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Gerry Thornley’s Six Nations review - No turning back for England as Wales emerge as the problem child

France look to have turned a corner while Scotland continue to have an over-inflated view of their performances

After three rounds it was an unexceptional Six Nations, whereupon suddenly words such as vintage and exhilarating have been used liberally to describe the 2024 edition of the competition.

“I think everyone was delighted with our loss last week,” noted Andy Farrell wryly in the aftermath of Ireland’s win over Scotland which retained their title, and that Twickenham defeat certainly seems to have been the catalyst for the revisionism.

Ireland’s record win in France on opening night was probably the best 80-minute team display, albeit the best two rounds were kept to the last two weekends.

“But what a story with Italy as well,” added Farrell. “That’s why I said what a game that was for us to be able to get the bonus point against them given the progress that they’ve shown.

“I think it’s fantastic that it goes to the last day and that’s all we want to do, trying to be in with a shout and we’ve managed to do that.”

Ireland won easing up by their own lofty standards but this was yet another reminder that no Six Nations Championship is ever linear. The final table doesn’t convey the championship’s competitiveness, witness 10 of the 15 games being decided by four points or less, including all three in the final round. And that is what sets it apart.

Ireland were up there to be shot at and analysed, and to become only the third side in the era of the Six Nations to back up a Slam with a title is some achievement.

Ireland

By almost all metrics they were emphatic champions again, with the most tries scored, the least conceded, the best points differential (+84 - with France next best on +6) and the most line breaks.

Granted, the rate of tries (five per game) and clean breaks (ten per game) declined from the first three rounds to two and three per game in the last two rounds, amid signs that England and Scotland had worked out their multi-phase attack.

But Farrell and Mike Catt/Andrew Goodman (the latter will be an observer in South Africa) know they will need to add tweaks to their attacking game.

Joe McCarthy, Jack Crowley, Calvin Nash and Ciarán Frawley have been blooded fairly seamlessly, and under either Simon Easterby or Paul O’Connell next season - as Farrell is on Lions duty - Ireland will have the goal of becoming the first side to win three outright titles in succession.

Before then, the sterner, shorter, sharper test series awaits in the summer, followed by a tasty Autumn Nations Series.

France

In their post-World Cup hungover state, France’s adopted homes in Marseille, Lille and Lyon brought more to the party than the team itself, with their pre-match pyrotechnics putting the other five hosts in the shade.

Fabien Galthié was a fortunate coach to not be on three defeats from three, which, with better officiating in the endgames of their win in Murrayfield and draw at home to Italy, would have been the case. Then, by accident more than design, He finally gave the team an infusion of fresh blood in Nicolas Depoortere, Leo Barre, and most of all the 20-year-old Racing scrumhalf Nolann le Garrec, who provided a hint of Antoine Dupont.

Talent aplenty, but the French rugby media and public are still not entirely convinced.

England

The World Cup semi-final probably created inordinately high expectations. Cue their lack of ambition and robotic kicking game in the narrow wins over Italy and Wales, and in the defeat in Murrayfield.

But England turned a corner with a statement performance and win against Ireland and after scoring six tries against the bottom three sides, they scored seven against the top two. The brutally tough George Martin and athletic Ollie Chessum have been real finds as has George Furbank, among a clutch of fine young players. There can be no turning back now although the calendar year still includes three clashes with New Zealand and one against South Africa.

Scotland

Yet again flattered to deceive, and again seemed to have an over-inflated view of themselves. They should maybe imagine all opponents wear white, but having left a win behind against France and beaten England for a fourth time, they gave a distracted performance against Italy and were punished accordingly.

It was a fine defensive shift against Ireland, but they’ve even lost a little of their attacking identity, witness that kick tennis against France, and all their attacking stats were down on last season, while they had a deficit of 30 in their cumulative penalty count.

The thought occurred, perhaps more than ever, that too much goes through Finn Russell and he certainly missed Sione Tuipulotu, who’s a reference point for their attack. Their Under-20s cannot buy a win either.

Italy

Ended a run of nine wooden spoons and despite finishing fifth, completing this tournament with a draw and two wins represents the Azzurri’s best ever Six Nations in terms of pure results. What’s more, after their closest result ever against England, had Paolo Garbissi’s last-ditch penalty against France not hit the posts, after falling off the tee, or had Christophe Ridley and his officials imposed the laws, Italy would have finished second!

Gonzalo Quesada, a former outhalf, contender for coach of the tournament, has brought a more balanced and pragmatic game management, as well as defence and fitness levels which are unrecognisable. There’s also plenty of good young talent in Michael Lamaro, Tommaso Menoncello, Ange Capuozzo et al, and with the Under-20 talent coming through, the Azzurri look like they’ve finally arrived.

No more talk of them being replaced by Georgia or South Africa now.

Wales

Could ill afford the worst injury toll before the tournament given a relatively golden generation has exposed the serious lack of depth. Some young players have done well, like Dafydd Jenkins, Tommy Reffell and Cameron Winnett, but collectively the team is too callow and one ventures Wales appreciate Dan Biggar even more in hindsight.

No doubting their spirit, but after the rousing comeback against Scotland and strong first half in Twickenham, have fallen away badly to be beaten up by France and largely outplayed by Italy. They failed to score a point in four separate halves of rugby. Whereas Ireland have won 12 of their last 13 Six Nations games, Wales have now lost 12 of their last 13. The tournament’s new problem child. Grim times.

Too bad - Paolo Garbisi hitting the upright with the last kick of the game in their draw with France.

That was bad enough in itself, worse still were the French players Francois Cros and Sebastien Taofifenua each running forward separately as the ball fell of its tee before it was re-positioned.

World Rugby’s laws regarding penalties clearly state “the opposing team must stand still with their hands by their sides from the time the kicker starts to approach to kick until the ball is kicked.”

Law 8.227 adds: “If the opposing team infringes while the kick is being taken but the kick at goal is successful, the goal stands and a further penalty is not awarded. If the kick is unsuccessful, the non-offending team is awarded a penalty 10 metres in front of the original mark.”

For Wayne Barnes to suggest that the Italians should have complained about the French indiscretions to referee Christophe Ridley was risible. There’s more than enough dialogue with referees, as he ought to know, and it was up to Ridley and the officials to apply the laws.

Admittedly, it was a tricky one for all concerned.

Too Good - Dan Sheehan’s try v France in Marseille.

There were some questionable calls from TMOs, who should be more empowered to over-rule on-field decisions that are errantly wrong. Ben Whitehouse reversing a penalty against France to penalise Jack Crowley for taking out the airborne Gael Fickou - when Crowley actually won the ball fairly - was an absolute shocker.

This meant an attacking French lineout inside the Irish 22 rather than vice versa and was quickly followed by Paul Gabrillagues being awarded a close-range finish when there was no clear evidence of a touchdown. Jamison Gibson-Park had seemingly prevented the lock’s grounding. What’s more, Peter O’Mahony was also wrongly binned for pulling down the maul.

All of which might have led to more recriminations but, unbothered, Ireland regrouped, James Lowe forced a turnover in defence and Ireland opted to kick to the corner with a seven-point lead. Dan Sheehan hit Joe McCarthy and as the Irish drive dispersed the French pack into pieces, Sheehan peeled off to score Ireland’s bonus point try, Crowley adding the touchline conversion.

That made it 31-17. A statement score and game over.

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