The southern hemisphere countries like to sit back in their early autumn and be a little uncomplimentary about the Six Nations. Through New Zealand eyes, used to admiring skills honed in isolation at the end of the world, this European championship is all a bit cluttered, heavy on contact but slow of pace.
The last day of action was almost absurd in its points-scoring abundance. It ended at Twickenham with a 12-try romp, with England pipped to the title by Ireland, who scored what was, on this day, a miserly 40. The question asked by the southern hemisphere may well be: “Well, why don’t you play like this all the time?” It’s a good question.
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The sight of George North in full cry is enough to make anyone sit up. The wing had had a relatively quiet championship until he went to Rome and rediscovered his scoring touch with hat-trick of tries in the space of 11 minutes. Once the game broke up in the second half, Wales looked positively southern in their approach, abandoning the rigid structures of their reconstructive period after defeat to England and using the aerial route only as an alternative to the handling game.
England, in the same group as Wales in the World Cup, will reckon they have the means to prevent the side they beat in round one in February from being so unfettered. If there was a negative aspect to the Wales performance it was the scrummage, where the inexperienced Aaron Jarvis and Rob Evans had a difficult first half.
Even Australia, well-versed in winning tight encounters against Wales in recent times, may think they may have to veer towards the northern style – and, gulp, learn to love the scrummage – if they are to beat the same opponents in that horrible World Cup group. They know from the Lions tour of 2013 that they do not want North coming their way at full blast and the set piece is one way to keep a wing at bay.
That said, it is a sign of the times that a side yielding so much ground at the scrum can win by such a vast margin. There are fewer of the wretched things – the scourge of the game before concussion became the issue of the moment – and Australia may say there is no time between now and September to build a bulldozer. They may simply say they, unlike Italy, welcome a good open game.
On the subject of concussion, there was one little incidental from the Wales game. Leigh Halfpenny, three years after taking a bang on the head tackling David Strettle in the last seconds of the Welsh win at Twickenham, took another one in Rome. Both knockouts resulted from a tackle that the coaching manual would advise be made with the left shoulder – so that Halfpenny’s head would go into relative safety behind Samuela Vunisa’s large leg. The full back tackled with his right shoulder and his head was hit by the No8’s knee. Good night, again.
People are knocked out in New Zealand, too. But there is an insistence there on correct technique from a very early age. Halfpenny would argue that he has no time to think left or right, but medical opinion would be that he should have rehearsed the defensive duty so often in his formative years that the execution of the tackle required no thought. It was a left shoulder tackle, full stop.
Ireland, the defending Six Nations champions, beat Australia and South Africa in November. They controlled those games and then defended their lead. In the opening three games of this Six Nations they took control and imposed their will on their game and remained on track for the grand slam. But then Wales reversed the trend and ruled the first quarter in Cardiff. And Ireland had to chase the game. They came close but lost.
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Against Scotland they had to force the issue again – reach the target set by Wales and then set one of their own for England. There was no rush, in that they had 80 minutes. And they played with composure, which was a rarity on Saturday. Generally, there was a frenzy to play everywhere.
England had to beat France by 26 points. It was simply out of the question according to all the traditions of the fixture, the intensity of the rivalry and the stinginess of the French defence that had leaked all of two tries in four games. England scored seven. They played with verve, with Ben Youngs prepared to direct attacking operations from behind his own line.
Everybody had a part to play. Amazingly, Jonathan Joseph, scorer of four tries before this, did not score. But Youngs did and Jack Nowell did. It was an extraordinary spectacle.