The Six Nations had bucket-loads of drama but won't frighten the southern giants, writes Liam Napier
The Six Nations changes nothing heading into the World Cup
When euphoria fades and pints ease to normal speed in Cardiff, the realisation will come that this was not a great Six Nations. Great in script, sure. Not so for its enduring quality.
Drama this Six Nations had in spades. From England’s savagely physical upset on opening weekend to Wales’ comeback in Paris and Scotland’s scarcely-believable revival at Twickenham, unpredictability gripped us all. For passion and atmosphere, the Six Nations has no peer.
In the end Wales are worthy champions – their shut-out of Ireland at the heaving Principality Stadium more dominant than anyone expected. But when you sit back and consider Wales finished with the joint lowest number of tries, the least metres made, fewest breaks, fewest carries and the worst lineout stats, it is hardly cause to alarm southern hemisphere nations.
Put it this way, the All Blacks won’t be trembling with fear.
The purpose here is not to rile or incite, merely offer measured perspective. Over the past four years, since the failure of the north to reach the World Cup semi-finals, the Home Nations have turned the cart around.
No repeat, lopsided final four should be expected come November.
England and Ireland have both enjoyed recent periods of dominance. Ireland’s culminated in their unrivalled 2018 season in which they captured the Grand Slam and stunned the All Blacks in Dublin for the first time.
In this World Cup cycle, we’ve seen the rugby landscape shift more frequently than tectonic plates.
England went from conquering mountaineers to cliff divers, Eddie Jones’ ambulance slowly winding its way back as mental demons and leadership concerns blockade the path.
No more are Test rugby’s seismic movements more evident, though, than in where Ireland now sits – some four months on from their seemingly unstoppable former selves.
Who predicted such a regression? Can rocked confidence be regained in the next six months, as ghosts of ’07 loom?
Other than their final match Wales, too, admit they did not perform at their peak in this Six Nations. Against France, England, Scotland they produced one poor half. And in Rome, after making mass changes, they were poor throughout.
Forty average minutes is more than enough to send anyone packing from the World Cup.
That Wales’ crowning championship was largely punctuated by supreme defence, ball retention and, on the whole, attacking conservatism, speaks to the contrasting styles the World Cup could feature.
With Japan, for the most part at least, expected to provide hard and fast tracks, shifts in tactics may be required. Wales can’t expect to hold the best opposition to 13 points per game in Japan.
Elsewhere, France are as shambolic as ever. Italy are stuck in the recurring melancholy of mediocrity.
Scotland, at full-strength, threatens to surprise if the magician that is Finn Russell can gain a decent platform to launch. With one intercept try and two silky assists, his was a second-half masterclass at Twickenham.
Last year proved the All Blacks a far from infallible. Defeats to the Springboks in Wellington and Ireland in Dublin – coupled with great escapes at Twickenham and Loftus – hinted at vulnerability.
From then until now, though, little has changed for them.
The Six Nations more cemented theories than delivered a proclamation of anything radically new. The All Blacks know their most pressing challenge remains finding a way around favoured rush defensive systems that tend to leave the last man unmarked – these troubling them since the 2017 Lions tour.
Strategies to overcome this area will be a continual focus and may not be revealed until Japan. Nailing this aspect will be the World Cup’s central battleground.
The All Blacks know the challenge the northern hemisphere’s huge forwards present in attempting to find ways to disrupt ball placement and force turnovers. Nothing new there, either.
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They also know the threat presented by probing, attacking kicks – the kind England and Wales employed throughout this tournament. That’s exactly why the All Blacks trialled several back three combinations last year.
The point is the Six Nations should be celebrated in isolation.
The World Cup, though, is another beast entirely.
The All Blacks, Springboks, Pumas and, yes, even the Wallabies will come prepared.
On neutral turf, don’t discount the south.