Source: ©INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

End of Term – The Six Nations 2020

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We shouldn’t let this truncated campaign pass by without giving a huge thank-you to everybody involved, especially the players.

Along with almost every activity we can think of, the Six Nations programme has come to an abrupt halt. We can only guess when normal service can be resumed. The 2020 version has been left in tatters, with little likelihood of it finding completion; but we must pay tribute to the efforts put in along the way. There has been huge enjoyment for the thousands of fans who attended the matches and for those watching from home.

How did the competing teams get on?

Wales

The Welsh presented the strangest sequence of events of all the six nations. It is still not known why Rowland Phillips took time away from his duties, nor why he was replaced by a triumvirate of coaches, Chris Horsman, Gareth Wyatt and Geraint Lewis. At various times Horsman was described as ‘Head Coach’, but that seems to have been misapplied; the three shared duties. After the Twickenham Stoop match it was Wyatt who attended the media conference with the captain Siwan Lillicrap.

And mention of her name leads directly to another central question. Why the disappearance of leading players like Sioned Harries and the former captain, Carys Phillips, daughter of the outgoing coach? The official line was that the door remained open to them; there was a need to develop new talent. But why was it closed in the first place? As the tournament developed experience proved to be a vital missing ingredient.

Eminent ex-internationals voiced their concerns about the turn of events. New talent is fine, but it needs wise heads alongside to point it in the right direction. Apart from the admirable Lillicrap, who was there to hold the tiller? It was unfortunate for Wales that Elinor Snowsill was another absentee. She missed much of the previous season, but this year her contributions would have been even more welcome. It left the team with an alarming lack of leaders to support the captain.

Beyond the level of individual selection, Wales reflected Irish problems over underlying structures. After Round 3 the ex-international Gemma Hallett voiced strong criticism over the WRU’s handling of women’s rugby. She pointed to ten years of inactivity. Bluntly put: ‘The WRU must be held accountable for having decimated senior rugby and performance pathways in the last decade, by design, with no accountability’. She called on them to commit to a progressive performance pathway for WRU Women.

Philippa Tuttiett, a former captain, has likewise taken issue with the short-sighted approach of the bosses.

The players themselves accepted the position they were in on the field. Against the professional England and and semi-professional France all they could do was front up and maintain the sternest face through an entire match. It’s great credit to them that they fought to the end. The pack did them proud and their tackle count over the four rounds lies way ahead of everyone else.

But they couldn’t tip matches in their favour.

Results:

Wales 15 Italy 19
Ireland 24 Wales 10
Wales 0 France 50
England 66 Wales 7

Wins: 0
Losses: 4

Ireland

Over the period 2010-2018 Ireland finished consistently in the top three of the championship, highlighted by two top places. Since then there has been a decline, caused partly by advances made by opposing nations, partly (in the view of many critics) by the ineptitude of the IRFU.

Two plusses have been the use of Energia Park Donnybrook for all home games and of a High Performance Centre at Abbotstown which allows the players to train and plan together.

The opening win over Scotland was a struggle. Ex-internationals shook their heads and said that fixture should never be a close-run thing, but in the current circumstances any win has to be welcomed with open arms. Things looked up with a convincing home defeat of Wales. This helped to redress the agonies of last year’s loss in Cardiff.

Like all the other amateur sides competing in the 6N, they were right up against it when they appeared at Doncaster. They leaked four tries in the first half, but it’s greatly to their credit that they limited England to a single try after the break. That is a great rarity in the present unequal set-up.

The IRFU says it has no plans for an immediate introduction of professional terms for women’s rugby. As with Scotland, the first target is qualification for RWC 2021. It is taking a long time for Irish rugby to return to its former glories, but the two wins over the Celtic rivals will revive spirits. As with them, this tournament was seen more as a staging-post on the road to World Cup qualification.

New or nearly-new faces decorated the team-lists, none more successful than Beibhinn Parsons whose finishing powers on the wing helped turn games in her side’s favour. On the other wing Aoife Doyle returned to 15s after six years with the 7s squad. Her previous link to 15s had been a championship win in 2015. There were enough other debutants of quality to raise hopes for a return to prosperity.

