Six Nations: 10 tournament takeaways

Iain Morrison reflects on the trials and tribulations of a championship in which Italy were the big winners and Scotland left their best to last

Pierre Schoeman, Zander Fagerson and Duhan van der Merwe were mainstays of Scotland's campaign. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
Pierre Schoeman, Zander Fagerson and Duhan van der Merwe were mainstays of Scotland's campaign. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

1. A head coach has one task … just the one

That loss in Rome did Scotland a favour because it galvanised this squad into unearthing their very best selves in Dublin and proving that they can, when the mindset is right, compete with the very best in the world. Scotland did not deserve to win but they could have done so. Now this squad has shown us what they are capable of achieving and we, in turn, must demand those same standards every time they take to the field. That is the only task of the head coach, to ensure his/her team plays to their full potential (or very near it) every time they take the field. Everything else is chatter. Scotland played to their full potential once in the Six Nations, in Dublin, and that is not good enough. It isn’t easy but elite sport isn’t meant to be easy, the clue is in the name.

In fairness I should add that Gregor Townsend remains Scotland’s most successful coach with a win rate of 54 percent, one percent higher than Vern Cotter, the man he displaced. But watching that Six Nations documentary by Netflix, Townsend still acts like a bossy PE teacher who has been saddled with the U14 B team and has to tell them how to tie their shoe laces. Compare and contrast how Andy Farrell interacts with his Irish players, it is totally different. Townsend’s man management skills are poor, personified by his dysfunctional relationship with Finn Russell who had the temerity to challenge the coach. Coaches should embrace player input; it is a communal effort, or at least it is supposed to be. Instead Townsend argued with Russell, dropped him, which made the coach look petty and vindictive, lied about the reason for dropping him, recalled Russell when Blair Kinghorn proved unequal to the task at ten and has now made him captain just to prove to the world that they are “besties”. It is an easy option to call for the coach to go but after eight years in charge of this side without any tangible success, no one can say that Townsend hasn’t had a decent kick at the ball. Warren Gatland offered his resignation yesterday, the offer was turned down, I wonder whether Townend will follow his lead?


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2. Forza Italia!

I did not see that coming and had Paolo Garbisi been allowed to retake that late conversion in Lille, Italy would have finished above Scotland, which is sobering. That missed kick was worth £500,000 to Scotland, the difference in prize money between 4th and 5th finishers! The Azzurri were competitive in every match except for that trouncing by Ireland. For much of the last decade Italy has been like an old dog farting next to the fire that no one has the heart to kick out into the cold. Now they take their rightful place amongst the elite of Europe. Italy finished with two wins and one draw to Scotland’s two wins and three losses. Gonzalo Quesada gets the ‘Coach of the Tournament Award’, for the results and for refusing to bitch about the match officials after that late disappointment in Lille; a few of his peers should take note. Former Italy coach Kieran Crowley gave Italy an attacking platform. Quesada added defensive smarts and steel in equal measure. Their twin centres Tommaso Menoncello and Nacho Brex, were outstanding. Yes, the Azzurri conceded 16 tries this season, the same number as Wales, but that is still six less than they leaked in 2023 so progress, as anyone who witnessed their goal line defiance in Lille against France’s giant forward pack will appreciate. Italy’s under-20s also won two matches, they have some stars in the making, and Benetton continues to flourish. You feel that Italy rugby is headed in the right direction.

3. The lands of giants

Huge beasts roam the earth, well they roam the rugby pitch to be strictly accurate. Ireland’s Joe McCarthy (6ft 6ins and 19½ stones) threw his weight about to good effect and England won’t drop George Martin (6ft 6ins and 19 stones) in a hurry because the age of enforcers is back. Martin Johnson will be polishing up his boots and salivating at the thought of a recall. The age of giants is nowhere more obvious than within the French ranks because when coach Fabien Galthié thinks that tight-head Uini Atonio (6ft 5ins 23½ stones) is puffing hard he can whistle up Georges-Henri Colombe (6ft 4ins 22½ stones) off the bench. Ahead of this tournament I singled out Emmanual Meafou (6’8” 23 stones) as one to watch and he showed why against England. Maro Itoje and Ben Earl are not notably shy in the contact area but both Englishmen bounced off Meafou as though he was part of the Marvel stable of superheroes. England have help on the way because evidently their under-20s side, who won the junior tournament, boasts a front-five roughly the same size as England’s senior front-five. The juniors bounced back from a 21-5 deficit to beat France by 45-31 in front of 18,000+ fans in Pau. Amongst the French Juniors was 23½ stone lock Posolo Tuilagi who, just a few weeks earlier, had started for Galthie’s full French XV against Italy. France 20s boasted a team with 240 professional appearances in the Top 14. Scotland 20s cannot begin to compete with these sorts of players. Any clever ideas are welcome in the comments below please?

