After the first series of games held this past weekend, in this 2011 edition of Europe's annual international tournament, it is timely to ask a few questions about what really counts in this competition, especially in a year that will also see a world cup tournament being held on the other side of the world in New Zealand in October and November.
The showings of the three major teams from the southern hemisphere, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa (in that order according to their current perfomances), added to those of Europe's sides on their summer tours, have left one with the distinct feeling that it is going to be very hard for any European nation to beat any of the above three, with the possible exception of England who seems to have a certain ascendancy over Australia, having beaten them twice recently. The speed of excecution and skills of both the New Zealanders and the Australians are very impressive, the the All Blacks also have a very good scrum. The fact that they will be playing at home must make them clear favourites for the world cup. Australia tend to be on alternating current, but were very impressive against France. South Africa's second team lost to Scotland, but the main team dominated England. Neither Wales nor Ireland looked consistent or coherent enough to make any southern team worry too much.
So England and France are the two favourites for the 6 nations competition, and both won this weekend, without being particularly convicing. Ireland were very lucky to beat Italy, the weakest team in the competition. England's victory against Wales was probably the best performance, as it was played on Wales' home ground in front of a hostile crowd. And Wales often looked dangerous, although too individual to really test the English defense. The English scrum, usually a strong point with this team, dominated the Welsh one. What is new with England is the sparkle in their back line, with a string of creative players like Foden, Ashton, Flood, Cueto and Hape. They not only carry the ball well and create, they hold on to it for longer than they used to and they are much faster. Their victory against Wales showed these strengths, but they will need to dominate more to pose a threat to the top teams down south.
Tom Wood, the English flanker, who played a convincing game on Froday eveningFrance also dominated their home match against Scotland, but it was not as easy a victory as it could have been, since they lost too many balls on turn-overs. Admittedly they also won quite a few like this and scored from them. Their scrum is excellent and has been together for some time. The most worryng part about their game is their attack. They constantly change players and seem to have little cohesion in the back line as a result. Many of the best backs in France play for Toulouse, but for some reason the French trainer never fields more than one of these at a time. The best player on the field in the back line was Medard, who is from Toulouse. Yet there were few well-constructed attacks during their game against Scotland.
So, is it important for these teams to win the 6 nations? I don't think so. Winning games clearly builds confidence, but confidence is not enough. Look what happened to France in their summer tour games against South Africa and Argentina, having won all of their games in the 2010 6-nations competition! What is far more important, in view of the coming World Cup, is the manner in which they play and the cohesion of the teams. To hope to rival "down under" against the likes of New Zealand and Australia, they must play fast, hold on the ball for long periods and vary their game constantly. England are closer to doing this than France for the moment. We shall see how both teams fare in the remaining games. The game between England and France, to be played at Twickenham, could be interesting.