Steve Carey reflects on a blockbuster tournament
As the sun sets behind the East stand for the last time on Guinness Six Nations 2022, now might be a good time to retire to The Bridge 1859 and reflect over a sponsor’s pint. After two years of eerie silence, the crowds are back in full voice. In the words of Joni Mitchell, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. It’s been a cracker, too – unpredictable, full of talking points. We could be in for a late one. Sit down, sit down, it’s my turn.
Of the six nations, there are two fine teams in Ireland and France, the latter hosting next year’s Rugby World Cup. Both are expected to progress deep, with Ireland continuing their tradition of disappointing before the big day (they’ve never made the final) and France at risk of continuing theirs of disappointing on it – they’ve made three finals and never yet come home with the cup.
There is one team that can beat them, but it probably isn’t the All Blacks, whom both France and indeed Ireland (twice) have beaten in recent times. France are quite capable of tripping up over their own dancing feet, though on the final day of the tournament in front of a passionate crowd they fairly comfortably saw off England and claimed their first Grand Slam since 2010. Remarkably, under head coach Fabien Galthié they’ve never once in 26 tests been behind at half-time, so who knows how they will react when they find themselves staring down the barrel?
At the bottom of the table is the weedy kid, Italy – who surprised everyone, not least themselves, in beating Wales away on the last day to record their first win in seven seasons. It was a joyful moment for all except a humiliated home side, who are one of three indifferent teams between the cream and the dregs. Wales held both England and France to four points and looked to be building something, only to be caught with a sneaky last minute hook by the underweight kid in the blue vest. Scotland promised much, beating England on the opening day and then not winning again (apart from beating up the weedy kid, which doesn’t count).
Then there’s England, who are entertainingly, hilariously bad right now. Gone is the bravado that saw them storm over the highly fancied All Blacks in the 2019 World Cup Semi-final. Laughably, Eddie Jones has pulled off the cunning stunt of both discounting Six Nations results because England are building for the World Cup, and at the same time talking about ‘Project New England,’ whatever that means, when he’s been the bloke in the hot seat since 2015. So what’s he been doing while they’ve been busy winning two games out of five (including each year one a free shot against the school punching bag) for the past two seasons? They still can’t seem to think for themselves, though given Jones’s reputation as a martinet perhaps that’s not surprising. It’s baffling and disappointing that the country that has more than twice as many registered players as the rest of the Six Nations plus New Zealand combined can’t make it count on the field. Still, hours after the season concluded the old farts in blazers at the Rugby Football Union proclaimed themselves happy with England’s progress, which was all but invisible to everyone else. Maybe Eddie has a locked drawer of compromising photographs or something. Let’s drink to that, shall we? I don’t mind if I do.
Ironically, on the final day of the season, Ireland were cheering for England, through gritted teeth, as much as the English themselves: had England defeated France, Ireland would have been champions. Still, as many an Irishman and woman will tell you, you can’t trust the English. Things to distrust, according to Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses: horn of a bull, hoof of a horse, smile of a Saxon. Just as they’ve been doing all year, England talked up a good fight but failed to launch. Everyone’s got a plan, as Mike Tyson put it, till they get punched in the face. In fact, England only scored eight tries all tournament – only a third as many as Ireland, and four fewer than England managed last year – and five of those were against punching bag Italy, who conceded 27 and don’t really count.
Still, at least it meant the tournament went down to the wire, and fittingly the trophy was lifted by the one team that had beaten Ireland. Had it been an odd rather than an even year, that game would have been in Dublin rather than Paris and the result could very well have gone the other way.
So, if Ireland and France represent the northern hemisphere’s great hopes next year, what can we expect? Well, it’s certainly a strong contrast in styles. France love to play without the ball, kicking more and further than anyone else. In effect they’re backing their defence (coached by England’s Shaun Edwards) to weather the storm and then turn the ball over in playable positions. And they do make the most of the ball when they have it, scoring more points per entry into the opposition 22 than anyone else.
Ireland are a joy to watch and an opposition defence’s worst nightmare. Under previous coach, Kiwi Joe Schmidt (2013-2019) they blossomed, winning in 2014, 2015 and 2018, a Grand Slam year. Now English successor Andy Farrell has taken them on further. Like France they play a high tempo, precise game with rapid rucks, though while Schmidt wanted to build phases from chaos, to the point where the team arguably became stodgy and predictable, Farrell has them quite happy to begin with phases and then evolve into a flowing, fast-passing game that finds gaps and weaknesses like water finds cracks. It’s practically impossible to withstand for an entire game, and it doesn’t have to be 100% error-free to be effective, because they’ll have the ball again very soon, thank you very much, and back again we go.
It helps that the players know each other inside out: when Ireland lined up against Wales, for example, in the opening round, 11 of the starting 15 were Leinster players, with two more products of the Leinster academy system – and a similar level of dominance in the U20s squad, too. You can’t buy that kind of familiarity or get it in the limited training time national squads have together, and clearly the provinces and Ireland are in agreement that conditioning is king. It’s breathless just to watch and must be hell on earth to play – but worse again to try and match. They average more than 100 rucks per game – 100! – and three quarters of the time they get the ball out in under three seconds. They are utter misers when it comes to conceding turnovers and millionaires when it comes to line breaks. I don’t know what effect these men have on the enemy, as Dublin’s own Duke of Wellington put it, but by God they frighten me.
But before we get to the Rugby World Cup next September we have another Six Nations to enjoy. If it’s as much fun as this one, we’re in for a treat. Now would you be having another?
Steve is the Producer and Treasurer of Bloomsday in Melbourne, the author of Love’s Bitter Mystery (soon to be released as a film), and loves rugby union.