10 things we learned from the Six Nations
March 18, 2013
Wales' Ryan Jones and Gethin Jenkins lift the Six Nations trophy at the Millennium Stadium © PA Photos
The final round of Six Nations action served up some much-need drama but what conclusions can we draw from the last act and the championship as a whole?
Wales will dominate the Lions
It was always likely that Wales would dominate the British & Irish Lions squad as soon as their coach Warren Gatland was tasked with leading the elite tourists to Australia but any accusation of favouritism come the squad announcement next month will be wide of the mark. Wales proved in this year's Six Nations that they remain the northern hemisphere's No.1 team - regardless what the IRB rankings say - and the fact that they did so having shrugged of the disappointment of a run of eight straight defeats underlines they have a strength of character to match their on-field prowess. Expect them to provide the bulk of the touring party and the Test side that could shape up as follows:
Leigh Halfpenny (Wal); Alex Cuthbert (Wal), Brian O'Driscoll (Ire), Jamie Roberts (Wal), George North (Wal); Jonathan Sexton (Ire), Mike Phillips (Wal); Cian Healy (Ire), Rory Best (Ire), Adam Jones (Wal), Alun-Wyn Jones (Wal), Geoff Parling (Eng), Sam Warburton (Wal), Justin Tipuric (Wal), Jamie Heaslip (Ire)
Jacques Brunel is not mad
Many laughed at Italy coach Jacques Brunel when, just days into his post, he set his sights on the Six Nations title. He was confident they could go from also-rans to title contenders within '2-3 years' and his side appear on track following an outstanding campaign that included victories over France and Ireland with England also coming perilously close to joining their list of scalps. Not only that, they have done so by adding a new dimension to their play that ensures they are no longer wholly reliable on the rugby god that is No.8 Sergio Parisse - although there is little doubt he lifts them to greater heights. A schedule that affords them only two home games next year suggests the title will remain elusive but rest assured they have the beating of any of their rivals on their day.
England's World Cup game with Wales will not be played in Cardiff
Wales' stunning victory over England in Cardiff on Saturday taught us many things but perhaps the most important lesson was handed down by capacity Millennium Stadium crowd. A 74,000 capacity crowd generated a rare and thrilling atmosphere that helped propel the home side to glory but in doing so they ended all hope of them playing host to their 2015 Rugby World Cup pool game against England. World Cup organisers may be keen to ensure venue agreements and financial targets are set, but they are not going to jeopardise the hosts' chances by offering Wales such a significant advantage.
Edwards remains a defensive mastermind
Not so long ago, some dared to question whether Shaun Edwards still warranted the title of 'defensive mastermind' with Wales having slumped to eight straights including an embarrassing reverse at the hands of Samoa who danced their way to three tries on a memorable night last November. A painful part-time stint with Premiership side London Irish did little to improve his rating with the Exiles leaking 31 tries in 12 league games before they parted company. But Wales stopped the rot in the wake of their opening Six Nations loss to Ireland and have since shut up shop with their brutal derailing of England's Grand Slam bid making it an incredible 357 minutes since they conceded a five-pointer. No wonder Edwards was seen skipping around the Millennium Stadium on Saturday night.
Lions captain remains a mystery - to us at least
Who will lead the British & Irish Lions to Australia later this year? A feast of Six Nations has failed to provide a definitive answer with none of the leading contenders able to deliver a knock out blow to their rivals. The bookmakers would have you believe Sam Warburton is favourite but he lost the Wales captaincy last month and only rediscovered some much-needed form without the weight of responsibility. Two Man of the Match performances raised Chris Robshaw's hopes of claiming the honour but he may be more concerned about earning a place on the tour and the Test team in the first place. A fit and firing Brian O'Driscoll would loom large but he is struggling on both counts with the likes of his Ireland team-mate Rory Best and Wales' Alun Wyn Jones considered outsiders. In such a scenario, Warren Gatland's familiarity with Warburton may swing it but will he command a place in the Test side? Intriguing stuff.
England are some way from the finished article
Wales exposed England's flaws in the Six Nations title showdown and provided coach Stuart Lancaster with plenty of food for thought before the side's tour to Argentina later this year. The victory over world champions New Zealand is now a distant memory with his side's failure to match Wales' muscle and worrying impotence in attack sure to cause a few sleepless nights. Rising stars Christian Wade and Jonny May are now assured of game time in the summer with Lancaster's hand set to be forced by Lions call-ups while the arm around the shoulder that has protected an off-colour Chris Ashton of late is set to be replaced by a kick up the backside.
Italy No.8 Sergio Parisse may have played a larger role in this year's Six Nations than he possibly should have after escaping relatively lightly for an ugly rant at a referee while on domestic duty with Stade Francais, but you cannot question his class when he keeps his mouth shut and plays the game at a level few can reach. When he lets his outstanding all-round ability do the talking, he is a joy to behold and should be awarded the Player of the Championship honour in recognition of his consistent excellence.
BOD may well shelve retirement plans
Brian O'Driscoll has enjoyed a rollercoaster ride of a Six Nations and he may just want to go around one more time. His campaign began in sensational style with a vintage display and the Man of the Match honour in his side's opening victory over would-be champions Wales - but that would be as good as it got with the only subsequent highlight the birth of his first child Sadie. Defeat to Italy in their final clash was compounded by a yellow card for an ill-thought stamp which will no doubt prompt a ban. It is no way for arguably his country's greatest player to bring the curtain down on a decade and more of distinguished service - but his body has taken another pounding in recent weeks and that may be the deciding factor.
We don't need tries, but it helps
We couldn't contain our excitement when the Six Nations combined for a total of 16 tries on the opening weekend. The stage was set for free-flowing feast of championship action but it didn't quite pan out that way with wet weather and poor execution contributing to a drought of five-pointers. In total, the Six Nations produced 37 tries as opposed to 94 successful penalty kicks. That ratio - of 0.40 tries for every successful penalty goal - means we have see fewer than half as many tries as penalty goals for the first time in the 14-season history of the Six Nations. Wales and England offered us a reminder that brutal try-less rugby can be just as enthralling but it took tries from Alex Cuthbert to blow the roof off the Millennium Stadium.
It is time for some of the Six Nations to invest some of their millions in playing surfaces worthy of the occasion. Terrible pitches in Paris and Dublin were a disgrace and ensured the championship and the sport blew its big moment in front of a global TV audience. Rarely is the sport afforded such a prime time presence and the advert served up will not have won many new fans. Twickenham's blend of artificial turf and natural grass stood up to the elements and the action and their rival unions need to give them a call - asap.
Grand Slam signs sit unused in a truck at the Millennium Stadium following England's latest failure to complete a clean sweep © PA Photos
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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