27 tries. 221 points. 3 superb matches. 1 remarkable day.
It was a joy to behold, but the climax to the 2015 Six Nations Championship has left us with more questions than answers. Are Ireland now genuine contenders to lift the Rugby World Cup? Can both England and Wales escape from the Pool of Death this October? Has the northern hemisphere struck a blow against their southern counterparts? Why doesn’t Nigel Owens referee every game of rugby?
One question has been put to bed though – one posed before (what forever will now be known as) Supersonic Saturday: the question of how this grand old tournament should end every year. There had been some chat in the build up to those last three games that Wales and Ireland were at a disadvantage playing before England on the final day. The theory went that, with the Red Rose running out last, England would know exactly what they needed to do to win the tournament and, therefore, wouldn’t it be better to start all games at the same time for the sake of fairness and entertainment? Well, no as it turns out. England did indeed know exactly what they had to do to win but they fell short and Ireland were crowned champions. But the Men in Green had a mountain to climb themselves thanks to the Harlem Globetrotters type of rugby Wales were dishing out in Rome. From the first whistle at the Stadio Olympico to the last at Twickenham, the day just dished out drama, drama, drama. A Premier League-style simultaneous kick-off just wouldn’t have had the same feel. For a start, we would have only been treated to an 80 minute finale as opposed to those glorious 240 minutes we witnessed. Secondly, can you imagine the broadcasting chaos that would have ensued if those three games had kicked off at the same time?! The Beeb’s programme director would have had a fit as he frantically flicked coverage from Edinburgh to London to Rome back to Edinburgh and so forth as every try, penalty and conversion were scored. Eddie Butler has trouble as it is remembering who’s playing on one pitch let alone three!! It was a truly pants suggestion and well done to Wales, Ireland, England and (to a lesser extent France) for exposing it as such.
To go off on a slight tangent here as we’re talking about broadcasters, here’s a plea to the organising committee of the Six Nations: please, please, please for God’s sake don’t take the Six Nations off free-to-air TV. Super Saturday this year drew a peak audience of 9.63 million viewers in the UK. 9.63 million! To put that into context, 12.2 million people watched the FIFA World Cup Final last year between Germany and Argentina and that’s supposed to be the pinnacle of the footballing world. The Six Nations, albeit a great tournament, is an annual affair and so to be generating those kind of viewing figures (a record for the competition by the way) is astounding. If the Six Nations goes to Sky Sports or BT Sport, the tournament’s audience will fall and rugby’s growth and popularity, we fear, will be stalled in the same way that cricket has slipped out of the consciousness of your average sports fan. The Six Nations provides an opportunity for rugby to advertise itself beyond its usual realms of old miner’s clubs and picnic-adorned Land Rovers. Don’t fritter that opportunity away for a quick buck. Rant over.
At the end of this year’s Six Nations, the $1million question that most Welsh, Irish and English fans will be asking is ‘Why can’t we play like that every match?’. Indeed, it’s a question that we’ve heard on a few lips since that epic day two weeks ago. All three sides looked, at times, irresistible as they chased points and abandoned stoic defence for relentless attack. It’s the kind of play we’re used to seeing from the New Zealands, South Africas and Australias of this world. Are the teams from the south worried? You bet they are! This week alone we’ve had ex-internationals from that side of the equator telling the media here that the final Six Nations games would have forced the south’s big boys to sit up and take note. This autumn’s Rugby World Cup now seems a lot harder a prospect than it did in February for Steve Hansen, Heyneke Meyer and Michael Cheika.
But here’s the conundrum for Warren Gatland, Joe Schmidt and Stuart Lancaster: should their sides now open up from that ‘safety first’, kick and chase, play for territory, minimal mistakes type of game-plan that they’ve all been operating to a lesser or greater extent since 2011? Should these teams, instead of playing a defensively orientated type of game, open the taps more often? After all, each of them looked very good when they did. There is, of course, a balance to be struck and it’s no coincidence that the team best at finding that balance happens to be the best team on the planet: New Zealand. The All Blacks kick the ball more than most international sides, but they also know when to run, when to find gaps and when to score tries. The criticism of international rugby in the northern hemisphere is that we’re very good at the defensive side of play, but pay too little attention to the act of diving over the whitewash. The evidence speaks for itself: this year’s Six Nations tournament saw the least amount of tries scored by a champion side ever (Ireland only scored 8). England, in second place, made a staggering 54 line breaks throughout the tournament but converted less than half of those into tries (they ended up on 18 scores). The Welsh refusal to turn on the gas is something this blog has criticised before and seems to come down to a stubbornness when employing the so-called ‘Warrenball’ tactics which inevitably leads to narrow wins or narrow losses. How refreshing it was to see Wales play with skill, confidence and flair in that second half in Rome rather than being tugged into the usual arm-wrestle in defence that has been the trademark since Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards have been at the helm.
Let us say something that may surprise you: we, at Red Rugby Towers™ believe that any one from England, Ireland or Wales could win the Rugby World Cup later this year. We truly do. But, in order to do that, these teams have to beat the likes of a South Africa, New Zealand or Australia along the way. To achieve this, our home nations must embrace a bit of that madness we saw on Super Saturday a fortnight ago rather than retract into their shells and hope that the laws of averages will see them sneak a narrow win. Of course, playing with the abandon that Super Saturday provided will not be an option and, if our teams play that way, they will get punished. But let’s forget the fear and the ‘play-not-to-lose’ attitude. Let those men in red, green and white turn their boots on to ‘run’ mode every once in a while. The Six Nations finale gave the fans a tantilising glimpse of how it could be. Let’s not forget that feeling in a hurry.
Let’s play rugby.