Six Nations report card: Wales top of the class as Italy fail

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Wales stormed to the Six Nations title and Grand Slam by crushing Ireland 25-7 in Cardiff on Saturday.

It was also a 14th consecutive win, based around a granite-like defence and an ever-improving squad under head coach Warren Gatland and inspirational captain Alun Wyn Jones.

Here, we grade each teams’ performance with a view to the World Cup in September.

WALES
Won 5, Lost 0

A first Grand Slam since 2012. Wales took their chances at the right time and made better use of their possession and territorial advantage throughout the tournament. They played with a discipline, commitment and hunger that no team could match. Whether it was winning ugly or not, they were the most consistent team in the competition and boasted the best defence by some distance. Could be European rugby’s best hope at the World Cup later this year.

Grade: A

ENGLAND
Won 3, Draw 1, Lost 1

A mixed campaign but definitely an improvement on their disastrous 2018 season. Their energy, chasing game, physicality, consistency and decision-making were strong in comprehensive wins over Ireland and France. But they struggled in the second half against Wales and Scotland – again raising questions about their inability to close out matches when in control. When Maro Itoje and Mako Vunipola return from injury, expect the Red Rose to strengthen further in time for Japan.

Grade: B-

IRELAND
Won 3, Lost 2

The Men in Green were bullied in the physical stakes, inaccurate and limited in their attacking exploits against England and Wales. They struggled for large spells against Scotland and Italy, and showed minor improvements in round four against France. With a limited game plan, Joe Schmidt needs to go back to the drawing board and come up with something new, especially if Ireland are to finally break the glass ceiling and make a World Cup semi-final this autumn. Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray also need to step up.

Grade: C+

SCOTLAND
Won 1, Draw 1, Lost 3

Failed to build on their potential from 2018 and lacked composure and detail during the tournament. Their stand-out performance was against England on Saturday, when they scored six second-half tries to seal a draw having trailed by 27 points at the break. The talent is there in Scotland, but confidence seemed low after injuries to key stars during the tournament. Still, despite the lack of consistency, Gregor Townsend’s side have the chance of making a World Cup quarter-final later this year. Their fortunes will turn eventually.

Grade: C-

scotland

FRANCE
Won 2, Lost 3

One of the biggest enigmas in world sport. Les Bleus can look sensational at times and then utterly shambolic. Their lack of game plan and general organisation was highlighted in the way they failed to turn up for the first half against Wales and then nearly won the game. They ground out half-decent performances in wins over Scotland and Italy, but then were hopeless in commanding defeats to England and Ireland. Better player management between the French Rugby Federation and clubs is needed for this side to improve going forward.

Grade: D

ITALY
Won 0, Lost 5

Their persistence was one of the big positives for Conor O’Shea. They kept with Ireland and Scotland for large spells of the game and pushed France hard in Rome – a match they really should have won. O’Shea is doing incredible work behind the scenes, but if there are no wins to show for their efforts – 22 successive defeats now in the Six Nations – then it is hard to pinpoint much improvement. More belief and more consistency in attack and defence is needed for the Azzurri players.

Grade: F

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Warren Gatland hails Wales players after Grand Slam triumph

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Wales boss Warren Gatland hailed players who “will run through a brick wall for you” after they demolished Ireland 25-7 to be crowned Six Nations Grand Slam champions.

Wales made it 14 games unbeaten and gave head coach Gatland a record third clean sweep in his final Six Nations game at the helm.

An outstanding Gareth Anscombe kicked 20 points – six penalties and the conversion of centre Hadleigh Parkes’ second-minute try – to sink Ireland in swirling rain under leaden skies on an afternoon when the visitors insisted the Principality Stadium roof remained open.

Wales climbed above Ireland to hold second spot in rugby’s official world rankings, and they will head to the World Cup in Japan later this year – Gatland’s swansong – as major title contenders.

“This group of players will run through a brick wall for you,” Gatland said.

“I am excited for the World Cup because you get two or three months together and you can prepare like a club side.

“You can go into a lot of skill development and really fine-tune your game. From that point of view, we will be in great shape.

“In our previous two World Cups (Gatland was in charge of), we were one of the fittest teams in the World Cup.

“We will be in good shape for this one as well.”

Gatland predicted that Wales would win the Grand Slam if they beat France in their opening match, and they fought back from 16 points adrift to win that game.

Six weeks later, they led 16-0 at half time and dominated Ireland in a way rarely seen against Joe Schmidt’s team during recent seasons.

