The Six Nations still has a little bit of rugby romance – its history, the noisy and colourful supporters, weekends in Rome, the packed pubs dotted within a stone’s throw of great rugby stadia.
When the Six Nations was suspended back in March 2020 in response to COVID-19 it was hoped it would resume later for business as usual. The remaining games eventually went ahead, though a second wave of COVID-19 in Ireland, the UK and Europe put paid to fans attending, and the crowds were sorely missed.
England won the Six Nations almost a year to the day since they lost to the Springboks in the 2019 Rugby World Cup final, though there is a sense that this trophy may be scant consolation for the big one that got away.
England had just the one game this time around, a scrappy 34-5 win in Rome against a determined but limited Italian side. We didn’t learn much more about England in this game. Maro Itoje was combative and excellent as always, also Tom Curry and Henry Slade played well.
There was some joy seeing veteran scrumhalf Ben Youngs score two tries in his 100th Test and for Johnny Hill (Exeter) and Ben Earl (Bristol) to get a run at Test level. Exeter were crowned European champions a few weeks ago after a remarkable rise from the lower leagues of English club rugby. Unlike other English Premiership teams, many Exeter players are home-grown and one-club men. Ben Earl’s Bristol are a team on the rise too, winning the European Challenge Cup, boasting the sublime talents of Nathan Hughes, Charles Piutau and the peerless Semi Radradra.
It’s likely that England will be a plentiful source for Warren Gatland’s British and Irish Lions squad, though next year may be a bridge too far for Ben Youngs, George Ford and Johnny May. Curry and Itoje should feature prominently.
For France, this was the competition that got away thanks to a moment of madness from Mohamed Haouas, red-carded for punching Scotland flanker Jamie Ritchie in the Murrayfield game, which they subsequently lost. France were the best team to watch, brilliant in counterattack and open play, masterfully directed by Antoine Dupont, surely the best scrumhalf going around at the moment.
They are well led by captain Charles Ollivon. Coach Fabien Galthie has picked a team for the future and has brought back the famous French flair. It’s a joy to watch France play and few teams can live with them when they are running hot. Virimi Vakatawa, Teddy Thomas, Anthony Bouthier, Damian Penaud and Gael Fickou are among those populating a sublime backline. A definite dark horse for Rugby World Cup 2023.
A big 50-17 win over Italy in Dublin in the penultimate round masked some issues with the Irish team, issues clinically exposed by France in Paris one week later. With fewer errors and more accuracy Ireland could have won in Paris. The pack failed to take their scoring chances in France’s 22 and the backline spilled the ball liberally.
In Ireland’s defence, this is a young and inexperienced side – six of the starting side were 24 years or younger – plus Jordan Larmour, Iain Henderson, Dan Leavy and Tadgh Furlong were noticeable absentees. At 35, flyhalf Johnny Sexton is getting long in tooth with no compelling heir apparent yet to emerge.
Conor Murray has played well at scrumhalf and should travel to South Africa along with Garry Ringrose, James Ryan and CJ Stander. Furlong is a shoo-in if fit and Jordan Larmour, with his ability to step off both feet and scythe through defences, could be a bolter, as quality wingers aren’t in plentiful supply among the other sides.
Scotland were the big improvers in Six Nations 2020, denying France the grand slam with a pragmatic game plan, an excellent scrum and great defensive display. Scotland showed how to halt the France juggernaut – keep them tryless in the first 30 minutes and don’t give up possession cheaply. Scotland also ground out a win against Wales, their first in the Principality since 2002.
Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell are the stars in a workmanlike backline, their front row with Rory Sutherland and WP Nel is powerful and dominant, plus they have two tireless flankers in Jamie Ritchie and Hamish Watson.
Pretty much everyone I’ve mentioned above should make the cut. Watson should have toured to New Zealand in 2017, Jamie Ritchie is a rapidly improving player and Johnny Gray is a player of consistent excellence.
A fifth-place finish for Wales was their worst since 2017, as they struggled to adjust to life after the departure of long-time coach Warren Gatland and defence guru Shaun Edwards. Additionally, many of their best players over the last decade are past their best, Leigh Halfpenny and George North among them.
Against France, Wales let them dominate much of the game and kicked away too much possession. Against Scotland, Jonathan Davies and the legendary Alun Wyn Jones struggled to make an impact and the Welsh back row badly missed the talents of Ross Moriarty, Josh Navidi and Justin Tipuric.
On a brighter note, Alun Wyn Jones is now the most capped player in Test history, a worthy honour for a legendary player and wonderful servant of Welsh rugby.
Jonathan Davies should travel along with Josh Adams and livewire scrumhalf Gareth Davies, as should Navidi if he is fit.
Poor Italy. The Six Nations must feel like Groundhog Day. It’s been so long – five years to be precise – since they last won. They lost heavily to Ireland but made England work hard for their victory in Rome. On the bright side, they have a big, combative back row in Sebastian Negri, Jake Polledri and Bram Steyn. Matteo Minozzi is a brave and gifted fullback.