England put World Cup 'trauma' behind them
SIX NATIONS SPOTLIGHT: England may have consigned some of the “trauma” of last year’s World Cup final defeat to the history books by winning the 2020 Six Nations, but France could have the greatest cause for optimism after the end of a coronavirus-hit Championship.
Almost a year to the day since England lost to South Africa in the World Cup final, a 34-5 win away to Italy in Rome saw them take the Six Nations title from France on points difference, despite Les Bleus’ 35-27 defeat of Ireland later on Saturday.
Back in February, before Covid-19 became an all-too familiar phrase and Europe’s major Rugby Union venues had not started to resemble training grounds in the absence of spectators, England opened the tournament with a 17-24 loss to France in Paris before finding their form again.
“Losing a World Cup final can be quite traumatic and it puts a dent in you and it leaves a scar that you carry around for the rest of your life,” said Jones, who should know given he was also the coach of his native Australia when they were defeated by England in the 2003 showpiece match.
England’s game remains based on their familiar pack strength, with Maro Itoje and Tom Curry leading the way ahead of the upcoming Nations Cup that replaces traditional tours by the Southern Hemisphere giants.
“We are endeavouring to play England rugby, which is about set-piece and defence,” said Jones. “Then we are looking to add to that.”
France were on course for a Grand Slam until prop Mohamed Haouas was sent off in an eventual defeat by Scotland in March.
Yet again France paid heavily for individual indiscipline, as they had when Sebastien Vahaamahina was shown a red card during a World Cup quarterfinal defeat by Wales.
But a now dynamic as well as physical pack laid the foundations for a backline orchestrated by the youthful Toulouse halfback pair of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack to score a succession of stunning tries.
“They, like the team, matured a lot during this competition with what they’ve experienced,” said Fabien Galthie, who took over as France coach after the World Cup.
France have never won the World Cup but on this form, they should be major contenders when they stage the 2023 edition.
Scotland, with three successive wins culminating with Saturday’s 14-10 victory against Wales in Llanelli – their first win on Welsh soil for 18 years – also made significant strides.
Importantly, the Scots, with Hamish Watson and Jamie Ritchie prominent, now have a pack to complement their lively backs.
“You get confidence from games like that; it’s character building when you’re away from home,” said Scotland coach Gregor Townsend.
Ireland were in title contention until the end, but defeats by both England and France, led to questions about their strength in depth.
Reigning Grand Slam champions Wales, however, were dire. They lost four and won just one of five matches in their worst Six Nations display since 2007.
Wales coach Wayne Pivac, who succeeded fellow New Zealander Warren Gatland after the World Cup, has seen his attempts to introduce a new style founder on a lack of breakdown strength, while a once mean defence under Shaun Edwards, now a member of France’s backroom staff, have conceded 16 tries in five matches.
“The breakdown killed us,” said Pivac after the Scotland match. “Certainly, at the moment, we are not playing consistently well over the 80 minutes.”
For winless Italy it was an all-too familiar story as they finished bottom of the table for the 15th time.
Nevertheless, Jones saw signs of Italy progress under South African coach Franco Smith.
“Every year it’s a tough, competitive competition,” said Jones. “You have Ireland and Wales consistently in the top five in the world.
“We’ve been there or thereabouts and now France are bouncing back from a bottom 10 side to a top-five side. So what does that give you? A pretty strong competition.
“Scotland are improving and Italy under Franco Smith are definitely going to get better. They have some good young players coming through.”