Following on from Wales’ controversial 40-24 home triumph over England and Italy’s extension of their 30 match losing streak by losing to Ireland last weekend, a look back over the Guinness Six Nations tournament shows a competition that is defying expectations and challenging the modern rugby world. While there has been some fantastic rugby played – just look at Jonny May’s dive-try in the England v Italy match – the tournament has been overshadowed by the effects of the pandemic on matches that are being played and also the interesting decisions by referees. Ireland’s performance has also been slow with reports reading that their ‘backs are against the wall’ during this tournament. This 22nd edition of the international event, which is being played without spectators, has undoubtedly brightened up the weekends and given people much to discuss while we plough on through the extended lockdown.
“The theme of controversial refereeing also began as O’Mahony was awarded a red card, leaving a post-match Johnny Sexton furious for the apparent discrepancies…”
The first round of the tournament saw many surprising developments and started the tournament off on an interesting foot. Ireland’s first match against Wales (21-16) took an unprecedented turn when flanker Peter O’Mahony was shown a red card, the first in Ireland Six Nations history, by ref Wayne Barnes just 14 minutes into the match in Cardiff. This saw the Munsterman being handed a three match ban as a result of his direct contact with the face of Tomas Francis in an illegal clear out. Leaving the Irish team with only 14 men, they still managed to crawl to a 13-6 point lead with hopes rising as they held strong in defense and set to hold against Welsh attacks. Yet this all came to an end when George North and Louis Rees Zammit both snuck past Ireland’s waning defence and Billy Burns kicked the ball dead in overtime – killing any hope of Ireland’s recovery. This began Wales’ winning streak and gave them the necessary confidence boost that has carried them into the later stages of the competition. The theme of controversial refereeing also began as O’Mahony was awarded a red card, leaving a post-match Johnny Sexton furious for the apparent discrepancies, as Johnny Williams escaped punishment for a high-head tackle on Garry Ringrose. Many Irish players were also left injured after the match, unavoidably denting their campaign.
As France annihilated Italy 50-10 in the first round, gaining the necessary and almost required bonus point against Italy, Scotland also fought their way to a magnificent victory over England (11-6). As reigning champions England attempted to defend their title in the 150th anniversary of the oldest rivalry in international rugby, the Calcutta cup, Finn Russel inspired the underdogs to their victory, with Stuart Hogg making valuable contributions to a team that was performing beautifully. The English side began the match to a disappointing start, conceding 4 penalties within the first four minutes, giving Scotland 3 points off the boot. The triumphant effort was not reflected in the score line as Hogg failed to continue his success of penalties after two huge touchfinders that propelled his side only eight points ahead. When the final whistle blew, the celebrations were huge as Scotland celebrated their first win in Twickenham since 1983–a 38 year wait for success.
The beginning of the second round of the competition was met with anticipation as all eyes turned to the Wales-Scotland match. The two teams, which had put in very strong performances in the first round, were seen as an indicator for the rest of the tournament. George Townsend’s Scottish team was looking to build on their historic win from the previous week against England, yet this was not to happen as Zander Ferguson was sent off with a red card 13 minutes into the game in similar conditions to O’Mahony. The dangerous clear out which resulted in this punishment ultimately led to Scotland’s defeat as they couldn’t manage to hold off Wales’ attack. Two early tries by Darcy Graham and Stuart Hogg were not enough to hold off Rees-Zammits double tries, which ultimately led Pivacs team to victory. The double red card of the Six Nations so far is an interesting development and a trend seems to be emerging.
“The loss represented Andy Farrell’s first defeat at home as captain, as well as France’s first victory in the Aviva for almost a decade.”
As England hammered Italy to a 41-18 defeat in an expected and rather sad event, Ireland played France in what was a close if not rather strange game. The French team arrived with their usual flair as they took advantage of the opportunities that were afforded to them, leaving Ireland trailing behind. A try wasn’t scored until the second half, when Charles Ollivion touched down following a display of attacking brilliance by the visitors. Ireland almost managed to pull off an unlikely victory yet this was not on the cards. The loss represented Andy Farrell’s first defeat at home as captain, as well as France’s first victory in the Aviva for almost a decade.
The third round of the tournament saw the France v Scotland match postponed as 11 players and staff, including the head coach Fabien Galthie, testing positive for Covid-19 – prompting the French sports minister Roxana Maracienaue to call for an investigation into the causes of the outbreak as well as threats to France’s place in the Six Nations. This highlights the strenuous conditions under which the sport is being played under at the moment, as tinny recordings of crowds are piped into the stadiums to help emulate the presence of a crowd.
“Commentators noted the decisions, with Martin Johnson describing it as ‘appalling referring’ and Sam Warburton validating Owen Farrell’s anger.”
In the other matches played over the weekend, Ireland beat Italy 48-10 while Wales hammered England 40-24 in arguably the most controversial match of the tournament. Controversial decisions made by the French referee Pascal Gauzere allowed Wales to slide to victory and win the Triple Crown title. The first of the controversial tries came from Dan Biggar, who took advantage of the ref’s call for time on during English discussion that left the team unaware, and allowed Wales to slide home the first try. Fighting from the captain Owen Farrell did little to sue the decision of the ref as he walked away and awarded the try. Commentators noted the decisions, with Martin Johnson describing it as ‘appalling referring’ and Sam Warburton validating Owen Farrell’s anger. The second controversial try came shortly after the 29th minute by Liam Williams. As Rees-Zammit attempted to gather in a kick that had been given by Adam just short of the try line, the ball slipped through his hands, dropped down and then touched off the knee of the chasing Henry Slade without touching the ground. This was gathered up by Liam Williams who hammered home a try. The decision has led to a huge amount of controversy as people turn to the fine print of the rules and question whether a knock on requires losing control of the ball or hitting the ground. England’s captain Eddie Jones is not going to appeal these decisions.
So far the tournament has been a tense one as time and time again people’s predictions are proven wrong by teams performances. The final few weeks will be exciting as Wales set their eyes on the Grand Slam and Ireland aims to crawl back from their two defeats. Italy’s place in the Six Nations also raises questions as they carry on with a losing streak among rumours of a change of nations.