Just after half-time of the opening game of this year’s 6 Nations rugby championship Wales were trailing Ireland by 30 points to 3 in Cardiff. You could be forgiven for thinking that one of these countries will be contending for the title while the other will struggle to win a game in the tournament and you would be correct. Fast forward six weeks and we find ourselves at Cardiff again on the final day of the championship with the score again 30 to 3. However, this time it is Wales who are winning not only the game but also the 6 Nations title by destroying England at the Millennium stadium. Earlier in the afternoon on the other hand Ireland have lost for the first time ever in the 6 Nations to Italy having been unable to win another game since the opening day.
What happened between the opening 44 minutes of the season in Cardiff and the final euphoric moment in the same stadium? Who would have thought that the try Wales conceded just after the interval against Ireland would be the last scored against them in the tournament? The Welsh set a record in the 6 Nations for not conceding a try. Something happened in that opening game which changed the momentum. Wales fought back from that 27 point deficit against the Irish with a tremendous display and nearly snatched an unlikely victory. It was as if they had nothing to lose. They were facing an eighth straight international defeat but almost salvaged something from the game. That gave them the confidence to go to Paris and win against a poor French team and from there the momentum continued with victories against Italy and Scotland.
Such was the Welsh improvement that I couldn’t see England coming to Cardiff and winning. England may have won all of their games in the championship but in the previous two games had struggled to beat France and Italy, only doing so through good kicking and fortuitous refereeing. They couldn’t score tries and were facing a Welsh team that didn’t concede them. A young England team were going into a cauldron of a stadium where the atmosphere would be intense. It was no surprise that the Welsh rose to the occasion and England were taken apart. However, as the English gain experience I expect them to win the title before long.
Scotland had their best 6 nations for years. A new coach seemed to work some sort of magic whereby the Scots could win games despite having little possession. The victory against Ireland after being totally outplayed for much of the game was one of the biggest thefts I have ever seen in international rugby.
Italy won two games for only the second time in 6 nations history. They were inspired at times at home and gave England a real fright at Twickenham. There is still a tendency to self-destruct occasionally but the signs are better.
Ireland had incredible bad luck with injuries. What appeared to be a new generation of exciting players coming through was stopped in its tracks. I have never known a team lose so many players in five games. Ireland need the new players to come through as they are an ageing team. The older generation will surely go, along with their coach, before the next championship.
And what about France. They came into the tournament as favourites having played well in the autumn internationals but finished bottom of the table with a solitary victory. How could that happen? They have a great array of talent in the backs but the selection policy of their coach seemed to be to put their names into a hat and draw the positions at random. So many players seemed to be in the wrong positions that they didn’t know what they were doing. It seemed that they might beat England but after sixty minutes substitutions were made that replaced the players who had been doing the best. It seemed to me that these had been decided before the game and no account was taken of what was happening in the game itself. A coach has to have the flexibility to adapt to the circumstances.
The title of this post about first appearances not only refers to the ultimate winners but also to the quality of the rugby. After the first week of the championship where adventurous rugby and tries abounded people were declaring it the finest opening week ever seen in the 6 nations. At the end of the tournament where tries dried up so much that a new record low was set those same commentators are calling it the worst 6 nations ever.
What happened? I think the answer to that is linked to the destiny of the Welsh team. In the first week the players haven’t been together long and the defences haven’t really clicked. In those first games attacking play was rewarded as the defences couldn’t cope. As the tournament progressed the defences, which have been very well coached, work better and better and it is very hard to break them down. Nowhere was this better illustrated than by Wales who looked a shambles in the first 44 minutes of the tournament but impregnable thereafter.
So a disappointing tournament after a bright beginning. The best team won the title and showed that it is possible to turn around the most hopeless start into a glorious conclusion.