Stuart Peel reviews this year’s Championship, picking out some highlights and one or two lowlights.
England, where art thou?
So after coming back down to Earth with one of the more resounding thuds of recent times, where does winning the Championship but being completely outplayed in their last game leave England? James Haskell said you are only as good as your last game, which means England are pretty awful. It is not as simple as that. England have made considerable progress this season and only the more grumpy and cantankerous members of the English press would argue otherwise.
The more important question in the aftermath is not where they are in comparison to their Six Nations rivals but where they are in their own progression. What we learned from the last two games is that England can currently only play one way and teams have worked that out. They were so woefully short of ideas and intensity against Ireland that they were made to look a very average side. If England are reaching the outer limits of their capabilities then this championship win will prove to be a flash in the pan and they will return to the mediocrity of much of the latter half of the last decade.
The young talent in the team suggests that this will not be the case. They will be better for their Dublin experience. They are a confident bunch who should react in the right way and some of those whose feet were in danger of leaving terra firma will have been done a power of good from receiving a reality check. The to-do list is pretty widely agreed: find a centre partnership with an iota of penetration and learn that more hard work needs to be done tying in the opposition before you can go wide. But overall, England end the tournament undoubtedly in credit and growing valuable depth in certain positions.
The French continue to be afflicted by bipolar disorder. On paper they should really win this thing every year and they showed glimpses of how good they could be. But more often they looked confused, directionless and strangely disinterested. The players can only be deeply affected by the knowledge that their coach clearly bases his selections on horoscopes, tarot readings, names in a hat or some other random method. They certainly appear to have little or nothing to do with rugby. Why else would he drop the phenomenal Imanol Harinordiquy or increasingly influential Morgan Parra?
Lievremont has given an object lesson in how to get as little out of an outstanding bunch of players as possible, including erratic selection, public criticism and motivating the opposition. Having said that, this group of players have themselves been erratic for too long and are poor at taking responsibility. But you cannot help think that if Nick Mallet and Lievremont had swapped teams then not only would Italy not have beaten France but they would have been slaughtered. So are France on the up or on the way down? It is impossible to say because, as ever, France’s progress chart looks rather like a healthy cardiogram.
Celtic passion play
Without wanting to sound in the least bit bitter, if I was a Scotland or Ireland supporter I would be pretty cheesed off and would be demanding answers. Why is it that a professional sports outfit can only be bothered to turn up and play to or near their potential when a certain team homes into view? It must have been frustrating enough to watch Ireland scrape past Italy and lose to Wales and France when it just seemed that the team were not that good. But to discover that they are actually capable of putting in the best performance of the Championship and could have challenged for a Grand Slam would have annoyed me hugely. Obviously teams have good days and bad days. England had a bad day themselves in Dublin. But Ireland’s performance was so far from what they had managed only seven days earlier that it beggared belief.
We have seen this from Scotland before. The old saying ‘we don’t care as long as we beat the English’ has always been a bit of fun but was a sentiment which should have died with the amateur era. It palpably has not. It is a little man mentality, similar to that suffered by England against Australia in cricket for years. It is an unprofessional mindset that ultimately wins nothing.
Wales continue to rival the French on the erratic front but if James Hook is given his head at 10, their props return and Jamie Roberts rediscovers himself they will have the spine of a serious team. Warren Gatland however needs to stop publically criticising his players. The tough Kiwi act has worn thin and he is living off the 2008 Grand Slam. Since then he has achieved very little of note.
Returning to the subject of Scotland, I am rather worried about Andy Robinson. The man is going to do himself a mischief one of these days. Given how Scotland played at times in the Championship, the cameraman given the role of ‘Robbo-cam’ probably had the best seat in the house. The BBC’s technical innovation for next season should be ‘press the red button to see a live read out of Andy Robinson’s heart rate and blood pressure’. He should also be miked up, primarily because it would be entertaining, but also so we don’t have to listen to a series of Kiwi officials parading their lack of knowledge of the scrummaging laws. And Brian Moore.
Which neatly leads on to the BBC’s television coverage. This often seems to be as intense an annual debate as the rugby itself. I have never minded Moore too much but he is increasingly morphing into rugby’s Fred Trueman. Every scrum is followed by Moore grumbling unintelligibly to himself about something or other, every play ends with someone doing something ‘dull’ or ‘brainless’. And all the while next to him, Eddie Butler paints his picture with as broad a brush as possible without letting himself get bogged down in irrelevant detail. Like getting players’ names right.
Aside from them, Jonathan Davis is as one-eyed as they come (although quite entertaining), Andy Nicol appears to not watch any rugby at all between tournaments so obvious are most of his points and it’s only a matter of time before someone lamps Sonia the interviewer. But Inverdale remains outstanding and Dallaglio, Guscott and Wood incisive.
The final word goes to Italy. They may have yet another wooden spoon for their overflowing cutlery drawer but their victory against France could prove a coming of age. They competed well in all other games too apart from the debacle at Twickenham. At some stage they will have to make a definitive step forward and their games are rarely decent spectacles but the French victory has given them a huge boost. In Sergio Parisse they had the player of the tournament. He put in a series of startling displays and would grace any team in the world.
By Stuart Peel