Part One First, how did the top six nations get on?
They had an unusual approach to the new tournament: a new interim coach and new assistant coaches; the incoming coach just arriving from France, and with no experience of the women’s game.
That was the set-up the RFU had ordained. One further bugbear: the Red Roses never beat the Kiwis in games that matter.
The big match: the tries all scored by forwards. Was that thee proof that their (mainly) Kiwi critics were spot on? Yes, to a degree. But Ellie Kildunne was deprived of two tries by one tiny and one less tiny margin (if her boots had been size three?)
Allan Bunting had talked up his pack, as is the job of every coach, but they were comprehensively outplayed by England.
The story in the backs was different: Kennedy Simon’s try came when Abby Dow was left with three players to mark, a repeated weakness in the English system (and in many others too). The much vaunted backline wasn’t able to score a clear-cut try through out-manoeuvring their opponents.
But their opponents admit they were a well-oiled machine. When we consider the players not on the paddock that day: amongst others Cleall, Cokayne, Cornborough, Harrison, Infante, Kabeya, Lucy Packer, Scarratt and Ward, it speaks volumes for the depth and quality of the player-pool.
Back in May, when he was appointed to take control, John Mitchell said he wanted the team to ‘mature in key areas’. We are left to guess what they are.
Canada (finished second)
This series was a triumph for Kévin Rouet and his squad. They beat Wales easily and finished with a worthy win over France. All this without the benefit of regular training sessions together – a shortage shared by other WXV nations that cannot easily be put right. The other need is for more regular competition, to be eased only partly by WXV. The Maple Leafs are among those who go to England or France to enhance their careers. The wonder is they can produce such fine standards when they reconvene.
There is real competition for places, though one or two areas, especially the front row, urgently need younger competition.
To get a measure of their achievement, we need only look at the standing of their men’s team; they lie 23rd in the world.
Australia (finished third)
Jay Tregonning too needs a hearty slap on the back for what he and his players have achieved. He was the one coach known to be returning to his day-job as a teacher at the conclusion of the series.
He leavees the Wallaroos in a far better state then when he took over. In 2021 he replaced Dwayne Nestor who had been accused of unacceptable language. One of Tregonning’s missions was to create a ‘safe culture’ for the players. One glance at their play in New Zealand shows how successful he has been. After going down to England, they had two fine wins, especially against France.
RA’s challenge now is to choose the right person to build on this positive advance. Rugby lags behind other team sports in the country. Let’s hope these performances lead to more support of every kind.
New Zealand (finished fourth)
How close to a disaster was this for the Black Ferns? When did they last finish fourth in any competition? (They finished fifth in the 2014 RWC!).
Their two big rivals, France and England, had beem planning their downfall from way back. It would be a real challenge taking them on their home soil. Both succeeded.
Across rugby’s history Kiwis have been the model for quick adaptation, for reacting positively to temporary setbacks. That had seemed to happen after the European tour two years ago. There the players had good reason to be a distance short of their best.
Once home they set up a trail of victories, just as in the past. Hopes were high; players old and young were praised to the skies. But weaknesses persisted. There was still doubt about the relationship between the Sevens and Fifteens squads. Ruby Tui’s return to the WXV was greeted with delight, but other major names stayed with 7s.
The BF’s loss to France was a shock. Seeing France then lose to Australia and Canada adds a deeper shade of black to the picture.
At last year’s RWC the distinguished coach, Mike Cron, thought the pack was 6 months behind England. Since then they have receded, not advanced. It was up front where the England game was lost.
The coming weeks will offer a fascinating view of their response to their troubles.
France (finished fifth)
What! Fifth? Gaëlle Mignot had stated the intention was to win the tournament. At some stage the stress was shifted to winning the RWC, still two years away.
They began with an outstanding if close win against the Black Ferns. After that it was a downward spiral. The biggest failure was to score when in the red zone.
French critics have challenged the selections as a nonsense. Fair enough to bring a host of younger players along for a first taste of the big time, not the way they were used. The widely held view back home is that any sensible coach would employ the experienced, trusted players to start each game; the new faces could wait their turn on the bench.
But no. In the final game against Canada, which absolutely had to be won, names like Bourdon Sansus, Vernier and Banet were absent at kick-off.
The harshest criticism suggests the coaches are incapable of accepting responsibility, of placing the blame on the players. The final judges will be the FFR themselves. They will conduct the review to decide where the blame, if any, resides.
Since the retirement of Annick Hayraud as head coach there have been two changes of cast; a third one would look like incompetence.
Wales (finished sixth)
Ioan Cunningham has taken a sensible approach to his squad’s development. The bad times are (we trust) firmly behind them, but a sudden acquisition of contracts does not mean a vertical climb to success. He gave the squad sensible targets and hid any disappointments he may have felt at the outcome of their WXV venture.
I have a pet theory: when one name keeps recurring in reports of a national team, it’s not good news. That was the case with Ruby Tui for New Zealand. She couldn’t turn the game against England.
It’s even more true of Jasmine Joyce. Mention her name and every Welsh fan goes into paroxysms of delight. But she is human, and one player cannot carry a team’s hopes alone. Wales do not yet have sufficient player depth to ensure victories over the toughest opposition.
So Cymru must go on building. The next target is the 2024 Six Nations. They have to make sure they have the beating of Ireland, Italy and Scotland: not an easy task.
The Road ahead
That final order was one big surprise. Will next year tell the same story?
The new top-six rankings, powered by Capgemini, have been published. If we place the WXV1 finishing order alongside, we can see the upsets that occurred over the past three weeks:
England 96.18 England
New Zealand 90.56 Canada
France 87.89 Australia
Canada 86.27 New Zealand
Australia 81.61 France
Wales 76.67 Wales
Unsurprisingly only England, Canada and Australia have advanced since last month.