Gerry Thornley: Six Nations hits high notes on pitch but Aviva atmosphere lacks again

Using the PA system at times to awaken the ground was a little embarrassing

The Six Nations has its imperfections. Most obviously, there's the odd number of games, but the only way of rectifying that is with a 10-game, home-and-away format, and no-one wants that.

Ultimately though, it does feel as if this year's final table tells no lies. For sure, it would be nice see how things might have panned out had Ireland been at home to France, or for that matter had Johnny Sexton played (or had they opted to kick "that" penalty to the corner). But that round-two collision felt like the title decider before, during and after - and so it proved.

Even so, the tournament had a fitting climax, with Ange Capuozzo teeing up Edoardo Padovani's late try against Wales and the match-winning conversion from Paolo Garbisi. Though only 21, Garbisi has played 18 times already for the Azzurri and in that time had only been on the winning side once, against Uruguay. No wonder he sank to the turf and cried.

Ireland secured a 12th Triple Crown and a fourth bonus-point win to finish six points better off than in any other campaign since this system was introduced in 2017, bar the 2018 Grand Slam.

The IRFU need to look at ways of heightening the atmosphere with pre-match and interval entertainment

Alas, once again the Aviva atmosphere paled by comparison to Stade de France or Twickenham. One French visitor last Saturday observed it was more like an outdoor pub, such was the constant traffic with trays in the aisles. With a 21-year deal with the bars in place, that isn’t going to change, but the IRFU need to look at ways of heightening the atmosphere with pre-match and interval entertainment, rather than occasionally using the PA system to awaken the ground. That was a little embarrassing.

By contrast, the the PA system was turned off in Paris to allow the crowd to sing La Marseillaise without musical accompaniment before the game, which was even spine-tingling on television. It was also sung regularly throughout before the joyous celebrations afterwards, which shows how much a Grand Chelem meant to French rugby.

As Sam Warburton has said, the Six Nations is an amazing tournament and Eddie Jones’s constant references to the World Cup are disrespectful to the Championship.

For sure, France’s first Grand Slam and title in a dozen years can also be viewed within the prism of hosting a World Cup next year. Coaches and players had said they had to win a title before then. Withstanding England’s aerial onslaught and stronger second-half, and most of all the pressure and ensuing nerves which were evident in Stade de France was imperative.

Fabien Galthie and his coaching ticket set about building a new, young team in the 2020 Six Nations with next year's World Cup in mind. But they treated the 2022 Six Nations as a stand-alone tournament rather than some kind of World Cup dry run.

France were virtually injury-free and the most settled team throughout the tournament, using the least amount of players and making the least amount of changes.

Interestingly, the starting XV that played against England on Saturday night was the same team which beat New Zealand in November save for the return of hooker Julien Marchand, injured then.

But France needed that title more than anybody. With the best coaching ticket they’ve ever had and a system finally geared toward its international team, as well as having a blend of powerful forwards and X-factor backs, this French team is feeling the love of their public again.

The greats

That said, while Ireland may be a tad Sexton-dependent, this French team (and Toulouse) are fairly Antoine Dupont-dependent too. That tends to happen with great players, even in great teams. Even so, Dan Sheehan came of age, Jamison Gibson-Park took his game to a new level and Mack Hansen was unearthed, while Michael Lowry became the 25th new cap and 61st player used by Andy Farrell since becoming head coach.

There’s also been quite a contrast in how the two best teams have played. France kicked the most metres by a distance and passed the least (568 times), if also offloading the most. Ireland passed the most (1,047 times) and kicked the least, while also making the most carries and the most metres.

France like to pin sides back with their long kicking game and invite them to run at their all-enveloping defence. Come into the parlour said the spider to the fly. But they can explode suddenly into life, especially when transitioning off counters or turnovers.

Ireland’s ambitious and evolving ball-in-hand game is also being played off the quickest ruck ball in this Six Nations. Mistakes are inevitable, if frustratingly so last Saturday, and ultimately their opening performance against Wales was probably their most complete, albeit there were brilliant patches in the Stade de France and Twickenham.

But this certainly doesn’t feel like any kind of peak. There’s more growth and the most exacting tour ever undertaken by an Irish side in the pro era, a three-Test, five-match tour to New Zealand next July, should only facilitate that.

Positives

So positives aplenty for France, Ireland and even Italy by the end. Their Under-20s won three matches for the first time and the prospect of scrumhalf Alessandro Garbisi partnering his brother in the Azzurri cannot be too far away.

Less so for England, Wales and Scotland. The RFU's statement of faith in Eddie Jones will probably be quietly welcomed by prospective opponents.

Scottish issues off the pitch have contributed to another anti-climactic campaign on it, and while their regions have improved, their Under-20s’ tournament was deflating.

Ditto Wales, whose Under-20s managed one win over Scotland. That last year’s title winners were within a whisker of beating France before losing at home to Italy a week later is classic Six Nations, but this campaign has exposed the gaping cracks in their regions. By contrast, not much was expected of the Irish Under-20s, yet were it not for the pandemic this might have been the third Grand Slam in four years.

Akin to Farrell’s team, they had forwards with footwork and handling skills and the highlights were manifold: Charlie Tector’s match-winning conversion in France, Aitzol King’s wondrous second try against England and Matthew Devine’s finish when dropping the ball onto his feet after another mazy, balanced run by Chay Mullins.

Plenty of people in Irish rugby are clearly doing plenty of things very well indeed.

gthornley@irishtimes.com