But for one England try the Six Nations would have been a five-way tie | Andy Bull

Andy Bull
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Elliot Daly scores what proved to be the crucial try of the tournament in Cardiff.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images</span>
Elliot Daly scores what proved to be the crucial try of the tournament in Cardiff. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Come Monday morning the players will be back at work with their clubs, getting ready for the next round of league fixtures.

Their schedules leave them precious little time to heal their wounds, even less to rest and reflect on what has gone on these past few weeks. Rugby has never been an easy living but in this Six Nations some of the Tests, especially the three between England, Ireland and Wales, were so ferocious that watching them felt a guilty pleasure.

Premiership Rugby’s proposal to shorten the tournament by cutting out the rest weeks now looks utterly absurd. Rather, these matches have got so tough that one wonders whether they should not be rationed like prize fights. Unlike the players, the rest of us can at least stop for a short while to look back on one of the most enjoyable tournaments since Italy made their debut back in 2000, a contest full of ifs and buts between five teams who all proved well capable of beating each other.

It was not so long ago that these same five sides bust out of the World Cup, England in the group stages, Wales, Ireland, France and Scotland in the quarter-finals. Eighteen months later, the European game looks in good health, but for all those cuts, bumps and bruises.

It is a good measure of just how competitive this tournament was that Wales, who fetched up fifth in the table, were not so very far off from winning the title. They were one good tackle away from beating England in Cardiff, when Elliot Daly shrugged off Alex Cuthbert as if he was slipping a cape from off his shoulders, and then sprinted on into the corner to score the match-winning try with four minutes left to play. Five weeks later Wales led France right through the first 19 minutes of that surreal spell of injury time, everyone waiting all the while for a whistle that never came.

So, but for what happened in a scant handful of minutes at the end of those two matches, Wales would have won four games out of five. Instead they finished in their lowest position since Warren Gatland first took charge of them back in 2007. But then the Welsh were absolutely battered by the Scots at Murrayfield. There were no “what ifs”in that match, even though the Welsh were leading 13-9 at half-time. The Scots tore Wales apart in the second half, 20 points to nil with a couple of fine tries from Tommy Seymour and Tim Visser. Scotland had already beaten Ireland 27-22 in the opening match of the tournament, so when they finished with a 29-0 whitewash of Italy, they had won three matches in a single Six Nations campaign for the first time since 2006. And yet, somehow, that was only good enough to leave them fourth overall.

Scotland suffered on points difference and the damage done in the 40‑point thrashing in the Calcutta Cup match at Twickenham, when the English roused themselves into their best performance of the tournament. The Scots had no claims on that match but did feel they should have beaten the French. They were not satisfied that they had pushed them so close in Paris, 22-16, but instead annoyed that they had let the game slip away when it had been tied at 16 points each with 20 minutes to play. But then the French themselves felt much the same way about their defeat at Twickenham the previous week. They had outplayed England for much of the game and were leading 16-12 until Ben Te’o sliced through their defence to score in the 71st minute.

Again, then, both France and Scotland were within a few minutes of winning a fourth match which might, had it all fallen right, have won them the championship. The French, like almost everyone else, had one result they could not quibble with, a 19-9 defeat in Ireland in a game they never threatened to win. Aside from that, and the way they walloped Italy, Ireland’s tournament turned on what happened in their final game, their famous victory against England on Saturday. The Irish are well past the point where denying England a grand slam would provide anything other than the slenderest consolation for failing to win the title themselves but the performance still made some amends for their heavy defeat by Wales the previous week.

As for England, that Scotland match aside, they had, as Eddie Jones admitted, a far harder time of it than they did in 2016. “It was a tough tournament,” said Jones, “much tougher than last year. Generally the standard of the competition has been much better. There’s a real hardness to it and an ability to score more tries this year than I saw last year.”

