From Ireland’s old-school tactics to Scotland’s away form, Paul Williams analyses the final round of the 2018 Six Nations
Ireland’s old-school tactics help win Grand Slam
Ireland have the Grand Slam and well deserved it was too. The performance against England was near faultless and the highlight of the Six Nations. But as modern as the exquisitely coached Irish team plays, it was two moments of old-school brilliance that really stood out.
Johnny Sexton’s ‘bomb’ on the English try-line was a wonderful throwback and questions why we don’t see that tactic used more often? An up-and-under anywhere on the pitch can be effective, especially when you have Conor Murray and Sexton executing, but a bomb on the try-line is when quantum rugby mechanics come into play – anything can happen.
However, as wonderful as Sexton’s kick was, it was Keith Earl’s Seventies-style ankle tap that caused a wave of nostalgia. Modern rugby is so dominated by head-on collisions that we rarely see the ankle-tap – but it’s beauty remains.
It is rugby’s KGB move. Poison jabbed in the back of the leg from an umbrella spike. You can’t see it coming, you barely feel it, but before you know it you’re face down chewing the ground.
Well played Ireland, you’ve been a pleasure to watch.
Italy lose but get three wins
Italy may have racked up another defeat, but they won in so many ways against Scotland in Rome. Firstly, and most importantly, they won back the respect of the rugby public.
The calls for Italy to leave the Six Nations have been louder than ever in 2018 and one can only imagine how many walls were punched at Georgian rugby’s HQ on Saturday afternoon.
The second win for Italy came with their new generation of genuine Test players. Matteo Minozzi continued his impressive form and gave Italy a threat from deep that they have never had before. Not since Buffalo Bill, in Silence of the Lambs, have we witnessed someone so keen on skinning people.
Seeing Sebastian Negri and Jake Polledri pouring through the Scottish defence was a beautiful flashback to Sergio Parisse doing the same thing ten years ago.
That brings up the third and final win for Italian rugby. It has always seemed as though Parisse could never retire, such was the burden on his shoulders, but now that burden has been lifted. Whether it’s a move into lock for the World Cup, less minutes on the field or full retirement, there are now thankfully other players who can carry Italian rugby forward.
Wales will be pleased with second spot
Apparently, second is nothing. After first place, you’re all losers. And that is true, but that would be an over-simplification of the result against France and Wales’ tournament as a whole.
Prior to this championship, few in Wales had any hope for the upcoming World Cup – not hope to win it but to be competitive and play skills-based, contemporary rugby. Many felt that the chance to change coaching staff was missed after the last cycle and that the rather doughy rugby Wales had been playing was here to stay.
That is no longer the case. Whilst Warren Gatland returned to Dan Biggar for the France game and benched one of the players of the tournament in Aaron Shingler, Wales have moved forward.
Hadleigh Parkes, Steff Evans, Josh Navidi, Aaron Shingler and Josh Adams were considered fringe players in November. Now, their attacking skill-sets have received greater appreciation in the Welsh set-up.
There was a time when George North could automatically assume his selection, weeks in advance. That is no longer the case and his performances have improved as a result.
The same can be said of Leigh Halfpenny, where pressure on back-three selections has brought about a resurgence in his play. Wales have won nothing and the praise will be rightly muted, but muted praise is far more desirable than the outcries we have seen over the past 18 months.
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Where have England gone?
This time last season English rugby was licking its lips about the great showdown between England and the All Blacks. Now, it’s wiping away a very sour taste from its mouth.
Fifth in the Six Nations is not where a team with their depth and budget should be. To lose three games in a row isn’t that big a deal really. Losing away, in Scotland and France, isn’t that weird. Statistically speaking, losing any away game isn’t that peculiar even for a team that went on an immaculate winning run, as England did.
However, losing at Twickenham is another matter and losing in the manner they did is a problem. This wasn’t a game so close that either could have won. Ireland dominated for 80 minutes and in most aspects. It leaves England in a predicament.
They have just completed a hugely dominant period in their history and conquered all but the All Blacks. Now, they’re on their worst run for 12 years and the World Cup is just 18 months away.
When Eddie Jones first took over, the creativity in their back-line was noticeable and enviable. It’s almost as if the disappointment of the previous World Cup meant they had little to lose and that lack of pressure promoted creativity, particularly in midfield.
As the pressure and expectation built, so has the reluctance to make mistakes. England have finished this competition with a points difference of just +10 points. They almost need to backwards to go forwards.
French errors were almost amusing
Were the financial consequences of France losing in Cardiff not so serious, you could almost raise a smile at some of the errors. This isn’t to say that France didn’t play well in patches, they did, and the return of Mathieu Bastareaud has been a revelation, but some of the errors were remarkable.
The failure of the French lifting pods to collect a restart was largely understandable given that it bounced before the ten-metre line and then hopped over it. But François Trinh-Duc’s failure to gather Scott Williams’s grubber kick was reminiscent of a Parisian mime artist – his hands were in the air but they didn’t appear to be doing anything recognisable.
However, by far the most unusual mistake came in the sixth minute and was a direct result of playing a centre on the wing – Gaël Fickou threw a dummy to the touchline.
Rugby wisdom recommends using the touchline as an additional defender, but surely you aren’t meant to take it literally and fake-out an inanimate object. It was a Gael Fickoup.
Scotland’s away form is a problem
Everyone loves watching Scotland at the moment. They’re most supporters’ ‘second’ team. An alluring mix of high-tempo offloading forwards and wonderfully chaotic miss-passes in midfield make them the Super Rugby team of northern hemisphere Test rugby.
But there is a big problem facing Scottish rugby as we move towards the World Cup and that is away form.
Scotland’s home-and-away performances are unrecognisable. This is not a major problem in the Six Nations, as you can win your home games and finish mid-table. If you win most of your home games during the autumn Internationals, you can maintain a reasonable World Rugby ranking.
However, there are no home games in the World Cup. Every minute is away from home. Whatever the home conditions are that Scotland currently thrive on, they need to start replicating them away from home in the next 18 months. Whether it is familiarity of hotel/base, travel etc, it needs looking at.
A team that beats England and France shouldn’t require a kick in the last few minutes to beat Italy. They just shouldn’t. Let’s hope it can be resolved, because as they have proved over the past 12 months, they have the squad to trouble anybody at home – even the All Blacks.
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