If England win the Grand Slam, they will be the champions the Six Nations deserves
Lack of offloads and lack of risk has made this a really dull championship
England’s Mike Brown chases the ball against Italy. His side have become more careful and risk-free as the tournament has progressed, scoring just one try in their last three games. Photograph: Tim Ireland/PA Wire.
The first weekend of this Six Nations feels like an awful long time ago. It’s funny to think back now at how enthusiastic we all were about the tournament after those opening games.
With Ireland just about holding on against Wales, with England throwing the ball around against Scotland and, most of all, with Italy beating France, we couldn’t get enough of it. Little did we know then that that was as good as it was going to get.
It’s been a really disappointing championship. The rugby has been hard to watch, bordering on boring ever since then. England are a game away from the Grand Slam having only scored one try in their last three games.
Wales, to their credit, have fought their way back but they’ve only managed a single line break in each of their last two games against Scotland and Italy.
Ireland haven’t scored in the last 20 minutes of any of their games. France have been laboured and have the joint-lowest try total along with Italy.
Defences have been the key to every country in it, with teams cancelling each other out. You would struggle to pick out one team who are trying to play the game with their heads up and play what’s in front of them.
You might be able to make the argument for Italy but even then, you would probably only be saying it because they have mixed it up a bit from the usual Italian way of playing. You still wouldn’t really say it was an expansive game they play.
The most glaring thing that has been missing from this year’s Six Nations has been offloads. I went through the stats for each of the games the other night and it is actually worse than I thought it would be. On that opening weekend, the one that made us so full of optimism for the weeks to come, there were 66 offloads across the three matches.
But if you look at the stats for the three weekends since then, you get a picture of how dull it has all become.
On the second weekend, the number of offloads went down to 35. England went from 18 offloads against Scotland in their first game to just one against Ireland. Wales went from eight against Ireland to one against France.
Only Italy played with any adventure, going from 17 offloads in their opening game against France to 20 in their second game against Scotland.
The offloading has been at that low level ever since. There were only 30 offloads across the three games on the third weekend and 32 last weekend.
All in all, Italy comfortably lead the offload league table on 47 in their four games, followed by England on 35, France on 32 and Scotland on 21. Joint last are Ireland and Wales, with only 14 offloads each in the whole tournament.
Just 14 offloads is a terrible return. Ireland managed just three against Wales, one against England, six against Scotland (when they totally dominated possession, remember) and four on Saturday against France.
I knew it would be low but that’s a shocking total.
You can use statistics to prove anything but I do think those numbers tell you a bit about how these teams have been approaching the games.
You can see that Italy are a team with a new manager that maybe isn’t under the same pressure or feeling the same expectation as the other countries. Their players probably have a licence to take a few chances, to play the ball under pressure.
But apart from maybe that first weekend, it looks like the players in the other countries don’t have that licence at all. They’re playing rugby that is a lot more direct, that cancels each other out, that takes a lot of the risk out of the game. It could be that the pressure of expectation in the more established countries means that coaches are telling players to concentrate on doing the simple things well before they chance doing anything else.
It is probably a wider thing though. The truth of it is that very few players in the northern hemisphere are instinctively good at offloading. It was never something that you practised an awful lot of growing up. I wouldn’t say it was discouraged but it definitely wasn’t the kind of thing coaches taught young kids from the get-go, just because it was seen as too risky.
At the start, you were taught the basics and the basics were drilled into you. Hold on to the ball, protect possession, don’t take unnecessary chances. Popping an offload would have been seen as an unnecessary chance to take.
As a result, if you watch a lot of European players it is clear that the skills involved in being a good offloader just aren’t built into them from an early age. For one thing, how many northern hemisphere players do you see carrying the ball in two hands as they run?
That’s rule number one of being a good offloader – you need to be able to change the direction of the ball in a split second. But if the first thing you do as soon as you get the ball is plant it under your arm, then you’ve straight away decided that you’re not looking to offload or pass the ball.
If you run with it in one hand, you’re really just looking for contact. Chances are, the best you’re hoping to do is find a gap and beat a tackle. And with defences so meticulous these days, that gap just isn’t there most of the time and so the best you can hope for is to go into contact, go to ground and recycle for the next player.
But if you’re carrying the ball in both hands, your aim will be to pass the ball either to the right or left either just as the tackle comes in or soon after you’re hit.
The real skill is to be able to get your hands through the tackle and then offload to the player coming in support. But you just don’t see that out of northern hemisphere players all that much. You see Brian O’Driscoll doing it and you see Sergio Parisse but that just makes them the special players they are.
Mike Mullins was a great offloader when he was at Munster. He was phenomenal at getting through a tackle and getting his hands free to pop the offload. He looked to do it every time. Some of it was high-risk stuff and it didn’t always come off. But some of them led to tries and it gave us a different threat than we had before.
I always felt it was no coincidence that he came from a different rugby culture to the rest of us, having grown up in New Zealand.
Offloading comes with risk and I think that’s the main reason you haven’t seen very much of it in this Six Nations. Even France, who have been historically the most natural offloaders in European rugby, don’t seem to want to do it anymore.
Or not to the same extent anyway. They’re playing a far more structured game under Philippe Saint-Andre, looking to overpower teams and kick a lot of ball. Anything to take the risk out of the game.
And look where it’s got them. Dead bottom of the table with only a single point from Saturday’s draw to show for it. Could you ever imagine France being not only the lowest try scorers in the Six Nations after four games but the lowest points scorers as well? Unless they run in a hatful of tries against Scotland on Saturday, this will be their lowest try total in 20 years.
When everything becomes overly structured and the pressure of winning comes on, nobody wants to take chances. Nobody wants to be the one who risks the intercept that gives up the try, especially when there are so few tries around.
It can only happen if coaches give the licence to the players to do it. But coaches are under such huge pressure as well so it’s a vicious circle. It’s easier to explain a structured gameplan in a post-Six Nations debrief than it is to say you gave the players licence to play with their heads up.
That’s all fair enough and you can understand why coaches think that way. But it has led to the tournament we’ve been watching for the past month, which has been dull, predictable and grinding. If England beat Wales on Saturday, they will be suitable Grand Slam champions for the type of Six Nations it has been. They protect the ball very well, they take it into contact and lay it back without taking any risks.
Since that first game against Scotland, they’ve shut down their game and changed the way they play. They had 18 offloads in that game and 17 in total in the three games since. They had 11 line breaks in that game and have managed four in total in the three games since.
Four of their five tries came in that first game. The closer they have got to the end, the bigger the Grand Slam has become, the more careful and risk-free they have been.
Good luck to them. You do what you have to to win. All teams do. But it has made for a really boring Six Nations to watch.