6 Nations 2017 the broader picture
The first round of the 6 Nations has not given any true upsets. While 2 of the results were quite close, the game with the biggest winning margin told the least about the teams ongoing performance for the remainder of the tournament. The players and coaches moves will be analysied from every angle to understand the drivers of success or failure. However, from my point of view what happens on the field is just a symptom, not the cause of success or failure.
Scotland’s result is an indication of where they have been heading over the last few seasons. Purely by the numbers they have the highest Cohesion in the tournament but depths is a significant factor for them. As mentioned in a previous article, Scotland is the team you don’t want to have a bad day against because they are so consistent. There is a lot of talk about where Scottish Rugby is at the moment. As Gregor Townsend said;
“Twenty years ago, Glasgow were losing 80 points, ten years ago there wasn’t that much hope in the future of pro rugby with one of the teams closing down and the other two not doing well. Now we’ve got a situation where we’ve had a huge number of fans down here and the team winning”
There is no doubt Vern Cotter is a good coach, however his perceived performance as a coach is being enhanced by the work that is happening below him. By this I am not saying that he has benefited by getting skilled, well coached and fit athletes from the provinces (which I am sure he is). I am saying, however, that he has benefited by the performance of the provinces. This includes the poor performance of Edinburgh. As counter intuitive as it seems this underperformance has enabled Scotland to enhance the level of Cohesion within the Scottish team because of how selection has taken place. Essentially Scotland is performing off the back of Glasgow and future success will be dependent on the consistency of selection throughout the 6 Nations. It will be interesting to see how Scotland perform as the tournament progresses to see if Cotter leaving will have an impact on performance.
Ireland are in very similar situation to Scotland. Consistency will be the key and if there continues to be injuries in key positions then Ireland’s performances will suffer. The key to their success in this 6 Nations will come down to maintaining the combinations that have been honed in the provinces. Without Sexton and with an inexperienced spine Ireland’s attacking ability can falter.
Ireland has always benefitted from the cohesion brought in from the provinces but because of the lack of depth if any of those combinations are broken it is a significant issue. Pound for pound Irish players, like the Scottish, are not as skilled as others in international Rugby. Ireland’s competitive advantage comes from how they are selected and currently a coach that seems to understand this. Thankfully for Ireland they have not gone down the path of Wales and needed to select from outside their boarders. But, losing a player like Madigan overseas has had impact on depth – not just from a skill perspective but also more significantly from the development of Cohesion.
Up to now England has had the luxury of having a very consistent squad. This is now changing through injury and design. Considering where France is currently at the 19-16 result is a worry for England. France, always the perceived mystery package, was ripe for the picking in the first round but England could not take advantage. England are fundamentally fallible around unstructured play and are not built to defend well against teams who can create open attacking options. This was something France could not do effectively as their attacking spine is still in flux.
England’s progress through the tournament will be impacted by how (or even if) the injured players return and if Jones wants to develop his new players further. Even though the England players are perceived as the most highly skilled individuals this won’t impact performance greatly. The more change (even if it looks like brining in a better player) is good for everybody else in the tournament. In fact, Ben Te’o scoring was the worst thing that could happen for England in the short term. No reason why not to keep selecting him now.
Understanding how both England and France performed is problematic. On paper the French actually did very well considering their team selection and that they were playing away from home, something they are not traditionally good at (In fact the Top14 has the most one sided home/away winning percentage of any Tier 1 Rugby competition by far. It is so much harder for the away team in French Rugby). They should take some positives from the game and build for the rest of the tournament.
Traditionally the French are the least cohesive of all the teams. It’s the nature of their competition and selection policies. They traditionally get better deeper into tournaments but if, and only if, the selectors don’t blink and make wholesale changes. France will always be challenged by their internal systems, which creates these volatile outcomes. This, in conjunction with the French temperament, assists in creating the highs and lows that is French rugby.
Wales’ biggest issue is not the quality of their players or coaches but the selection systems in place. It is very evident that Wales are much better than say 20 years ago but have now slipped back compared to the early 2010’s. While they continue to battle questions around their overseas players and centralised contracts this slide will continue. The strengths that led them to success in the early 2010’s are the same reasons why Scotland is now consistently performing at a higher level.
There is no silver bullet solution that will assist Wales in the short term. Performance in this tournament is partially out of their hands. It will come down to where each of the opposition teams is at on the day. There is some flux so on a good day Wales still have an opportunity.
It will be 2 steps forward, one step back for Italian Rugby for nigh on the next 4 years. The key for Italy is not to panic and to absorb some pain for a couple of seasons. This will see a continual slow improvement in their share of points %. Away from home will always be difficult, as it seems to be for both Benetton and Zebre. Last years South Africa result looked promising but that game needed to be put in perspective with South Africa going through some significant challenges.
O’Shea & Co have been saying some positive things around creating sustainable success for Italy but this can only be achieved by staying on task. Calling upon Brendan Venter’s experience at Saracens will give some good insights around building sustainable systems. O’Shea should not be judged by what happens on the pitch this year but by what he is doing off of it.
If all the teams perform to capacity the tournament may come down to bonus point battle with not any one team being able to go through undefeated. While each of the teams offer up the best players from each of their respective countries, with some of the most astute international coaches, the ultimate results will be controlled by factors out of their hands.