Carling & Cooke’s England – still ‘ahead on points’ over Hartley & Jones’

Much has been written about the current England team and many comparisons have been made with the Class of 2003 – including player for player Top Trumps.

I personally think that journalists have missed a trick and should have, instead, focused their analysis on the 2017 v 1991/92 teams. Two teams who do not have the ‘unfair advantage’, when it comes to comparison, of having won a World Cup, but that have dominated the 5/6 Nations in their time.

Will Carling’s own comments regarding his career as an England player and captain, seem to sum up the lack of conscious thought about the achievements of ‘his’ team. He laughs, self deprecatingly, about how his children refuse to acknowledge he even played for England, never mind captained them on 59 occasions between 1988-1996. I believe that many supporters and pundits alike, do not consciously acknowledge just how good that team was and what it achieved – and I am not just talking about results.

The first thing to say, and I think that Mr Carling would be the first to admit it, is that a huge amount of the credit for that team’s success has to go to Geoff Cooke. When he was appointed as Manager of the England team in 1987 his exposure to elite rugby was limited to say the least. Bradford RFC, Yorkshire and North of England has no comparison whatsoever to Eddie Jones’ CV when he was appointed. What Cooke did with England, however, was hugely impressive and seems to have been glossed over when talk turns to which managers/ head coaches have been successful in the job.

He was, perhaps, the first in the role not to simply do things the same way as they always had been done. He was innovative, he was ruthless, often radical and always rigorous. He was also one of the first to put player welfare above many other considerations. He was definitely not afraid to stand up to the ‘suits’ at the RFU and he demanded a level of authority hitherto unheard of. It was this strength of character, that served him and England so well from 1987-1994, that led to increasing friction between him and the RFU and ultimately his resignation in March of 1994.

His impact on English rugby should not be forgotten or understated. He dragged the team from being perennial under-achievers to one that was respected around the world. A world cup final and back to back Grand Slams in 1991 & 1992 is impressive in anyones book, but it was the decision he made in appointing Will Carling his captain that was, possibly, his bravest and most radical one.

Carling received the phone call from Cooke, fully expecting to be told he was going to be dropped from the team after only 7 caps. Carling was shocked and even had to ask Cooke if he genuinely thought he could do the job. It is important to remember that Carling was only 22 years old and possibly perceived as being too ‘posh’ in a team of gnarly veterans – Probyn, Moore, Richards, Dooley and Winterbottom to name a few – and was not even on the radar as to being a likely candidate for the post.

He tells a wonderful anecdote, in his autobiography, about just how far he was from the forefront of people’s minds.

Having already been appointed by Cooke, but sworn to secrecy, he was stood in the bar after Harlequins had played Richmond, when a discussion began about who would be named captain that evening when the England team convened at the Petersham hotel before playing Australia. The names being bandied around included, amongst others, fellow Quins, Brian Moore and Simon Halliday. Carling, jokingly said “What about me?”. By his own admission, everyone just looked at him and laughed. Someone even said “Piss off. Don’t be so stupid”. Hardly the reaction he was hoping for even if he might have been expecting it!

History shows that it was a gutsy and inspired decision. They both worked tirelessly in their roles to ensure that England were the best that they could be. Between them, they had to instill self belief into a group of players used to losing. Attention to detail became the norm – for example, knowing what made individual players tick and treating them accordingly. Training was not to be sneered at. It all seems so obvious now, but it was almost unheard of then. Effectively, they were the two protagonists in shifting the mentality of players attitudes both on and off the pitch.

Some could say that Jones’ appointment of Hartley was also out of left field and equally as gutsy. It certainly attracted as many column inches as did Carling’s.

To my mind that teams greatest accomplishment, on the pitch, was undoubtably the back to back Grand slams achieved in 1991 & 1992. Something only achieved on five occasions in history – England Three times: 1913 & 1914; 1923 & 1924; 1991 & 1992. Wales Once: 1908 & 1909. France Once: 1997 &1998.

