The Principality’s rugby expert Mark Thomas gives Monaco Life readers his take on this year’s Six Nations Championship heading in to Friday’s finale.
As the Covid crisis hopefully comes to a close over the coming months with vaccines and herd immunity, rugby fans are looking forward to the festival of rugby in the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France. Tickets are now on sale with rugby packages available to see your favourite team. These fans are also looking to the Lions tour this summer which may well end up being played in the UK.
So, what did we learn from this year’s Six Nations? Overall, we can say that it was an exciting Six Nations, with reputations gained and several heavy hitters knocked off their high perches. With the Lions selection weighing heavy on the shoulders of many rugby stars, the campaign will prove to be positive for many new faces, and disaster for established others.
Let’s start with England, the defending champions. The big question is: what happened? From their incredible historic performance in beating New Zealand in the semi-final of the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, where has this team gone? It is essentially the same team, but the creativity, speed of thought, the enterprise, the off-loading, the lines of running have all gone. They looked like a rudderless ship. Farrell and Itoje, both touted as potential Lions captains, are now heavily down the pecking order. Farrell may even struggle to be selected given the talent available to Gatland.
Questions have obviously arisen over Eddy Jones’ tactics and selections. Picking on reputation and not on performance has bitten him in the proverbial backside. They are definitely “in transition”, as Jones said. They lost to Ireland, Scotland and Wales for the first time in many years in the same championship! Why young players like Marcus Smith of Harlequins and Exeter No 8 Sam Simmonds who was European Player of the Year last year were not selected or blooded is a point of concern for future experience. Strength in depth is of critical importance and it seems as if England have got weaker, not stronger.
A change of direction, the injection of some young blood, and new thinking and energy is surely necessary. Many big names will undoubtedly lose out on Lions selection, but expect Sinclair, George, Itoje, Curry, Underhill, Watson, May and Farrell to be selected.
For the Irish, beating England on the weekend in what was their best match of the championship was a strong way to finish. The experience and control of Murray, Sexton and the marauding forwards like Beirne, Stander, Henderson, and with Henshaw in the centre, the Irish took the game and dominated, all putting their hands up for Lions inclusion. They are all big game players and they all delivered, and the statistics back them up. Stander has most carries in the Six Nations with 72, Henshaw more than any back with 63, and turnovers won by Beirne, 10, and Henderson, 6, lead the packs.
Wales came so close to a grand slam with probably the greatest match of the championship in Paris last weekend. The incredible game provided a 30-32 finish in favour of the French in a confrontation that was intense, exciting, dramatic and physical. Wales have no doubt been the best of the British teams and the French showed their young team will be something special for when they host the 2023 Rugby World Cup. The Welsh team can hold their heads high with Pivac’s policy to blood new players for experience over the last 18 months paying dividends. Seen as no hopers, they showed how good they are becoming. The break through player Zammit Rees at 20 years of age has played his way onto the Lions tour for sure; he electrified the crowd whenever he got the ball. He is something special.
The mix of maturity and youth was on display in their disciplined try scoring performances – 20 tries in total for Wales. Alun Wyn Jones will surely lead the Lions and I expect he will be joined by several of his team mates – Owens, Faletau, Tipuric, Navidi, Tomos Williams, Biggar, Davies, North, and Williams.
Scotland still have a chance to help Wales win the Championship, but they will have to make history to beat the French in Paris on Friday night for that to happen. The French have to win by 21 points clear and score four tries for a bonus point.
So, for me it looks like Wales will win the Championship as I do not see the Scots lying down. I think they will deliver a Braveheart performance as many still play for Lions places including the mercurial and magical Finn Russell and Hogg perhaps as Lions captain. Watson on the flank has been outstanding and there are one or two forwards who could deliver something special. Here’s hoping Scotland do Wales a favour on Friday night!
Mark Thomas played for Wales in the 1993 Sevens World Cup and played for clubs Swansea, Harlequins, London Welsh, Rosslyn Park, Cambridge University and Racing Club Nice before retiring and becoming the breakman in the Monaco bobsled team with Prince Albert for eight years.
Top photo by Reuters