Wales erupted to seize the moment in a Six Nations unlike any other | Paul Rees
Autumn austerity turned into a spring splurge. It was as if players felt liberated outside their Covid bubble, prisoners of the pandemic running free. The disappointment was that there were no spectators to witness a Six Nations tournament where every team except Italy had their day and, for once, defences did not dominate.
Wales went from fifth to first, confirmed as champions after France failed to beat Scotland on Friday night, swapping places with England, who just 17 months ago looked rugby’s coming force. Now a panel is being convened by Twickenham to sift through the flotsam of a campaign that started and ended befogged while showing flashes of illumination in between.
The Rugby Football Union is coming under pressure, not least from the mainstream and social media, to present Eddie Jones with a one-way ticket to elsewhere, but any union that reacts to external pressure and jerks its knee at this unparalleled time should take the same exit. Several alternatives to the Australian head coach have been presented, as if the problems stemmed from one source.
The panel needs to look in the round at the English game, in which Premiership Rugby is becoming an island, rather than whether Jones is an irascible dictator who turns his players, who won two tournaments last year, jelly-legged. The decision of the RFU last year to allow the top-flight clubs to decide Saracens’ punishment for breaking salary cap regulations was always going to affect England with so many of the club’s players in the squad.
Their lack of rugby was a factor behind the defeat to Scotland at Twickenham on the opening weekend, together with whatever was going through their minds with the future of the club that had moulded them in doubt as the start of the Championship campaign kept being put back. Jones did not have to pick them, even though they included his captain, Owen Farrell, and most influential player, Maro Itoje, but dropping them would have all but ended their British & Irish Lions aspirations. Add loyalty to his supposed list of faults.
Neither was Jones able to replace anyone except because of injury, so that disruption to the squad’s Covid bubble was minimised. It meant he could not recall Sam Underhill for the final two matches nor Joe Launchbury for Dublin, and while not explaining why England did not react against Ireland having prepared for an arm-wrestle only to be confronted by a moving target, the underlying issues should not be forgotten in the noise. If the wrong questions are asked, what chance of the right outcome?
The Welsh Rugby Union was advised last December to find an alternative to Wayne Pivac as head coach after a year that yielded two victories over Italy and one against Georgia. Yet here they are three months later, champions having been seconds away from winning a grand slam in Paris: a Wales team that had looked to have a number of extinct volcanoes erupted into afterlife, sparked by a touch of fortune but sustained by a coruscating confidence.
France would have succumbed not so long ago once Wales had parried their early thrusts, but under Fabian Galthié and his lieutenants, who include the stern-faced Shaun Edwards, Les Bleus keep going. Two tries in the final three minutes, even if by then they had a man advantage, showed their desire, but defeats to England and Scotland in the closing moments suggested this French side are more effective chasing than holding on, a team still in the making.
Galthié is the only one of the six head coaches who has not this season felt under threat, although had Jones likewise left his squad’s bubble to attend a junior match it would have been used against him. After Ireland lost their opening two matches for the first time in a Six Nations campaign, Andy Farrell had his selection and tactics questioned.
He was advised to retire his 35-year-old captain and fly-half, Johnny Sexton, but not after the victory over England. Sexton was off the field in Cardiff when Ireland, having played all except the first 13 minutes without Peter O’Mahony, kicked a late penalty dead when they needed a try to win, and he did not play the following week against France. He was the architect of their three subsequent victories and, like Wales’s Alun Wyn Jones, shows no sign of waning enthusiasm.
It was a tournament in which disciplinary records were broken. Six players were sent off in the tournament between 2000 and 2019 but seven have seen red in the last two campaigns, five this year, while Italy received seven yellow cards and the other five eight between them. It is as if the pandemic damaged the cord that links players to their coaches, giving a championship known for its staid obedience and orderliness an anarchic hue just as the negotiations for a new television contract were cranked up.
With crowds absent, most of the matches – eight – were won by the away side, with only the champions, Wales, unbeaten at home. After going 10 years with their only away wins coming in Rome, Scotland have won three in a row, ending long barren runs in Wales, England and France, each time without the inconvenience of home support.
Little separated first from fifth. Disappointment should not turn into despair. It was a Six Nations unlike any other, manic, disoriented and beguiling, giving little clue about what will happen next year when, all being well, fans will return. It was about seizing the moment. Only Wales did.