The Six Nations seems to go by in a flash these days. The quality of play, compared to that in the later stages of the World Cup has been harshly criticised, perhaps unfairly. In the RWC you have the pool stage to get things sorted out, and one recalls that South Africa lost to Japan while New Zealand were very ragged in their opening games. In the Six Nations you start cold against tough opposition; you can’t ease your way into the tournament. Then the World Cup was played in benign autumn weather; the Six Nations started in chilly February.
England were the best side and deserved their Grand Slam. In the World Cup, selection had been inconsistent and the lineout poor. Now selection was consistent, and the lineout with George Kruis and Maro Itoje as jumpers under the guidance of Steve Borthwick was utterly reliable, a source of strength rather than weakness. In different circumstances one might add that they had an outstanding goal-kicker in Owen Farrell, but actually in international rugby these days, it’s a surprise when anyone misses a kick at goal.
Scotland’s season didn’t quite end with the flourish we had hoped for, though Stuart Hogg’s try will remain long in the memory. Ireland’s ability to retain possession throughout the first half was remarkable, though one might note that England enjoyed an equal dominance in the first half against Wales.
We didn’t help ourselves much, failing to field several Irish kicks, while Duncan Weir put one restart out on the full. The remarkable thing is that we clung on and with 15 minutes to go were down only 20-28. The balance seemed to have shifted in our favour. Then Alex Dunbar removed Jonny Sexton unceremoniously from a ruck, and was yellow-carded. The momentum swung again. Ireland kicked the penalty deep and were soon 35-20 up. But if Dunbar had restrained himself, the penalty at that ruck would surely have gone Scotland’s way and there would have been time enough to win the match.
Tears over spilt milk are futile, all the more so because this was our best championship season for years. It wasn’t only that we won two matches (for we have done that before), it was the manner in which we played and the fact that the three defeats were all close. When you hear non-Scots calling Scotland “the most exciting team in the championship”, you know things have changed.
Most of Vern Cotter’s squad have years of international rugby ahead of them. I would guess that all but two or three of them will be looking to play in the World Cup in 2019. No doubt one or two will lose form or drop out of the reckoning on account of injury, but it would be a surprise if at least a dozen of the XV that started against France aren’t lining up against them in the Stade de France next spring.
Moreover there’s nobody in that XV who was there merely for the lack of anyone better – and that’s not something which one could often have said with any conviction at different times in the past. Rugby careers, as I have often remarked, tend to last longer that they did in the amateur days. Jonny Gray is likely to become as important to Scotland as Paul O’Connell was to Ireland, and if his career is at long as O’Connell’s he’ll play in four World Cups.
The Six Nations doesn’t need any reform. The suggestion that bonus points should be introduced is foolish, and not only because a match with few tries may be more gripping and of higher quality than one which turns into a tryfest. You might have the absurd situation in which one country won a Grand Slam but not the title, because they didn’t collect bonus points for tries.
Any call for Italy to be replaced by Georgia or Romania should – and will – be resisted. Italy certainly finished very badly this year, but they suffered a horrendous run of injuries and simply lack experienced reserve strength. They had actually started well, coming very close to beating France in Paris and then outplaying England for almost an hour in Rome. They have a new coach in Conor O’Shea next year and it would be a surprise if their results don’t improve. What we should remember is that, though no Northern Hemisphere team can at present match New Zealand, there are no bad teams and precious few easy matches in the Six Nations.