Six days ago saw the last match of the six nations 2012, with England pushing Ireland off the park to record their fourth win – securing second place behind a fantastic Wales team celebrating a historic third grandslam in 8 years. But what has this years Six Nations told us?
Scotland came into this years Six Nations full of hope, with a number of new players, led by the powerful No8 David Denton, looking to stamp their mark and hopefully rise up the table. They end it with the wooden spoon, the retirement of Dan Parks, another long term injury for Rory Lamont and coach Andy Robinson’s job on the line. After a series of incoherent performances that just got worse and worse, culminating in a terrible performance against a fired up but sloppy Italian team, the fans must be wondering where they go from here.
There were a couple of positives in this years Six Nations. Ross Ford was good for four games, until he folded under the pressure of captaincy against Italy. Richie Gray was a gallivanting presence in the loose, but his tight game didn’t really show up, while Ross Rennie was fantastic at the breakdown, but seemed to have hands smeared with grease at times. Outside the pack there wasn’t much going on. Young Hogg at fullback got some opportunities, but the rest of the backs didn’t really see enough ball after the forwards had dropped it. All in all, it seems that change is necessary for the Scots, as they’ve slipped to 12th place in the IRB rankings, at danger of dropping into the 4th tier of seeds.
Ireland’s Six Nations was a series of close shaves. They ran Wales close before the champions pulled away to win at the death – shades of four years ago – while they were pegged back for a draw against France after being well ahead. This Ireland team seems to suffer from a lack of depth. In the scrum, they struggled with the losses of Paul O’Connell and Leo Cullen, although Donnacha Ryan did step up well, while their lack of balance in a backrow recently lauded as world class was ruthlessly exposed by all. Sean O’Brien, in particular, had a rough ride. In the backs, Geordan D’Arcy was a shadow of his former self without long term centre partner Brian O’Driscoll beside him.
Ireland don’t seem to have the players to replace underperformers, though, or if so, Declan Kidney does not trust them. When Tom Court came on for Mike Ross against England, Ireland’s scrum was shunted backwards, sideways and upwards for the rest of the game, while the sub in the centres was to bring on a second fly half in the experienced Ronan O’Gara, moving Sexton out one. This Ireland team is the most settled, but there is no competition for the places so the players are not going anywhere. Kidney needs to trust in youth a bit more.
England’s Six Nations went better than a lot of fans could have thought. After the debacle of the World Cup, Stuart Lancaster was handed the chance to coach England on a caretaker basis, and he did his chances of landing the role permanently a world of good. England started slowly, though, with hard fought, sloppy wins over Scotland and Italy followed by a heart breaking loss at home to Wales, after David Strettle’s last minute try was disallowed by the TMO. But they finished it on a high with a win in Paris and a smashing victory over Ireland at Twickenham. Lancaster made a host of changes to the last England team, bringing in Geoff Parling, Phil Dowson, Ben Morgan, Lee Dickson, Owen Farrell and Brad Barritt for their test debut’s, and recalling Alex Corbisiero, Mouritz Botha, Chris Robshaw, Charlie Hodgson, Jordan Turner-Hall, David Strettle and Mike Brown. The changes were most notable for Chris Robshaw’s promotion to captaincy after just one cap, and Owen Farrell’s assured performances, firstly at 12, and then at Fly-half.
What Lancaster displayed throughout the Six Nations was an ability to learn. Every game saw an improvement in the performance of the team, and the adding of something to the game. England started out with no attacking threat – the tries against Scotland and Italy coming from Charlie Hodgson chargedowns – but they built a platform in the latter games, managing to score five times in the last 2 games. The introduction of Manu Tuilagi for the Wales game changed the complexion of England’s attack, while Ben Morgan got better and better as his fitness improved. Most of all, the players seemed to be playing for each other and the coach – there was a real sense of leadership that had been missing under Martin Johnson. In terms of playing staff, the positives must be both props, Parling, Croft, Robshaw and Farrell – who showed nerves of steel and great application if not the best vision.
Wales completed their historic third Six Nations grandslam in fine form, scoring 10 times in a series of big hitting matches. In particular, the brilliance of Leigh Halfpenny shone through from fullback. The diminutive kicker was the top points scorer, with a number of successful kicks and a pair of tries in Wales’ three try win over Scotland – as well as one more against Italy. Along with him, a number of players really stepped up, not least Jonathan Davies at outside centre. And the impressive thing about this Welsh team is that they did it with a number of players injured. Captain Sam Warburton hardly played, Matt Rees missed the first three games, along with Luke Charteris, while Alun Wyn Jones also started late and Bradley Davies was banned for his illegal tackle in the Ireland match. Yet their Grandslam was never really in threat.
Wales are deserved winners, and at this rate it looks like the 2013 Lions team will be the Welsh team with a couple of additions. All in all it was an excellent Six Nations, one of the most enjoyable for years (well, as long as you’re not Scottish), and we now return to club rugby with hope for a great set of Autumn internationals to come.