Yesterday, the current crop of players attempted to equal that. Hartley’s team had been on a run of 18 unbeaten matches (Carling’s managed 10 on the trot) had destroyed Scotland the previous weekend and were, pretty much, fielding a full strength 23. Ireland, on the other hand, had experienced a mixed 6 Nations to that point and lost 3 key players to injury in the build up. I am sure that England, as was I, were confident in their ability to emulate the ’91/’92 team.

It wasn’t to be and Ireland were deserving winners in a tight and slightly turgid test match. Once again proving just how hard it is to do.

If you look at the two teams player by player you will possibly come to the same conclusion that I have. The make up of the team and their contrasting styles of play make direct comparison very hard. Yes, you can make cases in a number of positions that either player was/is the better. What Carling’s team had in spades, that Hartley’s is still developing, is ‘dog’ in the forwards.

I know who I would put my money on in a fight!

Leonard, Moore, Probyn, Bayfield/Ackford, Dooley, Teague/Skinner, Winterbottom Richards/Rodber,

V

Marler, Hartley, Cole, Launchbury, Lawes, Itoje, Haskell, Vunipola,

I have little doubt that the future of the current crop of players is going to be spectacular – not that they are doing poorly at the moment.

All of the great teams in world sport have gone through bad times before they have achieved immortality. The current team has endured their fair share of pain in a short period of time – being dumped out of a home World Cup and yesterday are all milestones in creating the inner strength and unshakeable bond that will serve them well in the years to come. They are a good team that can be great, but beating records is hard. Very hard. If this group are to do that there are still big steps to be taken. I believe that history will show that it was a good thing that England lost yesterday, however disappointing it was. New Zealand’s poor performance in the 2007 World Cup did them no harm did it?

Perhaps, following yesterdays result, we will now all appreciate the magnitude of the achievement of Cooke, Carling and that team of heroes.

TEAMS, GRAND SLAM WINNING MATCHES 91 & 92:-

1991 Vs France – Hodgkinson, Heslop, Carling (c), Guscott, R Underwood, Andrew, R Hill, Leonard, Moore, Probyn, Ackford, Dooley, Teague, Winterbottom, Richards

1992 Vs Wales – Webb, Halliday, Carling (c), Guscott, R Underwood, Andrew, Morris, Leonard, Moore, Probyn, Bayfield, Dooley, Skinner, Winterbottom, Richards

 

 

 

LACK OF BASIC SKILLS LED TO ITALY’S CAPITULATION– AGAIN!

italy france logos

I often feel like a broken record when writing about Italy and trying finding a new way to describe second half capitulation after second half capitulation is becoming increasingly difficult.

When I woke up on Saturday morning, I felt that Italy might actually be in with a chance of winning. Were my spidey senses totally out of kilter?

I just felt that, despite the final score, they would have taken a huge amount from their encounter with England a fortnight ago. Add to that the fact that France had endured a pretty dismal record away from home of late and there was more than a glimmer of hope. The final piece of the jigsaw in my prediction, was that Italy have regularly ‘done a number’ on France and I am certain that they felt that it was their chance to record a first victory in this year’s championship.

It all started so well for the Azzuri, with their talismanic captain Parisse taking a great line to be on the end of Canna’s beautiful offload to score. I was even more convinced that it might be their day.

It was only 17 minutes later that Fickou ghosted through the Italian midfield to score a superb individual try. If you take a closer look at Italy’s defensive line leading to this score(see below) you can see how their set up was always going to invite a player of Fickou’s ability to attack it. I am sure his eyes lit up when he received the ball and saw two props side by side in the midfield and the N°8 in no man’s land and not squared up. A quick chase of his feet, a ludicrous dummy and he was through. A single example of the continual ineffectiveness of the defence throughout the match.

fickou try

That having been said, at only 11-19 down at half time Italy were not out of it, or were they?

