It was the collective sense of purpose and unity that was most striking as France collected their grand slam and rose to second in the world rankings. In the past they would suffer a setback and often allow it to distract them. Now they have everything a champion rugby team need: talent, power and, crucially, composition. Only in Wales, where the fear of a Friday night slip-up briefly diverted them down a tactical cul‑de‑sac, did their most influential players show any signs of confusion. The clarity of their gameplan was a lesson to other teams and previously unsung players such as Gabin Villière, Melvyn Jaminet and Jonathan Danty have stepped up to complement the bigger names around them. Shaun Edwards’ defensive urges have also made a massive difference and the French public are swooning. By the time the World Cup kicks off in Paris in 2023, they may be firm favourites.
By most measures Ireland had a productive season. Their tally of 24 tries was the second highest in Six Nations history – albeit boosted by a field day against a 13-man Italy – and they also conceded only four in five games, the fewest in the tournament. There is absolutely no shame, either, in losing in Paris against quality French opposition. In Hugo Keenan, Josh van der Flier and Caelan Doris they had unflashy players who would all be on the plane if a Lions tour was coming up. There remains a sense, though, that a more reliable gauge of their World Cup readiness will be the Test series in New Zealand this summer. Winning at home – or away against a 14-man England – is all very well but another level will be required to beat the All Blacks in their own backyard. They look a more formidable pack with Rónan Kelleher and Andrew Porter on the field but Tadhg Beirne, Jamison Gibson-Park and Michael Lowry add a dash of something different and there are plenty of youngsters awaiting a chance.
Only Italy scored fewer tries than England, who lost three of their five games for the second Six Nations in a row. People still harking back to their 2019 World Cup final appearance need to wake up and realize they are now appreciably behind France and Ireland. Ellis Genge, Marcus Smith, Freddie Steward and Alex Dombrandt will all learn plenty from this tournament but England rarely have the set-piece dominance or midfield line-breakers to allow Smith to weave the kind of spells he does for Harlequins. Nor is asking Genge to truck it up repeatedly from his own 22 going to concern top-class opposition. Alfie Barbeary is a name to watch while Henry Arundell has scored some blistering tries for the under-20s but, with only 12 Tests between now and the World Cup, the window for experimentation is closing fast.
Considering the squad at their disposal and an upbeat start to the tournament, Scotland’s subsequent decline has to be a concern. Worse things happen than players having a couple of beers after a win but trust between players and management seems to be fraying again and any positivity has rapidly evaporated. The good news is that Cameron Redpath is a class player and will enhance Scotland’s attacking options, while Rory Darge looks to have a long and fruitful Scotland career ahead of him. Jamie Ritchie will make a difference when he is fit and may yet assume the captaincy if Gregor Townsend feels a change of leadership is required. Ultimately, though, Scotland were subdued by a moderate Wales and lost comfortably against France and Ireland. Even against England at Murrayfield they took a long time to get going; their summer tour to Argentina suddenly feels hugely significant.
Of all the head coaches currently under pressure, Wayne Pivac has the most to worry about. Having contrived to lose at home against Italy for the first time, his side are facing the daunting prospect of a three-Test summer series against the world champions South Africa. Their injury list should have eased by then but the spirit that earned a win against Scotland and ran England close at Twickenham needs to be allied to more forward dynamism and smarter thinking. When the captain, Dan Biggar, suggested “it might be the last chance for a lot of players” after the Italy defeat he was speaking against a backdrop of disappointing age-group and regional results and financial uncertainty, none of which is making Pivac’s job any easier. Reasons to be cheerful? The lovely gesture from Josh Adams, who handed his man of the match medal to Italian opponent Ange Capuozzo, and the character in adversity of Will Rowlands and Nick Tompkins.
As the dust settles on their Cardiff carnival, the end‑of‑season list that will give Italy most heart is the U20 championship table. Three wins in five matches – against England, Wales and Scotland – is another sign of better times ahead and the young players now involved in the senior squad seem determined to give it a proper rattle. Capuozzo will not create miracle tries every week but his have-a-go enthusiasm is infectious and Kieran Crowley seems to be instilling more belief. Michele Lamaro’s captaincy, particularly in impossible circumstances against Ireland, was impressive and Monty Ioane proved a threat on the wing. The Azzurri can finally look everyone in the eye and insist the Six Nations would be a poorer place without them.
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