 

 

4. Wales woes

Wales were terrible, apart from that second half against Scotland, obviously. Just how bad they were became apparent against the Italians on Saturday because by the fifth weekend of the tournament everyone is on their knees and any cracks in the system are brutally exposed by the added exhaustion. Wales were poor but no one had told Tommy Reffell, Mason Grady, Tomos Williams or Aaron Wainwright who stuck to the task in adversity. The No 8 [Wainwright] especially kept running into brick walls like he was enjoying it. Chapeau!

We should be a little concerned for this squad because their next match is scheduled against the World Champion Springboks at Twickenham in June. After that Wales have back to back matches against Australia, in Sydney and Melbourne, where they should be more competitive although new Wallaby boss Joe Schmidt will want to make a statement before the Lions arrive in 2025. Longer term Wales will be fine because they produce plenty of young players with the basics apparently inbred at birth. Coach Warren Gatland made some wacky selections over the course of the Championship but Wales were the only team that had the chutzpah to run an attack play from a line-out on their own five metre line. It was one poor pass away from success. Any side with those cojones will come right soon enough.

5. France’s attack sans flair

France bemoan the loss of Antione Dupont and certainly the little scrummy is a live wire even if Nolann Le Garrec has gone some way to filling his shoes. However, the man France miss most may not be Dupont but instead their attack coach Lauren Labit who quit the national set up after RWC’23 to take up the job of head coach at Stade Francais, a post previously filled by Italy’s Argentinean coach Quesada Gonzalo. Are you still with me? In last year’s Championship, France scored 21 tries in all, this year they managed just 13. That is quite some fall off. Scratch the surface of their game against England and you find cause for concern. France scored three tries which looks like a decent return but two came directly from England misthrows at the sidelines. What will France do when they play a side with a functioning line-out? After 18 rounds of matches, Labbit’s Stade Francais sit pretty at the pinnacle of the Top 14, level on points with Toulouse. Just saying.

6. Brilliant ending

Hallelujah! What a way to sign off the Six Nations. Everyone’s a winner. Except Wales. However as my Taff pals have already pointed out, they remain the most successful Six Nations side in history (alongside France) with four Grand Slams to their name (plus two championships) so they can sup with a wooden spoon for a the coming year and hoard a vast pool of simmering resentment that will serve them well in the future. The Welsh squad has the average age of a boy band and if they stick together for a while they will be formidable. If Cardiff was a little one sided to be a great contest, at least Italy backed up one win with another; no mean feat. Elsewhere Scotland kept their best till last, making Ireland scrap hard for the title, while France/England was a pulsating ding-dong battle that could have gone either way. The best game of the tournament with ‘Boring’ Borthwick’s men playing their part. It reminded me of the 1990s title battles that these two giants used to fight, and I use the word advisedly, over. It was electrifying. England might feel a little hard done by after scoring four tries to three but France can argue that Elliot Daley was lucky to avoid yellow. The final result matters nothing because the last gasp of this year’s Championship was an absolute humdinger and that is what matters. European rugby at its dramatic best.

 

 

7. Auntie’s bloomers!

They do some things very well but the BBC is still covering the Six Nations like it was the 1990s. Andrew Cotter is the best commentator around but even he was afflicted by the Beeb’s malaise and got one fact hopelessly wrong at the end of the Wales v Italy match before quickly correcting himself. The audience will collapse if the Six Nations goes behind a paywall but you have to think that the production values will improve markedly. It seems as if the producer of the BBC shows doesn’t think about who might offer some insight to the games but instead just opens his contacts book at the usual page and picks the same old faces. Some sort of nadir was reached at the end of that Wales v Italy match game the Italian skipper Michele Lamaro was being interviewed and was referred to as “Mishelly” (as opposed to “Mickaley” with a hard “K”). The BBC should know the Italian’s skipper’s name. He was far too polite, or perhaps bemused, to correct his interrogator.

