18 Mar 2014

6 nations rugby 2014, what conclusions?

The top European nation's rugby tournament of 2014, known as the 6 Nations Tournament, has just finished, with the final three games being played last Saturday (and I watched all three). With the Rugby World Cup coming up in the autumn of 2015, this is a good opportunity to look at the results and assess the current strengths and weaknesses of the top European rugby nations, whilst keeping an eye on the southern hemisphere nations that played test matches in Europe in November 2013 and which will play their own 4-nations tournament later this year. Even though each edition of the Rugby World Cup has had its share of surprises and upsets, the top teams have rarely failed totally, so, with some variations within the upper hiearchy, those teams that show well in the two major international tournaments that take place within 18 months of a world cup usually do well in the following edition of the most prestigious rugby event.

Brian O'Driscoll, the brilliant Irish centre back, after a record 150 international games, retired from international rugby at this weekend's game in which his team narrowly defeated France. Hats off!

Ireland was the deserving winner of this 2014 European tournament, just a nose ahead of England. And this tournament victory provided a suitable send-off for their great centre back Brian O'Driscill, whose last internationla game this was. The only game that Ireland lost was a very tough game (in my opinion the best game of the whole tournament) that they lost by 3 points to England, but which was played on the English home ground of Twickenham, giving the home team an indisputed advantage in such a close game. Both these teams finished with 4 victories out of the 5 games played by each, but the Irish finished with a slightly better points balance (goal average if you prefer) than the English: 83 against 73. But I thought the Irish also deserved their overall tournament victory on account of the consistency of their play and their team discipline. Their only loss was in London, by just three points and that game could have gone to either team. Almost the same could be said of England, who also lost just one game, to France and in Paris, and then only by two points. But they were more frequently penalised overall than the Irish and their game, although it looked perhaps more adventurous, was also less well-oiled and solid that that of the Irish. But England are a younger team with quite a few new players on the side, so this may not be a handicap in the perspective of 2015.

The French scrum, once a source of pride, has not looked so good in this tournament and was reguarly dominated by its opponents, and penalised by the referees (here Steve Walsh in the game against Ireland). Combined with bad line-outs, this deprived the French backs of decent balls a lot of the time

Of the other teams, Wales, the reigning champions (they have won the last 2 editions of this tournament) played brilliantly on occasions, but more erratically than the top two teams. France was on the whole very disapponting, with the exception of 30 minutes of their game against England (which they manged to win) and their very good display against Ireland. They were lucky to win in Scotland, were not that impressive at home against Italy, the weakest side, and got well trounced by Wales in Cardiff. They finished in 4th place, which is about right for their current level. Italy and Scotland were clearly in another, lower league and took the last 2 places, with Italy trailing and losing all its games.

Dany Care, the English scrum half, one of the best players in this tournament and a key element in England's good overall performance 

Before coming back to some other comments on the way these 6 teams played during this tournament and what this could signify for the future, particularly in the light of the World Cup next year, let's take a look at the latest world rankings, which are regularly established by the International Rugby Board on the basis of statistics drawn from international games. The top three teams are still from the Southern Hemisphere, with, in that order, New Zealand, South Africa, and Australia. England is now a close fourth and could have taken third place had it won this 6 nations tournament. Ireland has moved up to fifth place, followed by Wales and France. So, at least according to the statistics, the world heirachy has been slightly shuffled in a minor key, but not exactly overthrown: the major Southern Hemishere nations still appear to be on top of the world or rugby, even if not all of them were present in the final stages of the last edition of the World Cup.

Luther Burrell, an impressive new player in the English back line who made his mark by scoring tries, breaking through regularly and defending well. Even with Manu Tuilagi absent for all but 20 minutes of the whole tournament, the English backs looked fast and were creative.

But here we should perhaps remember the words of Mark Twain (who attributed them to Benjamin Disraeli): "there are three kinds of lies; lies, damned lies, and statistics" The inference clearly being that the third of these categories is the worst. In any event, statistics are unable to reveal the tendencies as shown in recent games of international rugby. During the November test matches, both England and Ireland came very close to defeating the apparently invincible All Blacks, who had been beaten a year before by England. South Africa, although undoubtedly powerful and redoutable in a single game, looked solid but uncreative. Australia were clearly a notch below and could be regularly beaten by any of the top European nations. So the North/South gap could be closing, as the Irish played very well and the English, with a younger team that has finally found cohesion and resilience, looked more creative and dangerous than they have for a very long time. They must however sort out their discipline, as they give away too many penalties to win close matches against tighter teams.  

The next chapter, albeit in a minor key as this will be the end of  a long and tiring season for most top European players, will be written when the summer tours of Northern Hemisphere nations to the Southern Hemisphere take place in June. England will tour New Zealand, France go to Australia, Wales to South Africa and Ireland to Argentina.

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