LS Sport’s Calum Gunning casts his expert eye over the 2013 Six Nations.
So another year’s Six Nations tournament has come and gone. It set new records for the fewest points and tries scored, poor weather meant the middle section of the tournament was void of much exciting rugby and the scrum in nearly all the matches was a farcical cycle of stop start boredom. But it was brilliant wasn’t it? There’s not a lot that could put me off watching every single encounter every year because it’s such a comforting presence in the cold early spring months, when the exciting build up of Christmas football fixtures has gone and there isn’t really another major televised international sporting event to enjoy. And where are else can you be taken to Paris, Rome Edinburgh, Cardiff, Dublin and London all in a single weekend? Old hatreds are re-ignited, huge flames rise up from the Murrayfield turf, Italians sob their way through national anthems and seemingly thousands of Welsh supporters dress themselves up as sunflowers. It’s the perfect mix of epic athleticism and European eccentricity.
Anyway enough of my love affair with the Six Nations, what about the actual rugby?
Well what a cracking opening weekend! Ireland smashed Wales 30-22 in Cardiff helped by the sublime skills of veteran Brian O’Driscoll and newcomer Simon Zebo and, despite a spirited second half comeback, it looked like Wales had picked up where they had left off in their dismal Autumn internationals campaign. Meanwhile, at Twickenham, England put 4 tries past Scotland in a commanding performance characterised by young Owen Farrell’s composure with both the boot and hand (what an awesome miss-pass to put Geoff Parling in!). Tries for Maitland and Hogg made the final score a respectable 38-18 defeat for the Scots. Then came the round’s glamour tie in the newly refurbed Stadio Olimpico in Rome and we were treated to some scintillating running rugby in a historic 23-18 win for the Italians over a patchy French team. And In Italian fly-half Luciano Orquera a star is born, his sheer pace and quality offloading skills setting up the two tries that sent the Roman crowd wild.
There was little free-flowing rugby in the second round of matches partly due to atrocious weather conditions in Paris and Dublin, where the Wales team beat France 16-6 on a rapidly deteriorating Stade de France pitch and Farrell won the kicking battle with O’Gara in a try-less 12-6 England victory. Unfortunately the big story from Lansdowne was the loss of two top Irish talents in Zebo and Sexton to injury and robbed of these promising youngsters Ireland looked rocked for the rest of the tournament.
Italy followed up their dominant opening round victory with an error-strewn performance at Murrayfield where they lost 34-10 to the Scots, whose back three, particularly Hogg and Visser, may have played themselves into Lions contention with impressive displays.
Week 3 again had little in the way of running rugby, with those kicking the points having the biggest effect on things. Greg Laidlaw’s consistent accuracy with the boot propelling Scotland to a tight 12-8 victory against Ireland in match where they had just 30% possession and 25% of the territory.
Meanwhile Farrell’s kicking again saved England, under pressure from a resurgent France, whose coach Saint-Andre finally unleashed the half back dream team of Parra and Trinh-Duc then proceeded to substitute them and most of the players who had given them the upper hand in the first half. A workman-like England duly took advantage to retain hopes of a first grand slam in a decade but not before we had an exhilarating glimpse of the powerful finishing skills of Wesley Fofana. Wales recorded a 26-9 victory over Italy in Rome, a scoreline that flattered the visitors as the Italians again let a lack of ruthlessness and handling errors limit what was an impressive display for this still developing side.
Round 4 saw Wales start to build real winning momentum as they beat the Scots 28-18 in an encounter where Laidlaw and Halfpenny notched a record total of 13 penalties between them. In a game dominated by superb defences we had to make do with marvelling at the battle of Hogg and Halpenny, fielding kick after kick at each other with neither fullback shying from the challenge. Another turgid affair at a wet Lansdowne Road provided us with 13-13 draw between Ireland and France, with Brian O’Driscoll limping off injured in possibly his final match in front of the Dublin crowd, a frustrating end for arguably Ireland’s greatest ever player. The ever inspired Sergio Parisse (when does this man have an off day?!) and his Azzuri teammates pushed a lacklustre England side close at Twickenham in their 18-11 defeat and it was Italy who scored the game’s only try, highlighting England’s worrying trend of a lack of attacking flair in their play. Not that would bother Lancaster or his side; bring on Cardiff and a shot at grand slam glory.
Before the rounds’ stella tie at the Millennium Stadium there was yet more unexpected Italian joy in the Stadio Olimpico as a Venditti try gave Italy victory over an Ireland side devastated by injuries for the first time since 1997. It felt like a real turning point for Italian rugby, for the first time I believe we can really talk about there being quality in every area of the Azzuri’s game rather than just merely in the front row and at number 8. A flamboyant 23-16 win for the French against Scotland in Paris was not enough for the Les Bleus to avoid finishing bottom of the six nations table but nevertheless it was a joy to at last witness the force of nature that is Bastareaud batter his way through a defence as a platform for France’s more delicate players to take advantage. However, for a team that had had easily the most impressive autumn campaign, this tournament was a disaster and, as ever, it’s hard to predict where France will go from here. They’ll probably win the World Cup in 2015. Then capitulate against Romania.
So, the scene was set, could England go to the Welsh fortress and become the true heirs to the World Cup and grand slam winners of ‘03? Come 5 o’clock the atmosphere inside the enclosed Millennium stadium was electric, you could barely hear Brian Moore yelling his analysis over a fiery Welsh crowd and a fascinating sporting spectacle was about to get underway. What proceeded was a systematic dismantling of an England team lacking in ideas and overawed by the occasion. Wales’ back row of Tipuric, Warburton and Faletau utterly outplayed their English counterparts and as a team they were able to step their game up a gear that England could not hope to reach. It might all have been so different had Tuilagi not knocked on the pass that put him so clearly in at 4 minutes into the match but he couldn’t gather it and Wales proceeded to dominate. The Welsh performance was typified by man of the match Justin Tipuric who toiled manfully at the breakdown all game to give his team a platform for victory and then demonstrated exhilarating pace and then superb judgement to draw the English defence and put the lethal Cuthbert in for try number two. It was this back row dynamism that, for me, was the difference between the two sides with Robshaw and co. made to look lumbering and one-dimensional by Howley’s men. So there we have it, a crushing 30-3 victory for Wales and they successfully retain their Six Nations title but you wouldn’t have thought there was much for the Aussies to be worried about come Lions time. Maybe if they fear having someone flapping vaguely at their upper bodies Chris Ashton’s tackling might but the fear of god into them. But it seems unlikely.