• Matthew Whiley

Fan's Perspective: Six Nations Special

Updated: Apr 1

Has everyone's heart rate returned to normal yet?

I must admit, even as only a passing fan of rugby, this year's edition of the Six Nations caught my attention like few others before it. It had nearly everything, with inspiring comebacks, late scores, stunning individual performances, and several surprises, all dusted with plenty of controversy.

All the vital on-field ingredients to produce a successful tournament may have been present, but there remained a key part missing. Like so many other sporting events this past year, all 15 matches were played without any fans in attendance.

It was a terrible shame that such a dramatic and high-quality competition, which in normal times is, on average, the most well-attended sporting event on the planet, with an average crowd of 72,000, had to be played out in empty stadiums. Sport matters to fans, but more than that, fans matter to sport.

In honour of that fact, this week's post will be a Fan's Perspective special, and I've spoken to four people, who each support one of the competing countries in the Six Nations. All have kindly answered some questions to dissect their teams' performances in the competition, and they are:

Alex Shelton (England)

Jason Gregg (Ireland)

Jonathan Northcroft (Scotland)

Harry Bamforth (Wales)

To begin with, I asked each member of the quartet if they were happy with their team's showing across the tournament as a whole.

Overall, only Alex was outwardly unhappy. He was rather scathing in his indictment of England in this year's tournament, saying: "This year's Six Nations has been nowhere near good enough. It feels like we have taken a backwards step."

You could forgive Alex for that, given Eddie Jones' England's deeply underwhelming finish of fifth, having won just two games. However, Harry, Jonathan, and Jason were far more positive about their respective nations' performances, with Wayne Pivac's Wales lifting the trophy, Gregor Townsend's Scotland pulling several impressive victories out of the bag, including their first win at Twickenham since 1983, and Andy Farrell's Ireland showing great fight to finish their tournament very strongly with three back-to-back wins.

Harry is delighted he can put the 2020 tournament behind him, with Wales' shock victory this time around: "After the pain of last year and nobody giving us a chance coming into this year’s tournament, it is very satisfying coming away with the trophy."

Meanwhile, Jonathan felt largely happy about Scotland's performances, but remained pragmatic with regard to the outcome of some of the games. "I found myself in the familiar position of loving the rugby Scotland played, without being entirely happy with the results," he said, underlining his belief that if the performances had achieved the warranted results, then "a grand slam was there for us!"

Jason adopted a similar position: "There is no doubt we got stronger as the championship progressed. I was disappointed with the losses in the first two games, and I was worried at that point." However, he was far more upbeat about the latter stages of the competition, saying that Ireland "saved the best until last with an outstanding and clinical victory over England," and concluding that "yes, on balance," he was happy with his side's performance.

He went on to highlight some of the areas in which he believed Ireland excelled: "There was a marked improvement in Ireland’s “go forward” ability and competitiveness at the breakdown," he began, hypothesising that the improvement could "perhaps be the [new Irish forwards coach] Paul O’Connell effect?" He was also keen to draw attention to another area that he admitted was unusual territory as an Irish fan: "Our defensive record this tournament was excellent. It's not a position Ireland are used too, conceding fewer points than any other team, but welcome nonetheless!"

There were several Scottish strengths that Jonathan was keen to discuss too, but he was especially proud of three key areas: "We defended well, dominated all of the opponents for significant periods and had that usual 'Townsend' creative spark."

Given his previous views on England's underachievement, Alex wasn't able to pick quite as many areas in which his team shone, with his first response to my question asking him what England did well across the tournament being "to be totally honest, not much!" However, he did draw attention to one game at Twickenham that he felt was a step in the right direction: "The only really good performance was against France, where we showed some good character after conceding very early on."


On the other hand, Harry was naturally able to reel off an encyclopaedia's worth of Wales' strengths in this tournament. He believes that "Wales grew stronger as we went through the tournament, and our confidence grew with every passing win." It's hard to disagree with that either, as with the uptick in performances evidenced by the gradual increase in the number of points they scored from their first game to the fourth.

Harry also mentioned Wales' attacking flair as a major area of pride, noting that "we were also potent in attack, scoring 20 tries throughout the tournament, with bonus points against Scotland, England and Italy." However, he was just as delighted with his country's defence too, adding "Wales are known for their resolute defence and once again we showed how strong we are defensively in this tournament; this was key to our success."

On the flip side, it's hard to highlight areas for improvement in a team that did win the championship, but Harry did want to draw attention to the final moments of Wales' tournament: "I think some of the decision making in the final minutes at the Stade de France weren’t the best and unfortunately led to our downfall that night," he said, before remaining upbeat about the largely excellent showing from his side. "I think it would be harsh to criticise the team after the turnaround we have seen," he added.

There has been much criticism of Wales' discipline in those final ten minutes in Paris, their infringements a departure from what had been an excellent tournament in that regard. Jonathan also noted discipline to be an issue for Scotland, responding to my question about areas in which they were lacking by saying "The big one was discipline! Too many penalties and cards." He also wanted to see an improvement in two further areas, noting that "game management and finishing off opportunities" were points at which his country should have done better.

Discipline, or rather lack of it, continued to run through everyone's criticisms, as Jason also picked up on it for Ireland. "Two red cards was new and unwelcome territory for us, " he said, observing that "the first cost us the game against Wales." He also highlighted a slight lack of ruthlessness he wants to see improve: "Over the past few seasons Ireland have often struggled to convert opportunities when within the opposition’s 22. This has improved in this championship, but I still think there is work to do."

