Some Six Nations Teams Went Backwards in 2017

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France v Wales - RBS Six Nations
PARIS, FRANCE - MARCH 18: referee Wayne Barnes react with players during the RBS Six Nations match between France and Wales at Stade de France on March 18, 2017 in Paris, France. (Photo by Xavier Laine/Getty Images)

From Last Word on Rugby, Scott Hornell

Completing the RBS Six Nations this weekend, what findings can rugby commentators study at the end of five ultra competitive rounds? England winning their first back-to-back tournament in 16 years was a magnificent achievement. Scotland had their best effort in many years and Ireland finished on a high. But otherwise, did three out of the six teams really make any progress? Last Word On Rugby would argue that some Six Nations teams went backwards in 2017.

For Italy, Wales and France, they all came away with less than they would have planned for. France possibly have a good understanding of where they want to be…but are not close to achieving their goals. In fact, the final match leaves them with egg on their face.

Wales might have been placed higher, if they did not lose the really important clashes. The interim coaching team will not feel secure in their roles–or their choices.

Italy players react on the final whistle during the RBS Six Nations match between Scotland and Italy at Murrayfield Stadium on March 18, 2017 in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Italy will have to look honestly at their strategies to assist them further, but in the end they are still an unpolished side. Is the axe hanging over that side? Talk is of a replacement in the championship–or to play a qualification match against the ‘next best’ in Europe.

Firstly, the Good News

Nobody wants to read the bad news first, so even while England did not take a Grand Slam, they did earn much kudos for the style and confident manner in their game. Eddie Jones took responsibility for the final match loss, yet heaped the praise on his men as they achieved a new place in rugby history–having won 18 straight matches.

That resolute attitude is quintessential English Rugby. The bulldogs are in a good stage of the four year cycle. There are aspects of their game which need work though: composure, adaptability and in counter-attack. But Dylan Hartley is growing into the role, and unless his form drops, will ‘carry them home’ for the near future.

Scotland were also the ‘feel-good story’ of 2017. A fourth place finish might read poorly, but many will feel they were the team who outshone others. In Vern Cotter’s last season, his boys did him, and Scotland, proud. If only John Barclay’s men had managed a win in Paris, then it might have been the perfect send off for Cotter….and possibly a win over England would have been the stuff of fairy tales.

 * See further down for a feature on Scotland

Ireland might have earned a prized scalp, but it still left them with just three wins–too few to take a title. Joe Schmidt may not be completely happy, but his men are now seen as real contenders. Rory Best leads a team who play with heart, but sometimes their method is not as refined as say a New Zealand, or England.

Some Six Nations Teams Went Backwards in 2017

WALES

You cannot ignore the fact that, as of today, Welsh Rugby is stuck in a quagmire. With two wins, they were unable to save themselves from a ‘pool of death’. But the coaching staff appear to be the walking wounded. Not saying as much, but Howley has few merits to put forward in any Wales Rugby review of this years championship.

The win over Ireland was a bright light, so there was good to be found in those performance reviews, yes. George North looked to be getting stronger and Alan Wyn Jones is the more confident leader. Not to say the Sam Warburton is finished, and he may play better without the captaincy. Jones’s assertions after the French loss may be strong words–but he and his men now should look to back-up 2017 with hard work.

Many of the squad could tour new Zealand with the Lions, but when they return to the Valleys, it is essential they all work together to improve Wales’s future.

FRANCE

Guy Novès entered this championship, aiming to show how his side had progressed. In two of five results, he will have walked into the dressing room, offering praise. In the other matches, problems common in French rugby were self-evident.

Can we say France are going to perform any better during the June International window? Most will say No. Others will point out that ‘good things take time’ and captain Guilhem Guirado will need solidarity from his men, to shoulder the related issues, after the completion of the campaign.

Questions over the Uini Atonio replacement, and the related issues surrounding injury time have clouded this result. France were fortunate to take the points, and many will question the integrity of certain decisions made during the course of this unforgettable 100 minute match.

ITALY

Hampered by a less than admirable record, Italy would not make their 2016 win over South Africa a common threat. Zero wins, a 150 point differential and a little bit hit-and-miss. Scotland were less challenged than England or Wales, so possibly, the Azzuri were less motivated in Edinburgh.

“We had lots of chances and we couldn’t take them. Points give you energy and today that energy never arrived.”

Conor O’Shea will know his men can do better. Failing to score this weekend was of concern, but his strategies were clever. Using the laws to their advantage, now the side need to use their own strengths to benefit Italian rugby.

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Scotland Can Walk Tall in 2017

The Scots are batting way above their average of late. It has coincided with several facts: players are achieving their goals, and playing at higher standards. Think Stuart Hogg (Player of the Tournament), Greig Laidlaw, Jonny and Richie Gray, Ross Ford, Finn Russell and others. They all made huge bounds in domestic and International form.

Even though championship results have not risen beyond third in 2013, this year it felt different. Their overall improvement since 2015 is more resounding. It has recaptured fans lost for years, and the growth is wonderful for the Northern territories.

Vern Cotter built on that, and while three years is a short tenure, his could be the renaissance of Scottish rugby. The New Zealander helped direct the young men, he introduced more players; some ex-pats like WP Nel and Sean Maitland. Cotter’s strengths were in rewarding his men by their effort. ‘Play hard for me, and you can hold your spot’. His presence will be missed, but he has built in new, more professional systems for the team to carry on with.

England Rugby on a High – When do They Next Face New Zealand?

The $4.5 million dollar question–as that was the gate takings that New Zealand would earn, when facing the Barbarians on November 4. If that date is miraculously turned into an England v All Blacks fixture, several hurdles must be jumped.

First: it will be England’s opening match of the end-of-year tour by New Zealand. If you ever wanted a tougher match, then that would be it. But many believe Eddie Jones will be coy to delivering such a ‘tough assignment’ for his men.

Second: it is outside the approved World Rugby November window [that begins the following weekend]. Why would Premiership/Top 14/Pro12 sides relent and free-up players. They already lose them for a long period–unless there is compensation sought. How do you calculate that fairly?

So the hurdles are there, but there is no argument. England are the best team in the Northern Hemisphere; New Zealand in the South. The two best teams should face each other–but England may want to have several games under their belt, before they meet Steve Hansen’s men. And to be honest, so would fans.

Captain Dylan Hartley of England lifts the Six nations trophy following the RBS Six Nations match between Ireland and England at the Aviva Stadium on March 18, 2017 in Dublin (Photo by David Rogers – RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

Six Nations in Conclusion

The average rugby fan will know how powerful the Six Nations has always been, but it is now gaining wider interest as the success of Ireland and England underpin the competition. Even though their clash only resulted in just 22 points, it held the attention of millions of fans. 

Performance is key, as is expressing yourself. With the influx of Southern Hemisphere coaches, the quality is improved, the players are more satisfied, and place a high focus on these fixtures. Now, Six Nations fans all across the globe are keen to see whether the rumours are true.

And, yes they are true. The 2017 Six Nations now challenges The Rugby Championship, as the premier international competition.

“Main photo credit”

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