RBS 6 Nations analysis: fall-out from the finals
Ireland will head into the Rugby World Cup full of confidence - winning back-to-back RBS 6 Nations Championships is a superb achievement and Joe Schmidt can be rightly proud of his team. But are they good enough to challenge the big boys when the World Cup gets underway this autumn?
Certainly when their half-backs Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray are playing well, they are a match for any side. They out-classed England in Dublin, last autumn they beat both Australia and South Africa and they come oh-so-close to beating New Zealand in 2013. If they repeat their best form at the World Cup they are going to take some stopping but I still have the nagging feeling that they need a bit more variety in their game.
The last game of the Championship against Scotland was encouraging in that respect - they showed more of a willingness to get the ball wide as wingers Tommy Bowe and Luke Fitzgerald finally enjoyed some time with the ball in hand. For the majority of this Championship their back three have been chasing high kicks and little else but if they can develop that attacking side of their game then Schmidt and co are definitely onto something.
While England might be blessed with the better squad depth, Schmidt is developing a team packed with Test match animals – players who know how to win games. That is something you cannot really teach and while host England are justifiably one of the favourites for the World Cup, Ireland have the mentality to take the tournament by storm.
For Stuart Lancaster there are reasons for encouragement to take into the autumn - in George Ford and Jonathan Joseph, they have two of the finds of the tournament. Before this year’s Championship neither had ever started a Six Nations game but by the end they had proven themselves to be two of England’s most important cogs in their attack. To score seven tries against France is not to be sniffed at, but the problem is that they have been leaking them at the other end.
11 tries conceded over the five games, including five at Twickenham in that ridiculous last game against France, is not the sort of defence that wins you World Cups. Throw in their line-out struggles that cost them tries at both ends of the pitch, and Lancaster and his coaching staff have a lot of things to work on between now and their World Cup opener against Fiji in September.
But don’t forget the calibre of player still to come back into the squad. Guys like Manu Tuilagi, Alex Corbisiero and Joe Launchbury are proven world-class operators and the competition for places is very deep indeed. Squad depth makes a big difference in a tournament like the World Cup and there are plenty of encouraging signs for Lancaster’s troops.
Wales might have ended up third in the table in the end but the truth is that, barring one bad half against England, they would have been celebrating a Grand Slam and a third title in the last four years. To throw away a 16-8 half-time lead at home was criminal and, while England played very well in the second half in Cardiff, Warren Gatland and his troops can only have themselves to blame.
The Pool games between Wales, England and Australia are going to be absolutely fascinating and it’s a shame to think that one of those sides are not going to be in the quarter finals - but that’s the way it goes sometimes. All three teams will need to hit the ground running at the World Cup - a slow start and you could find yourself going home before the tournament has really started.
Below the top three in the Six Nations there is a bit of a gap emerging although France can take encouragement from the way they finished off the Championship. Their goal-kicking needs work - at a World Cup, you cannot afford to leave points out on the pitch, and they need to start a developing their own game plan rather than just reacting to what the opposition give them. But they scored five tries against England and if a game becomes open they have got weapons all over the pitch to hurt you.
For Scotland and Vern Cotter the World Cup looks like it will come too soon for them to cause a ripple. The priority for them has to be beating Samoa in the Pool and ensuring they make the quarter finals - I’m afraid I can’t see them doing much after that.
For Italy, there is cause for concern – their traditional strength in the scrum appears to be fading. France demolished them up front in Rome in the second half and with a misfiring line-out as well, there is a lot of room for improvement ahead of the World Cup. Scoring three tries against England at Twickenham was impressive and the last-gasp win over Scotland will hopefully give them some confidence but they remain overly reliant on Sergio Parisse.
Throughout the RBS 6 Nations, the Accenture analysis team, which includes Nick Mallett, have been providing fans with insight and analysis to see beyond standard match data. Follow @AccentureRugby.