GRAND SLAM CHAMPIONS – NOW THE WORLD?
A lot has already been written and said in the 10 hours or so since England completed their first Grand Slam since the halcyon days of Sir Clive Woodward’s team. A lot has been fulsome in its praise and some of it has been unbelievably negative (take a bow Oliver Holt in particular writing for The Mail On Sunday, who must not have a positive bone in his body given the scorn he poured on this England team). The truth, as it so often is, must fall somewhere in the middle.
England did what they set out to do – be the strongest team in Europe. You can not do any more than that. They scored more points than all bar Wales – helped by the hatful they scored against Italy; more on that later – and conceded fewer points than any other team. They won 5 out of 5 and grew in stature and tactical nous as the tournament went on.
Against Wales they got the jitters and only just managed to close the game out. Yesterday, against a more determined France than we have seen all tournament, they were significantly calmer under pressure and ultimately were comfortable winners. They learnt a lesson against Wales and one thing that this England team have shown, is that they do not tend to make the same mistakes twice. Even Eddie Jones, hailed as the Second Coming in some quarters, did not make the same mistake as he made against Wales. There was no rush to empty the bench and he kept faith in the majority of his starting XV. Last week England lost their shape and failed to keep the pressure on Wales due to the changes made. This week the substitutions seemed far more calculated and the changes he did make, Youngs for Care in particular – not that Care had a poor game just that Youngs exerted greater control, helped the cause rather than hindered it.
So are this England team ready to go on and take on the world? Will New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and even Argentina be quaking in their boots and re thinking their strategic outlook based on what they will have seen?
The short answer is no. Not yet anyway and I am sure that England will be thinking exactly the same. Australia in the summer will be a significant step up and we will have a clearer idea come August.
There is no doubt that there is huge potential in this team. I thought that under Lancaster, Rowntree, Farrell and Catt and I am even more convinced under Jones, Borthwick and Gustard. I am equally convinced that there are still a few key combinations that will come under scrutiny in the next 12 months. The match day 23 we saw yesterday will, I am sure, show 3 or 4 changes (presupposing everyone stays fit) before Jones is totally happy. The midfield and back row will be the two key areas he will give the greatest thought to.
In the meantime, let’s enjoy the fact that a broken, battered and bruised England from six months ago, have picked themselves up, dusted themselves down and won a Grand Slam. Not easy – even against opposition that were, perhaps, not at their best throughout the tournament. The fact that the ‘Slam’ has only been done 38 times in history bears testament to just how tough it is.
WALES DESTROY WOEFUL ITALY
Where to begin?
Sergio Parisse (amongst many others) was very pointed in his dismissal of the potential of relegation featuring in the Six Nations Tournament in the near future. He justified it by saying that Italy deserved to be at the top table, that Scotland were also perennial wooden spoon winners and that we would not be discussing it if anyone other than Italy were at the foot of the table this year.
The facts though are a little stark and do not help Parisse’s cause.
Italy have ‘won’ the wooden spoon 11 times since making the 5 Nations 6 (Scotland have been bottom of the table 4 times in the same period), they are currently ranked lower than Georgia in the World rankings (14th and 12th respectively) and there has never been a worse ‘points against’ colum (-224) in the history of the 6 Nations tournament.
Surely Georgia deserve the opportunity of being part of the 6 Nations. I would not advocate direct relegation / promotion, but a last place/ first place play off at the end of the tournament. I am well aware of the arguement that the players already play too much rugby, but, conversely, there has to be a vehicle to ensure that teams such as Georgia play top-tier rugby more often. We have seen the huge benefit to Argentina and how much have we, the rugby loving public, enjoyed their rise? It is good for rugby!
The game yesterday only served to highlight the gulf in class between Wales and Italy. It reminded me of some of the, few, remaining mismatches that we see in the Rugby World Cup.
It simply should not be the case in the 6 Nations. In three consecutive matches Italy have conceded 40+ (England), 50+ (Ireland) and 60+ (Wales). We are not talking about one bad day at the office, more a slide into insolvency. It wasn’t as if Wales were flawless either. I am sure after they review the match they will see that they left a few tries ‘out on the park’. It could have been much worse.
I wish O’Shea – if, as is widely reported, he is shortly to be unveiled as the new Head Coach of Italy – the very best of luck. It’s a tough gig!
IRELAND V SCOTLAND
A clash of two teams playing for pride and, for the administrators, a big wad of cash for coming in 3rd rather than 4th place. I am sure that the money will have been far from the players minds though as both teams set about playing some exciting, flowing rugby.
Ireland carried on where they left off against Italy and were imaginative, and bold. Scotland too played a full part in the game that produced 7 tries. Hogg’s for Scotland was a sublime individual effort and CJ Stander proved that he was born to play international rugby.
Ultimately Ireland got a stranglehold on the game and were value for their 10 point win. Scotland struggled at the breakdown and this enabled Ireland to dictate the tempo of the game. Scotland will be frustrated with their lack of accuracy at times – something that is stopping them being the genuine threat that I believe they can be. Small margins at this level can make huge differences. Ireland will be disappointed that they started the tournament so sluggishly and were unable to have a better crack at an unprecedented 3 consecutive Championship titles.
England. A great start under new management, but they are a long way from the finished article. Justified winners though.
Wales. Still struggling to find a genuine style of play that will get them around stronger defences. When the shackles are off they are sublime, but it doesn’t happen often enough.
Ireland. Showed some real attacking flair – best try of the tournament scored by Heaslip against Italy – but consistency was lacking.
Scotland. Their most exciting team I have seen for a very, very long time. Greater accuracy in the opposition 22 and they will become a genuine threat.
France. Noves is clearly trying to get them back to the traditional flair teams of yesteryear. They are still a long way off, but occasional glimpses must give them hope.
Italy. Lack of direction, lack of depth and lack of skill seriously exposed this team. One can only hope that the Academy system will bear fruit. it needs to be NOW though. 16 years in the 6 Nations and no real progress is not good enough.