Six Nations 2018 verdict: Our writers give their tournament reflections

This year’s Six Nations was full of incident, drama and entertainment. Sport editor Seoras Lyall, deputy sport editor Gus Portig and editor-in-chief Andrew Sinclair provide their reflections on the 2018 Six Nations, discussing best player, best coach and picking their teams of the tournament.

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©INPHO/Billy Stickland

Ireland stand champions of the Northern Hemisphere once more. Eddie Jones and England are in disarray and Scotland can’t seem to win away from Fortress Murrayfield. This year’s Six Nations was full of incident, drama and entertainment. Sport editor Seoras Lyall, deputy sport editor Gus Portig and editor-in-chief Andrew Sinclair provide their reflections on the 2018 Six Nations, discussing best player, best coach and picking their teams of the tournament.

Meet our Reviewers

Seoras Lyall: an armchair Scottish Rugby fan who played rugby once in primary school. Uses the tournament as his yearly release of animalistic nationalism.  

Andrew Sinclair: A long-suffering England fan who lost a lot of his voice this tournament with frustration at his beloved’s regression. Still angry Joe Launchbury didn’t go on the Lions tour.

Gus Portig: Avid Irish rugby fan (or anyone playing against England) who keeps threatening to come out of retirement and make an appearance for the Goats.

How would you rate this year’s tournament? A triumph of the 15-a-side game or more of a damp squib?

Seoras Lyall: Thoroughly entertaining. Almost every team seemed capable of winning every game and that contributed to some great rugby. At the top of the pile, Ireland completely deserved their Grand Slam, as they proved to be the only team that could win away at home against the four other big rugby nations.  From a Scottish perspective, it was a tournament of euphoric highs, nervous breakdowns, and abject disappointment.

Andrew Sinclair: A bit of both really. There were games that really lit the touch paper, but there was also a lot of attrition and ill-discipline (mostly involving England). Ireland were exemplary in everything they did and looked in a class of their own, whilst the four teams in the middle all fluctuated from the sublime to the ridiculous. The tournament lacked a real competitive edge at the business end, but it was mostly entertaining. Thumbs in the middle, pointing up.

Gus Portig: A triumph? No. A damp squib? No. A reflection of the strength of rugby in the Northern Hemisphere? Certainly. It was a bizarre tournament in the sense that the defining moment came in the first round of fixtures: were it not for Sexton’s magnificence in the 84th minute, who knows what may have happened. Whilst this year’s Six Nations was not the most enthralling, all but one of the teams involved have grounds for genuine optimism going forward. Most notably, the Scots proved once again that they are capable of beating anyone on their day, whilst Italy reminded the world that they can still compete when in Rome.

Who was your player of the tournament?

Seoras Lyall: Johnny Sexton. He dictated his side superbly and made them tick. His stunning drop-kick in Paris showed a player at the top of his game and one of the best in the world.

Andrew Sinclair: Jacob Stockdale. A record-breaking seven tries, taking his tally to 12 in just ten senior international appearances. He is Ireland’s future, and it’s very bright indeed.

Gus Portig: Like Andrew, I simply cannot look past the performances of Jacob Stockdale. Having watched the player struggle to make the first team for one of my rival schools back in Northern Ireland, I would have likely broken into hysterics if you told me that he would soon set the record for the most tries scored in a Six Nations tournament. However, he has developed an incredible knack for being in the right place at the right time, and at 21 years of age, the only way is up…

Coach of the tournament?

Seoras Lyall: It has to be Joe Schmidt after delivering Ireland only their third ever Grand Slam, including a famous victory at Twickenham on St Patrick’s Day. Under his leadership, the boys from the Emerald Isle have shown that their victory over the All-Blacks in 2016 was no fluke and look set to be a real challenger at the World Cup next year.

A special mention should be given to another Irishman: Conor O’Shea of Italy. He has made his side far more competitive in the last two years. Not only are his team tactically aware, they play good rugby as well. If he is given time to continue his work up to and beyond the World Cup, then Italy’s barren run without a win since 2015 will end soon.

Andrew Sinclair: The obvious answer here is Joe Schmidt. There’s no debating it – his Ireland team were the most organised, technical and clinical team in the tournament. They’re quite clearly the second best side in the world at the moment, and appearing to be motoring towards making a real impression at next year’s World Cup.

However, I’d like to give a mention to Jacques Brunel. Seen as a bit of a laughing stock when he was lumbered with the French job, he really seems to have turned them around. This is probably the least talented French side for a generation, but under his leadership and the captaincy of Guilhem Guirado, they fought for everything and succeeded in forcing almost everyone to play their style – attritional, physical and slow. It brought wins against England and Italy and could quite easily have yielded successes against Wales and Scotland. There’s a ceiling to what he can do with those players, but for the first time in a while, there seems to be some positivity around the French team, which is something we should all be able to appreciate.

Gus Portig: Again, I can look no further than an Irish candidate. Jacques Brunel will be pleased with his team’s performance, Warren Gatland can reflect on a decent tournament, and Conor O’Shea nearly masterminded an Italian victory on the final weekend. This being said, Joe Schmidt has overseen a remarkable transformation in Irish rugby in the past 12 months, a Grand Slam victory serving as the cherry on top of the cake. It may not be the most exciting brand of rugby, but he has integrated the young amongst the old expertly, and they will surely head into the World Cup as New Zealand’s biggest threat.

Try of the tournament?

Seoras Lyall: It has to be Sean Maitland in the Calcutta Cup. Superb finish in the corner after Huw Jones made yet another lung-busting break through the English defence. Finn Russell showed his quality with two incredible passes: the first a perfectly calculated long ball to Jones and the second a deft throw over to Maitland for the score.