In their second half performances they have conceded 120 points and only scored 12. They were in effect doomed from the minute they jogged back to the changing rooms – if statistics bear any relation to reality.

second half stats

You can argue all you like that Bronzini was unlucky to have a try disallowed in the 58th minute – a potentially critical moment that might have change the complexity of the game and at the time that Italy usually start falling off the pace. The truth is, however, that they were effectively blown away in the second period.

The only team that the scoreline – 18-40 – flattered was the Azzuri as they scored a try with the last play of the match to add to their first half total.

O’Shea felt that they played well in the first half, but was quick to add that their defence was stressed later in the game and that the scrum was always under pressure. Fair assessment, but for him then to say that “I saw a group of players playing with a lot of heart” sums it all up to me. 1st tier rugby, or any level of professional or semi professional rugby for that matter, is not about ‘heart’ (although you do need to have it). It is all about execution of the basic skills under pressure and at pace, understanding the systems you are playing within and having the ability to understand and nullify whatever the opposition are doing.

This Italian team failed to do just that for large periods of the game. Their defence was torn apart in the midfield and wider channels by Fickou, Vakatawa and Nakataci in particular, the passing was lacking in accuracy, their kick off strategy was poor and I was somewhat at a loss to see what the game plan was.

The starkest of statistics for the game was their tacking effectiveness. If any team, at any level, has a tackle success rate of a mere 51% then they do not deserve to be on the winning side. For an international team, it is simply unacceptable. Venter must be wondering what he can do to improve this aspect of the team, or even if he can.

This was the 11th consecutive loss in the 6 Nations for Italy and the calls for a review of relegation and promotion is not going to go away anytime soon if they continue to play like this. Constant capitulation to make even the most ardent of supporters question their loyalty will only make others, more convinced that something needs to change.

“The road is long but I see some potential. It’s only the beginning, but we have to keep at it” says O’Shea. Hardly a ringing endorsement of where he sees his team at the moment. If he is saying this publically, what on earth must he be thinking in private?

The road ahead is most definitely a long one.

 

‘Anti-Rucking’ needs to be properly refereed if it is to be used as a tactic.

I wrote, yesterday, that I applauded the innovation shown by Italy against England when they used the tackle/ruck laws to their benefit in devising a strategy to put E J’s men on the back foot. It did just that until the 33rd minute, when Nathan Hughes finally twigged and started attacking Italy directly behind the non existent ‘ruck’.

What does concern me, going forward, is how this tactic is refereed.

I have watched the match a couple of times (without the commentary but with the referees mic open) since seeing it live and there are countless problems with how Poite refereed the breakdown.

Firstly, I have to applaud him for the way in which he dealt with the England team’s constant questioning. It is absolutely not his job to let them know how to deal with the situation. However, when he had the various discussions with the bemused Englishmen, he could clearly be heard saying that he would state when it was a ruck and that if he did not then the assumption should be that it was a tackle only. He also said that he did not want players being dragged into the contact area in order to try and create a ruck. Clear enough then.

Given these two comments, I find it disappointing that there were numerous occasions that he didn’t do that and that on more than one occasion he allowed the Italian team to transgress the offside line without penalising them – although he did do on one occasion.

Below I highlight one such occasion where, not only was it clearly a ruck, but the fact that the Italy was clearly offside (and left to carry on) led to an interception of the scrum half’s pass that could have led to a threatening attack by the Azzuri. It took play from the Italian 22m line with England in possession and threatening on the blind side, to Mike Brown recovering a kick just in front of his own 5m line!  This incident happened in about the 34th minute of the game.

bad-ref0

Above you can see that this is clearly a ruck with two England players in the contact area and, crucially, two Italians.

bad-ref1

Above, A further Italian player now attempts to jackle the ball becoming a de facto member of the breakdown.

bad-ref01

Above Danny Care has just put his hands on the ball and you can see an Italian player clearly in an offside position. It is not even remotely marginal.

bad-ref3

Above, Care now has the ball in his hand. The Italian player has made no attempt to retreat – nor has been told to!

bad-ref4

Above, The Italian player is now blocking the pass. The pass is made, the ball is intercepted (admittedly not by the offside player) and play goes on. The pass that was made would never have been made if the Italian player had not been offside and blocking the ‘probable’ pass.

