So, when I last wrote about the Six Nations rugby, after two games, England were looking good, after victories over Scotland and Ireland. At the time, the main surprise was that France had lost their first two games, first against Italy and then at home to Wales. Wales had lost at home to Ireland in their first match before recovering against France.
It got better for England. At home to France they struggled for a while against the power of the French forwards, but after half time, and some barmy substitutions by France, which involved taking many of their best players off, England took control of the game, aided by some good substitutions of their own. Ran out 23-13 winners. Three out of three: looking good.
Last weekend, another home game, against Italy. People were taking this one for granted, and talking too much about the final game, against Wales, in Cardiff. Whether the team were distracted, who can say, but after a good start, and some fluffed chances, things went from bad to worse, and Italy dominated the second half. Fortunately the defence held out well and Toby Flood kicked the penalties. 18-11 victors.
Four out of four – we could hardly criticise, though some in the media were jumping on the performance against Italy to predict a tough time against Wales. The Welsh themselves had kept on winning and were getting all their best players back after a bad run of injuries.
So it came down to Wales v England at the Millennium Stadium yesterday. Like most England supporters I was a bit worried, but reasonably confident that England could do it. They’d shown resilience when it was necessary in previous games and Owen Farrell was back to pop over the penalties. Wales had to win by more than seven points to win the Championship; England were on for the Grand Slam.
The first half was intense. Both sides running hard at each other. The tackling ferocious. The Welsh forwards were on top at the scrum. It seemed that the Australian referee, Steve Walsh, didn’t like something about the English front row. He didn’t much like their tactics at the breakdown either. The penalty count was in favour of Wales, and the half ended 9-3 to Wales. A deserved lead, but close. England had had their chances but blown them. Wales too. One break stopped by a brilliant tap tackle by Quins’ very own Mike Brown.
And then it all went pear-shaped. For England. Wales took up where they left off. England slowly and then rapidly fell apart. I do think the refereeing decisions sowed seeds of doubt in the players’ minds about how to approach the game. And maybe they didn’t have the experience to cope with that and adjust. But I’m not going to claim it was the ref wot won it for Wales. They were superb in all areas of the game and the pressure on England eventually told. Two excellently executed tries for Alex Cuthbert did the business. And Lee Halfpenny, the Welsh full back, was flawless in putting over the penalties.
Final score a devastating 30-3 to Wales. Can’t argue with that. They were magnificent. Worthy champions for the second year running.
I won’t deny I was fuming at the end. Partly at the way England failed to take their chances in the first half (same as against Italy). Partly at the referee, but mindful that it is always a feeble excuse to blame the ref. And mainly because WE LOST! On for the Grand Slam and comprehensively trashed.
Back to the drawing board. No panic – it was a good tournament overall for a young England side. But changes are needed in the playing style. In a nutshell, play more like Harlequins and less like Saracens. Against Wales the two certainties – dominant forwards and reliable penalty taker – evaporated. It’s not enough. The Quins attacking game – pace, offloads, a bit of risk taking, need to be incorporated in the England approach. There are plenty of Quins players ready to implement it.
Alright, I’m biased. But attack is where England haven’t got it right yet. So learn from the best. New Zealand at international level… and Wales. Quins and Wasps in the Premiership.
Other thoughts about the Six Nations. Wales on yesterday’s form are a seriously good team. France were astonishingly awful. The wooden spoon for a team with players of France’s calibre is inexcusable. Ireland were disappointing in the end, but had horrendous luck with injuries. Lost their whole back line apart from Brian O’Driscoll. And he took some hits. A sad end to a brilliant international career, if it is the end. Scotland upped their game and showed some attacking verve for the first time in ages. And Italy had their best ever season. Slowly but surely developing a stronger squad. If that encourages more of their young athletes to play rugby, they will be winners one day.
In the end it wasn’t one of the best Six Nations. The first round promised a lot, with loads of tries and exciting play. But the weather did play a big part thereafter. It was mostly awful and made all the teams resort to the kicking, safety-first game. The stakes are high, so it’s no surprise. Occasionally people suggest that the Six Nations should move to the end of the season, when the weather is better, the pitches harder and truer. But it would be such a move against tradition. The Six Nations is our sporting winter warmer. The best thing about the early months of the year. A time of renewed rivalries and camaraderie. The best of the rugby spirit.
Gutted that England blew it, but enjoyed the contest, as ever.
And here are my predictions versus outcomes. 100%…. wrong!
1. England. 2nd.
2. France. 6th. LAST!
3. Ireland. 5th.
4. Wales. 1st. WINNERS!
5. Scotland. 3rd.
6. Italy. 4th.
Better luck next time? Doubt it!