The Six Nations
Despite all the doubts the famous old championship was completed, in a completely new guise.
A temporary format was introduced to reduce the chances of contagion. After four rounds – just three matches for each nation – the final order was much as expected: England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland, Wales. This was the same as in 2020, except that that benighted campaign was left incomplete.
The finals day, when nations finishing in the same position in the two pools played off against each other, was a triumph. Here, like played like, ensuring tight competitive games.
The one problem is that the 6N’s traditional structure fights against this final drum-roll.
No-one has yet found a means of reducing the huge gaps in achievement between the competing nations. The leaders of the three Celtic nations are showing signs of reacting to widespread criticism for their neglect of the women’s game. But it will take many years for the position to improve. It is a poignant thought that the many amateurs taking part in the Six Nations lead a far more exhausting life than their fully professional counterparts, the Red Roses.
A men’s 6N Under 20 tournament is about to take place. There really should be a female version, but it cannot yet exist since unions are trailing along without this vital nursery for future talent.
The best news since the 6N was completed has been the agreement to show all next year’s competition on the BBC. Details are not yet revealed, but the principle is just what the championship needed, exposure on free-to-air stations.
After more than a year of distressing news from the Principality, at last the WRU has taken action. A committee will look into what needs to be done to put Wales women on the right path, especially towards next year’s World Cup.
The committee has the great advantage of being small and high-powered. They are Helen Phillips, chair of the Welsh Commonwealth Games committee; Amanda Bennett, an ex-international and member of Sport Wales board; and Kevin Bowring, who was the first full-time professional National Coach for the Welsh men’s team from 1995 to 1998, then head of Elite Coach Development with the RFU for ten years.
It is also significant that they are to present their review by the end of June. So, in Churchill’s words: ‘Action this day!’
The problem for the WRU is that any proposals put forward could not be realised overnight. When Warren Abrahams was finally installed as head coach, far too long had intervened since the unexplained departure of Rowland Phillips. During that hiatus the players had to fight against neglect and despondency. Quite an unfair burden to bear.
Many local critics have underlined the need for properly sustained U18 and U20 squads. More urgent matters like supporting the current Welsh squad to the maximum could see more immediate results, such as offering contracts and full insurance cover. Contracts don’t need to be of the all-in variety enjoyed by the English. But part-time contracts have to be carefully administered. Even New Zealand haven’t got things right, if we are to believe Chelsea Alley, the experienced Black Fern centre. She has revealed the parlous state she has been left in, having to seek multiple jobs to pay her way.
The Welsh Union has committed itself to repairing past wrongs which included neglecting the women’s sector. The men carried all before them, winning yet another 6N championship; the women picked up a second successive wooden spoon.
Siwan Lillicrap’s troops deserve far better treatment.
They appeared to suffer a major blow when Philip Doyle had to relinquish his role as head coach. The pandemic made travel across the Irish Sea impossible for him. But after his assistant Bryan Easson was appointed in his place things looked up. Most memorably the Scots came back to draw their game with France 13-13 in Glasgow. For players all too used to the bitterness of defeat this result took on the appearance of a great victory. They put in a stout performance against the English, then had the satisfaction of beating Wales soundly.
It will be fascinating to see how many Scottish representatives find their way into the GB Sevens squad for the Olympics. At Rio in 2016 they had none. Their recent performances in the triangular tournament at St George’s Park suggest they will break that duck. News is imminent.
The Azzurre are still hunting for the magic key that unlocks the door to major success. They generously allowed a switch of location for their final game with Ireland, but it led to a defeat they could ill afford. They lost three places in world rankings, and reignited their own doubts about their standing.
The irony is the high quality they are capable of. They outplayed England for 40 minutes in Parma, but still couldn’t cross the line. Instead, a couple of misjudged moves led to English interceptions and 14 points.
