The 2020 Six Nations Championship was set to be the beginning of a new era of European rugby. A new decade, four new coaches, and several teams looking to dust off the cobwebs after some turbulent World Cup performances. However, this year’s Championship is more likely to be remembered for the controversy and chaos off the pitch than the rugby that was played on it. Nevertheless, there was plenty to talk about. Here are a few of the highs and lows of this year’s Six Nations.
A tournament of two halves
Rugby fans across the world always look forward to spring; the end of the January blues and the beginning of Europe’s premier international rugby tournament. With more than half of the teams in the Six Nations under the guidance of new coaches, this year was set to be an exciting and innovative championship. However, with the outbreak of COVID-19, measures were taken to cancel four of the final six fixtures of the tournament. Ireland versus Italy was the first casualty, with the match being cancelled due to the high numbers of cases that arose in northern Italy. While the other two games in round five went ahead, there were no half-measures when it came to the final round as all matches were cancelled, with the Wales versus Scotland clash the last one to succumb to the security protocols. As a result of these cancellations, the tournament has been provisionally reorganised, with all the postponed fixtures set to take place in October. Given that the domestic leagues tend to begin at the end of September, this could have an impact on any clubs hoping to kick the season off with a bang. All of their international players will likely be in camp for the month of September to prepare for the Six Nations clashes and then will be occupied all the way up to the November internationals.
The first signs of an Italian Renaissance
Italy have for years been the whipping boys of the Six Nations Championship. Of the 19 completed tournaments, the Azzurri have been awarded the wooden spoon on 13 occasions. Under Conor O’Shea, there were some marked improvements in the Italian side, most noticeably the discovery of young talent. Players such as Matteo Minozzi, Sebastian Negri and Angelo Esposito became mainstays in the first team and showed the potential of the squad. However, with O’Shea leaving to take a job in the Rugby Football Union, Italy replaced him with Franco Smith on an interim basis. And while overall, it looks like the Italian team are going to retain the wooden spoon, there have been some positive signs under Smith. Tomasso Allan and Carlo Canna have established a 10-12 axis that is similar to the Ford-Farrell axis in England. Having both playmakers available to get on the ball has allowed Italy to set up some more interesting plays over the course of the Championship, and ensure that there is always a kicking option. The best demonstration of this came in a match against France, which saw some end-to-end rugby with the Italian comeback undone by a ludicrous solo try from Baptiste Serin. It will be interesting to see if Smith forgoes his agreement with Cheetahs to stay in Italy and improve on the work he has already started.
Seeing red (and yellow)
Since the inception of the Six Nations in 2000, there have never been two red cards given in a single tournament. This year, without even playing all the fixtures, there were two straight reds given. Manu Tuilagi received a red card for a dangerous, no arms tackle on George North, England’s first ever in the tournament. France’s Mohamed Haouas was also dismissed for punching Jamie Ritchie in the face, as Les Bleus lost to Scotland. However, the most controversial incident was not noticed by the referee at the time. After a brief scuffle, Joe Marler grabbed Alun Wyn Jones by the groin, leaving the Welsh captain totally baffled. Jones’ expressed his displeasure at the incident in the post-match press conference as he silenced a room of giggling journalists. “138 caps for my country. If I react, I get a red card, so it’s tough isn’t it?” In the end, Marler’s behaviour saw him receive a 10 week ban, though with all rugby suspended for the foreseeable future, there are questions over whether the punishment is effective. There are many people who believe that Jones has made a mountain out of a molehill and that rugby is becoming too soft. Marler’s actions are viewed as mere banter as opposed to the breach of both rugby and societal laws that they are. Hopefully, the reaction from World Rugby sets a standard that will dissuade any other players from attempting similar ‘banter’.
Faith in the future
While discipline has been one of the low points of this year’s tournament, one of the highlights has been the bounty of young talent that has been discovered across the continent. France, under the leadership of new coach Fabien Galthié, have put particular faith in the next generation. On average, more than half of the players in their 23-man squad were 25 or younger. Standout players include the half-back partnership of Antoine Dupont (21) and Romain Ntamack (20), with Ntamack scoring two tries in his debut championship, front row powerhouse Demba Bamba (21) and number eight Gregory Alldritt (22). The exuberance of these players helped France as they claimed impressive victories over England, Wales and Italy before a loss to Scotland ended their Grand Slam hopes. Other young talents in the Six Nations could be seen in the Ireland back-row pairing of Caelan Doris (21) and Max Deegan (23), who both got starts after impressing for Leinster over the last couple of seasons, and England’s full-back George Furbank (23) who settled into his role well after a rocky start away to France. While the tournament has been suspended and rugby will be absent from our lives until further notice, we can take solace in the fact that when it returns, the future is in good hands.