8. Cold turkey

If you are a rugby addict and need your next fix, may I suggest you tune into the Rugby Europe Championship which has its finals day today (Sunday) 17th March. Poland plays Belgium for 7th v 8th place, Netherland v Germany for 5th v 6th, Romania v Spain for 3rd v 4th and perennial winners Georgia take on RWC’23 heroes Portugal for the main prize at 7.50pm (UK time) this evening.  It’s free to watch online at rugbyeurope.eu

And there’s even more because the W6Nations series starts next Saturday (23rd March) when France host Ireland first up at 2.15pm in a replay of the men’s schedule. Wales then host Scotland in the second game at 4.45 pm. The Scots have a size issue in the forwards but they field some match winners in the outside channels and have improved markedly under coach Bryan Easson. They should be competitive against everyone with the possible exception of England who are ranked two places and eight full points ahead of France, their nearest European rivals, and 22 odd points above Scotland.

9. Thick skulls and HIAs

How long have we been talking about head injuries, concussions and the rest? A decade or more? A long time for sure, I feel, but not long enough for the message to permeate some particularly thick skulls. When Harry Bryne was carded for a head-on-head clash with Finn Russell, why wasn’t the Scotland ten removed for a statutory HIA along with the carded Byrne? Why didn’t the referee insist he go? And if you want to dig a little deeper, what was Calvin Nash doing in Ireland’s starting XV? The Munster winger had been injured and failed an HIA after a clash of heads with Tommy Freeman during the England defeat. World Rugby guidelines suggest that physical rest should be for “the minimum of one week” but Andy Farrell confirmed that Nash was training last Wednesday. Only last week it was confirmed that Super Rugby player, New Zealand srummy Billy Guyton, died with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). He had donated his brain to science. Guyton was 33 years old.

10. If it sounds like mince …

Eddie Jones popped up last week. Sorry, I know he isn’t directly linked to the Six Nations these days, but he is the gift that keeps on giving; to journalists if no one else. Back in 2020, Mr Mince suggested that his goal was to make England, the team he then coached, the “greatest team that ever played”. England were ranked fifth in the world when Jones was sacked in December of 2022. So no disgrace but, I think we can agree, still some way shy of being the “greatest team ever”. Now Mr Mince has opened his big yap again and pronounced that there is “no reason” why Japan, the team he now coaches, can’t be amongst the top four in the world. Just off the top of my head I have one good reason why Japan won’t make the top four, their gobby and deluded coach.

 

 

Team of the Tournament:

15. Thomas Ramos … a better full-back than fly-half.

 

14. Immanuel Feyi-Waboso … electric.

13. Huw Jones … he beats Robbie Henshaw to the punch.

12. Nacho Brex … he plays 13 but with the heart of an inside centre!

11. James Lowe … for his all round game.

 

10. Jack Crowley … his consistency edges out Finn Russell

9. Jamison Gibson-Park … a hugely intelligent player.

 

1.  Andrew Porter … hugely strong, as Zander can confirm.

2. Dan Sheehan … this hooker can do it all.

3. Georges-Henri Colombe … this huge man made a huge impact off the French bench.

4. Joe McCarthy … just what Ireland needs to compliment all those ball players.

5. Ollie Chessum … he has all the skills and grew as the tournament progressed.

6. Andy Christie … exactly what the doctor (and Scotland) ordered.

7. Tommy Reffell … he topped the turnover chart with twice as many as his nearest rivals.

8. Ben ‘The Duke of’ Earl … outstanding with the ball in hand.

 

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Six Nations: Ireland v Scotland reaction: Finn Russell calls for improved mental toughness

About Iain Morrison 144 Articles
Iain was capped 15 times for Scotland at openside flanker between his debut against Ireland during the 1993 Six Nations and his final match against New Zealand at the 1995 World Cup in South Africa. He was twice a Cambridge ‘Blue’ and played his entire club career with London Scottish (being inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame in 2016). Iain is a lifelong member of Linlithgow Rugby Club. After hanging up his boots, he became rugby correspondent for The Sunday Herald, before moving to The Scotland on Sunday for 16 years, and he has also guest written for various other publications.

20 Comments

  1. Have come to this late and much has already been said. However, the fact that Toony’s win ratio is almost identical to Big Vern’s shows that this team has not progressed under him. The big Kiwi inherited a team that was effectively a basket case and transformed it into one that started winning matches and looked like it was going to go places under his leadership, not least a World Cup semi-final but for an inept referee. The fact that he was quietly let go to make way for the other guy is a scandal that rankles with me still. What kind of reward was that and look what we’ve endured ever since.

    The performance in Dublin was fantastic defensively, but we offered very little going forward and the few chances we got were spilled by players who did not look after the ball and surrendered possession all too easily. Jones made his own luck, scoring from out of nowhere through his own sheer determination. Let’s not kids ourselves, this was far from the all-round performance.

