Gerry Thornley: Six Nations defences still on top despite bonus points

Tournament of close contests was hardly vintage but compellingly tribal as ever

Elliot Daly’s late try for England against Wales at the Principality Stadium clinched the only away win outside Rome in this season’s Six Nations tournament. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Elliot Daly’s late try for England against Wales at the Principality Stadium clinched the only away win outside Rome in this season’s Six Nations tournament. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

Small margins, small margins, small margins. These became the buzzwords of the 2017 Six Nations, replacing momentum and other words which had been de rigueur before. Yet, if ever a championship underlined how fine indeed the margins are, then it was surely this one. 

Consider this: but for the brilliant counter-attacking try inspired by George Ford and Owen Farrell and finished off by Elliot Daly in the 76th minute that clinched England’s win over Wales in the Principality Stadium in round two, there would have been no away win in this year’s Six Nations outside of Rome.

The Eternal City apart, home wins ruled.

All told there were 11 in the 15 matches, a record since the Five Nations became Six Nations in 2000. In other words, the five contenders for the title would all have beaten each other at home, and but for the advent of the bonus-point system, would have finished in a five-way tie on six points. It would have the first time for this to happen since all 10 matches in 1973 ended as home wins, ensuring a five-way share of the title on four points apiece.

Much of this had been flagged by the November window. England had maintained their winning run with a quartet of victories. Ireland won three out of four, including the historic first victory over the All Blacks and a defeat of Australia. France had shown signs of a rejuvenation in one-score defeats to New Zealand and Australia. Scotland won two of three, beating Argentina and losing by a point to Australia. Wales won three of four.

Nearly all of this was done at home, and so the formlines continued through a compellingly tribal, if hardly vintage Six Nations. In the heel of the hunt, there were few truly memorable performances, the kind to truly scare New Zealand, with only England’s 61-21 dissection of a ball-watching, out-of-sync Scottish defence scaling the heights.

Outstanding defensive performances, such as those by England away to Wales and Wales at home to Ireland, and to a lesser extent Ireland in the second-half at home to England, stood out, with Italy’s no-ruck tactic about the most memorably innovative tactical ploy of the tournament.

That was Italy’s most memorable contribution, although it had been their misfortune to meet Ireland in backlash mood, and while the Azzuri have the proverbial mountain to climb, Conor O’Shea was always going to need time.

Tightness of the matches

So much for the bonus-point system. It’s worth noting that the six losing bonus points reflected the tightness of the matches – six of them being one-score games – and also out-numbered the five bonus points for scoring four tries or more. And four of those five were at the expense of Italy, with only Wales missing out when Italy were at their most competitive on the opening weekend at home.  

Indeed, the 66 tries scored during the 2017 Six Nations was down on the 71 scored last year, rather undermining the more trenchant supporters of the bonus-point system.

England were deserving winners again, even if the nature of their defeat to Ireland supported those who contended that their 61-21 win over Scotland said more about the Scots’ shortcomings that day. Their performance levels were not worthy of back-to-back Grand Slam champions or 19-in-a-row history makers.

But Eddie Jones will probably learn more from that first defeat than the previous 17 wins he has presided over. With their under-20s and full-time women’s team winning Grand Slams, English rugby looks in rude health. Their strength in depth remains unequalled, as does their array of dynamic forwards and strike runners. They remain the standard-bearers. For seven seasons in a row they have been in the top two, and the truism will almost certainly apply again next season – finish above England and you win the title.

Ireland are worthy runners-up, even if they’ll see the 2017 Championship as a missed opportunity. Beating the second best side in the world, to augment wins over the first and third this season, re-affirms their ability to beat any side in the world. That will feed into the provinces, and the emergence of Tadhg Furlong and Garry Ringrose were major boons.

Ireland also rescued a final weekend after the lamentable fare of the ‘fifth quarter’ in Paris. Imagine if that had been one of those horrid Friday night games? Hopefully, we’ve seen the back of them.

Revival

Damien Chouly’s 100th-minute try was only France’s eighth of the tournament, but Camille Lopez’s conversion ensured France finished in the top half for the first time in six years and confirmed signs of that revival under Guy Novès. They did try to play with more invention after the lost years under Philippe Saint-André, and as forecast, Baptiste Serin and Kevin Gourdon were real finds.

Similarly, Scotland remained upwardly mobile under Vern Cotter, recording three home wins, even if these were intermingled with a record defeat in Twickenham and a deserving defeat in Paris. The creativity of Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg ensured they took nearly every try-scoring chance that came their way, and their total of 14 tries was Scotland’s highest since the Five Nations became Six Nations, and more than in the three campaigns from 2011 to 2013 combined.

Cotter also has the highest winning ratio of any Scottish head coach since 2000 as well. So the SRU let him go. Go figure.

The net effect was that Wales, a team festooned with Lions, became the best side in Six Nations history, to finish fifth; as a good side was doomed to do. Had Wales held on against France, admittedly that might have taken a sixth quarter the way Wayne Barnes was refereeing the game, and Ireland then lost to England, it would have been Ireland to finish fifth.

Eh, small margins?

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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