TO A brief glance at the Six Nations table confirms that it was not just any championship. At one end of the scale, England have had their worst tournament in 45 years and Italy their bleakest in history. At the other extreme is Wales, who have averaged nearly 33 points per game during an exciting campaign but are still in title limbo, and a team from France that have played in two of the greatest games of all time in eight days. .
Sweet and sour, light and shadow: At best, the Six Nations is the slightly eccentric dude who shows up annually, causes total chaos, and then staggers away, tied up, vowing to do it again next year. Last fall we all mourned the death of offensive-minded rugby; Now everyone is wondering if France v Scotland on Friday will give up the five attempts needed to set a new global championship record. How often, too, have two Six Nations teams sent off a man on the same day and still won? To call it a crazy whirlwind would be an understatement.
So what have we learned amid the relentless chaos? Let’s start with the optimistic aspects, not least the antidote of relief that the Six Nations have been in these difficult times. Watching France go through the 11 phases that brought down a 13-man Wales, and Ireland playing as well as they have in two and a half years, was a regain faith in the sport’s ability to thrill and, better yet, to feel . greater momentum.
It was all the more impressive given the lack of crowds, which traditionally supply the Six Nations with their life-giving fluids. The biggest compliment you can pay to the players is that, in most cases, the emptiness of the stadiums stopped mattering. Organizers certainly owe participants a vote of thanks after opting to host a tournament during a pandemic without a pre-arranged free weekend or forced points split in the event of a coronavirus outbreak.
They have largely gotten away with it: who will now resist tuning in to the final act at the Stade de France? Either way, it underscores the importance of outdoor range and neutral eyeballs. Could it be that rugby could have the best of both worlds – backers and broadcasters desperate to get involved in the 2023 Rugby World Cup preparation and too popular a product to hide behind a paywall?
The BBC audience share for France v Scotland will certainly be instructive, with The Blues needing a minimum of four attempts and a 21-point margin of victory to be sure of snatching the title from Wales. Given that England-based Scottish players will be available and the visitors have conceded only seven attempts in the entire tournament, it is not routine. Wales will consequently rally in front of their televisions in the hope that the sadness from Saturday’s Grand Slam can still fade.
Twenty attempts in five games, a new Welsh record, is already an indication of the healthy progress being made with Wayne Pivac, which might have been even more surprising if Taulupe Faletau and Liam Williams hadn’t been sent to the sin-bin in that one. Frantic Parisian Final. Despite France’s cool blood and confident hands ahead of Brice Dulin’s added time try, Wales came within a poorly calculated ruck entry of a triumphant sweep that no one saw coming in early February.
We’ll have to wait and see how it translates in terms of British and Irish Lions representation but, for the most part, there is a clever and lucid approach that Warren Gatland will be more than willing to take. Faletau, Justin Tipuric, Josh Navidi, Ken Owens and Alun Wyn Jones exemplify the otherworldly commitment that top teams possess, while George North could be in the running for the tournament reveal at his new position outside of center if I would have done that. He hasn’t won a century of caps yet.
The ability to teach old dogs new tricks, or at least keep their tails wagging, has also allowed Ireland to enjoy a more productive Six Nations than seemed likely when they lost to Wales in Cardiff. Seeing Johnny Sexton, Keith Earls and Conor Murray play so well against the English was a tribute not only to their own proven class, but also to the motivational powers of Andy Farrell. As with Pivac, Farrell can now look to the future with growing confidence and quiet optimism.
Which brings us to England and Eddie Jones, José Mourinho’s oval ball. If ever there was an organization crying out for a clean slate review and a collective understanding that one embittered head coach is poisoning the entire well, it is the American Rugby Football Union. Jones may not have lost the locker room yet, and financially the RFU is not well equipped to fire him, but he has already lost the media and many others in the English game.
The thing about Jones is that he’s never wrong: Even the less than amusing taunts about spreading “rat poison” aimed at the press last week reflected a coach whose judgment, choices, tactics and perspectives seem increasingly perverse to anyone except for the same. For Jones, it’s all about control, and when his teams lack it, they look just as ineffective. The Covid-19 lockdown period has tested everyone’s morale, including Jones, but it has also exposed some uncomfortable truths about the home.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism