Six nations post mortem

18 March 2019  |  Richard Mayson

I am truly awful at making rugby predictions. I have been thrashed in my 6N fantasy team by mates who don’t particularly follow the game. I even left Twickenham at half-time in the Scotland game saying to a mate “this is a gonna be a cricket score, I’m off“.

In defense of my ineptitude, not many people predicted this 6 Nations run of results. Here is my 6 Nations post mortem of the home nations, for better, for worse.

Wales

A coup of epic proportions. In a World Cup year – where England and Ireland were both fancied – this was one hell of a campaign by Gatlands gang . When the hangovers subside, the Welsh will be feeling like Lords of the Northern hemisphere. And so they should. But, like the Eddie Jones team of 2016/17, Wales have been effective but unconvincing.

Wales’ much quoted unbeaten run is a misnomer. Most of the victories in the run are against second rate opposition – Tonga, 2nd XV South Africa and Italy. Or in fortress Cardiff – Australia, England, Ireland. Yes, they can only beat what’s in front on them. But, can they win big away from home? (See below graphic)

Wales are taking their chances when they create them. But they are probably not creating enough of them. Come RWC against New Zealand & Australia – who typically score a lot – they will want to create more opportunities. They have come joint bottom in try scoring this 6N. Incredible when you think about it.

Gatland will have noted that for periods, the Welsh switch-off somewhat – France 1st half, most of the Italian game, England 1st half, Scotland 2nd half. It’s patchy. Which is kind of impressive because they have done the Grand Slam having not actually performed anywhere near to the level they might have.

What is indisputable about Wales is that they have an incredible defence and a doggedness that is unfailing. Their ‘tackles made vs tackles missed’ statistics are bombproof. Shaun Edwards take a bow. Their back 3 are lethal: their back row are as hard as rusty nails and their half backs can upend a game.

Welsh belligerence forcing English errors

Somehow this cocktail of Valley hardness and west Wales flair puts opponents in a death grip. As England and Ireland can attest. Furthermore, Wales just look so comfortable with each other. Like an elderly couple who have been together for years and are totally in-sync. That doesn’t come overnight and is hard to coach.

Wales have shown an impressive ability to address issues mid-camp (unlike England). Their lineout misfired; it was sorted for the Ireland game. They have been slow starters; also sorted against Ireland. This shows good coaching and adaptability.

In an interview with Matt Dawson after the Lions in 2017, Gatland said that it is easier for a Coach to focus on the positives; because the negatives are often sequences of chance, bad luck or occasional player error. With that in mind, there is plenty of positives for Wales to focus on. And when they focus, they are formidable.

  • Strengths: Belligerence
  • Areas to address: Line-out
  • Key man this 6N: Biggar
  • One to watch: Patchell

Ireland

Even Michael Jordan had bad games. Ireland, whilst highly disappointing, are not suddenly a bad team. They misfired primarily because their half backs misfired. Be it lack of game time or a temporary dip in form, Sexton and Murray have underperformed.

In the good news department, Ireland are in possession of every scalp they need to descend on the World Cup with belief and edge. They know they can beat NZ away from home, England at Twickenham and Australia in their own backyard. They just need to find their rhythm.

Sexton and Murray doing what they do best

Ireland’s freefall from dominance has been quick and unforgiving. 4 months ago Ryan, Furlong and Stander were world beaters but have since faded. Hitherto, Murray was the exemplar of box kicking but his radar is wonky. Sexton was the flat-to-the-line King but the hits are affecting his verve. They seem to have lost the telepathic link and need a bit of WD40 on the hinge that joins them.

Before this 6N, Ireland were synonymous with retention of their ball. In this tournament, they have conceded more turnovers than any other team. And with the same personnel that bludgeoned France in a 40 phase retention to win the game last year. Contrast that to their carelessness in the soaked cauldron of Cardiff.

Secretly Schmidt will be thankful that some of the focus has gone onto Wales: and England to an extent. Whilst people talk up Ireland’s celtic cousins, Schmidt’s automatons can discreetly fade into the background to plot World Cup glory. And few will doubt them. If they click.

  • Strengths: Strength in depth
  • Areas to address: Cohesion
  • Key man this 6N: Earls 
  • One to watch: C Farrell 

England

It is not an animal’s intelligence or strength that predicts its long term future, but its ability to adapt. And England are slow learners. Chief among their concerns is discipline – mental and physical. Dating back 2 years, England have a problem with penalties and an inability to react to the referee.