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  2. I agree with you Ali, score the try v France, slightly more composed v Italy and run the ball a bit more ( or at all !) v Ireland, and it’s a Grand Slam.

    Almost relieved we blew it v Italy or I’d really mad ….

    Wonder where we go next year?

    Agree with those saying the concentration really needs to be at grass roots up to academies. But don’t see any sign of a proposal that will really work …

  3. In Italy the top 135 U17s are invited to 4 residential academies.
    This is then streamed down by 2/3 at U20.

    This means those with elite potential effectively turn pro in Italy at 17.

    It must cost a £7 figure sum and more and it’s being ditched next season for 10 regional non residential academies.

    But it worked.

    Could we recruit the big rugby schools to do something similar?

    Clubs and schools who lose their players would probably hate it, but yuh know, it’s professionalism.

    Most other team sports don’t have a recreational adult tradition like rugby’s.

  4. We don’t want a”generational group of players “. Or the best group of players on paper. Or individuals who are better than their opposite number. We just want a Scottish TEAM who can compete for the bulk of the game. And it would be great if the Rugby World Cup became more important than the Calcutta Cup. We’ve got two years to work on that mindset. Good luck with it.

  5. I think the only pathway program that could work in a country like Scotland is to somehow concentrate the best junior talent in regions and get it playing each other in meaningful games coached and conditioned by union coaches.

    We do have one thing going for us which a country like France or even England doesn’t, which is that Rugby can realistically be played into June or even July here and we don’t really have a dominant Summer sport.

    That creates scope to reduce conflict with club or school seasons.

    There are academy affiliated age grade festivals but I don’t perceive much buzz about them and some games have been played behind closed doors at Oriam.

    It should be clear this is your first step on the journey to being a professional and junior clubs should want to boast about the numbers of players they get into these games.

  6. Point 3 (Land of the Giants): I get very frustrated to hear people complain about Scotland’s lack of front row size, both in the U20 & senior teams. This is solely down to the SRU’s pathway system & the people responsible for it. The SRU’s historical selection policy for their pathway programme has naively focused on picking players who predominantly had the skills & dynamic abilities of backs, were gym strong for their age (usually because they had matured &/ or started S&C early), & looked the part in touch rugby sessions (ability to be good in physical contact situations & under pressure wasn’t deemed that important!). Youths who had the frame size to grow into front row giants normally had/ have poor power-to-weight ratios when young, & were/ are therefore rejected from the very start, with later entry for these late developers not entertained by the academy management (too much time & money invested in the originally selected players, & changes would potentially signal the failings in the original selections). The SRU’s Edinburgh centric focus also doesn’t help. These are the main reasons behind this problem. Some of these young giants do still exist in Scottish rugby, but most are still rough diamonds that have huge untapped potential (I was watching two of these very large 18 year olds bounce off each other at the weekend in a Nat 2 senior game). Unless the SRU stops being so blinkered, unreceptive, & secretive, & takes these overlooked giants into the fold, then nothing will change & the SRU will need to continue with their southern hemisphere recruitment for the senior team. Increasing the academy age to 23 will help these late developers but unless they are taken into the high performance programme from 18 or 19 years old, or earlier, then they’ll struggle to reach the necessary strength/ fitness/ skills/ experience level before being deemed too old.

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    • To clarify what I’ve said above, my “frustration with hearing people complain about Scotland’s lack of front row size” isn’t intended as a swipe at those complaining. My frustration comes from this situation being of the SRU’s own making & can be quite easily addressed if the necessary steps are taken.

  7. Sadly Scotland got too little of Vern Cotter who was eased out of the Scotland coach job too early to make way for Townsend . Almost got us to a World Cup semi but for a bad ref decision

    Another year and Cotter. would have had best Scotland coach stats .

    He had a good feel for the balance of importance of contribution made by forwards and
    backs , was liked by all the players even though he was a stern taskmaster
    and he loved living in Scotland
    Why did we let him go ?

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    • Cotter has rightly been sacked from every job he’s done since leaving Scotland. He’s been badly found out. His record is way way worse than Townsends especially against England Oz SA and NZ. There’s literally no evidence that he would have improved us and the capitulation to England was a disgrace. Players hated that he threw them under the bus in defeats and he never once took any responsibility for them but was quite happy to claim the plaudits for the very rare success he had. GT is certainly past his sell by date but pretending that Cotter was better is insanity. He just wasn’t as catastrophic as Johnson but then you could say the same for Matt Williams tbh.

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      • “Cotter has rightly been sacked from every job he’s done since leaving Scotland.”

