The 2023 Six Nations may be officially done and dusted, but none of the teams involved can afford to sit back and put their feet up, with the upcoming Rugby World Cup meaning that every one of them needs to keep their feet firmly on the accelerator as they continue to build towards the showpiece event.
With that in mind, Total Rugby Analysis has looked at each of the six sides in turn and provided some thoughts on what we have learnt about them over the last couple of months and where they are in their pre-tournament preparations.
It is really difficult to find fault with Ireland at the moment, with everything that the World No. 1s are doing being filled with quality and confidence, and the fact that they ended the tournament with another Six Nations title and a Grand Slam indicates that they are getting the results too.
What is really good to see from their point of view is the options that they have all over the field. For other teams, if they picked up an injury to a key player, they would instantly lose a key element of their game plan, but with Ireland, they always seem to have a readymade replacement and can rotate as needed without affecting the squad’s overall mindset.
It is tough to single out one player who has really stood out for them, because what makes them who they are is the team, and the fact that, regardless of what position the players are in, they all work together and support each other with and without the ball. With that at the core of everything that they do, they will be one of the favourites to lift the Webb-Ellis Cup in September and could well go all the way.
The World Cup hosts had a slow and edgy start to this year’s Six Nations, with them struggling to get past Italy in Rome, and it may well have been down to the added expectations that resulted from last year’s sublime charge to their own Grand Slam. However, to their credit, they did grow into the tournament and have emerged with a lot of positives to build on ahead of a potential World Cup triumph on home soil.
Their last two games, against England and Wales, were the key indicators of just how good they are when they execute well, and even though they were facing poor sides in those matches, there was still a lot that they needed to get right in order to be as ruthless as they were, and the fact that they did that and didn’t become complacent will be what pleases them the most.
Defensively, there are still a few questions that need answering, with them conceding some poor tries at times, but the fact that they have so much strength in depth means that they should be able to find solutions to those issues over the coming months, and there is no doubt that they are another side backed by many to become world champions later in the year.
Perhaps the surprise package of this year’s tournament, Scotland have always had quality in their squad and the ability to deliver on the field, but, over the last few years, that potential has never been met, with them instead falling flat and exiting the tournament with a lot of negativity surrounding them.
Not this year though, because, even though they had some disappointing performances towards the end of the Championship, their tournament overall was very strong and they can definitely hold their heads up high when reflecting on it. What has helped a lot is having more cohesion in different areas of the team, with the settled partnership at centre of Sione Tuipolotu and Huw Jones, which has given them a good mix of physicality and agility on the ball, playing a key role in everything that they have done well over the last weeks.
They aren’t perfect though, and there is still a sizeable amount of work to do ahead of the World Cup, but if they can iron out the mistakes that they made at times which cost them points and wins, then they will be in good shape come September and should not be underestimated when the action gets underway.
England were never expecting to win this tournament, with those in the higher echelons of English rugby recognising that, given the first game against Scotland was new head coach Steve Borthwick’s debut, it was always going to be about seeing signs of improvement and turning the team around, following the dismal end to Eddie Jones’ tenure.
Therefore, the question is whether they have shown the progression required, and it is a difficult one to answer. In terms of results, the answer is no, with them still struggling to win matches and challenge those at the top of the table. In terms of performances, the answer is a tentative yes, with a creative attack being introduced against Scotland, set piece variation coming in against Italy, the ability to dig in and gain results from ugly performances evident against Wales and some additional speed with and without the ball visible against Ireland, and the fact that the fans cheered the team off despite losing the Calcutta Cup in the first matchweek shows that they too saw those early positives.
The performance against France was a disaster, and England will want to take the learnings from it and then move on, but, when looking at the rest of the tournament, it does seem to be an anomaly and just a really bad day.
Make no mistake, there is still a lot of work to get through between now and the World Cup, with their defence nowhere near good enough and some of the key positions in the team, such as fly-half, still having a lot of question marks over them, but, if they keep working on getting the detail of their play right, the results will come at some point in the future if not in September.
The team who probably have the most to do ahead of the World Cup is Wales, with them joining England in appointing a new head coach just before the tournament and, like England, struggling to implement key aspects of their tactical game plan.
However, unlike England, who have shown signs of what their eventual identity will be when they are more used to Borthwick’s methods, there is still no clear picture of what Warren Gatland wants his Wales side to look like in the future, which is a big worry. In the first game of the tournament, he went with experienced heads that he had worked with before, and then switched to younger options in the second, before opting for different blends of the two after that, and the simple fact is that none of them really had the desired effect.
If Gatland had any doubts about the size of the job that he has taken on in his return to Wales, then this tournament will have demonstrated just how far they have fallen since he previously relinquished the reigns, and, with Wales being a proud rugby-loving nation who expect a lot, performances and results will need to come quickly if the team are to keep them onside.
Over the last 12 months, it has been clear to anyone watching them that Italy are starting to move in the right direction at last under head coach Kieran Crowley, with them sticking to a long-term development plan and continually trying to improve different areas of their game in order to bridge the chasm that had grown between them and the other five teams.
However, this tournament perhaps showed that, whilst they have a lot of belief in what they are doing, for which they need to be commended, they didn’t concentrate on the fundamental aspects of their play, and that was what cost them at times.
To explain, in the opening game against France, they were so focused on trying to be stylish at the back that they ended up playing themselves into constant danger, with France allowed to press and win the ball inside Italy’s in-goal area or 22m zone, and there were other times when they tried to implement tactics but didn’t get the detail right and so left themselves open to opposing pressure.
All it comes down to is not running before they can walk, and that is what Crowley and his players will take out of this tournament when they sit down to look back on it, with it being one major reason that they ended up with one losing bonus point and another Wooden Spoon when they could and maybe should have come away with more.
They are still a young side who are continually finding their feet on the international stage, but now they need to perhaps lose some of the exuberance and work on getting the basics of their performances right, because not doing so will continue to hamper their improvement.