Following his review of England’s Six Nations Wayne Smith now looks at the progress, or regress, of France, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Italy.
It is becoming the same old story with France. The national team is reflecting the rugby played by the Top 14. French club rugby has employed a safety first approach for some years now and so it is no surprise to see France play the same way.
The flair is being drained from their game. Maybe Marc Lievremont had more of an idealistic approach, but he had so little time with the players that he was unable to change the culture. Saint Andre is less adventurous than Lievremont. The conservative decision making engrained at the clubs, is evident in France’s Six Nations performance.
At times it was hard to fathom what Saint Andre’s philosophy really was. How does he select Clement Poitrenaud and Lionel Beauxis in the same team. They are total opposites. One is a free spirit, at times a little crazy, the other is a kicking automaton. I don’t see the game plan.
France needs a style of rugby that will motivate the players. They needs some joie de vivre back into the game. But how to achieve that without the alignment of the Top 14 coaches? It is difficult. France is being stifled by their club rugby and it is hard to see a way out.
Declan Kidney had been able to transfer the drive and passion of Leinster, Munster and even Ulster into the national team. He coached Munster with a passion, but the national team is deteriorating. Players are ageing and Kidney is struggling to find the replacements. Ireland finished where they deserved to. Yes, they were without O’Driscoll throughout and O’Connell for the latter part of the Six Nations, but those two cannot be so far off retirement. What then?
Warren Gatland has a clear selection strategy based on size and speed. It is curious that several of these players have come through an unsuccessful under-20 team, but Gatland is obviously picking out the right ones. North, Cuthbert, Priestland, Davies and Halfpenny are going to be around for years. They are big players, physically and athletically. Now they need to start beating southern hemisphere sides on a regular basis.
Scotland and Italy
The style of Scotland’s game, particularly early on, was outstanding. They are coached well. They have some great young players such as Denton, Gray, Hogg, but they have an issue scoring tries. They make simple tasks look difficult. By the time of the final match against Italy, Scotland had gone. Italy tried to expand their game early on, but you can’t invent players who don’t exist. Their old Roman virtues took them through in the end. But both teams have a long way to go before they compete regularly with the other four. Towards the end, Italy were whacked by a creaking Ireland team and Scotland, who had chances to knock over both France and England, looked dreadful in that final game. There is only so much coaches can do.