Despite my being a committed Welsh fan when it comes to the game of Rugby Union, I must congratulate England on their Six Nations win over France on Saturday which clinched them the Grand Slam, their first in 13 years. England deserved both the win and the championship, as all the other teams fell short at crucial periods.
Since England crashed out of the Rugby World Cup last year, I have been somewhat sympathetic to their fortunes as I see a revival of England as crucial to improving the standards of Northern Hemisphere rugby. Despite England having won the RWC in 2003, the last tournament showed just how far the North-South gap had become with the semi-finalists all coming from the South as the Northern hopefuls were swept aside (although Scotland were very unlucky not to beat Australia). In order to wrest the trophy back from the Southern Hemisphere we will need both England and France to be genuine contenders in future tournaments. Wales or Ireland might manage to win the competition if the stars align for them, but it will be an incredibly tough task for them to do if the other Northern teams are not able to take one or two of the Southern giants out of the tournament in the process. Wales or Ireland simply cannot be relied upon to beat two of Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa in successive matches.
My point is that it is in Wales’ interests for England and France to get their act together on the international rugby stage. Wales might find it harder to win another Six Nations against a much-improved England, but nothing important is going to be achieved by Wales beating an under-performing England: Wales won the Grand Slam in 2005, 2008, and 2012 and the Six Nations in 2013, yet still failed to mount a serious challenge to Southern Hemisphere opposition in competitions or tour matches. With its limited number of players and resources, Wales can’t be expected to do much more as things stand. So it falls to England, and also France, with their far greater player pool and finances to drive up the standards and pull Wales, Ireland, and Scotland along with them. What is remarkable about Saturday’s Grand Slam win for England is that it is their first since they won the RWC in 2003: with their size and resources, England should be exerting near dominance over the Six Nations year in, year out.
Alas, I think there is some way to go even for England. I watched most of the Six Nations games this year, and at the same time watched the Super Rugby going on in the Southern Hemisphere. The difference in standards was stark, and I’ll take one facet of the game as an example. In Super Rugby, you routinely see the play rapidly shifted out wide with passes being flung 10-15m or more which usually go straight to hand, taken by the receiving player right in front of his chest when he is running at full tilt. In the Six Nations, far too many “long” passes were being taken over the head, down by the ankles, or were knocked-on. In a pattern which was repeated all over the tournament, at a crucial stage in the England v Wales match, Jamie Roberts was forced to stop his run in an attacking position and catch a ball that was sailing a metre over his head. By the time he’d done so he was brought down in short order by the defending players. A casual observer (such as I am) would conclude that the simple ball-handling skills of the Northern Hemisphere teams is nowhere near the standard of their Southern Hemisphere counterparts. If they don’t fix the basic issues such as this, we can forget about the Webb Ellis trophy coming this way again any time soon.
(Interestingly, watching the fortunes of the English soccer team over the past two decades one is also forced to conclude that those players also lack the basic passing and ball control skills of, well, pretty much everybody else.)