wonders how much longer the likes of Sergio Parisse, Gonzalo Canale and Andrea Masi will be around for. However there will be no greater loss to any international side in the world right now than Brian O’Driscoll will be to Ireland – he is their greatest ever player and has been the spearhead of their team since 1999. He will be a huge loss to a side that is currently going through a period of transition – the old guard, including O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara and Paul O’Connell, are moving aside and paving the way for the likes of Paddy Jackson and Luke Marshall to come through. In truth, Ireland were poor during the 6 Nations, but there are two reasons for this. The first is this transition, with many players in the squad not having reached 10 caps and some making their international debuts. The lack of experience meant some players didn’t perform at their best, the old rabbit-in-the-headlights scenario, but they have undoubted quality and will one day be wreaking havoc on the international scene. The second is injuries – so many key players, such as O’Connell and Jonny Sexton, missed the majority of the tournament while other players picked up lengthy injuries, with winger Simon Zebo having surgery on ankle ligaments and being ruled out for 10 weeks, while Eoin Reddan broke his leg in the penultimate match. This really disrupted the Irish plans and led to flanker Ian Henderson being brought on to play on the wing for a spell against Italy! Some say it’s bad luck, other say it’s because the Irish are too scared to tackle, but once all these players have returned and the other gain a bit more experience Ireland will once again be a dominant force in international rugby.
Which leaves us with France – in a tournament bereft of entertaining rugby we have to thank them for making us laugh so much! Players being forced to play in positions they don’t like, the most ridiculous selection policy and a captain who looked like he wanted to cry every 5 minutes; they really were the only contenders for the wooden spoon. The cheer that the French coach Phillipe Saint-Andre received as he brought on Freddie Michalak for Francois Trinh-Duc against England was one of the loudest of the whole tournament – Trinh-Duc is one of the half-backs in the world and yet he barely played, with the selectors favouring the biggest flop in international rugby. France really were a joke and they need to ask themselves some serious questions. How on earth did they play so well in the autumn against New Zealand, Australia and South Africa?
On the whole, the 2013 RBS 6 Nations was not one that will be remembered for it’s free-flowing attacking rugby – instead the fans will remember how Wales rose from the ashes to conquer all, how the French made themselves look stupid and how infuriated they got watching scrum after scrum collapsing. Let’s hope that this tournament has not only signalled the rise of the Scots and the Italians as a dominant force but also led to officials to change the rules of what is now the most pointless aspect of rugby union.