Andrew Sinclair: Huw Jones vs England. Either one really. That grubber from Finn Russell to set him through for the first, or his excellent line and 45-metre sprint for the second. Alongside Sexton vs France, it was one of the tournament’s best individual performances.,

Gus Portig: In terms of individual skill, Teddy Thomas’ try against Ireland was quite magnificent, a combination of speed and quick thinking nearly proving the undoing of Ireland so late in the game. In terms of significance, though, Stockdale’s try at the end of the first half at Twickenham put daylight between the two sides following a period of English dominance, and marked the gulf in class between the two teams. Ironically, the dead ball line had been increased by two metres especially for that game.

What was the nicest surprise of the tournament, or conversely, what disappointed you most?

Seoras Lyall: When watching the Wales-Italy game, I was startled at the speed and footwork of Italy’s fullback Matteo Minozzi, to score four tries in four games is remarkable and he reminded me a lot of Stuart Hogg.

The biggest disappointment was Scotland’s performance against Wales. We went in brimming with confidence and belief, knowing we had a real opportunity there to go and win at Cardiff against a Welsh side devoid of its big stars and in transition. Instead there were poor decisions made on and off the field and we got battered. Ali Price’s horror pass still gives me nightmares.

Andrew Sinclair: One for both. Nicest surprise was Matteo Minozzi, who you’ll see below made my team of the tournament. Also shoutouts to the impressive Sebastian Negri and Jake Polledri, who contributed to an Italian resurgence in this year’s competition.

The obvious disappointment for me was England. They looked a little shaky in the autumn but I though, perhaps naively, that they had enough to win the title. Yet the wheels came off completely, they looked insipid throughout and were one TMO call away from losing four games. Eddie Jones has earned the right to be given time to turn things around, but they look as unprepared for Japan as they did when he took over in 2015.

Gus Portig: The nicest surprise of the tournament has to be the influx of youth into international rugby. The Irish contingent of Jacob Stockdale (21), James Ryan (21) and Jordan Larmour (20) all played significant roles in their country’s Grand Slam. Interestingly, Ryan has never lost a professional game of rugby. Elsewhere, Matteo Minozzi (21) and Tommaso Allan (24) provided a much-needed spark in the Italian backline.

Whilst I said that Scotland proved once again that they can compete against anyone on their day, their inconsistency is at times soul-destroying. It is hard to comprehend that nine of the Calcutta Cup winning team also started the game against Wales three weeks earlier. With the World Cup coming up next year, Townsend’s men need to find a way to win when they aren’t at their best, and quickly.

Italy yet against finished bottom, losing all five of their games, and they have just one win in the tournament’s last five iterations. Georgia meanwhile, have just won the European Nations Cup for the seventh time in the last eight years. Is it time for the Six Nations to institute promotion and relegation?

Seoras Lyall: It’s a tough one this. Under O’Shea Italy really do seem to be improving and they were unfortunate not to win one game this championship. But there are many good teams on the continent that surely deserve a chance, not only Georgia but possibly Romania, who have been to every single World Cup. I would agree with the suggestion made by Andrew below, it would make things much more exciting outside of the title race and a similar system has worked well in the Scottish football league.  

Andrew Sinclair: You know what, before the tournament I was all set to say yes. Italy had been abject for a while and Georgia deserve the chance. This tournament has me wavering though. Italy looked energised, and were very unlucky to not secure victory against the Scots. They lack the stamina to keep up their high-tempo performances in the first half, but O’Shea does seem to be improving them, and he’s obviously aided by some talented young players on the way up.

That said, I still think a play-off system would be worthwhile. Add it to the summer international programme, making it a two-legged aggregate affair. It gives the Italians to play for more than pride, and gives those Georgian players something meaningful to aim towards. It also means that should Italy not come last in future years, those teams would have to prove it wasn’t just a poor campaign and defend their place in the tournament. Rugby should not be a closed shop, it should be open and welcoming, and that means giving Tier 2 and 3 nations a window to the big boys table.

Gus Portig: I struggle to think of any other major sporting tournament in which every team qualifies automatically. There have been growing concerns that the spectacle of the tournament isn’t what it once was, and introducing some sort of qualification system would surely help rectify this. I know that the Italians are making progress under their current management, but I just feel that for a number of years, they have been there to make up the numbers. On the topic of changes, I really do not like the bonus point system. I understand the bonus point being awarded to teams scoring four or more tries, as this encourages expansive and exciting rugby, but a consolation point for losing by seven points or fewer seems incredibly amateur.

Now the biggie. Who makes the cut for your team of the tournament?

Position Seoras’ team Andrew’s team Gus’ team
Full-Back Matteo Minozzi Matteo Minozzi Matteo Minozzi
Winger Teddy Thomas Teddy Thomas Keith Earls
Outside Centre Huw Jones Huw Jones Huw Jones
Inside Centre Hadleigh Parkes Hadleigh Parkes Mathieu Bastareaud
Wing Jacob Stockdale Jacob Stockdale Jacob Stockdale
Fly-half Johnny Sexton Johnny Sexton Johnny Sexton
Scrum-half Conor Murray Maxime Machenaud Conor Murray
Loosehead Prop Cian Healy Cian Healy Cian Healy
Hooker Rory Best Rory Best Guilhem Guirado
Tighthead Prop Tadhg Furlong Tadhg Furlong Tadhg Furlong
Lock Alun Wyn Jones James Ryan James Ryan
Lock Jonny Gray Jonny Gray Alun Wyn Jones
Blindside Flanker John Barclay Aaron Shingler Aaron Shingler
Openside Flanker Hamish Watson Dan Leavy Hamish Watson
Number Eight CJ Stander CJ Stander CJ Stander

 

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