Most obvious is ruck-gate, but the defeat to Wales was also discipline related. The penalty count against Ireland was also unflattering. In the first 200 words of this analysis on England, it says as much. The 2nd half against Scotland showed spectacular mental frailty.

But, England’s confrontational style can dominate any team. The inconspicuous HGVs of the Vunipolas, Tuilagi, Cokanasiga and Te’o will worry defenses.  But kilograms alone won’t do the job. England’s kicking game across the park is strong. Any daydreaming by opposition back three will be punished.

Also noticeable is the guile of England’s planned attack patterns, a là Ireland in the first 3 minutes. Unlike Wales, England also start strong and have scored considerably more of their points in the first half of games dating back to South Africa. This is a strength but not if they fall asleep at the wheel in the 2nd half of games.

England’s clinical starts have become a feature of their play

Project Daly is inconclusive. Whilst he has performed well, there is reason to be circumspect. In the box-kick era, Daly hasn’t dominated the skies. He has also been caught out of position a number of times in the Wales and Scotland games. Not by much, but enough for Biggar and Russell to finds gaps.

England are still 5% percent off world class – which is a lot in international rugby. Pundits retort “it’s the top 2 inches” – referring to the difference between #1 in the world and #3 being psychological. There is some form of psychological short circuit somewhere in this England team.

Perhaps not surprising considering team psychologist Dan Abrahams contract was not renewed last summer. Reports emerged within 48 hours of their loss to Scotland that Jones is going to hire another psychologist. James Haskell has repeatedly said that rugby players do not pay enough attention to psychology. In England’s case, it would seem he is right.

Eddie Jones is not a man trampled by self-doubt and he is dogmatic. Whilst his team have doubts hovering above their heads, Jones will maintain his intensity, high standards and media tricks to get his team in the right place come RWC. Armed with the ability to adapt, England will be dangerous.

  • Strengths: Kicking game
  • Areas to address: Discipline
  • Key man this 6N: Curry 
  • One to watch: Cokanasiga 

Scotland

Scotland have a schizophrenic personality. Failure, capitulation and underperformance one minute: extraordinary cunning, menace and skill the next. Repeat. Scotland will be buoyed by their 2nd half performance against England. But if you want to extol the virtues of the 2nd half you must also attend to their awful first half.

Townsend will be chuffed that a team stricken by injury can put 38 points on a decent England side at Twickenham. ‘That comeback’ against England will go down in history but it masks some more sincere issues Scotland need to address this year.

As chaotic, entertaining and hedonistic as it is to watch, Scotland’s modus operandi won’t win championships. They made 14 handling errors in one half against Ireland and topped the missed tackles table for the tournament. They must find a way to reduce errors and control games when the situation demands it. If they don’t, they will be cast into the annals of ‘entertaining’ not ‘winning’.

Scotland lack some strength-in-depth in various positions, also. The injury list has forced Townsends hand to blood some new boys. And they have stepped up. But stepping up and test match experience are two different things. Kinghorn, Graham, Johnson, Ritchie and Bradbury need more gametime. Hopefully they get it.

Amongst the frustration there are reasons to be sanguine. Ask any impartial 6 Nations fan: who is best to watch? It’s Scotland. Scotland play with a boyish freedom. The type you see watching Level 5 rugby. They are not afflicted with the petrified psychology of risk-aversion that makes professional rugby so tedious to watch, at times.

Scotland have got the nerve and skill to strike from anywhere

Finn Russell is the pilot of Scottish mercurialism. Hogg is his co-pilot. Their mischief with ball-in-hand is seductive. Blair Kinghorn is a rangey metre-maker and Darcy Graham is some finisher. Not to mention the runaway keg of Hamish Watson or the diesel industry of McInally. Jamie Ritchie has been an excellent find. And yes, Hastings looks to-the-manor-born.

Townsend must pray for his key lieutenants to remain fit – Russell, Barclay, Watson, McInally, Laidlaw and Hogg. Without them, Scotland will struggle to string results together. One-offs won’t do. Scotland are a dangerous and evolving team. Others will be wary of them. Most importantly, they have an identity – they know what they like and they like what they know. And that could take them a long way.

  • Strengths: Chaos 
  • Areas to address: Control
  • Key man this 6N: Russell
  • One to watch: Hastings

Read my Autumn Internationals round-up for Crashball Rugby: