1. Scotland underwhelms.
Scotland saved their worst till last, no? Following the second of Blair Kinghorn’s tries on 43 minutes with the score at 19-6, I turned to the person beside me and said “that’s that”. As a fan in the stand I am allowed to do so. Unfortunately almost every Scotland player also appeared to say the same to themselves, if quietly, and they were very nearly proven wrong by a tenacious if strictly limited Italy team. Italy’s backline completely overplayed the out-the-back pass that is wonderfully easy to read and only got themselves back into contention when they started mixing it up with some short runners and, most importantly, when they kicked the ball in behind the Scotland defence having lured the winger into the line. Finally we got a glimpse of what Scotland’s backs will look like when Finn Russell retires with rumours that that may occur immediately after the RWC. Unlike Johnny Sexton who tried Racing and then returned home where Leinster carefully managed his game time, the Scot has left Racing for another lucrative move to Bath who will want their money’s worth. He will also have a Larry Garson style cartoon pinned to the back of his shirt … “Hit me HARD”. I don’t know whether he will retire from Test rugby post RWC but I don’t expect to see Finn on the international field when he is 37-years-old.
2. Blair Kinghorn is not Finn Russell (and vice versa).
The leggy fly-half got himself a hat-trick of tries but still didn’t walk away with the MOM award which is a little unusual. The reason is that Kinghorn has yet to find ways to unlock a determined defence, except by himself obviously, and I am not sure we can call Italy’s defence “determined” since they conceded an average of four tries per game. It is difficult to remember either of the twin centres, Huw Jones and Sione Tuipulotu, doing anything of note in attack against Italy although they have been wonderfully incisive outside Russell. Kinghorn is not the creative force of his rival Russell but he is an excellent strike runner and he could even be Scotland’s best full-back. However, if Townsend wants him to play at 10 for Scotland, even occasionally, Kinghorn needs to play there every weekend for Edinburgh and Edinburgh have just signed Ben Healy, who desperately needs game time at ten.
3. Away advantage.
For the first time in the history of the Championship, all three away teams won on two occasions, the first and the fourth rounds of matches since you ask. Overall. away teams won on eight occasions, home teams on just seven. Going into the final weekend the score read 8-4 but the stronger sides, Ireland, France and Scotland, all had home advantage in the final round and all three came through with varying degrees of stress. Two years ago, when the same teams were playing the same opposition at the same venues, there were also eight winners away from home. In 2021, Wales put 40 points on England in Cardiff and beat Ireland at the same venue. Two years is a long time in sport.
4. Congratulations …
… go to Ireland for completing the Grand Slam, only their fourth ever, which is something of a surprise given their provinces have been ripping up the turf since the turn of the millennium. Congratulations also to England for finding some fight and for hanging around on the field in Dublin to celebrate Ireland’s success when it would have been easier to shake hands and disappear down the tunnel. And congratulations again to the Ireland 20s squad who went one better than their seniors and won back to back Grand Slams. The future looks very bright for the men in green going forward with this conveyor belt of talent. Brighter than Scotland for sure, as their 20s squad won just the one match, conceded a record 82-7 score to Ireland and ended the campaign on a low after going down to Italy by 17-40 on Sunday afternoon at Scotstoun Stadium after playing quite well. This is the single most pressing issue facing Scottish rugby right now and we should be rioting about the lack of action from Murrayfield. We have to put in place a pathway for young players that enables them to compete with our European rivals on an even footing. The question of whether Gregor Townsend retains his coaching position with the senior team is utterly irrelevant in comparison to the wellbeing of our age-grade teams. The national squad can import players, plug gaps and hope that another Finn Russell is out there somewhere but the nation will never enjoy sustained success without a proper pathway for young players. I would link executive remuneration directly to our U20s results and if that doesn’t make them jump nothing will.
