ESPN’s 2018 Six Nations team-by-team review — where now for Ireland, Wales, Scotland, France, England, Italy

Rugby


In the end it was all quite straightforward for Ireland as they wrapped up only a third Six Nations Grand Slam with a convincing win over England at Twickenham.

Wales, Scotland, France and England were left to scramble for second — a battle won by the Welsh — while Italy picked up another wooden spoon despite some encouraging signs.

But what do the events of the past six weeks tell us about the state of each nation, and what do they need to do on the road to Japan and the 2019 Rugby World Cup?

Ireland

Positives: The king in the north is upon us and it’s come from a man from the south. With the World Cup a year away, forget the November Test against the All Blacks, Ireland’s conjurer-in-chief will be holding back somewhat as he prepares his parting gift. Injuries forced Joe Schmidt into replacing his centres, from Robbie Henshaw to Chris Farrell and Garry Ringrose, the depth is definitely there to launch a strong attack on the Webb Ellis Cup. Did we mention Ireland have a player management system…

Negatives: It is difficult to say how good Ireland were given none of the other teams looked in particularly strong form. Errors weren’t punished, and chances that they fluffed didn’t come back to haunt them. Games against France and Wales could have swung in the opposition’s favour and the eyes cast to high heaven, reserved presently for Eddie Jones, could have been aimed at a ‘boring’ Schmidt side.

Action Plan for Japan

  • Forget underdogs, Joe Schmidt’s men are now leading contenders for the World Cup. How to deal with that? Ireland have never coped well with the favourites tag, even under Schmidt. Can that change?

  • What will Ireland do for a backup 10? Joey Carbery seemed to be Schmidt’s preferred choice in reserve. If that is the case, Schmidt should use the Tests against the Wallabies in the summer to see what Carbery or another fly-half can do.

  • Graham Henry said after New Zealand walloped Ireland 45-7 back in 2005 that the All Blacks needed to have two players per position to win a World Cup. That is what Schmidt has got to achieve before Ireland can think about a global triumph. — Cillian O Conchuir

Wales

Positives: Wales were largely written off going into the Six Nations with this being a period of transition for a side missing several key players. A second place finish, therefore, is a great return for Warren Gatland and his men. The thrashing of a resurgent Scotland side on the opening day was the highlight for Wales. There was an intensity about the side, and they played at a tempo the Scots could not live with.

Negatives: Wales’ struggles against rugby’s elite continued with defeats to England and Ireland, handling errors severely affecting the team in key areas. The England game was so frustrating to watch. Eddie Jones’ side were poor and there for the taking, but an error-strewn performance from Halfpenny-less Wales cost them the opportunity to claim England’s scalp in their own back yard. Instead, the plaudits and the headlines went to Scotland for their victory two weeks later at Murrayfield.

Action Plan for Japan:

  • Amid Wales’ injury crisis, the side proved that there is strength in depth among their ranks, but the likes of Josh Adams, Aaron Shingler, Josh Navidi and Elliot Dee need to be handed more international experience ahead of Japan to be ready.

  • Wales lack an identity at the moment, and against Ireland and England, it showed. The team played without a consistent style throughout the competition, and Gatland needs to settle on a system during the tour of the Americas in June.

  • Wales’ away form is a concern — they have won just one of their last seven Six Nations games on the road and it will certainly derail their preparations for Japan if they can’t sort it out. — Sean Nevin

Scotland

Positives: Three victories for the second year running and a third-place finish are both respectable returns from Gregor Townsend’s first championship in charge. A first Calcutta Cup victory for a decade was the undoubted highlight and the manner of that victory hints at the potential of this team. Huw Jones continues to look accomplished at Test level, while Greig Laidlaw answered his critics, Finn Russell flickered and John Barclay, Johnny Gray and Hamish Watson all impressed in the pack.

Negatives: Townsend must find an answer to Scotland’s away-day blues. Impressive on their own patch, the team’s shortcomings were ruthlessly exposed on their opening-round trip to Cardiff. Scotland only had themselves to blame for the margin of their defeat in Dublin, as handling errors cost them dear at important times, but it was back to the same old Scotland as they toiled to victory over Italy in Rome last Saturday.

Action Plan for Japan:

  • In a pool with Ireland, Japan, Romania and one of Samoa, Spain or Portugal, Townsend must instil in his side the ability to cope with situations in which they are tagged favourites. Scotland definitely revel in underdog status, as highlighted by their contrasting performances against England and Italy.

  • Huw Jones has made an outstanding start to life as a Test player. His ability to carve a line through defences has not only allowed him to score 10 tries in just 16 Scotland appearances, it has also made him undroppable. Townsend must ensure he arrives in Japan fit and with a settled centre partner, whether that is Pete Horne, Chris Harris, Alex Dunbar, Mark Bennett or AN Other.

  • Townsend must also work out how to get the best out of Finn Russell on a regular basis. The playmaker continues to flit between match-winning brilliance and anonymity on an almost weekly basis. His imminent move to Racing 92 could pay dividends in this department as he gets to grips with an ultra-competitive league and squad. If he can go close to filling the void left by Dan Carter then Scotland could well benefit in Japan. — Martyn Thomas

France

Positives: France finished fourth in the Six Nations — but, given their chaotic run-in, it was a better, more positive, fourth than many could have imagined going into the tournament. Head coach Jacques Brunel took over from Guy Noves over Christmas and, by the time the first round kicked off, anything better than a series of meltdowns against the old Five Nations teams would be regarded as a positive. Meltdowns failed to occur — and Les Bleus won two and lost three by narrow margins. This time, hopefully, it’s a genuine start and not another false dawn.

