So that’s that for another year. England won, Ireland fell to third with just two wins and the world has finally stopped believing that France are unpredictable, maverick or even remotely decent. Wales gave Ireland and England too big a headstart, and Scotland again flattered to deceive. Italy were wretched.
All in all, it was a modest enough championship. The business of deciding a winner was wrapped up a week in advance and the only drama in the last week was seeing whether England could secure a grand slam. France were game, but ultimately not good enough, and the result was never really in doubt.
The rugby wasn’t as bad as feared. The early rounds were diabolical, certainly. The Ireland v France match was one of the most boring test matches on record, and it seemed appropriate that it should be effectively decided by a 10 minute scrum. Wales v France wasn’t much better, and Scotland v England also stank the house out. But thereafter, things improved. England and Ireland played out an entertaining match, and Ireland looked to vary their game a bit more in the final two rounds, while England’s tussles with Wales and France weren’t too hard on the eye either. It wasn’t quite the spirit of the World Cup, but it was better than in many recent seasons.
It can’t be entirely coincidental that the better games took place in March when the weather was a bit better. February tends to be a dire month weather-wise, and if a single tweak was to be made to the rugby calendar, we would suggest a bold move in pushing back the start of the Six Nations by four weeks. We don’t expect any such thing to happen, of course, as the tournament seems to be a commercial lock-down no matter how turgid the spectacle on offer, and the powers that be tend to be reluctant to change anything.
The Guardian surmised that with the ‘emergence’ of Billy Vunipola and a collection of high quality halfbacks, the Lions in 2017 will fancy they can beat New Zealand, but such expectations appear laughable. The summer tour will reveal much. There has been no new evidence that the Northern Hemisphere have come close to bridging the divide to the far more dynamic southern nations, and no amount of Eddie Jones talking up a 3-0 whitewash of Australia will change that. Jones bullishness is great in so far as it goes, but talk is cheap, actions will be required, and such an outcome looks unlikely. Last we checked Michael Cheika was still in situ down under.
Indeed, the fact that England could turn their World Cup disaster on its head with such apparent smoothness almost degrades the competition. From laughing stock to European champions? They didn’t even change much on the pitch, as the squad was still largely the same as that over which Lancaster presided. Come on down Chris Robshaw and James Haskell, the tournament’s pre-eminent six-and-a-halves. Who needs Armitage anyway? But it’s worth remembering that Lancaster’s tenure wasn’t a total waste of time, and that his England team had gone close to winning the championship twice in his tenure. They just lost their way in the big one. All they needed was a bit of clarity of purpose – which they entirely lacked in the World Cup – and an injection of a bit of the old dog to set them back on the right path.
And what about Ireland? Well, it was a middling championship in every sense of the word. Third place, two wins, two losses and a draw. Beating England in Twickenham always looked a tall order, but they must surely regret the game in Paris. Even Scotland beat this utterly abject French side, and Ireland had enough chances to put them away, but couldn’t land the killer blow. It was a performance symptomatic of their worst ills under Schmidt; lacking imagination, trying to barrage their way over the line using one out rumbles, and unwilling to pass out of the tackle. It was a rubbish performance in a rubbish match.
Some of the selections were a bit iffy, and while it might be churlish to complain after a campaign in which five Irish players debuted, the sight of Fergus McFadden trundling into the fray instead of Stuart McCloskey was dispiriting. It appears that for all McCloskey’s superb Ulster form, Schmidt doesn’t quite trust him.
Oddly enough, the last two games, from which he left out the country’s best offloader out of the panel altogether, were the ones in which Ireland did look to offload the ball, at least more than usual (i.e. at least once). But it’s all well and good playing that way against Scotland and Italy when the championship is over, and quite another doing it when the games are clutch and against better opponents. It feels a bit like Schmidt has wrung as much as he can out of his current template and a major evolution is required to get Ireland back to the pointy end of things. It would be foolish to underestimate his ability to deliver the goods. At Leinster, he changed the team from being an offloading side in his first season to one which didn’t offload but passed aggressively on the gainline in his second. He won the Heineken Cup on both occasions.
One such advancement is surely on the way on the defensive side of things. Ireland have become leaky without the ball, frequently too narrow and prone to soaking metres and tries out wide, and Andy Farrell’s arrival cannot come soon enough. With Farrell comes the possibility that Ireland will completely change how they defend – possibly bringing something more like England and Wales’ hard-up approach to defending. It has got to be worth a look. The tour to South Africa is daunting but they have problems of their own. They lack a coach and a fly half – two pretty important things – and while the summer tour is often a ‘last men standing’ affair, the prospect of Henderson, O’Brien, O’Mahony and others returning from injury means Ireland could be heading down there in better health than was the case in either the World Cup or the Six Nations.