The Six Nations Championships, possibly the oldest international sports tournament in the world, reminded us why it has remained also one of the most popular competitions in the world. With the championship coming to a close for 2019, we look at what the Six Nations results could mean for the Rugby World Cup in Japan this year.
While the standards have often varied and detractors say thesouthern hemisphere championships are of a higher standard, over the past 2-3 years, that may no longer hold true.
As it is, the world’s second, third and fourth-ranked nations are now playing in the Six Nations, and on their day look capable of beating the world number one, New Zealand.
This year, the tournament also gave us unfolding drama from day one, with no one quite sure who would win the whole thing until the penultimate game, when Wales dethroned Ireland while winning a Grand Slam to boot.
And yet, the dramatics did not end there, with England and Scotland — with nothing much to play for — playing out a game that will be talked about for years to come, giving the tournament a spectacular ending.
The main thing in the aftermath is to figure out what it means for the Rugby World Cup later this year. We take a stab at it here:
Ireland look vulnerable – or do they?
In a reply on Quora not too long ago (How well do you think Japan might do in the Rugby World Cup in Japan this year?), I argued that Japan would beat Scotland to qualify second from Pool A, behind Ireland.
The assumption was that the Irish would sail serenely through the group, taking their form of the past year or two with them.
But based on their respective forms of the irish and the Scots over the past two months, maybe a reassessment is in order.
Ireland never really hit form in the Six Nations, and their key men – flyhalf Johnny Sexton, scrum-half Conor Murray, No 8 CJ Stander, tighthead prop Tadhg Furlong – were all off pale shadows of the men they were just a few months previously.
This was either a conscious effort by coach Joe Schmidt to train his team hard now so that they peak in September/October only, or the team have hit a collective peak a year too early and it’s downhill only from here.
The Irish kick off their World Cup against Scotland, and the way they finished the tournament, you’d have to say that Scotland will be going in with more optimism. The Scots, it must be remembered, were the team worst hit by injury but still managed a couple of respectable showings.
After that, the Irish take on hosts Japan, who would have warmed up against Russia in the tournament opener and would have had two extra days of rest. After what the Brave Blossoms did to South Africa in 2015, what are the odds of their doing the same to the similarly vaunted Irish, and on home soil?
The Irish then play Russia with only four days’ rest, before finishing off against Samoa, a team they should beat but who have beaten them before.
So while the Irish will still be seen as one of the tournament favourites, everything hinges on their making a good start, as they face the two teams most likely to be best placed to qualify from the pool along with the Irish — or maybe instead of them.
Wales can win the World Cup
This is the no-brainer statement of the moment, more so now that they have won a record fourth Six Nations Grand Slam and are on a roll on the back of a 14-match unbeaten streak.
Significantly, only one team have ever won a Grand Slam in the same year as a Rugby World Cup: England in 2003 — and we saw how that turned out.
In truth, the Welsh were always capable of winning the World Cup from the moment Warren Gatland took over in 2007. They looked in good nick in 2011 but lost to France in the semifinal because captain Sam Warburton was sent off early and they valiantly fell just short with 14 men.
They also had a good side in 2015, but frustratingly lost to both Australia (at the pool stage) and South Africa (in the quarterfinal) when the games were there for the taking.
One weakness Gatland felt the team had over the two campaigns was their lack of depth. The loss of a front-line player often meant a serious diminution of the team’s firepower.
But over the past four years he has built that strength in depth, with the fruits coming forth now. The Grand Slam they just won was done without Leigh Halfpenny, Rhys Webb Toby Faletau, Dan Lydiate and Ellis Jenkins, plus most crucially Warburton, who had to retire from the sport because of injury.
Wales are in a tough pool at the World Cup, with Australia the obvious rival but with Fiji and even Georgia very dangerous rivals.
But if they can win the group, whcih they can surely do, the runner-up in Pool C awaits: that means England, or more likely Argentina or France. Get through that and they are likely to face Ireland, Scotland or South Africa — teams they have beaten convincingly in the past six months.
It’s all in Wales’ hands.
England are strong but also frail
England vs Scotland was one of the craziest rugby matches that have ever been played. It wasn’t just crazy; it was also exciting and of a high quality. If you haven’t watched it, it’s defnitely worth viewing the highlights here:
But the match showed two things: That England are very good when everything is right, and they tend to start phenomenally well.
But it also showed that they are incredibly frail mentally: This was the fourth time in a year that they have built up a healthy lead but then let the match slip.
Significantly in all four matches England were captained by the same man: flyhalf Owen Farrell. Coincidence? Probably not.
What’s the solution? One suggestion is to hire a psychologist, as Jones has already said he will do.
Someone like New Zealand’s Gilbert Enoki would be ideal. Enoki was the man instrumental in turning the All Blacks from chokers into winners after the 2007 World Cup. He will probably not want to do the same for England but he is the benchmark or model that England must seek.
A better idea might be to change the captain, even at this late stage. Farrell may be a natural leader to those in the camp but he has never struck me as the captaincy type.
He leads by example in the way he directs play and puts his body on the line, and he may be vocal with referees, but these are not the same thing as keeping your team on the right track, cajoling them to greater efforts, or changing tack when a change in tactics or direction is required.
Hooker Dylan Hartley, the man who has led them the past few years but who has been downgraded recently to co-captain with Farrell, is no longer a first-choice player and tends to be injured a lot these days anyway. One option would be to have him on the bench and come on with 20 minutes to go when experienced heads are needed.
But what about a new person altogether? If this is the direction, then Maro Itoje would be the obvious albeit radical choice.
Itoje, after all, has already captained before, albeit the England Under-20 team but he did lead them to a World Cup win in 2014, so this would not be a new caper to him.
Sure, he would be captaining players older than him but it is obvious to anyone watching him over the past two years for both England and the British and Irish Lions that this is something not beyond him.This guy is not short of confidence and, to my eyes, is the only England player who would make a World XV over the next 10 years.
Giving him the captaincy would be no different to entrusting it to Will Carling back in 1988, when when he was only 22 and his teammates were grizzled old forwards such as Jeff probyn, Brian Moore and Dean Richards.
Sure, he had three years to get the experience to lead his team to the 1991 World Cup, but Itoje is already 24, and is already vastly experienced and has won numerous titles with country and his club side, Saracens.
And there is another precedent in his favour: of the eight RWC-winning captains, six have been forwards (three flankers, two locks and one hooker) while the other two were scrumhalves. In other words, no flyhalf or inside-centre has ever led a winning team at the World Cup.
To add even more weight to the case for a lock captain, the best skipper of this Six Nations was Wales’ Alun Wyn Jones, who was Itoje’s locking partner in the last British Lions team.
England could do worse than take the plunge and make Itoje captain now. After all, the good teams always talk about a strong “leadership core”, made up of senior men in the key positions. If so, then the captain really is someone who is inspiritional in the heat of battle and who says the right things when needed.
If so, one of the mouthiest players running around could be just the man to play that role.