Negatives: Les Bleus’ defence was the best in the Six Nations, conceding only six tries — and none against the free-scoring Irish. But they could only manage eight of their own, and they were guilty of butchering several chances after working their way into decent positions. That, and first-world rugby problems faced by the PR team, who were in crisis-management overdrive early on, dealing with anger over HIAs against Ireland, and the aftermath of that night out in Edinburgh.

Action Plan for Japan

  • Squad building. Jacques Brunel has only been thinking about Japan in anything more than a theoretical sense since December. There’s no doubt France have the players, but after years of underachievement, his biggest challenge is finally building a team free of ‘Le Fear’.

  • The half-back hinge. It’s an age-old French problem – and Brunel has not been helped by injuries, but there’s no doubt that Les Bleus were blunted every time Maxime Machenaud was replaced, while Francois Trinh-Duc and Lionel Beauxis are hardly future-proof fly-halves.

  • Attack, attack, attack. Backs coach Jean-Baptiste Elissalde has insisted that Les Bleus will get better with ball in hand as they get to know each other. They will have to. The Six Nations is one thing, but their next step on the road to Japan 2019 is the June tour of New Zealand. A stout defence will not be good enough. — James Harrington

England

Positives: Errmmm…. Well, England now know who can’t perform at the highest level and know they have to coat Owen Farrell and Elliot Daly in bubble wrap ahead of the 2019 World Cup. But apart from that, this was a dismal, underwhelming campaign from Eddie Jones’ side. It promised so much, one defeat in two years does that, but they underperformed and have much to work on. Yes there were injuries, but when looking at who advanced their claims ahead of Japan, you can only really earmark Daly, Farrell and James Haskell.

Negatives: Where to start. The once sturdy and formidable set piece is nowhere near as scary, the breakdown is a mess, the discipline is shocking, the players look weary and the attack is blunt. The benefits of Ireland’s central contract system was clear for all to see with their British & Irish Lions looking like new-born lambs, but England’s best players looked fatigued. This is not Jones’ fault, but the system’s. Those debates are for the suits but two wins from five was a dismal return.

Action Plan for Japan:

  • Sort the breakdown and discipline: Both areas were poor for England. Their discipline against France was shocking, and against Ireland they also conceded idiotic penalties. They were dominated at the breakdown by Scotland and France and this needs addressing.

  • Work out what to do with the midfield and the back-row: England look probably best with the twin-playmaker system but they need to ensure quick ball and decide on their first-choice No. 13. The back-row balance needs adjusting to establish any sort of control over the breakdown — Chris Robshaw, Tom Curry and Billy Vunipola could be an option.

  • Get Billy Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi fit: How they missed Big Bill. Without Vunipola they are lacking gainline-breakers, with Ben Te’o and Nathan Hughes offering not nearly as much as the giant Saracens No. 8. And they are lacking stardust in the centres. A fully-fit Tuilagi could be the answer. — Tom Hamilton

Italy

Positives: Italian rugby is growing [that the under-20s ended fourth for the first time, with two wins and a record 17 tries scored is a pretty encouraging statement] and the Azzurri are benefiting from that growth through the injection of fresh, in some cases simply stunning, blood. Last November the Azzurri discovered the talent of Giovanni Licata and even though injuries and a pretty blind management of the kid from Sicily [relegated to Italian Eccellenza instead of living on a daily basis in a PRO14 club] did limit his action during the Six Nations, Italy discovered Matteo Minozzi, Sebastian Negri and Jake Polledri. Work in progress.

Negatives: Results, as usual. Italy end up with yet another wooden spoon and broke in Marseille the tournament’s previously unbroken barrier of 15 consecutive losses. They then collected defeats in Cardiff and in Rome against Scotland, leaving the infamous streak open at 17. Record books are pretty harsh — that last Azzurri win was in 2015 against Scotland. That means they will try to stop that rot in 2019, one year from now, making it a four-year winless streak. Ugly. No other words would better explain the feeling.

Action Plan for Japan

  • Italian rugby is producing talent on a consistent basis. That means that the future looks brighter now than ever. Now the system should start using that talent more properly: Zebre, the PRO14 federal franchise, should limit the import of average players from abroad and opt for a more Italian-centric recruitment policy. Enough now.

  • On a broader level, Italians should simply stick to Conor O’Shea’s plans and support the Irishman revolutionary vision through the next couple of years. The team that will compete at the World Cup won’t play for the quarterfinals [being in a pool with the All Blacks and the Springboks would hammer almost every Northern Hemisphere union’s hopes] but that group of players will form the spine of a much more competitive and winning future.

  • While the bigger picture remains in deep green, there are still some pretty worrying areas that must be addressed as soon as possible: blackouts, basic individual errors and an uncommon inability to turn away opportunities should all be top of Conor O’Shea to-do list ahead of the mid-year tour to Japan. — Enrico Borra



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