Gerry Thornley: Unpredictability of Six Nations remains its key attraction

England’s slump and Wales’ unlikely ascent the main storylines from intriguing campaign

Ireland’s Will Connors consoles Billy Burns after his late penalty failed to find touch in the narrow defeat to Wales at the Principality Stadium, Cardiff. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Ireland’s Will Connors consoles Billy Burns after his late penalty failed to find touch in the narrow defeat to Wales at the Principality Stadium, Cardiff. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

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The Six Nations’ capacity to retain its elements of surprise and entertainment remains intact, and more so than could ever have been hoped, given it was missing its most vital ingredient – the colour and vibrancy that comes with capacity attendances.

Nevertheless, the Six Nations has reaffirmed its standing as the oldest and grandest annual rugby tournament in the world. The key to its success is that, just when it begins to look predictable, it defies expectations again.

So it was that England went into the tournament ranked second in the world and as tournament favourites after reaching the World Cup final, and winning the 2020 Six Nations and Autumn Nations Cup. Meanwhile, Wales came into the tournament ranked ninth in the world, were fourth in the betting and coach Wayne Pivac was seemingly on the precipice.

England duly finished fifth, with widespread calls for Eddie Jones to be removed, while Wales came within a whisker of a Grand Slam. Even so, the title might still come their way.

Such is the fickle nature and narrative around the Six Nations. The final table tells no lies? Maybe, but as it’s not a proper, home-and-away league per se, therefore it doesn’t necessarily tell the whole truth either.

If the tournament was starting again in a fortnight’s time, there’s no way it would pan out the same, or perhaps anything like it.

The one certainty is that Italy will be marooned again. But after that, one of the tournament’s greatest strengths is oft overlooked, namely that any of the other five can beat one another on a given day, and perhaps all the more so with no fans present. Accordingly, it’s also forgotten that a good side, ala Wales last year, will finish fifth.

Extract the five games involving Italy, and of the other nine played so far seven of them have been one-score games. The two exceptions were England’s defeats by Wales and Ireland, and they were fortunate to take a bonus point from their opening loss to Scotland.

Sure, they could rightly complain about the two tries awarded to Wales in round three, but despite passages of high-quality attack in that game and especially in the first half against France – the best 40 minutes of the tournament – they deserve to finish fifth.

For England then, ‘il cucchiaio di legno’, Italian for wooden spoon. It’s some fall, and they look a joyless bunch.

Bonus point

If France do beat Scotland with a bonus point and by more than 20 points next Friday to wrest the title from Wales, then they’ll deserve it. It would also mean that apart from England beating France, everybody will have beaten the teams below them.

Yet whatever happens next Friday, each of the top four will have their ‘what if’ moments. Wales, most obviously will rue the tip of the ball landing on the touch-in-goal line to deny Louis Rees-Zammit their bonus point try. Inches? More like centimetres. Or Luke Pearce not going back to award a penalty try from their rolling maul, or the phenomenal Charles Ollivon somehow preventing Gareth Davies from scoring.

France could look back to any number of moments, such as the ball bouncing away from Mathieu Jalibert from Antoine Dupont’s chip in Twickenham, and, perhaps, being more secure in their bubble?

Scotland will lament mucking up a try when 17-8 ahead against Wales as well as Zander Ferguson’s red card and Owen Watkin’s tap tackle on Duhan van der Merwe in the last play of round two.

And Ireland? Peter O’Mahony’s red card and Billy Burns’ penalty missing touch in Cardiff, James Lowe’s foot brushing the whitewash and Luke Pearce missing a couple of French offsides in the last play.

Ireland’s four performances before last Saturday’s revitalising win over England had not been a barren dessert. There had been a clear attempt to play with more width, to seek out space, to move on from the recycling game with a more varied kicking game, and not just against Italy.

But against England, perhaps achieving the perfect emotional pitch in light of CJ Stander’s announcement, the performance was undoubtedly the most consistent in its execution.

What followed was a signature win, the best against one of world’s big rugby countries since 2018, which will provide affirmation within the playing squad and management that they’re on the right track, and turn down the critical noise until at least the autumn.

Aside from the echo chambers, the tournament wasn’t without its other downsides. The tallies of four red cards and 14 yellows were both predictable and unwanted tournament highs which distorted too many games.

On balance, the four sending-offs were all deserved, although one had the most sympathy for Bundee Aki as he did bend his knees to make himself lower to the ground while remaining as strong as he could when Billy Vunipola came charging at him. Just before contact, Vunipola dipped and led with his head.

Then again, the head has to be sacrosanct, whether that’s in the tackle or the clear-out. After all, after the four players who departed with HIAs in the Wales-Ireland opener, another three did so in last Saturday’s game at the Aviva (Vunipola, David Kilcoyne and Owen Farrell) which is disturbing.

Deliberate intent

Yet, by comparison, there appeared to be far more deliberate intent in what Ellis Genge did when pressing his elbow into the head of Johnny Sexton while on the ground. Some of the antics under Jones, and his own utterances, have never made England especially appealing, and this mentality has manifest itself in conceding 67 penalties.

Unfortunately, too, social online abusers had their say, whether to Sonja McLaughlan, post-match interviewer par excellence, the aforementioned Genge, or Liam Williams, and Twitter and co allow them to do so. Have this scum always been with us?

But on the rugby pitch, the most disappointing aspect of all has probably been Italy, as evidenced by 67 penalties conceded (many of them daft), seven yellow cards, 143 missed tackles and 34 tries leaked. They’ve actually attacked with some style at times, but appear to have overlooked the basics, and no rugby team has a hope without solid foundations.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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