An admission is due. I got it entirely wrong about the 2021 Six Nations.
To be fair, after the awful Autumn Nations Cup, it was a widespread belief we were headed to a dire and turgid championship this spring. The great old tournament looked shabbier than usual.
It’s never the greatest – at least in the modern era – in terms of spectacular rugby, of course. But with empty stadia taking away any aspect of tension, this was even more obvious, we thought.
A triumph, against the odds
Wales then followed up with a record points haul against England. Scotland and Ireland had a madcap, mistake-riddled but fabulously exciting game. Again, imagine that with a crowd present.
Ireland even opened out. Yes, that’s not a typo or misprint. France lost to England with a last-gasp try, and then won themselves the next week with a final-play try. The drama was double or triple the usual dose.
There are some caveats. Italy, obviously. The situation whereby France effectively manipulated their own incompetence with Covid-19 protocols into a sizeable advantage going into Friday’s rescheduled game against Scotland leaves a bad taste.
But if you’d only be surprised if you haven’t been watching France’s Machiavellian politicking in World Rugby this last decade or so.
I read now in some places about a “crisis” in the championship. Seriously, I’d take this ultra-competitive and exciting Six Nations, with seven games being decided by five points or less and four by three points or less, over the usual plain sailing any day.
The Jammy Slam?
France conjured a brilliant team try with the clock red to deny Wales another, and perhaps their most unlikely, Grand Slam.
There was no warning to Wales’ rise this year. They were comfortably the worst of the four home nations in 2020, and the murmurings about Wayne Pivac were more than just a low hum.
For some, the “good fortune” of a couple of red cards that probably wouldn’t have exercised the TMO 18 months ago – but absolutely rightly do now – sent them on their way. Talk of the Jammy Slam prior to last Saturday night’s game in Paris brought some infantile delight to Wales’ detractors as it infuriated those in the valleys.
Neither should be bothered. For the envious, we all should have such good fortune, and in the cliché to end all argument, you make your own luck.
Wales maybe should have been buried before half-time at Murrayfield, maybe they shouldn’t have been staked to a lead against England with a couple of questionable decisions. But they won both games deservedly by their own considerable resilience and will.
As for the Welsh, I know it’s cruel of me to ask them to break the national habit of a lifetime, but stop being so sensitive. You’ve won multiple Grand Slams in recent times, and you have all the respect you can use.
The Triple Clown
Of course, those looking for infantile delight can gorge themselves on England’s hubris. After their triumphant 2020, the aspirant “best team in the world” finished a long way fourth and lost to all their three home nation cousins for the first time since the 1970s.
Rampant indiscipline and an over-rigidness to their gameplan were the keys. And you have to wonder whether Eddie Jones’ public profile is such a good thing.
Tired of being playfully disrespectful to the opposition – possibly on the grounds it kept backfiring so spectacularly – Eddie turned on the media for merely reporting what he said.
When things sour as badly as this it’s hard to see a way back. Eddie got the benefit of the doubt for a similar campaign in 2018 and led England to the World Cup final. Does he get a third chance?
It’s excruciating that Scotland can bring out the fireworks, and then in an instant point them at themselves. We addressed this fluctuation of form, a constant in Gregor Townsend’s regime, in last week’s column.
Going into Friday, Scotland have lost two games by the sum total of four points. You could look at that half-full or half-empty, but we’ve heard “almost there” too often to be too reassured.
What skews the championship’s competitiveness, of course, is Italy’s plight. They conceded a record number of tries and points in completing a sixth successive whitewash.
However the multi-million CVC deal ties the Italians into the championship for five years, so they’re not going anywhere. I’m not sure Georgia would fare any better, although they probably deserve a shot.
Italy’s idea to go with their young players is admirable and long-term, probably the right one. But it doesn’t take a great deal to develop a defensive structure that’s halfway competent. They should ask defensive guru Shaun Edwards for his price, and pay him.