Six Nations analysis – Ireland impressively show why they are world’s best team
By PA Sport Staff
Ireland celebrated a Guinness Six Nations Grand Slam and Scotland also enjoyed a tournament to be proud of, but England and Wales were left with more questions than answers six months out from the World Cup.
Here, the PA news agency assesses the quartet’s performances over the last six weeks and looks ahead to their chances at this autumn’s global showpiece in France.
Ireland delivered on the pre-tournament hype and pressure to substantiate their status as the world’s number one side by becoming Grand Slam champions with victory over rivals England on St Patrick’s weekend.
The championship clean sweep – their first achieved in Dublin – was the fourth in the country’s history – following triumphs in 1948, 2009 and 2018, which were clinched in Belfast, Cardiff and London respectively – and was secured with some spellbinding rugby and amid plenty of adversity.
Ireland’s pulsating second-round win over France as the world’s top two sides faced off in the tournament for the first time will live long in the memory, while overcoming the injury-hit mayhem of Murrayfield on the penultimate weekend was equally as important.
Andy Farrell’s men have won 22 of their last 24 matches, including a series success in New Zealand, and have nothing to fear going into the World Cup, having beaten each of their major rivals during that run.
Yet a draw made in December 2020 has not been kind as the planet’s current top-five nations have been placed in the same half of the draw, with hosts France or the All Blacks likely quarter-final opponents, if Farrell’s side progress from a pool containing Scotland and reigning champions South Africa.
On the evidence of this Six Nations, England can count themselves lucky to have been gifted a kind World Cup draw and even a group that has Argentina and Japan as their closest rivals is no longer seen as a formality.
From a low base progress was made at the set-piece and the fight shown in defeat by Ireland was reassuring, but otherwise the tournament continued the slide that began during the latter stages of Eddie Jones era.
A record Twickenham defeat by France was an all-time low and the team rebuild must be an even bigger project than Steve Borthwick first realised.
Alarmingly, they now lack the kind of forward power that has always been an English calling card. Yet, for all their troubles, they remain favourites to win their World Cup pool and, with a win against probably either Wales or Australia – also middling sides – they would find themselves in the semi-finals.
There is no doubt that Wales’ Six Nations campaign proved an underwhelming experience, with one victory from five starts consigning them to a fifth-place finish just six months before the World Cup will be up and running in France.
There was also the threat mid-tournament of a players’ strike as Welsh rugby grappled with off-field issues such as contracts, financial concerns and Wales’ 60-cap selection rule, and there is no doubt that all had an impact on the national squad.
On a positive note, there was a continued emergence of young talent like wing Rio Dyer and centres Mason Grady and Joe Hawkins, together with lock Dafydd Jenkins and flanker Jac Morgan, and they all look on course to feature in head coach Warren Gatland’s 33-man World Cup squad.
Fiji and Australia are the major hurdles to overcome in Wales’ World Cup pool – only two teams from each group make the quarter-finals – and there is no doubt that on current form they face a significant challenge, but Gatland’s World Cup record was impressive during his previous stint as Wales boss, highlighted by semi-final appearances in 2011 and 2019, so it would be foolish to bet against him turning things around.
Scotland can reflect on a largely positive Six Nations campaign after finishing up with three wins from their five matches for the first time since 2018.
Their only defeats in the championship came against the world’s two highest-ranked nations, Ireland and France, and the Scots were pleased with the way they competed for long significant periods of both matches and indeed disappointed not to come away with more to show for their efforts.
In beating England, Wales and Italy while also being competitive against the big two, Scotland eclipsed pre-tournament expectations.
They can now gear up for the World Cup, where they will be in a tough group with Ireland and South Africa, in far more optimistic mood than might have been the case a couple of months ago.