This is possibly the most extreme example of how poorly the contact area was refereed and Poite (who was spoken to about this tactic by O’Shea on Friday) should have been absolutely clear about how to referee the breakdown and done so effectively every time. We, rightly so, expect a lot from the referees at this level and I feel that, on this occasion, Mr Poite did not perform to the standard required.

As an aside, I would be interested to hear if anyone knows what would have happened if England had not played the ball at the contact area. Could we have been sat watching seconds tick by with no action at all? I guess the only way to force play would be for an Italian to enter the ‘non’ ruck to create a ruck. Only at that stage could the referee shout “use it”!

England Vs Italy 26 Feb 2017

conor-oshea
I think that Italy’s coaching team need a huge pat on the back. For a full 40 minutes of the game England had absolutely no idea how to combat the simple, yet massively effective, use of the tackle/ruck laws. The only other time that I have seen this used is on the 7’s circuit where it is fairly common.
The interesting fact is that not one of the England players were confident enough in their knowledge of the laws to be able to get the team together and give them the solution – which, let’s face it was fairly simple.
In addition Italy scored two tries, one an absolute gem to stay in the game until the 65th minute.
The shame was that the Azzuri did not have a plan B and even once England had sorted the rucks out they continued to leave the contact area well alone. England, as a consequence, just tucked the ball under their jumper and trucked it up the middle.
Ultimately England, as has been the way of late, found a way. This match though, should never have been a case of ‘finding a way’. There is still a gulf in quality players from 1-23 between the two countries.
I wrote an article last week coming out in favour of relegation from the 6 Nations. Italy seem to have been the focus of this thinking and have been vociferous in stating that it should not happen. Surely Italy should now relish the prospect as there should be no way that they (or any of the other 5 teams) should lose a potential play-off match against a Georgia or any other second tier team.
Quote of the day goes to Mr Poite “I am the referee, not a coach” – Priceless

T-CUP ALIVE AND WELL 15 YEARS AFTER IT WAS FIRST MOOTED! HAVE TWO DECISIONS EFFECTIVELY RULED ALUN-WYN JONES OUT OF BEING THE BRITISH AND IRISH LIONS CAPTAIN?

alun-wyn-jones

A brief article, but one that could highlight a potentially huge swing in momentum in the ‘battle’ for the Lions leadership this summer.

I have to confess that I am a huge Alun-Wyn Jones fan. First and foremost, he is a class player and passionate with it. I also happen to know just how much playing for the British & Irish Lions means to him.

A brief, and somewhat scary, chat with him at the team hotel after the final Test in Johannesburg in 2009 showed me just how much it meant to him.

To paraphrase his comments …. ‘It’s one thing to play for Wales, but this is something else, something very special’.

There were a few expletives in what he said and it was, admittedly, after a few celebratory sherbets, but the passion was overwhelming. His eyes were boring into me and he was gesticulating like an Italian in a traffic jam- the message was clear. They had lost the series 2-1 and here was a man who could not speak highly enough of the experience and the honour he felt. One step above playing for the National team – and we have all seen what that means to him.

He went on in 2013 to play a leading role in the series win and took over the captaincy from Warburton for the final test. I know that it would, in all likelihood, have gone to O’Connell had he been fit, but he was a clear leader in this group and did the job as if to the manor born.

The odds on him being installed as the leader of the 2017 tour were further enhanced when he was made Captain of Wales to ‘allow’ Warburton to concentrate of playing rather than bearing the additional burden of captaincy. If you then add the other contenders to the melting pot (Hartley, Best , Warburton and the longshot Farrell) and he surely must be in the pound seat?

At least he was for me!

Not so much now though.

