Wales can look to the World Cup with genuine ambition after sealing a third Six Nations Grand Slam for head coach Warren Gatland, while England and Ireland step away to lick several wounds.
Here, Press Association Sport examines the end of tournament report cards for the Six Nations teams.
Wales once again got it right when it mattered, winning a fifth Six Nations title and record fourth Grand Slam. Their success was built on a rock-solid defence – just seven tries conceded in five games – an inspirational captain in Alun Wyn Jones and a head coach, Warren Gatland, whose ability to generate the best from his players knows no limits. Wales will head to the World Cup in six months’ time as major contenders, underpinned by an enviable strength in depth throughout their squad.
England produced a blizzard of tries from start to finish and even the most partisan Celt would concede they played the finest rugby, yet Eddie Jones was forced to settle for a runners-up spot in what could be his final Six Nations. There is much to praise about a team that is irresistible at times, but a psychological flaw has been exposed in second-half collapses to Wales and Scotland to open an alarming fault line heading into the World Cup.
The 2018 world team of the year slipped off that lofty perch in a frustrating tournament all-round. World player of the year Johnny Sexton and his previously peerless half-back partner Conor Murray struggled to hit form as Ireland battled to piece their game together. England and Wales both stopped Ireland at the gainline, and that proved enough to suffocate Joe Schmidt’s side. Despite the frustrations however, Ireland still boast all the resources and firepower to reach a first World Cup semi-final in Japan in the autumn.
Les Bleus remain just as quizzically inconsistent as ever, with head coach Jacques Brunel seemingly battling to hold onto his job. Somewhere in amongst a very confused and laboured gameplan France boast a dangerous set of players. But their pack is too heavy and cumbersome, so much so that teams know to attack them through the middle and round the fringes of rucks. New half-back pairing Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack boast flair and ambition, but that has to be bolstered by a pack of forwards with some proper direction, and a bit of zip too. Unless they improve markedly they run the genuine risk of not progressing from the pool stages at the World Cup.
🎥 HIGHLIGHTS: ENG 38-38 SCOMarch 16, 2019
Gregor Townsend’s side will trudge away from this year’s championship frustrated but perhaps not for the reasons they expected ahead of their astonishing Twickenham thriller. Plagued by injuries, the Dark Blues looked incapable of lifting a hand to defend themselves as Ireland, France and Wales eased to victories. Things then went from bad to worse as for 31 brutal minutes England ran riot in London – only for the Scots to come desperately close to pulling off one of the most remarkable comebacks in sporting history before George Ford rescued the Auld Enemy at the death. The 38-38 draw may not have ended their 36-year wait for victory down south but it most definitely salvaged some pride for Townsend’s team.
Head coach Conor O’Shea continues to rail against any critics of his tenure, with the Italians still not having won a Six Nations match on his watch. The team is improving, but not nearly fast enough to make any real dent on this year’s World Cup. O’Shea has done a mountain of work behind the scenes in boosting Italy’s rugby infrastructure, but he also knows at some point the Azzurri need wins. Captain Sergio Parisse is not quite the force of yesteryear, and while his leadership remains important Italy actually boast a fine crop of young back-rowers. Piecing together all the various strong suits remains O’Shea’s biggest challenge.
- Press Association