The 2021 Six Nations Championship was more than we could possibly have hoped for, never mind anticipated. For all the brouhaha which accompanied France’s laissez-faire approach to the concept of life in a bio-secure bubble, to only have a game deferred and then have it rescheduled within a week of the finale was a minor miracle in itself. Add in the absence of supporters, and the quality of the matches was beyond expectations.
This is particularly so when one reflects on all the dire warnings in 2020 that rugby would never return until a vaccine had been made widely available.
Instead rugby, and especially the 2021 Six Nations, provided a level of drama and entertainment that defied forecasts given the widespread criticism which greeted the rearranged fag ends of the 2020 tournament and, save for the final weekend, the dreary Autumn Nations Cup.
The 2021 Six Nations also contained more of a surprise element than many of its predecessors, as evidenced by the 16/1 fourth favourites Wales winning the title.
And yet the 2021 Six Nations will always have an asterisk beside it which, hopefully, will never apply to another running of the tournament ever again. For this year’s championship delivered despite the absence of what should be the second most important commodity after the players. No, not referees, but crowds.
Unfortunately the 2021 Six Nations tournament was equally distorted by the overt influence of officials. All told there were 16 yellow cards and five red cards, record tallies for the tournament in both categories.
To put that in context, there had only been eight sending-offs in the history of the tournament prior to this year.
One utterly understands the rationale and directives emanating from World Rugby in trying to drastically reduce the number of contacts to the head and resulting head injuries. This is all the truer in light of the harrowing accounts which former players have given as a consequence of suffering head trauma during their playing careers.
Whether as a means of educating players, and by extension coaches and supporters of the need to lower tackle heights, and to avoid head contact when clearing out at a ruck or even in using the arm or hand as a means of fending off a tackle, the 2021 Six Nations may well prove a landmark tournament.
Viewed in that light, for the French head coach Fabien Galthié to claim that Welsh players “specialised” in getting opposition players sent off was both outrageous and distasteful.
As we’ve also learned during this year’s competition, Galthié’s resurrection of Les Bleus has seemingly made his position between now and the 2023 World Cup in France nigh on impregnable, and both their revival and the attacking verve of their rugby has been brilliant to behold.
But in this comment and his sorties from the French bubble, along with Raphael Ibanez suggesting their Covid-19 outbreak may have originated in Ireland and the enlisting of French doctors to generate wildly inaccurate claims about Johnny Sexton's history with concussion, off the pitch the French have not covered themselves in glory this year.
While their late rally to deny Wales the Grand Slam was, in many respects, the high point of the tournament, the defeats by England and Scotland not only stymied their seemingly regal progress to a first title since 2010, but damaged Galthié and Les Bleus as well, if only a little.
Flurry of cards
Amid the unprecedented flurry of yellow and red cards, that Wales won the title was in no small measure to the discipline instilled by Wayne Pivac and Alun Wyn Jones until they cracked in their Parisian endgame.
However, even then Jones and Co were less than a minute away from the Grand Slam when Luke Pearce decreed that Cory Hill went off his feet to illegally seal the ball.
Six nights later, at the same ground, Wayne Barnes completely ignored Scottish support players doing the exact same on several occasions in their final drive for a win, witness Alex Craig sealing off the final carry by Ryan Wilson and Jamie Ritchie flopping off his feet before the ball is recycled for Adam Hastings to hit Duhan van der Merwe for the match-winning try. It was more blatant than Hill's indiscretion.
It’s not the officials’ fault that the laws of the game have made it thus, but all the more so with repeated recourse to the TMO the tournament increasingly began to look like an ego trip for the officials. Certainly their influence on the games became overbearing.
But it was the absence of supporters which probably distorted this tournament, like pretty much all other team sports during the pandemic.
Removing the five Italian games from the equation given they last won a solitary game in 2015, of the other 10 there were five away wins in 2021, more than any in recent times, and where previously away wins have been like hen’s teeth.
Of those same 10 games in 2015, there were eight home wins and just two away wins, by England in Cardiff and Ireland in Paris, which was enough to earn Joe Schmidt’s team the title.
In 2016 the only two away wins among those 10 games were by England in Edinburgh and Paris, which duly earned them the Grand Slam.
In 2017 the sole away win in those 10 fixtures was by England in Cardiff, thus earning them the title, and a year later there were just two away wins outside of Rome, as Ireland’s victories in Stade de France and Twickenham earned the Grand Slam.
Good luck to Scotland for bookending the tournament with a first win in Twickenham in 38 years and a first win in Paris for 22 years. But as the increased number of away wins highlighted the 2021 Six Nations was a relative success despite the absence of fans, not because of them. That’s cause for the biggest asterisk of all.