For all the talk that international rugby is boring, I’d rather hold my judgment until next year’s Six Nations at the earliest. Given all that has happened in 2020, I don’t think it’s fair to be criticizing and evaluating the landscape and probing Test rugby for all its flaws.
The Six Nations is the most vibrant of rugby competitions, but it was forcibly divided into two chapters, seven months apart. Covid went on strike, unions and clubs faced the prospect of financial ruin, players had to adjust to new interpretations of the law and play without crowds. That we have had cross-border competition is no small feat and it is a very difficult year to fully evaluate and understand what the game is like.
Besides that, you have to take into account the individual circumstances of some teams. Wales and Ireland have had problems. They have new coaches, who are trying to implement different game plans, in the context of everything that has happened.
It’s no wonder Scotland, to a small extent, and England, to a much larger, have had much more prosperous times due to the stability they can draw upon in terms of training setup and having a clear identity.
Eddie Jones has been there for five years, has been able to give some new players a chance this fall, but at the same time there are players reaching 50 or 100 caps.
Rightly or wrongly, interpretations of the law mean that if you have good set pieces and good defense and are proficient on the break, you are going to be incredibly difficult to beat.
This is precisely how I would describe England. In addition, England have been able to play with great control. They have beaten Ireland and Wales in recent weeks and I didn’t see any games threatening to walk away from them.
A big reason for this is the continuity they have enjoyed in what has been an unsettling year for most. I hope they beat France on Sunday and if this competition has had an air of being together, and the final is not helped by the forced weakness of the French team, you don’t have the opportunity to play in so many finals. and the team will benefit greatly from the experience.
Rugby often tries to recalibrate itself; I think that’s what Jones means when he talks about the game going through cycles, going from favoring defense to attack and vice versa.
It is also important to remember that everything arises from the need to protect players. One could argue that defensive dominance is an unintended consequence of the laws, but they take into account the interests of the players.
The other important thing to keep in mind is that World Rugby has the ability to review changes and be much more reactive than in the past.
Joe Schmidt, the former Ireland coach, is now part of the relevant task force and the key is that coaches, referees and players must work together hand in hand to make sure the game they want to see materializes on the field.
I’m not sure that is currently the case, but there have been times in the past where those conversations between coaches, referees and players would not have occurred. Now I think they will.
Nor do we underestimate the power that the return of the fans will have to lift test matches. Rugby is such an emotional sport that it will make a huge difference. Take the example of Wales getting back within five points against England last week.
Had it been in a packed Principality Stadium it would have had a significant emotional impact on the Welsh players, but that was not apparent in an empty Parc and Scarlets.
There are only 2,000 fans at Twickenham on Sunday, but it’s a step in the right direction and hopefully the next Six Nations will be a completely different perspective. Let’s not be too critical of rugby as a show until then.
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