Their newly appointed head of the FIR, Marzio Innocenti, has placed women’s rugby high on his list of priorities. Of course he is under huge pressure to re-establish the national men’s side, but we can be optimistic about his good intentions.
The FIR had already established fifteen annual scholarships for elite players early in 2020. They would offer them the chance to support their work or studies more easily while continuing their sporting ambitions at club and international level.
They were delighted to find themselves back in third place after years of underachievement since the last World Cup. They sit top of the pile of the amateur division of the 6N, ahead of Italy, Scotland and Wales.
Adam Griggs has been busy extending his squad to include a younger generation. Ireland were the oldest squad at their own 2017 World Cup. Unsurprisingly several top players retired; the same process is now under way with less dramatic cast changes. Youngsters like Beibhinn Parsons and Dorothy Wall show the talent the nation possesses. But until the IRFU grasps the nettle of professionalism the girls in green won’t be able to get the better of the pro-squads, France and England. They demolished Wales but then suffered a similar fate against les Bleues at home.
Like France and England they found introducing their Sevens players into the mix brought immediate results. The fans would love to see Stacey Flood and Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe as permanent fixtures in the squad.
They are still hunting for a win against les Anglaises after nine failed attempts. Annick Hayraud is pragmatic about it and doesn’t hunt for excuses. The French approach to professionalism differs from the English, accepting that elite players must have employment outside the game to ensure their futures. In support of her view experienced ex-English internationals are heard questioning the wisdom of the RFU’s policy. The contracted Red Roses remain the only players in the world able to devote themselves totally to the game.
‘And then what?’ is the query the doubters voice.
On the playing front les Bleues continued to thrill and delight their audiences. They took Wales and Ireland apart, but then fell short of their ultimate target. Although it was an away game, at the Stoop, they still looked quite capable of beating the top-ranked side in the world, but a single short-range score did for them.
They have power and skill fore and aft. If they had everybody available at the next World Cup – that means reintroducing many of the Sevens players into the system – then they could even hope to beat the Black Ferns, and that would be the third time in succession they had achieved the near impossible.
They achieved a third successive 6N title. Delightful as that is for all English fans, it doesn’t do the championship any good.
In an abbreviated campaign Simon Middleton had his work cut out knowing who to select for the three games on offer. He too had Sevens players available on odd occasions, all worthy of inclusion, but then, so were the many others who restrict themselves to the long-format game. His difficulties were seen in his choices for the No 12 position. They were, in sequence, Lagi Tuima, Megan Jones, Zoe Harrison and, in the ‘floodlit’ game in Lille, Sarah McKenna.
Given all the in-built advantages they enjoy, it was concerning to see the Red Roses struggle in two of their contests, against Italy and France. In the first half in Parma England were second best; at the Stoop they had to strain every sinew to hold the French out.
They deserve congratulation for doing so, but the question is, why is it such a struggle?
The answer I hesitate to give – because it will be the nth time I’ve mentioned it – is the set-scrum. France took England to pieces in that part of the game. Whatever would the Ferns do to it?
When the ball was cleared of the scrum, the quality was evident on all sides. The line-out rarely failed, breakdowns could be cleared in the blink of an eye, the backs were capable of magical play.
And for 2022?
We can confidently look forward to tighter contests next year. Scotland showed themselves in a good light at Doncaster. If the Welsh can take heart from a new coaching staff and a new attitude from the WRU, they too can look forward to a big improvement. The outlook in the Irish camp is upbeat.
The World Cup will loom large in the sights of coaching staffs and players. We are likely to see even higher standards of play than we enjoyed in the short campaign that was 2021.
My favourite tweet of the season comes from France via Ovale masqué, who gives a wickedly humorous view of all things rugby: ‘Long live football, handball, basketball, curling, etc, i.e. every team sport where we smash the English, but stop the crunches, pleeeeze.’
And in response to that run by Abby Dow in the lights-out game in Lille: ‘I’ve counted at least four fractured egos lying there’.