But it does help to have highly experienced players dotted around the field. Against England only three players boasted more than 30 caps.

Results:

Ireland 18 Scotland 14
Ireland 31 Wales 12
England 27 Ireland 0

Wins: 2
Losses: 1

Scotland

From the start in 1996 Scotland has been in a more parlous state than either Ireland or Wales.

All the high hopes created by the appointment of Philip Doyle as the new Head Coach and the successful tour of South Africa were deflated as the Thistles’ programme hardly got under way at all. In appalling weather they suffered yet another very close loss away from home, 14-18 to Ireland. From there fortune turned even more sharply against them. The clash with England was delayed by Storm Ciara, but only by a day. On a Monday lunchtime in an empty Murrayfield they had to put up with snow, wind and a dominant opposition.

They flew out to Italy as the coronavirus was beginning to strike its first blows, flew back with the game unplayed and suffered the anguish of one of their number falling victim to the virus. Good news came later that she was released from hospital. And they still have to qualify for the World Cup, though it’s anyone’s guess when we will reach that stage.

Of the 32 players called up for the campaign at least eighteen had felt it sensible to move to an English club to brighten their prospects. Until the SRU can raise standards at home, it will be difficult for Doyle to assemble his forces often enough to improve game-management.

They seem so close to take-off. They have fine players fore and aft, but not enough in the pack to develop domination. Doyle saw the size of the problem soon after arrival; he put in place a series of measures to improve fitness and skills. It’s a great pity that the efforts the squad have made have been thwarted by events.

When considering the efforts made to get the women’s programme on track, we shouldn’t overlook what has been called the ‘dysfunctionality’ of the SRU (theoffsideline.com), amid serious disputes between figures at the top of the Scottish rugby pile. At least Gemma Fay, Head of Women and Girls Rugby, is putting initiatives in place to boost her players’ chances.

Results:

Ireland 18 Scotland 14
Scotland 0 England 53

Wins: 0
Losses: 2

France

For a fifth time in succession les Bleues were unable to see off the challenge of the Red Roses. If it is true that the players themselves favour the type of contract they now enjoy, then we must accept their view. But the difference between a full and part-time contract is as great as between a part-time and none at all. The coaches felt they didn’t have enough time with their charges to offer them the level of expertise and cohesion the English were able to display on that memorable opening day in Pau.

Once more there was little daylight between the two sides, but ultimately it was French inaccuracies that lost them the game. Despite swarming all over the opposition in the last quarter, they failed to cross the line. They have so many fine players, but were the selections always the most appropriate? It’s hard to judge at this distance, but constant changes in personnel don’t help cohesion, especially if training sessions are at a premium.

Laure Sansus’ form at scrum-half was so fine (4 tries) that it seemed sensible to leave Pauline Bourdon at No 10; but she is less dominant there than at No 9. With the talented Gabrielle Vernier at No 12, that left them with a midfield link, 9-10-12, lacking in physical presence, if not high skill-sets, to take on the powerful trio of Daley-Mclean, Reed and Scarratt.

They avenged last year’s loss to Italy with a clear-cut win 45-10. They blew Wales away in Cardiff, but can only wish the schedule had worked out differently.
They now rank fourth in the world, 2 points behind Canada, but 7 behind England.

Results:

France 13 England 19
France 45 Italy 10
Wales 0 France 50

Wins: 2
Losses: 1

Italy

Like Scotland, they managed to complete only two games. Their fate was even worse since their nation was racked with the effects of the virus to a hardly imaginable extent. We can only wish all the Azzurre and their nation a speedy return to normal times.

On the rugby front: time was when an away win in Cardiff would have been greeted with rapture. These days the 4-point victory might seen as a bit disappointing. Let’s blame the TMO. Three times he denied the visitors a try in the first half; that must be getting close to a new world record. They swept through the second half, led by a dominant pack.

