So the curtain closed on the 2013 Six Nations on Saturday, with three fantastic games. First Italy vanquished Ireland for the first time in their Six Nations history; then Wales blew England away at the Millennium Stadium before the French restored a small amount of pride as they beat the Scots in Paris.
Italy’s journey began with a fantastic victory over a disorganised French outfit in Rome. Hopes were high that they could improve even further with a win over Scotland the following week, but they met an in-form Scottish outfit at Murrayfield and that loss set the tone for the next two games, with both Wales and England recording wins against the Azzurri. Italy ended the tournament with a bang though, recording their first ever win over Ireland. Italy are no longer also-rans, and they’re only going to get better.
Ireland had an awful tournament, finishing 5th and registering just one victory against Wales in the opening game. The optimism that accompanied the start of their campaign has evaporated, and coach Declan Kidney is under immense pressure. Ireland have not managed the progression from the old guard to the new guard well, and this is likely to be reflected in a much smaller Irish contribution to the 2013 Lions squad than in previous years.
What do you say about the French? On their day they can beat anyone in the world, but disorganisation and a frankly baffling selecting process saw France finish the tournament with the wooden spoon. A win against the Scots in their last game wasn’t enough to save them, and Philip Saint-Andre is another coach who should feel a bit concerned about his job security.
The Scots were rejuvenated this year with Aussie Scott Johnson at the helm and finished in a highly respectable 3rd position. After a hammering against England on the opening day, they improved vastly, beating both Ireland and Italy. In Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland they have two devastating strike runners and if Johnson gets the job full time he’ll be looking to utilise the talents of these guys as much as he can.
England had a great tournament up until the last game, beating Scotland, Ireland, France and Italy before heading to Cardiff with the Grand Slam at stake. Wales for their part, improved vastly upon a shocking first game against Ireland, beating France, Italy and Scotland.
So England travelled to the Millennium with the words, ‘Grand Slam’ on all English lips. Would their momentum carry them through against the resurgent Welsh? Would it be Robshaw or Warburton who emerged victorious from the battle of the breakdown?
We all know what happened. The atmosphere in the Millennium stadium was electric and after a supercharged anthem from the Welsh, the two teams took the field. The rest is history. Wales simply blew England off the park. The collisions were fierce, the battle of breakdown was intense and emotions were running high with various scuffles breaking out all over the pitch. Two tries from Alex Cuthbert in addition to points from the boots of Halfpenny and Biggar condemned England to their biggest ever defeat against Wales and saw the much longed-for Six Nations trophy return to the 2012 Grand Slam winners.
What went wrong for England? Quite simply this team is not good enough yet. The Welsh players were faster, fitter and stronger and England failed to cope with them. It’s hardly surprising: despite their relative youth, Wales are highly experienced as a team. The English XV only held 290 caps between them: relatively paltry in comparison to Wales’ 647.
The trouble is, with the spectre of the 2003 World Cup winning side looming over every subsequent England side, the public and the media just expect them to be the best. As a result, the rugby world was in shock, and talk of an England crisis began. There is no England crisis – they are simply a young, inexperienced side who have been brought back down to earth with a bump; which in itself is no bad thing.
Until the English fans and press realise that they don’t have a divine right to win things, the pressure on their side isn’t going diminish. Many may have been surprised by England’s loss in Cardiff, but few Welsh fans were – perhaps by the scoreline, but not by the loss. England were quite simply beaten by a better side, and Stuart Lancaster will be able to use this loss as a springboard to improve his side before hosting the World Cup in 2015.