Gatland added: “It’s nice when predictions come true, isn’t it?

“I’ve got to have that belief and self-confidence in us, and if I can portray that on to the players in some small way then hopefully they can believe it as well.

“It was a great performance today. The boys thoroughly deserve it. Creating history and winning Grand Slams are things nobody can ever take away from you.

“I thought they were exceptional in the way they managed the game. Our physicality nullified what have been Ireland’s strengths in scrum, lineout and runners off nine.

“Our turnover rate, compared to them, gave us that dominance, particularly in that first half.

“Emotion plays a huge part in big games like that. For our group of players, they knew they were playing for first or third place.

“The Irish players probably didn’t expect England to lose to Scotland, so in their heads they were playing for second or third. That has a significant impact in those small percentages.

“You are at home, there is a tidal wave of support behind you, and it built.

“I will miss the atmosphere of a full house, coming in on the bus, the fans and the celebrations afterwards.

“I think I will enjoy that (winning three Grand Slams) afterwards, but the game is always about the players, and we stress that.”

Ireland were washed away as Wales completed a first Six Nations clean sweep for seven years – a tournament record fourth Grand Slam – and landed their first Six Nations title since 2013.

Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones said: “We are managing games better and working on these things. Belief is something you have to earn, and we are doing that.

“We have put a big target on our back for a lot of other teams, and you have to be comfortable with the pressure that comes with that.”

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England and Scotland battle out dramatic draw at Twickenham

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England collapsed in spectacular fashion but Scotland were still unable to register their first victory at Twickenham since 1983 as the Six Nations climaxed in a remarkable 38-38 draw.

It took a try by George Ford in the final play of the game to rescue England as the injury-ravaged Scots stood on the brink of completing the greatest comeback in tournament history.

Avenging last year’s bitter defeat at Murrayfield was now England’s aim and as they ran in four tries to build a 31-0 lead inside half an hour, they were on track to mark their last competitive match before the World Cup with an ominous statement.

But it was the prelude to a stunning riposte from Scotland, who ran in the next five tries, two of them finished by jet-heeled wing Darcy Graham, as the overwhelming favourites fell to pieces.

Tied at 31-31, the final game of the 2019 Six Nations was to be decided by a thrilling final quarter as delirious Scottish fans rubbed their eyes in disbelief at the drama unfolding before them.

England were rattled and replacement scrum-half Greig Laidlaw fell short with a long-range penalty attempt in swirling conditions that if successful would have seen them creep ahead for the first time.

But that moment duly arrived with four minutes remaining and once again it was the home midfield that waved Scotland through, but the try still took some scoring from centre Sam Johnson, who broke three despairing tackles to touch down.

Exhausted and bewildered, England summoned the strength for one last assault that saw Ford sprint over to level the final score, although as holders the Scots retained the Calcutta Cup.

There appeared to be only one outcome as England crossed with just 66 seconds on the clock.

Elliot Daly sprinted through a non-existent midfield and fed Henry Slade, whose own run ended when Jack Nowell picked a sharp line that swept him over.

Ben Moon limped off after tacking a big tackle on his ribs but the setback failed to dent momentum as Tom Curry was on the end of a short-range line-out drive.

Sinckler barrelled into Sean Maitland and the ball was worked right where Joe Launchbury dummied his way over.

Slade had sight of the line as he galloped down the left touchline and at the perfect moment he slipped a sublime pass to Jonny May, who cut inside to touch down.

The one-way traffic was halted when Stuart McInally charged down an Owen Farrell kick, grabbed the ball and won the race to the line, shrugging off a tackle by May in the process.

And it was slick passing and clever lines that opened England up in the 48th minute, the backs interchanging wonderfully until Graham jinked his way over in the left corner.

The Scottish resurgence continued when Ali Price kicked and collected to give number eight Magnus Bradbury the chance to show his pace as the home defence was beaten too easily once more.

It was now England who were falling apart and it was the midfield where the visitors were running amok as incisive play gave Graham his second try that was finished when the wing switched on the afterburners.

And the comeback was complete when Farrell’s sluggish pass in a sluggish move was picked off by Finn Russell, who ran half the pitch to drive over.

With the score level, a grandstand finish awaited and it was one England were lucky to play with 15 men after Farrell escaped punishment for a shoulder-led tackle on Graham.

Laidlaw’s penalty lacked the legs and Farrell was replaced by George Ford as the tension ramped up, before Johnson and Ford exchanged tries in a heart-stopping finish.

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