You cannot put the blame of defeat against England and Scotland completely at his feet any more than you can accuse Davies, Cuthbert or Biggar of being the prime architects of these two losses. You can, however, point to a couple of critical moments when Alun-Wyn Jones’ decision making and mental strength must be called into doubt.

Could these decisions have changed the balance of the two games and, consequently, the results? Who knows. But they would have put Wales in a different position as far as points on the board were concerned and would have ensured that the scoreboard ‘kept ticking over’ – so critical at this level where small, sometimes miniscule, margins can be the difference between victory and defeat.

Against England, if he had asked Halfpenny to step up and take a pot at goal from almost in front of the posts, instead of taking the scrum, the scores would have opened up further and, psychologically at least, England’s task to come back would have become that little bit harder. Against Scotland, the decision-making process was probably even more muddled. It looked from afar, as if he had crumbled under the force of Biggar’s case to take the kick to touch and have a lineout on Scotland’s 5m line. If he had asked Halfpenny to go for goal, and he had got it, the scores would have been level with 30 minutes left on the clock. Instead, the lineout backfired gifting a penalty to Scotland and, far more importantly giving them a huge mental lift – both to the players on the pitch and to the supporters in the stands! This, to me, was where the momentum shifted, permanently, to Vern Cotter’s men.

Opportunities to win the Series in New Zealand will not come very often and the Lions will need to ‘Think Correctly Under Pressure’ for every minute of every game in order to maximise their chances of winning. They will need to take advantage of every point on offer and make the right decisions at the right time – EVERY time.

Unfortunately, Alun-Wyn Jones has not shown the crystal clear thought process required on a couple of critical occasions. It could cost him the captains ‘armband’ and with it an opportunity to reach the very top of the highest mountain and rugby immortality.

SHOULD GEORGIA BE ALLOWED INTO THE RBS 6 NATIONS? JOHN FEEHAN IS BEING NARROW MINDED AND DAMNED BY HIS OWN ARGUMENT!

 

parisse

The argument for Georgia to be given the opportunity to join the 6 Nations Rugby Tournament has been gathering apace for a while now and Sir Clive Woodward’s article in the Daily Mail last week has taken it beyond journalistic fervor and given notice that even someone who has graced the tournament both as a player and a coach has called ‘time’ on the tournament in the format it now takes.

The fact that John Feehan, Chief Executive of the 6 Nations Tournament, has come out and stated categorically that “There is no vacancy. Right now we are perfectly happy that we have the six strongest teams in Europe in our competition” seems to have put an end to the discussion.

But has it or should it?

I have been close to Italian rugby since moving to Italy in 2003 and, in that time, I have experienced the highs – most recently beating, an admittedly very poor, South Africa – and the lows, – most recently being on the wrong end of a drubbing by Ireland in Rome. I have fallen in and out of love with the national team and their coaches and have been delighted, surprised, mystified and massively disappointed with them in equal measure. I am not approaching this from an ‘external’, or negative perspective.

The single most frustrating aspect to the national team (if you exclude the shocking political backdrop that doesn’t help at all) is that, in real terms, Italy has NOT improved since they joined the 6 Nations tournament. Out of the 16 tournaments they have participated in, they have finished last on 11 occasions and have never been higher than 4th – something they achieved in 2007 and 2013 – and have an 85% losing record, having only won 12 out of 85 matches played in that time.

However passionate a supporter you are of Italy and however you try to ‘spin’ the facts, it is simply does not make for positive reading. The threat of relegation might just bring the best out of Italy, and all other teams, in the same way that Italy’s potential inclusion into the 5 Nations did in the years leading up to them becoming fully fledged members.

If we then bring World Rankings into the equation and the case for keeping the 6 Nations a ‘closed shop’ becomes even less watertight. As I write, Italy sit in 14th position (and have never been higher than 8th) and are the 7th ranked team in Europe behind the other 6 Nations teams and Georgia. They are also over 8 points, on the ranking system, behind the next lowest ranked member of the 6 Nations, Scotland, who sit in 8th position in the rankings. For those unfamiliar with ranking points, 8 points is a significant gap on the scale.

