Ireland’s Slam success – Six Nations 2018 Review
The Guinness flowed in London on St Patrick’s Day as Ireland defeated England at Twickenham to win the Six Nations and complete a Grand Slam, only the third in their history.
Italy, meanwhile, pushed Scotland all the way in Rome, but a late Greig Laidlaw penalty edged a 29-27 victory for Gregor Townsend’s side.
And in Cardiff, Wales defied expectation to finish second in the Championship courtesy of a 14-13 victory over France.
Before the tournament there were plenty of questions yet to be answered ahead of next year’s World Cup in Japan and many were addressed during this year’s tournament.
Another Wooden Spoon for the Italians, but this was to be expected. The Azzurri gave Scotland quite a fright on the final day but otherwise provided little threat throughout the tournament.
Head coach Conor O’Shea and his staff could not spring any more surprises like they did against England in 2017, but one particularly positive note was the breakthrough of Matteo Minozzi.
The full-back only made his first start for Italy against England – having made his debut last November – but was a constant nuisance to opposition defences with his pace and handling proving difficult to stop.
Following the tournament opener against England, the 21-year-old scored tries in four consecutive matches – the first Italian to do so – and was deservedly nominated for the player of the tournament.
While Italy may have progressed as a team, so has everyone else. And with Scotland’s strong performances this year the Italians have been left behind as the only ‘easy’ game in the fixture list.
Next year will be their 20th appearance in the Six Nations, so they must disrupt those at the top of the table if they are to quash the on-going calls for promotion and relegation.
On paper, it appears that England are in a crisis.
This was their lowest finish for 35 years in a tournament that included a first loss to Scotland in 10 years and a first Six Nations defeat at Twickenham since 2012.
Head coach Eddie Jones had only lost once with England before the tournament and confidence was high with a young, talented squad capable of beating anyone.
So what went wrong?
Damage was done in the first game against Italy. Ben Youngs limped off and the scrum-half was ruled out for the rest of the Championship with damaged knee ligaments.
His replacement, Danny Care, is a firecracker of a player but most effective when brought on for the final 20 minutes. When playing from the start the 31-year-old tends to fizzle out, such are the demands of international rugby.
England no longer had their metronomic No.9 to keep the forwards and backs ticking to the same rhythm but the problems go deeper.
Injuries did play a part. The absence of No.8 Billy Vunipola was noted, and while Exeter Chiefs pair Sam Simmonds and Dom Armand, along with Sam Underhill, performed admirably they did not have the same devastating effect as the Saracen with ball in hand.
Jones said following the Ireland defeat “some players may struggle to participate in future”. After a succession of losses, perhaps change is necessary, but worryingly there are few players demanding to be brought into the squad.
Back row James Haskell and Richard Wigglesworth seem to be nearing the end of their international journey, but they are not integral players.
This could well be another lesson in man-management from Jones, that no player, no matter how experienced, is assured of caps.
The captaincy debate will linger and this needs to be sorted quickly. Jamie George continues to pressure current skipper Dylan Hartley for the No.2 shirt, but whether Jones will pull the trigger and ask the Northampton man to step down, relinquishing both the captaincy and starting hooker position, is a question only the Australian can answer.
Owen Farrell seems a likely replacement for the captaincy, so a contingency plan is in place. Now it is up to Jones to make a decision. Soon.
One positive that France can take away from this year’s Six Nations is that in the opening match they took eventual Grand Slam champions Ireland all the way.
Celebrations in Dublin would have been very different had Johnny Sexton failed in his last-play drop goal attempt.
A win in Le Crunch against England will always satisfy the demanding French supporters, but there were undertones of discontent.
Fans fondly remember the days of Didier Camberabero and Phillipe Saint-Andre, whose individual sparks would combine and explode into attacking moves that few teams could defend.
Even Freddie Michalak could get the Stade de France on its feet with his extraordinary vision and passing play.
But the Les Bleus seemed to neglect these qualities for which they were so revered. They seem unwilling to be daring or as brave as French teams have been in the past. The victory against Italy in Marseille highlighted this. Two opportunities to kick deep into the opposition 22 were overlooked with the three points being seen as the better option.
France won the game but could not muster a fourth try that would have given them an extra bonus point.
