It was not a vintage year for the Six Nations, although the tournament did throw up some pulsating matches, a fair amount of last gasp tension and a few new faces to watch in the future.
Above all, however, the 2007 championship will be characterised by inconsistency.
All six teams failed to string consistent performances together, while the officiating from referees, touch judges and TMOs also varied wildly from match to match.
Supporters from all six countries can bemoan decisions that went against them at various points in the last few weeks – some possibly more than others. At a time when players, coaches and those running the game are finally starting to show signs that they are beginning to get a grip on what it means to be professional sport, the lack of consistency in the way matches are controlled by referees and other officials is becoming a cause for concern.
It has become glaringly obvious during the so-called “Super Saturdays” when all three matches were played back-to-back. There was a chance to see just how varied the interpretations of individual officials can be.
What is more concerning is the fact that the officials did not implement act on statements from the International Rugby Board about cracking down on certain issues – such as throwing in straight at the line-out; putting the ball straight into a scrum; coming down hard on individual acts of foul play; penalising teams who continually seek to slow down play.
At times many of the matches slipped into the mediocre because of the failure of officials to keep a proper grip on the players.
But there were some moments of cheer for all six countries. Ahead of the World Cup later this year, France, Ireland, England, Italy, Wales and Scotland all have reason for some degree of optimism:
Deserved champions, at times they showed while they can pose a genuine threat to New Zealand’s current dominance of the international game. However, they also showed a recurrence of a familiar theme of recent years – namely their ability to self-destruct at crucial moments. After stumbling to a comfortable win over Italy, they edged Ireland in a thriller with a much more coherent and committed performance. Against Wales they looked shaky for the first half but then showed a much more pragmatic side to their game to stifle the opposition, keep hold of the ball and stretch out to a comfortable lead. They rounded off with some free-flowing rugby against the Scots and muscled their way over for the decisive try at the end of what was another straight-forward win. But in-between the wins over Wales and Scotland there was the abject display against England – the forwards rolled over and allowed themselves to be bullied, while the backs never had enough ball to expose a fragile English defence. They will take heart from securing the 2007 title, but need far more consistency if they are to win the World Cup on home soil. It says much of this team that Vincent Clerc’s late winning try against Ireland aside, they didn’t really produce the sort of sparkling rugby we have come to expect from French sides. France won the 2007 tournament without really playing good French rugby and it owed as much to the poor displays of other teams than their own high standards and consistency. The likes of New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and even Argentina will not be as accommodating in the World Cup. Potential finalists and even winners, the French still have a lot to prove.
Almost snatched glory at the death, but never reached the sort of consistency or intensity that had prompted some to declare them favourites at the start of the Six Nations. When the forwards play with fire and passion and secure ball for a back-line brimming with speed and invention, they can challenge any side in the world. But when the team doesn’t function as a unit, Ireland stumble badly. A narrow win over Wales in the opening match should have set them on course for a happier tournament – arguably Wales lost the match and Ireland could count themselves lucky to secure victory. But they continued to stumble against France in the next match and the Grand Slam slipped from their grasp as the French out-thought them. Ireland finally came food against England, exposing the World Cup holder’s fragility and finally playing the sort of 15-man game many had expected from the opening match. Another spluttering performance in Scotland saw them sneak off with another barely deserved win, while the flood gates opened against Italy with a thrilling display of running rugby – and yet, they still managed to shoot themselves in the foot by leaking a last-minute try that arguably cost them the title. Inconsistency again is this side’s biggest enemy, but with key players – O’Driscoll, Darcy, O’Gara, O’Connell, Leamy, Easterby and Wallace – fit and the team functioning together they could be the dark horses of the World Cup. Like the French, the Irish have the potential to cause an upset but have still got a lot to do to fulfil the huge promise side offers.
The World Cup holders flattered to deceive during the 2007 tournament. Three wins at home, two comprehensive defeats away (the scoreline against Wales did not reflect the overall dominance of the home side). Improvements were made and the three wins will have restored some confidence in a side that has badly lacked direction since the lofty heights of 2003. But the wins over Scotland and Italy – the first against a poor Scottish side, the second a faltering display against a dogged Italy – were exposed as merely papering over the cracks as Ireland blew England away in Dublin. New coach Brian Ashton has been bold during his brief spell in charge – both in terms of his honest assessment of the state of English rugby and in introducing young talent to the national side – and that was rewarded with an unlikely win over France. That victory owed more to the failure of the French to maintain their form, however, and again the scoreline did not offer a realistic picture of the state of the English team. The likes Flood, Strettle, Tom Rees, Easter, Lund and Geraghty performed well enough to warrant inclusion in the World Cup squad, but then the likes of Lewsey, Tindall, Ellis, Vickery, Julian White, Corry and Worsley continue to frustrate more than thrill. Jonny Wilkinson showed how much he has been missed, but also showed the fragility of the side after getting injured. Qualification from the group stage of the World Cup would be a good achievement for a side that arguably is now building towards 2011.