Just to briefly take a step back in time, Italy were knocking on the, then 5 Nations, door for some time before being granted entry in 2000. They were allowed in, primarily, as they had been for a while, seen as the next best team in Europe and had ‘earned the right’ for inclusion through their performances in the European Championship (the second tier competition in Europe). Logical and well-earned then?

Well lets just look at this in greater detail.

Italy competed at this level from 1936-1938 and then from 1952 until their inclusion in the 6 Nations in 2000. So, 40 years of exposure. They won the tournament only once, came second 9 times and came third on 8 occasions. Hardly dominant.

Georgia, by comparison, have won the same tournament (albeit under a different name) 9 times since 2000 and have never finished worse than 2nd  in that time!

The argument, at a purely rugby level, for reviewing the composition of the 6 Nations is compelling. There also appear to be no financial reasons that Georgia can not pay its ‘membership fees’ (being backed by a billionaire) and the level of support for them is strong; they regularly get over 50,000 fans in to watch key matches. There appear to be no logical reasons as to why they should not be considered.

The traditionalists will all say that the 6 Nations, as it is, is the best rugby tournament in the world and that it is steeped in history. These two facts alone should be enough to prevent any need to even contemplate changing it, surely?.

Yes it is, without doubt, the best tournament and I am acutely aware of the history. It has been a huge part of my life for as long as I can remember. However in life, in business and in sport, change is a requirement. Anything that stays as it is for too long is prone to wither and die.

It wasn’t all that long ago that the RFU said that the idea of having a Rugby World Cup was a preposterous (my word not theirs) idea. Where would we be without it now? The idea that Argentina could join the Tri Nations was also seen as a flight of fancy – what a huge impact they have made to the tournament and look at how their rugby has improved as a direct result. The list of how innovation and change has improved the game of rugby and helped develop the game in a number of countries all over the world is far too long to mention here though. Suffice to say that change is not a bad thing.

I know that it is not in the remit of the 6 Nations to develop rugby – that falls firmly at the feet of World Rugby. But surely they shouldn’t be so insular that they do not believe that they could and should be a force for good in European rugby at the very least.

The final nail in Mr Feehan’s coffin are his very own words. He has recently stated the following; “Are we closed to every scenario? No, but it takes a while to see a convincing argument — 10 or 15 years.”

I agree 100%.

Italy have been in the 6 Nations for 16 years – so far more time than he has asked for. Have they made a positive impact in that time? It depends on how you measure it.Weekends in Rome to watch the rugby are, rightly so, hugely popular and the thought of swapping it for Tiblisi might not have the same appeal – although it does look a beautiful city. Success on the pitch is less persuasive an argument. There is a stack of evidence to suggest that their membership should, at the very least be questioned if there is a viable option.

I am not an advocate of automatic relegation and promotion and nor do I want Italy to lose their place at the top table of European rugby. I do, however, think that the bottom team at the end of the 6 Nations tournament should have a play off against the winners of the Tier 2 European tournament. I also think that it should be, in order to minimise the impact on an already congested calendar, a one-off match at a neutral venue (one of the other five, non relegation threatened, 6 Nations venues) two weeks after the end of the respective tournaments.

To those who will raise their hands and say ‘wouldn’t it be a potential disaster if a team, other than Italy, should find themselves finishing last’ I simply say this. Georgia have never won a match against any of the current 6 Nations teams.

Surely none of them should be overly concerned that they could lose. If they are concerned then maybe, just maybe, they have already lost the right to remain part of this exclusive club!

John Feehan quotes taken from Chris Foy’s article in The Daily Mail.

FINAL DAY SERVES UP 193 POINTS AS ENGLAND WIN GRAND SLAM

grand slam

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.

Congratulations England.

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.

SUMMARY

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.