Paul Williams is back with his monthly review of the game's big happenings
England‘s inspiring Six Nations triumph
Whilst all the other teams in the Six Nations promised hope and progression, some achieving that, some not, it was England who delivered what mattered – the title.
It could be argued that this England win is one of the greatest in the tournament’s history, as for the first time, there were six opposing teams for England in this year’s competition – that additional team being Covid-19.
Of course, all the teams had to deal with the pandemic, but none of the others had their first match after the break cancelled. To go cold into a must-win away match seems to have been overlooked by many.
Their win in Italy has been labelled by some as uninspiring, but nothing is more inspiring than winning. In the end, England’s win in Italy was composed. A bonus-point victory against an Italian team that had radically improved their breakdown in one week should not be underestimated – many have failed to do that in the past.
Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of the win was Ben Youngs’s performance. Two tries on his 100th cap was the ultimate way to silence the din on social media. His second try – beating four defenders with a dummy and 20-metre dash – will have been particularly pleasing.
France are genuinely, really, finally back
Over the past ten years, this column has stated that French Test rugby is back on an almost yearly basis. Only for it to perform a Boris Johnson-like U-turn. But, and it is official, French Test rugby really is back now. Never in the past decade has the France team performed at such a consistently creative level and it is fantastic for the game.
If you’re under the age of 30, you may wonder what all of the fuss is about when it comes to French rugby. But in the 1980s and early 1990s they were creative rugby. The All Blacks have always been the performance benchmark, but the French were the artistic barometer.
To see Romain Ntamack and Antoine Dupont play as they do creates genuine happiness. But this French team are about more than a once-in-a-generation half-back combo; they have the spine and depth to mount a legitimate World Cup challenge.
The real gem is arguably Arthur Vincent in the centre. His ability to soak up any problems in midfield, with and without the ball, is the real glue in that back-line and something that all the best teams have access to.
For France to have won the title would have taken something that even 2020 would have regarded as a weird outlier, but the manner in which they beat Ireland would have impressed French supporters. Very solid set-piece, control of the breakdown and an impressive 12 line breaks meant France were exerting pressure at all times, in all areas of the field.
France are back and this time it’s real.
The All Blacks bit
The All Blacks are better than your team. A lot better. Especially Richie Mo’unga. Nothing more to add.
Pocock, the NFL rugby player
October saw David Pocock announce his retirement and cement his position as arguably the greatest ‘fetcher’ of the ball that the game has ever seen. There are breeds of dog that have been genetically cross-bred for thousands of years that can’t fetch stuff from the ground as well as Pocock.
Sam Warburton, half-man, half-mollusc himself, said he was the strongest player that he’s ever encountered over the ball. And when you think of the players with whom Warburton’s career crossed that paints a very clear picture of Pocock’s ability.
Some may see it as a slight to suggest that Pocock was primarily a ‘fetcher’; he did after all play six, seven and eight for the Wallabies – a feat that only the very best back-row forwards ever achieve. It’s just that Pocock’s ability over the ball was so profound that it was akin to an NFL player in its specialism and its brilliance.
Pocock made a massive impact on the pitch and will continue to do the same off the pitch. He is simply one of the greatest role models that the sport has ever had, plus he contains less fat than a yoghurt.
All eyes on a Wales second-row
Scotland’s victory over Wales was very well deserved. Their pack dominated the ground, built and defended stacks of phases, and condemned Wales to their fifth loss in a row.
However, it’s hard to ignore that the pre-match build-up, for many in Wales, was all about one Welsh second-row – Will Rowlands.
Mainstream media obviously focused on Alun Wyn Jones’s stunning achievement in becoming the most-capped player in the history of the sport. But for the real Welsh rugby geeks, it was the other lock who got most attention.
Rowlands is a rarity for Welsh rugby: he’s big. Not just ‘civilian walking down the street’ big, he’s rugby big. At 6ft 8in tall and pushing 20st, he has the type of size that countries with small playing populations just don’t produce. Every country can produce a stack of players who are 6ft 6in and 18st, but it’s only really England and South Africa who can consistently produce the Lord of the Rings players.
Despite the loss, Rowland’s performance was promising, and he delivered a level of heavy carrying that Wales historically haven’t had access to. With one Welsh lock coming towards the end of one of the finest careers that the global game has ever seen, it is in Rowlands that many Welsh hopes lie.
Caleb Clarke – the debut of debuts
There have been plenty of outstanding Test debuts during October. Ireland’s Hugo Keenan and Will Connors both stood out against Italy, but even amongst these promising debuts Caleb Clarke’s stood out.
We regularly see young players emerge at club level and instantly dominate. That is not the case at Test level, where looseheads are the speed of club-level flankers, flankers move like centres and wings cover the ground like something from a nature documentary.
Yet Clarke made Test players look like kids. He is a legit triple-threat wing and even if you don’t fall for one of his feints, you’re ending up on YouTube, at best on the floor, at worst in tears.
He beat 14 defenders in his debut, yup 14 – the last time we saw that many men badly beaten was in Goodfellas. The All Blacks have a reputation for military-grade wingers and Clarke sits amongst the best of them on debut.
English Premiership worked out in the end
Working in professional sports administration over the past six months has been tricky to say the least. Donald Trump’s social media advisor has probably slept more soundly since March than those running rugby.
The situation seemed particularly acute in the Gallagher Premiership, where every decision made was scrutinised to a level that was only possible because there were millions of rugby fans locked in their houses with nothing to do. But at the end of it all, the plan came together.
That Exeter were able to win the title is all that really matters. They were the best team in England by some distance and added creativity in the backs to what was already a forward platform that could be called up alongside the Territorial Army should there be an invasion.
That so few of their players are in the England squad remains a mystery, but thankfully the question over who is the best team in England has been answered.
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