        Complete and utter nonsense. Cotter has had four jobs since leaving Scotland. The first was coaching the Barbarians which is always a short-term appointment which he completed without being sacked. The second was at Montpellier where he was released at his request a couple of months before the end of his contract in order to take up an appointment with Fiji. He was not sacked. He left Fiji at his request. Yet again he was not sacked. He is currently Head Coach at the Blues. Again he has not been sacked from this position either.

        Why do you post things which are quite demonstrably untrue?

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    • I agree pretty much with what you say.Townsends tiff with Russell obviously caused ill feeling within the group.
      I am not taking either side of the argument but what I would say is that the incident should have been dealt with behind closed doors and not splashed all over the media.

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    • What was it in our 40pt Twickenham loss to England that convinced you good things were just around the corner?

      I thought Cotter did a good job but this idea that his removal was all that stood between us and a period of unparalleled success has no credible substance to it.

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    • Left Feild let’s not rewrite history. Cotters side scraped past Samoa in the group and then lost to Aus because they messed up a simple line-out.
      Horrible defeats at Twickenham and a Wooden Spoon also during his tenure.
      Failed everywhere since and his only success at was while Joe Schmidt was his assistant.

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  8. I frequently feel in the minority when asking questions about whether Townsend should continue in the hot seat. Seven years and this year felt like a massive step backwards, despite all the experts saying that this is Scotland’s best group of players in a couple of decades.

    Nothing to show for it though and to flip the narrative on its head, we were lucky to come away with 2 wins. Play England at a different time and we would have been hammered and a missed conversation versus Wales away from coughing up a 27 point lead.

    The team struggled with the pressure of expectation for 4 rounds, only putting in a performance when all was basically over. And even then we forgot we needed points on the board to win. Definitely not time for an overhaul, but a better coach for 3-4 years before all these players hang up boots would maybe allow us to win something.

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    • You are not in a minority Euan. There are plenty of us more than aware of the coaching shortcomings which have dogged his tenure. He should definitely have gone after the fail8ngs of RWC 2019. The saving grace has been Dodson’s protection, an issue that has never been adequately explained or probed by the press.
      The extension of his contract until 2026 was shameful, occurring in advance of RWC 2023, and shacking the successor board who unless they are willing to terminate the contract early face either extending the contract to cover RWC 2027 or bringing in a new head coach with insufficient time to rebuild the team. Atrie poison pill to add to the many left by the Fat Controller.
      If those within the new SRU management structures are unwilling to act it may come down to fan power to force change. The perilous state of finances mean ticket income is critical.

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    • All a bit negative. The “try” v France. A dubious penalty v Italy and a poor throw in from our Hooker…:so close to the first Grand Slam in 34 years. Article is headline grabbing at its poorest. Expected more of the Offside Line.

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  9. On the issue of size matters, in the Hebrides we had a race of giants called the Norse-Gaels (the interbreeding of Celts with Viking colonialists) who regularly sailed to Ireland as mercenaries. I suggest Toonie sends an Active Service Team to Stornoway to grab some pre-teens and start training them away from shinty!

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  10. Scott is always on the side of Scotland’s opponents, very seldom a good word to say about Scotland.

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  11. It’s a bit glib to suggest a coaches only job is to make sure their team performs to their potential every match and then only apply that to Scotland. Italy were their old selves when they were dismembered in Dublin, England were as bad as they’ve been in the last two or three years against Italy and us, Wales were a shadow of the side on the final weekend compared to the team that pushed England all the way in Twickenham, or even battled manfully for 60 minutes against France or in the first half against Ireland. Ireland got a mugging in Twickenham, and France should really have ended the championship with two wins rather than three and a draw. So which coach reached this simple benchmark?

    I’d also be less sanguine if I was Welsh. The truth is Wales we’re poor but defiant for much if the championship but failed to show up at all in their most important game against Italy. All they’ve discovered is they have no 10, a front five that can’t compete and that their remaining senior players aren’t good enough to keep their heads above water. Optimism seems founded in the false assumption that with time their squad will get better, even though it is clearly lacking top class talent. They are staring down years in the doldrums, possibly shortly to be joined by us if we can’t manage the transition once our senior players start being phased out to be joined by no one in particular.

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  12. Bang on about the gulf between BBC coverage and ITV. I’m all for equal opportunity and diversity, but frankly, Scott Hastings should never be allowed to speak again. And Topsy Ojo…was he not a bit of a naughty boy on tour once with Danny Care? Time for a clear out there.

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