The Six Nations, like the rest of rugby throughout the world, has been suspended because of the coronavirus outbreak but, with no action to look forward to in the immediate future, it provides a moment to look back on the past couple of months, which have left the title a three-way contest.
Player of the tournament
France’s scrum-half Antoine Dupont stood out in the first three rounds, profiting from quick possession and turnovers to exploit defences unused to the side’s more disciplined and structured approach under Fabien Galthié and his coaching team. Dupont is not a typical French scrum-half in that he prefers to run and probe rather than box-kick, though in Scotland, against a defence that stopped powerful ball-carriers behind the gainline, he struggled to make an impact, but at 23 can put it down to experience. The flanker Charles Ollivon has been almost as influential, growing as a player having been made captain, while for England Maro Itoje stood out after the opening match in Paris, backed up by Courtney Lawes and Tom Curry with Ellis Genge providing cameos from the bench. The Scotland prop Rory Sutherland has anchored a previously troublesome set-piece and Jordan Larmour has had his moments for Ireland.
Sutherland can be counted as one: his only previous appearance in the championship was in 2016 when he came off the bench for 14 minutes against Ireland. A first start followed in Japan, but then a serious injury threatened to end his career. Nick Tompkins has made an impact with Wales after surprising most of the rugby world before the tournament by revealing he was qualified to play for the land of his grandmother. He has endured some testing moments, targeted defensively in Dublin and conceding an interception try against France, but he has revelled in the more open approach under Wayne Pivac, able to step out of contact and make the ball available, deceptively strong and the catalyst for a side trying to make the crossing from the past to the present. France’s full-back Anthony Bouthier was playing second-division rugby a year ago, but even in Scotland showed his attacking threat.
Coach of the tournament
It would have been Galthié before the last round but France struggled to find a solution to Scotland stopping their attacks at source and lost their discipline. A new, young side need time and there was ample evidence over the first three weekends that the fickle, careless side who since 2010 have left only a faint footprint on the Six Nations, is a serious contender again. Their first-half display against England was impressive in defence and attack, while their victory in Cardiff showed they had found the means to win a big match on the road.
If England look the favourites if the tournament resumes, it has been a weird couple of months for Eddie Jones, who made a series of headline-grabbing remarks that reflected poorly on someone normally so sure-footed with the media. That the Rugby Football Union had to be nudged into making a response to his criticism of Ben O’Keeffe, who refereed the victory over Wales, which contained an ill-disguised implication of bias, reflected badly on a governing body that has become rudderless and offers no leadership at a time when the game is desperate for some.
Scotland’s defence has been a highlight of the tournament, four tries conceded by a team who had averaged nearly 14 against in a campaign in the past six tournaments and 12.5 since it started in 2000. It is overseen by Steve Tandy, who was sacked as the Ospreys coach in 2018 and spent a year with the Waratahs before arriving in Scotland. Shades of Shaun Edwards in his approach.
Jonny May’s second in Paris, Romain Ntamack’s solo effort against France, the off-loading that led to Tomos Williams crossing the line at Twickenham and Stuart Hogg finding salvation in Rome were notable, but Wales’s counterattack at the start of the second half against England, sparked by Tompkins and finished by Justin Tipuric, was exceptional.
Italy continue to struggle, failing to score a point in two of their three matches, the absence of Finn Russell meant the loss of one of the sport’s remaining mavericks, although Scotland found an inner resolve, and Jones’s remarks about O’Keeffe were below the belt, but four years after the Six Nations failed to act after Joe Marler called Samson Lee “Gypsy boy”, the tournament’s disciplinary system remains slow at times to respond.
It did nothing about Jones’s remarks and, after the match officials failed to spot Marler tweaking Alun Wyn Jones’s privates, used a sledgehammer to crack a nut, as it were, by charging the prop with a serious act of foul play that carried a 10-week ban when a misconduct rap and a couple of weeks to think about it would have delivered the message.
It is time that the disciplinary system for all major international tournaments came under the auspices of World Rugby, which all too often is not allowed to be the game’s governing body. It is the way to ensure greater consistency.
Will matches be rearranged?
Ideally, yes. With all the league campaigns in abeyance and uncertainty over when the pandemic will peak, the summer tours could be cancelled to allow domestic tournaments to be completed and revenue shared with the south in November. Unions will take a hit but this is a time of sacrifice.
The shutdown of the game throughout the world because of the coronavirus pandemic will have financial repercussions. Their severity will depend on when leagues and international tournaments are able to resume.
Some clubs in Wales were upset last week when, just before the announcement that the Six Nations match between Wales and Scotland had been postponed, money was taken from their accounts by the Welsh Rugby Union through Direct Debit for the tickets they had sold to members. The facility had been set up two days before when the WRU, acting on the advice of the Welsh government and health experts, was confident the match would go ahead and was not a cynical money grab.
The sport is having to deal with the unknown. The reaction of Super Rugby, which like the Premiership has been suspended for five weeks, is to consider playing matches on a local basis on resumption, behind closed doors if need be, to ensure there is no foreign travel.
Summer tours are under threat and, at the end of a campaign that started with training camps and the World Cup, there is a case for them to be called off quickly to give domestic tournaments the space for completion, if restrictions are lifted in time.
It would mean unions in the south taking a financial hit but Europe could respond by offering revenue sharing from November’s internationals: if they did not, teams from the south would probably stay at home. The various strands that make up the game are in this together and they need to make a collective response rather than put themselves first. In doing so they might create a template for the future.
Still want more?
Robert Kitson on rugby’s land of coronavirus confusion.
Joe Marler’s punishment for an act without malice showed inconsistency, writes Ugo Monye.
And Martin Pengelly sings the praises of France v England in the 1991 World Cup for our My Favourite Game series.
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