Alex was very much not satisfied with England, and initially replied to this question with a derisory laugh of "Where do we begin? Have you got a few hours?!" before becoming the fourth fan out of four to talk about indiscipline. "We gave away far too many penalties that eased the pressure on opposition teams and allowed them into scoring opportunities."

Having poor discipline is very much parallel to shooting yourself in the foot, and Alex went on to explain how another of England's weaknesses made the indiscipline into even more of a serious problem for his side. "When combined with the fact that this was England's worst defensive performance in the history of the competition, the penalty count meant that the opposition often capitalised and converted the opportunities into points."

Thus, it is not difficult to see how England struggled to keep the opposition quiet, but Alex also talked of problems in attack: "We looked void of creativity too, and with Manu Tuilagi - for whom we haven't found a successful replacement - missing, we lacked a big, strong, threatening ball carrier." He concluded with a mention of a promising youngster who may improve England in time for next year's tournament, saying "It could also be the case that someone more creative is needed at 10 as well, someone like [22-year-old] Marcus Smith from Harlequins."

Name-dropping is synonymous with any sport, even one such as rugby where such emphasis is placed on the importance of the team. However, simply put, good individual performances can be a shining light for any team, so the next question I asked was about standout players.

For England, Alex drew attention to Sale's Tom Curry - Alex himself is a Sale fan - and Saracens' Maro Itoje, describing them as having had "good tournaments, being their usual disruptive selves." He went on to say that "I think the two wingers did ok, but didn't see much of the ball in areas or space that could allow them to do as much damage as they are capable of."

For Ireland, Jason observed Leinster's Robbie Henshaw and Munster's Tadhg Beirne to be shining lights in green, saying that "Henshaw’s carries contributed hugely to our forward momentum, while Beirne’s work in the lineouts and at the breakdown, along with Ulster captain Iain Henderson, played a massive part in the team’s performances. He also wanted to give a special mention to Beirne's Munster teammate CJ Stander, who, "in what turned out to be his final Six Nations, made more carries that any other player."

For Wales, Harry enthused about virtually every member of the team, an attitude that we've previously talked about as being entirely understandable. However, after a mention of Ospreys pair George North and Alun Wyn Jones, alongside Scarlets' Ken Owens, he settled on Bath's Talupe Faletau, Cardiff Blues' Josh Navidi, and Gloucester's Louis Rees-Zammit as his three standout players. He described the latter as "the new superstar of Welsh rugby," adding that his key skills are his "lightning pace, clinical finishing and agile footwork," which he believes "make for an outstanding winger."


Harry described Faletau as being "a rock for us during the tournament," adding "we have really seen him return to his best," while he showered Navidi with praise, saying that his return was "pivotal to us winning the tournament." Drawing particular attention to Navidi’s consistency, Harry added that he was "incredibly impressive in every game, and his man of the match display in Italy showcased his quality."

For Scotland, Jonathan picked up on Finn Russell - with his comment of "as usual" telling you all you need to know about his quality and the esteem in which the Racing 92 man is held by Scottish rugby fans - and Edinburgh's Hamish Watson. He also commented upon the son of a Scottish legend, saying that "I loved Adam Hastings' cameos." Adam is the son of fullback Gavin Hastings, who is the third highest points scorer in Scotland's history.


I concluded by asking the quartet if they had more or less confidence in their team now compared with the start of the Six Nations, and Jonathan replied with an emphatic "more," adding that "we have been progressing steadily under Townsend, and the last year has suggested that the World Cup [at which Scotland finished third in Pool A behind hosts Japan and Ireland] was a blip."


Alex, again rather unsurprisingly, has less confidence in England. "This was a huge fall from grace," he said. "I have to question some of Eddie Jones' decisions, especially the one to leave out players who are in top form in the Premiership, and insist on players who have played little to no rugby this year."


However, Harry was considerably more confident, saying: "The team have instilled optimism back into the Welsh fanbase and we are finally building momentum leading up to the World Cup in two years’ time. I have grown in confidence alongside the team, and I now have full faith we can be successful in our summer tour of Argentina and Uruguay." He finished by declaring "it’s an exciting time to be Welsh."


Jason shares Harry and Jonathan's sentiment: "Ireland finished third in what was probably one of the most competitive and entertaining Six Nations in quite some time." Despite some initial nervousness on his part, Jason was reassured by Ireland's latter stage performances: "I had some trepidation going into the championship on how Ireland would perform, particularly against a resurgent France and an England side who had dominated them in recent games. However, after a very disappointing start to the tournament, Ireland turned it around and finished in the strongest possible fashion."


Alex is clearly not particularly happy with the state of English rugby at present, but the tournament has led Harry, Jonathan, and Jason to be considerably more optimistic about affairs in Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, respectively. Either way, I'd like to thank all four, very much, for answering these questions.


I am of course aware that the tournament is called the Six Nations, as opposed to the 'Four Nations' (last time I checked, we hadn't gone back in time to 1909), but despite my best efforts I wasn't able to locate fans of France or Italy. However, if you're reading this post as a supporter of either of those teams and you'd like to offer your thoughts, I'd be more than happy to edit the above to include you, so please do get in touch, I'd love to hear from you.

You can do just that through Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/longstorysport, or through Twitter at https://twitter.com/LongStorySport. Connecting with me through social media also brings the benefit of being among the first to know when I post something new!

Signing off,

Matthew

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