A second away game saw them put in their place by a rampant French side anxious to right the wrongs of their previous encounter in 2019.
With the European qualifying stages of the RWC now postponed, the Italians lose the main target they have been aiming for all season. They were many peoples’ favourites to overcome the efforts of Ireland, Scotland and Spain. Whichever nation wins through in the end – and the current lockdown makes that appear a long way off – it will deprive the watching world of many players who deserve to be taking part.

Results:

Wales 15 Italy 19
France 45 Italy 10

Wins: 1
Losses: 1

England

All the white-shirted professionals could do was accept the privileged position they were in, set themselves ever higher targets and entertain the large crowds who came to support them. They achieved this wonderfully with only a few hiccups along the way.

They knew the acid test was coming at the start of the campaign, an away match against the French. This became a riveting drama in the best weather the 2020 Six Nations could offer, the high 20s in early February! The six-point victory they achieved was the fifth in a row over their closest rivals. But that overlooks the stark fact that it was the first on French soil in eight years. Home wins have been the order of the day ever since the French managed a 20-30 victory at Twickenham in 2013. Away wins have proved the rarest of jewels.

This year’s schedule was tougher than last year’s, as it was England’s turn to play three games away from home, the first two in succession. With the one missing visit to Italy of Round 5, they can claim a moral Grand Slam, if not an actual one, since they have yet to lose to the Azzurre.

The one abiding question is: will they be good enough to defeat the Black Ferns on their own territory next year?

If we concentrate on one aspect, the answer is no: the set-scrum remains a weakness. All sorts of excuses can be made for it, including the absence of the first-choice locks Abbie Scott and Cath O’Donnell, and the inexperience of two of the current props, Shaunagh Brown and Hannah Botterman. Against France it was disrupted even with Vickii Cornborough and Sarah Bern in place. It’s taking a long time to find a totally secure solution.

But – Zoe Aldcroft and Poppy Cleall proved themselves worthy choices in the second row; indeed Aldcroft was one of only two players to be on the field for all the available 320 minutes and her haul of clean line-out takes placed her first in class. The need to deprive her of a break was both a tribute to her performance and an indication of the lack of alternatives. Of all the possible back-up players available in that position the selectors plumped for a promising 17-year-old, Morwenna Talling. She didn’t figure in any of the four squad line-ups. Nor was Rowena Burnfield brought in, a highly experienced operator in the back five. It was good to see Harriet Millar-Mills restored to a starting position; but that position remains variable. There is so much competition for places in the back row that she can’t be sure where she’ll be asked to play next time round: blind-side, No 8 or lock?

England have riches galore in this area: the skipper herself, Sarah Beckett, Poppy Cleall, Vicky Fleetwood, Marlie Packer, HM-M; then there’s Alex Matthews hovering in the background. Would England be prepared to go to New Zealand without her?

The Red Roses have such talent on board that the occasional embarrassment at scrum-time doesn’t affect their overall performance. There is enormous skill throughout the squad, and it doesn’t come purely from their professional status. England is lucky to possess players who would be first choices in any World XV to take on the Universe, and they are supported by players who are climbing ever nearer to their standards. Even when they have been stretched in recent matches – that is, all three games with France this season – they have found a way of pulling through.

Between now and a hoped-for RWC in sixteen months time they will want to make sure victory can come without the need of a sublime intervention like the Scarratt try in Pau from that Reed off-load.

The Black Ferns will have been viewing events in the northern hemisphere with the greatest interest. Let’s hope they were concerned by what they saw.

Results:

France 13 England 19
Scotland 0 England 53
England 27 Ireland 0
England 66 Wales 7

Wins: 4
Losses: 0

Table after 4 (incomplete) Rounds:

                                                                                    P            W        Pts                 

England                                                                     4           4              19                  

France                                                                       3            2              11                       

Ireland                                                                      3            2               9            

Italy                                                                           2           1                4           

Scotland                                                                   2            0               1 

Wales                                                                        4            0               1 

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