Head coach Jacques Brunel inherited a team lacking confidence and an identity of how they wanted to play. The use of electric runners such as Teddy Thomas clashed with midfield brutes like Mathieu Bastareaud, but the 64-year-old has at least found a way to win big games.
This ability to beat top teams will be very useful in 18 months time.
Gregor Townsend’s side were seen as the wildcard going into the tournament.
Stunning victories, both home and away, came against Australia in 2017, and Murrayfield nearly collapsed last autumn when Stuart Hogg’s dash to the line in the last play against the All Blacks was cut short to deny them an astonishing win over the world champions.
But Scottish optimism was severely tested during their opening match against Wales. 14-0 after 13 minutes in Cardiff, and the away supporters forgot previous successes. The match ended 34-7 in the hosts’ favour, a flattering scoreline when you consider Scotland scored their try and conversion in the 79th minute.
However, as the tournament progressed, Scotland’s central players took responsibility. Captain John Barclay was magnificent as his side beat England to win the Calcutta Cup for the first time in 10 years.
His work at the breakdown was similar to that of Richie McCaw or Michael Hooper as England simply could not force penalties or achieve the quick ball needed to unleash the backs.
When 10-6 to Scotland, England were launching an attack into the opposition 22 but Barclay dug, forcing the turnover which ultimately lead to Huw Jones breaking the line once again and floating a pass out wide for Sean Maitland to score.
Jones was another who made a difference and is becoming the prolific try scorer his country has lacked. 10 touchdowns in 15 international appearances does not flatter him.
And when tries were not available Greig Laidlaw kicked perfectly whenever called upon. Against France his kicking was flawless, notching eight from eight including six penalties. The 32-26 scoreline in favour of Scotland was almost entirely thanks to their scrum-half.
The Scots certainly made their presence known having been slightly anonymous in previous years. If they continue to take down tournament front runners, soon enough they will become one themselves.
2018 was always going to be a year of experimentation for Warren Gatland’s side.
No longer could their previous style of narrow, forwards-based rugby be used as effectively as in the past. Change was necessary.
And this change required reinforcement. Hadleigh Parkes provided the oomph in midfield that has been missing since Jamie Roberts’ departure from the international scene.
Meanwhile Steff Evans gave a good account of himself as he continues to find his feat in Test rugby. Five tries in nine appearances so far – including a stunning one-handed finish against Scotland in the first round – put him on scoring parity with the great Shane Williams. Still a long way to go however…
The winger, and those inside him, were put to good use as Wales’ more expansive play got results, but fortune was integral to their success.
Wales were gifted all of their points in the 14-13 victory over France, and Francois Trinh-Duc’s missed penalty handed the Welsh a fortunate win in Cardiff.
However, no conversation regarding Welsh rugby can omit the forwards. Captain Alun Wyn Jones inspired his team once again, commanding the line-out with few problems, while back row Aaron Shingler caught the eye, combining ease with ball in hand whilst also doing the dirty work at the breakdown.
Gatland will be satisfied with his team’s work this year but the New Zealander will demand much more before he leaves his role after the World Cup.
Under Joe Schmidt, Ireland are the real deal.
The Kiwi’s side have overtaken England and are now second in the world rankings, and can now expect to be present during the latter stages of next year’s World Cup.
They entered the tournament with a settled squad – only one uncapped player was included – but it was the relatively new Jacob Stockdale who lit up Championship.
The winger scored seven tries – a tournament record – in his first Six Nations campaign, and now has as many tries as he has caps 10 matches into his international career.
But the entire team welded together, all doing exactly what was required to win. While Stockdale was crossing the whitewash, Keith Earls provided invaluable experience on the other wing, and his try-saving tackle on Elliot Daly – tapping his heels – denied England a near-certain try.
Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton showed their usual class.
This was expected but they still had a job to do. Murray marshalled the Irish forwards for over 40 phases before Sexton lashed over a drop-goal from 40m in the final play to defeat France in the first round. Very few half back combinations in the world could replicate that.
And up front, Tadgh Furlong held the Irish scrum firm, allowing CJ Stander to carry from No.8. His 96 carries throughout the Championship was the second most in tournament history, only behind the 104 the Munsterman himself made last year.
Both led the pack along with captain and hooker Rory Best to make Ireland one of the most complete teams in the world right now.
Japan 2019 can’t come soon enough.