Stand­ing Tall

Five lessons learned from the 2018 6 Na­tions

EME Outlook - - Contents - Writer: Matthew Staff

Ire­land’s con­vinc­ing 6 Na­tions tri­umph has sent shock­waves around world rugby, leav­ing Wales, Eng­land and Scot­land with food for thought and New Zealand with a wor­thy ad­ver­sary just 18 months away from the World Cup

1. The pluck of the Ir­ish

It would be re­miss not to kick things off with a cel­e­bra­tion of Ire­land's achieve­ments in the 2018 Nat west 6 Na­tions. From the final kick of their first game in Paris, on­wards, there was only one likely win­ner of a Cham­pi­onship that was sim­i­larly void of drama and in­trigue from that point on too. Jonathan Sex­ton’s last-minute drop- goal broke French hearts but also lifted a tan­gi­ble pres­sure that seemed to be hang­ing over the boys in green dur­ing the first 79 min­utes of their cam­paign. That pluck was duly re­warded, and heroic con­sis­tency virtue of Ja­cob Stock­dale, Rory Best, Conor Mur­ray, Peter O’Ma­hony and - well - most oth­ers who took to the field over the four sub­se­quent games, en­sured that the ti­tle and only their third ever grand slam was taken back across the Ir­ish Sea. And to com­plete the rout on Saint Pa­trick’s Day at Eng­land's ‘home of rugby’ made the ac­com­plish­ment all the sweeter.

2. Scot­land: Brave but not the best

An­other false dawn for Scot­land fans should come as no sur­prise, but there were signs that this golden — or at least sil­ver — gen­er­a­tion of stars may be on the right track lead­ing into next year's World Cup in Ja­pan. Many on­look­ers’ dark horse for the 2018 6 Na­tions, an open­ing week de­feat to Wales soon doused those flames, but if this young group can progress at the same ac­cel­er­ated pace as has been seen over the past 12 months, then there is still rea­son for re­al­is­tic op­ti­mism mov­ing for­ward. Per­haps next year's cam­paign will pro­vide a bet­ter in­di­ca­tion of whether Gre­gor Townsend is turn­ing his team from 'Scot­land the brave' into 'Scot­land the best'.

3. Eng­land's quan­tity over qual­ity

A lot has been made of the strength in depth that Ed­die Jones pos­sesses as Eng­land coach, but this year’s 6 Na­tions sug­gests that the em­pha­sis is far more on the lat­ter depth, than the for­mer strength. There may well be four or five com­pet­ing play­ers for each po­si­tion, but if they're all of a sim­i­lar stan­dard — a stan­dard that is be­low that of Ire­land’s - then alarm bells may well be ring­ing. Per­for­mances against Wales, Scot­land, France and the tour­na­ment vic­tors all fell way be­low ex­pec­ta­tions. Re­sul­tantly fin­ish­ing fifth for the first time in more than three decades, the only rea­son this sea­son’s ‘set­back’ isn't a ‘dis­as­ter’ is the blind faith mat English me­dia and fans still just about have in Jones and the Aus­tralian's |ong—term World Cup-fo­cused mas­ter plan. If there aren’t dras­tic signs of im­prove­ment in the au­tumn and into next year’s 6 Na­tions though, those alarm bells may soon turn into an axe.

4. There's room for Ge­or­gia

The only way to ex­pand the in­flu­ence of rugby on the global stage is to make its World Cup more com­pet­i­tive, and this can only be achieved if some of the pe­riph­eral na­tions are ex­posed more reg­u­larly to top tier games‘ Italy was given that chance and while they’re by no means en­croach­ing on the up­per ech­e­lons of the sport as a re­sult, you can't help but feel that its only na­tional ap­peal and com­mer­cial at­trac­tive­ness that dif­fer­en­ti­ates them from the ever-im­prov­ing Ge­or­gians. Of course Ge­or­gia would suf­fer the same wooden spoon fate ini­tially, but you only have to take a look at Rugby Sevens to see what ex­pan­sion can be achieved when in­clu­siv­ity rules the roost. And, who knows, Italy them­selves may find a new ex­cit­ing gear if they’re sud­denly threat­ened with the prospect of ‘rel­e­ga­tion’.

5. North v South - the gap is clos­ing

With around 18 months he go the 10l9 Rugby World Cup in Ja­pan, there is an ar­gu­ment to be made that the north­ern hemi­sphere is bridg­ing the gap to its south­ern (coun­ter­parts; wel­come news for those tired 47! south Africa, Aus­tralia and es­pe­cially New Zealand’s dom­i­na­tion. Ire­land aside, this isn't nec­es­sar­ily be­cause 6 Na­tions sides are Im­prov­ing dras­ti­cally how­ever; more due to the south­ern giants en­dur­ing some­what of a slump them­selves too. All of the lead­ing na­tions seem to be go­ing through a han­dover pe­riod in which old guards and leg­ends are paving the way for the next crop at young­sters to stamp their au­thor­ity on the sport. And if this year's 6 Na­tions has taught us ‘any­thing. it's that Ire­land's bud­ding su­per­stars have laid the first glove in this two year bat­tle royale. It's now time for Aus­tralia, South Africa and New Zealand to fight back, and for ‘ Eng­land, Scot­land, wales and France to land some - punches of their own.

Joe Sch­midt coach­ing the Ir­ish rugby union team 6 Na­tions and Triple Crown tro­phies from 2009

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