Paris a fitting climax to the tournament that still thrills
It may be flawed but the Six Nations always puts a spring in our step
Coach Joe Schmidt and captain Paul O’Connell with the 6 Nations trophy. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
Predictably, the 2014 Six Nations probably did not scale the skilful heights of the Rugby Championship last year and particularly the Johannesburg classic between South Africa and New Zealand. Nor did it have the latter’s staple diet of home-and-away fixtures. Yet as well as being richer in heritage and having more variety, competitiveness and profitability, the flaws in the Six Nations are also part of its strengths. Heck, with a hint of spring in the air, it gets us through winter.
The calls for an end to staggered kick-off times, understandably, have emanated from the English media after their team was left stranded in second-place for the third season running. As their squad watched on from their hotel in Rome as the dramatic endgame in Paris unfolded, so had the Ireland squad from their Roman hotel in 2007 as Elvis Vermeulen’s last-ditch try clinched the title on points’ difference in Paris.
The difference this time is that Ireland won the title by a couple of scores and had earned the right to know that a win of any hue would suffice by amassing the points in their preceding games.
Besides, in the modern day it’s unreasonable to expect television companies to effectively sacrifice two “live” games on the final Saturday in the interests of fairness. It would better to scrap Friday night and Sunday games and have a trio of games every Saturday. It is the presence of such large travelling contingents at Six Nations games which helps to give the tournament a superior sense of occasion to its southern hemisphere counterpart, and all of Saturday’s three packed houses retained much of rugby’s ethos.
There was the conviviality between supporters, witness the generosity of spirit from French fans, most of whom remained for Ireland’s official coronation. There were the sporting values epitomised by the sight of Mathieu Bastareaud leaning over a concussed Johnny Sexton or the latter chatting with Dimitri Szarzewski after the full-time whistle on the sidelines.
Blight on the tournament
Six Nations weekends are just that, and Friday night or Sunday games do not facilitate travelling supporters. This, and the increasing influence and profile of referees, is a far bigger blight on the tournament. Nor did the staggered kick-off times detract from the sense of climax, with the tournament being decided by its best game and very last play of the very last match.
England can reflect on their opening ten or last five minutes against France but whoever finished runners-up would invariably have rued one or two moments. Had Ireland missed out, they’d have reflected on letting their advantage slip at Twickenham and the officiating decisions which didn’t go their way in the last ten minutes there.
England could have set Ireland a more difficult target and at various junctures in the Stadio Olimpico that had looked plausible. Hence, England’s decision to empty their bench has been questioned as it interrupted their flow and damaged that push for a 50-point winning margin or more.
Yet, with Joe Schmidt and Ireland increasingly mindful that the title could well come down to points difference, it was the seamless introduction of the bench which aided Ireland’s ruthless pursuit of points. In the last 12 minutes of their games Ireland scored 33 points and did not concede, whereas in the same period England were 10-15, France 13-10, and Wales 14-10. In the last three minutes of their games Ireland scored 19 to none, comparing favourably to England 7-0, France 3-0 and Wales 0-7.
Take the tries by Mako Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi in Rome under the posts on Saturday, each sparking celebrations before Owen Farrell converted with his normal kicking routine. By contrast, when Fergus McFadden scored under the posts with less than three minutes to go at home to Italy, Paddy Jackson ripped the ball from him and converted with a drop kick, leaving time for Jack McGrath to add another try.
It was another compelling championship from beginning to end and there’s no doubt that the start of the Joe Schmidt era and the belief in his midas touch from players through to supporters added a fresh impetus after the disappointment of last season’s injury-bedevilled fifth placed finish.
As in Declan Kidney’s first year in 2009, Schmidt helped deliver a title in his first campaign. So he has won a Top 14, two Heineken Cups, a Challenge Cup and Pro12 title, and now a Six Nations title, in five successive seasons. Aside from solid set-pieces, a potent maul, tight defence and limited player turnover, as in ’09 also the triumph was founded on a fairly pragmatic brand of rugby which sought to minimise risks.
The statistics show that Ireland had the most carries (665) and most passes (832), but they also had the least offloads (27) by some distance (England had 64 and France 84) and so effective was their breakdown work that while they also won the most rucks (520) by some distance, they still lost the least (22). Accordingly, it also comes as no surprise that Ireland conceded the least turnovers (68), whereas France conceded 86, and Saturday’s tally of 16-4 turnovers conceded in Ireland’s favour illustrated this.
He is clearly some coach. Irish rugby is blessed to have him. The players buy into him hugely, and it will be interesting to see how the squad’s style of play and personnel evolve over the coming couple of years under his diligent and astute watch.