So for England to win it again, was, as he said, “a great achievement”. Apart from the three matches in Rome, England’s win in Cardiff was the only away victory in the tournament (and 11 home wins in 15 matches was a record in the Six Nations). With so little between those five teams, it proved to be crucial. If it had not been for that final try by Elliot Daly, the tournament would have finished in a five-way tie, everyone winning three games apiece.

The odd lot out, of course, were the Italians. They were left desperately out of their depth at times, despite the wit and ingenuity of their new coaching team of Conor O’Shea and Brendan Venter.

All six teams have things they want to work on. The Welsh are still trying to find a running game, the Scots are about to start over with a new head coach, the French are still developing and Ireland and England both need to become more consistent. But O’Shea has the hardest task. It will be a hell of a job turning Italy’s fortunes round. There will be hard nights and headaches for Warren Gatland and the Lions coaches, too, who will have to pick a first XV from four fine teams and the topsy-turvy mess we have all enjoyed watching these past couple of months.

<span class="element-image__caption">Italy continue to struggle in the Six Nations.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Italy continue to struggle in the Six Nations. Photograph: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images

Five talking points from the Six Nations

1) England were only team to deny home rule

There was only one away victory in the matches between the old Five Nations teams – England’s late show in Cardiff when Elliot Daly scored a brilliantly worked try in the closing minutes. And so England finished top and Wales ended up in fifth. The only try bonus point in those games was secured by England at home against Scotland and, breaking the trend of recent years, the final round was probably the least memorable in terms of attacking play. The improvement of Scotland and France helped to make away victories rare but only England showed the balance of skill and power necessary to succeed in a World Cup and even they struggled at the last.

2) Bonus points system fails to stir great incentive

The Six Nations reluctantly trialled bonus points this season, concerned about fairness in a tournament in which some sides played three matches at home and others three away, but the system made no difference to the finishing positions. Five try bonus points were accumulated, four against Italy, and six were picked up by teams in defeat. Apart from Italy, only Wales failed to score four tries in a match and, though they praised themselves for the meanness of their defence, they overlooked their wastefulness in attack. Ireland won two of their last three games while scoring a total of 41 points and two tries. It is taking more than bonus points to change mind-sets.

3) Shortage of blue-sky thinking over Italy

Progress made by Scotland and France highlighted Italy’s plight. Conor O’Shea insists he has the basis of a competitive side but they lost all five matches by large margins with an average score of 10-40. They twice led at half-time – notably against England – and led France for much of the first half in Rome but are often an extra rest weekend for many sides. They are protected by the tournament’s long-term planning and a reluctance of other nations to open the door to emerging countries for fear of the consequences – France and Scotland have finished bottom this decade – but unless the game in Italy gains practical assistance, the Azzurri will provide little value.

4) Dublin defeat a timely blessing for Jones?

England’s disappointment at missing out on a successive grand slam should be tempered by their achievement in winning the tournament which they started without five of their first-choice pack, including the entire back row. Defeat in Dublin was in one sense a blessing, removing any myth of invincibility and even in a match in which they were outplayed for the most part they were within range of victory at the end. Eddie Jones has taken a long-term view and he will have an opportunity to gauge his strength in depth in Argentina in the summer. He wants to empower his players and, if Italy and the weekend showed he has a way to go, he is pointing the way.

5) Gatland likely to take Lions leaf out of Irish book

Ireland’s victory against the All Blacks in Chicago seems a long time ago but it is that template the Lions are more likely to attempt to adopt – knocking New Zealand out of their stride and harassing their half-backs – than employing England’s policy of skill and speed behind rather than strength. History shows how formidable a tour it is and the itinerary is more demanding than it was in 2005. Warren Gatland has ball-winning options and back-row riches but it is the blend he builds behind that will be pivotal. Excluding the matches against Italy, England averaged 27 points, Scotland 24, Wales 17 and Ireland 16. The Lions will have to rise above the Six Nations.

Paul Rees

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