5. Jaco Peyper.
I have a soft spot for the Saffa referee ever since I spent a sunny afternoon in his company by a hotel pool in Fiji some years back. I also named my dog after him although I am uncertain as to whether this would be taken as a compliment should he ever find out? However, Peyper has not always shown good judgement, being photographed with Welsh fans, smiling and imitating the sharp elbow that saw him flash red at France’s Sebastien Vahaamahina, in the RWC’19 quarter-final. He may also have failed to apply a smidgen of common sense with regard to Freddie Stewart’s red card. Yes, the conditions for a red were probably met, but it seemed to me that the big Englishman was simply protecting himself, instinctively using his arm to shield his abdomen from Hugo Keenan on the charge. I am not sure Ireland would have complained had Peyper flashed yellow instead of red or even just awarded a penalty? Did we get through this entire Championship without cards obviously determining the outcome of any individual match? It’s impossible to say with any certainty when dealing with a counterfactual but England’s U20s got a red and a yellow in their defeat to Ireland on Sunday evening which may have made a difference.
6. Magic moments.
At the risk of coming over all Perry Como on you, here are my personal highlights from the 2023 Six Nations:
- Duhan running 55 metres at Twickenham to score the solo try of the tournament leaving umpteen white bodies flailing in his wake. “I giggle when I watch it,” he has since said. Me too.
- Scotland beating a Wales side coached by Warren Gatland. Better late than never.
- Almost any moment when France hit their stride at Twickenham to dismantle England but especially that set scrum which rocked England backwards and may have kyboshed Steve Borthwick’s hopes of ever repairing his reputation.
- Finn Russell being Finn Russell, especially against France when he went full Jekyll and Hyde but also against England when he was uniformly on song. That offload to Kyle Steyn against Wales was a work of art.
- Antoine Dupont man-handling Mack Hansen into touch when the Irish winger was almost celebrating the try that didn’t happen.
- Hansen’s honesty when asked how he would celebrate Ireland’s Grand Slam success: “Drink, drink, drink, drink …”
- Gregory Alldritt getting subbed early because of that red card against Scotland only to bounce back with a blistering performance against England and again against Wales.
- Huw Jones back to his best and looking like a Lion in waiting.
- Ollie Lawrence winning MOM against Italy on his recall to the England side.
My Team of the Tournament –
15. Tomas Ramos (France) – runner up:Hugo Keenan
14. Damian Penaud (France) – runner up: James Lowe
13. Huw Jones (Scotland) – runner up: Gael Fickou
12. Jonathan Danty (France) – runner up: Sione Tuipulotu
11. Mack Hansen (Ireland) – runner up: Duhan van der Merwe
10. Finn Russell (Scotland) – runner up: Johnny Sexton
9. Antoine Dupont (France) – runner up: Ben White
1. Pierre Schoeman (Scotland) – runner up: Cyril Baille
2. Dan Sheehan (Ireland) – runner up: Julien Marchand
3. Simone Ferrari (Italy) – runner up: Zander Fagerson
4. Thibaud Flament (France) – runner up: Ollie Chessum
5. James Ryan (Ireland) – runner up: Richie Gray
6. Sebastien Negri (Italy) – runner up: Anthony Jelonch
7. Josh van der Flier (Ireland) – runner up: Francois Cros
8. Caelan Doris (Ireland) – runner up: Gregory Alldritt
And, finally, one for the future …
Spare a thought for Ireland’s Jack Crowley who played exactly 2 minutes of the Six Nations tournament according to the official stats. This is the shortest game time of any player in this year’s Championship. One website gives him three minutes which may not seem a big change but it represents a 50% increase in his Six Nations game time so not entirely insignificant. Crowley is a 23-year-old Munsterman who already had two caps and one start, against Australia in November, to his name before the tournament kicked off. He is one of the reasons that Ben Healy signed with Edinburgh and Scotland. He couldn’t get past Crowley. Ireland have an embarrassment of riches at ten, the two Byrne brothers Ross and Harry and Ciaran Frawley at Leinster (the latter is eligible for Australia), Billy Burns at Ulster and Sam Prendergast who has impressed for the all conquering U20’s side, but the long term replacement for the irreplaceable Johnny Sexton is likely to be the man who got two, or maybe three, minutes of game time against Italy in a blink-and-you-miss-him cameo. Remember the name because we may be talking about his brief Six Nations debut in ten years time.