The surprise package or finally living up to the potential of the last five years? Back-to-back wins over Scotland and Wales (the first thoroughly deserved and the second slightly more fortunate) will set the Italians up nicely for the World Cup and the determined way they stood up to England in defeat will also provide them with heart. Of more concern is the way they rolled over against France in the opening match and then leaked tries against Ireland. There is no doubt that Italy has made progress under Peirre Berbezier and he is putting together a tough side to beat, but there are still too many causes of concern – the Italian pack can be a fearsome force, but they still lack a cutting edge behind the scrum. When they gets stuck in, the Italians can be a handful – as Scotland, Wales and England can all vouch for – but they also need to maintain discipline (Mauro Bergamasco’s deserved ban a prime example of the fine line the team often treads) and display more confidence in the backs in order to build on the relative success of the 2007 Six Nations. Like England, qualification from the group stages of the World Cup would be a good achievement.
Arguably the biggest enigma in international rugby at the moment. Deserved Grand Slam champions two years ago, the Welsh self-destructed last year and have been struggling to pick up the pieces ever since. It would have been interesting to see what happened if Wales had shown more of a cutting edge in the back-line in the opening match against Ireland – a win could have injected the sort of confidence the side has lacked until the final game of the 2007 tournament. Against the Irish the Welsh forwards stood up well, but the backs failed to take advantage of the quality ball they received. Still, that defeat provided some hope for the rest of the tournament and then Wales produced one of their worst displays for years in defeat against Scotland. For the first half against France, Wales finally began to show the sort of form and flair that propelled them to the title in 2005 but then succumbed to a muscular French pack in the second half. More progress was made against Italy when the Welsh side should probably have sewn victory up early in the second half – the lack of confidence within the team was all too evident, however, as they allowed Italy back into the match. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the farcical finish in Rome – Chris White’s display perfectly summing up the lack of consistency among the officials – it says everything about Welsh rugby that despite four straight defeats confidence was high ahead of the final match against England. Such confidence was seemingly well-placed as the Welsh team blew the English off the pitch in the opening 20-30 minutes. But ultimately Wales retreated into their shells too often in a match that should not have been so close. The nine-point margin of victory flattered England and Wales should have finished the match off in the first half. So where does that leave Wales? If they can improve consistency and self-confidence a side with the likes of Kevin Morgan, Mark Jones, Shanklin, Shane Williams, Hook, Peel, Gethin Jenkins, Alun Wyn Jones, Ryan Jones and Martyn Williams in it could surprise any team at the World Cup. Throw in a fit Henson, a 2005 vintage Stephen Jones and Gareth Thomas, plus a subs bench with Mike Phillips, Jamie Robinson, Cobain, possibly even Charvis, then Wales could still enjoy a happy World Cup.
The Wooden Spoon for Scotland will be a huge blow considering the level of optimism the side took into the 2007 Six Nations. In the last two years Scotland has arguably looked at the success of Wales in 2005 and drawn inspiration. After a few years of consistently poor performances, the Scots were finally starting to show the first signs of a revival in fortunes. But all that optimism disappeared in a woeful opening match against England when the Scots failed to display any pride, passion or commitment and allowed England to stroll to a comfortable win. The fact that the Scots turned things around in the next match – against a Welsh side that were arguably worse than the Scots had been against England – saw the optimism return. But like Italy, the Scots have a pack of forwards capable of competing with the best and a back-line that continually fails to provide the cutting edge required at international level – too often they rely on the boot of Chris Patterson and don’t capitalise on the presence of exciting runners like Rob Dewey, Sean Lamont and Nikki Walker. The comparison with Italy was evident at Murrayfield in a crazy opening 20-minutes when Scotland gave away three converted tries and then squandered kickable penalties – Patterson is the most accurate kicker in world rugby at present – in the mistaken belief that only tries would get them back into the match. The more committed, professional and passionate display in a narrow defeat to Ireland was a total contrast to the performances against England and Italy. They also briefly threatened France in Paris until, like Wales before them, the Scots succumbed to a muscular French pack and a bit of flair behind the scrum. The worry for the Scots is that despite the progress of the last two years, they still seem unable or unwilling to play to their strengths and still don’t know who should play outside half. The Scots can produce a powerful, professional and committed performance, but the 2007 tournament has cruelly exposed a lack of consistency, confidence and clear game plan. Qualification from the group stages of the World Cup would be a bonus, but nowhere near a certainty.