Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

Peter Bills: Irish lap up glory but Six Nations not Grand

Ireland's glorious Grand Slam: in pictures

Hard, tough rugby men of yesteryear like JPR Williams played it hard and told it like it was.

Thus, the great Welsh full-back’s assessment of the 2009 Six Nations Championship merits careful consideration.

“It hasn’t been a great Six Nations,” he said before Saturday’s climax. “Not many of the games have been memorable.”

Just two games were special: Ireland v France on the opening weekend and France v Wales in Paris.

Now, before a green army sets sail across the Irish Sea in my direction, let’s be careful to differentiate between a great match and a great occasion.

There were several of the latter, but few of the former.

Last Saturday night in Cardiff was most definitely the latter. Ireland conceded some downright stupid penalties that could have cost them their Grand Slam while Wales misfired and rarely threatened to seize the game by the throat.

Early on, too many players were more intent on trying to seize each other by the throats.

Ireland deserve every praise for grinding out results even when they weren’t at their best.

That is the essence of a Grand Slam or major trophy winning side.

England did it in 2003 when they were well past their peak.

Ireland, so inspired by the example of magnificent captain Brian O’Driscoll have done it this season.

But in truth, Declan Kidney’s men were far from brilliant for most of the Championship.

They stuttered in Rome, could have lost at home to England and very nearly threw it away in Cardiff.

Wales seemed on course to regain their Grand Slam until they lost a close, spectacular match in Paris to the French.

Thereafter, they lost their focus, almost collapsing in Rome and then going down at home to Ireland.

Warren Gatland will have been immensely disappointed to see a falling off of standards among his side, although Stephen Jones and Lee Byrne, Lions certainties both, were notable exceptions.

The French were what the French always are, a complete enigma.

Their performance at Twicken

ham was a disgrace, a scandal. Coach Marc Lievremont ought to pay for it with his job.

A 50-point hammering of the hapless Italians in no way redresses the balance.

France still have some wonderful players but consistency seems to be an a la carte luxury for Lievremont’s squad.

They’ll go nowhere with that mentality.

England were all over the place: ordinary against Italy and hopeless in Wales and Ireland, chiefly through their indiscipline.

You wonder if they have ever had a thicker set of players.

To see rugby men who call themselves internationals getting yellow cards for tripping opponents, continuing to kill the ball at the breakdown when the referee has warned them to let it go, and charging into the back of a player nowhere near the ball, defied logic.

True, they despatched a dreadful, disinterested French side and then cleaned up a very limited Scottish team, both at Twickenham.

But fundamental difficulties remain for Martin Johnson.

He has no world class No 10, he needs another quality centre alongside the excellent Riki Flutey logic, and he’s in desperate need of a captain who exudes international class.

Steve Borthwick is a lovely bloke, a gentleman but he’s no international lock.

Scotland may well change coaches within the next week, with New Zealander Sean Lineen likeliest to replace Frank Hadden if change is deemed appropriate.

Hadden’s men have been talking a good match for years without delivering.

But captain Mike Blair blames the players, saying: “We have let Frank down on the field.”

Too many so-so players rather than real international class performers is Scotland’s problem.

But fewer numbers are playing the game north of the border and it is not an easy conundrum to solve.

Italy are struggling to survive at this level, a point coach Nick Mallett conceded last Saturday evening after their rout by France.

Too few players look anywhere near Test level.

And it’s hard to see what will alter that in the near future.

Overall, the moderate rugby played in most of the Championship confirmed why the southern hemisphere nations ruled the roost when they toured the UK and Ireland last November.

There’s bucketloads of money swilling around the game in the northern hemisphere but too many of the players earning it, even those at the highest level, aren’t working hard enough on their fitness and skill levels.

The southern hemisphere countries are jumping ahead in both fields.

The key essentials which must be worked on in the northern hemisphere are better decision making, much faster clearing out at the breakdown, better discipline (especially in England’s case), improved technical awareness and enhanced speed and fitness.

If you put all that lot together, things would look better immediately.

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