Was this the worst Six Nations ever?
Those of us privileged — and fortunate — enough to have seen the great Welsh side of the 1970s, the free-flowing French of the 1980s, and even the powerful though at-times-graceful English of the 1990s won’t have savoured the Six Nations Championship just ended.
If you like the concepts of space and a running game in which the ball is put quickly through good hands to wingers of real pace, it won’t have been for you.
Nothing new in that; there has been little fluent football in recent years.
Admittedly we, the Irish, were delighted to win the Grand Slam in 2009.
But in truth our pleasure stemmed from the result rather than the performance.
It was brass rather than gold; efficient rather than magnificent.
Sadly that has now become the norm.
Tony Ward summed it up perfectly, saying: “Professionalism has brought a structure to the game and made it more like rugby league.
“From kick-off you get two banks of players looking to smash into each other. Creative players do not have a chance.
“I don’t like the way the game is played so close to the gain line, either.
“I can see why it is happening, because players don’t want to get caught deep with the ball.”
The just-ended series featured another raft of battering ram, bulldozer games punctuated by occasional flashes of subtlety good enough to baffle blanket defences.
France have emerged as deserving champions by virtue of the fact that they have tried to play rugby reflective of their core values and representative of their belief in big, hard forwards winning possession to release fast, clever backs.
That said, would you rather watch Mathieu Bastareaud trying to batter a door down using sheer bulk or Philippe Sella unpick the lock by dint of pure skill?
While Wales are acknowledged as a side trying to play rugby the right way, conversely castigated for too-rigid an adherence to a noble principle which has seen them concede too many tries.
England were, well, England.
Big, hard, dour, predictable and robotic.
And unable even to point to the ends having justified the means.
Unless third out of six runners is deemed to be success for the country with the world’s biggest rugby-playing population.
When you hear one of their own players, Simon Shaw, express the misgiving that there is a danger of everyone becoming “gym monkeys”, that’s a sign of the times.
Scotland did what Scotland do. Wholly unpredictable and always capable of self-destruction, they lose to France, Wales — remarkable example of implosion, that — and Italy.
Then they draw with England before upstaging Ireland.
Attractive? No. Scavengers aren’t. Ever seen a pretty vulture?
It boils down to what way the paying punters — and at 75 Euro for a ticket, they paid plenty — want to see.
If, ultimately, it’s a case of success regardless of the manner of its attainment, expect more of the same.
Six Nations highs
The final six-and-a-half minutes of Wales v Scotland at the Millennium Stadium on February 13 provided ball-game lovers with the best sporting action since football’s May 25, 2005 UEFA Champions League final when Liverpool, trailing AC Milan 3-0, scored three quick-fire goals en route to the title.
With Scotland leading 24-14, Wales scored 17 points to clinch a senational last-gasp victory.
Tommy Bowe’s second try for Ireland against England at Twickenham.
With the visitors requiring a converted try to leave the hosts four points shy of parity, so rendering a penalty or drop goal insufficient, Paul O’Connell delivered a great ball off the top of a line-out and Tomas O’Leary fed the flying winger whose speed and line saw him penetrate the defence like a knife through butter to touch down under the posts.
The Italians beating Scotland to suggest that with regular competition — coming as from next year with Magners League inclusion — they will progress.
And the emergence of their No. 8, Benetton Treviso’s Alessandro Zanni, a player of genuine quality Ulster fans can watch in 2011.
Six Nations lows
Jonathan Sexton’s goal-kicking against England, Wales and Scotland.
Ireland’s hope was to play a more expansive, attacking brand of rugby and with that in mind - and one eye on the 2011 World Cup - coach Declan Kidney bravely gave the Leinster man the nod ahead of the more one-dimensional Ronan O’Gara.
Alas, Sexton’s off-the-tee kicking was way below the standard he has shown at club level and in the end the decision to replace him in the final match against Scotland was applauded enthusiastically by the Croke Park crowd.
The mid-series decision to change the emphasis on enforcement of the existing law with regard to ball retrieval at the breakdown.
Southern Hemisphere referees had a field day, notably against Ireland. Bad call, though.
Contested ball is the name of the game. Motive? Good question.
Grand Slam Champions-in-waiting France’s fear in their final match of playing the sort of rugby which had taken them to that point.
Scotland versus England. Entertainment value? Zero.
A total turn-off.
What the experts think?
TYRONE HOWE: I don’t believe it has been the worst Six Nations series ever. While it wasn’t brilliant, to call it the worst ever is very harsh.
There were flashes of quality from Ireland. And their final match against Scotland threw up the one real upset of the competition. You can’t say there wasn’t drama; there was plenty of that.
If there is a criticism it’s that the change in emphasis in the law and the refereeing of that maybe didn’t help it as a spectacle. Nor did the over-dependence on kicking. There’s too much of it.
With the exception of Scotland, I think every team has emerged with an enormous amount of thinking to do.
My questions to those who are saying it was ‘the worst series ever’ would be what were you looking for and explain exactly why this was a bad competition?
PADDY JOHNS: I didn’t see all of the matches, but I enjoyed a lot of what I did manage to take in.
The one very poor match was Scotland versus England. I think if I’d paid to watch that I’d have been feeling a bit short-changed.
Against that, the Wales-Scotland game was a great spectacle.
The first half of France and England was very good, too.
As a forward I’d like to see a return to rucking as it used to be.
I think it might create a wee bit more space out wide if forwards committed to the ruck rather than what we have now where so many of them are standing off.
But I do think there was some very good rugby played and Ireland produced some of it. They scored great tries against England and Wales.
But I’m glad I didn’t go down to Dublin for the Scottish game.
TREVOR RINGLAND: I didn’t think it was a particularly good series, though to call it the worst ever is probably going a wee bit far. The game has become too negative and I’m not happy that the teams approaching it in that manner appear to be doing best.
Scrums take a long time to set up now and it just seems to me that those who set out to be negative are succeeding. That’s not good.
Nobody is willing to take any chances. There’s very little space with these negative blanket defences and we have this kicking ping-pong going on.
So I think the game needs to sit down and analyse itself and ask why it has become like this.
That said, there were some great moments and very enjoyable spells in some of the matches — the last 20 minutes of Wales-Scotland for example.
In fairness to England they tried to play some nice rugby against France.
And Ireland scored good tries against England. So it wasn’t all bad, there were some good moments.
But defences are overbearing.