17 Mar 2008
Wales need a reality check after winning the Grand Slam.
While the Dragons’ turnaround since the World Cup has been remarkable, their Six Nations triumph needs to be put into perspective. They are not suddenly world-beaters, as their press is making them out to be. If a World Cup were played next month, they would not win it. All Wales have done is win a competition full of mediocre competitors.
France, the defending champions, used the Six Nations to experiment. In the first four matches, coach Marc Lievremont gave out 13 new caps. Yes, he selected his best XV for the title decider against Wales, but that team had never played together. They were never going to beat a Welsh side that had built up momentum over four matches. Hopefully, Lievremont will take the tournament a bit more seriously next year.
Great things were expected from England after their surprise World Cup final appearance, but they delivered another below-par Six Nations effort. According to media reports, there was so much unhappiness in the dressing room that several England players considered retiring from the international game. Coach Brian Ashton – given a stay of execution after the World Cup – was again in the firing line, with questions raised over his ability to manage a team. Ashton was also slammed for axing Danny Cipriani from the side to play Scotland, after the 20-year-old was seen leaving a nightclub just after midnight. England, sans their play-maker, went on to deliver an appalling performance at Murrayfield. Ashton, when defending his record this season, will point to wins against France in Paris and Ireland at home. However, there were also the losses to Wales (when England blew a comfortable lead) and Scotland (who were beaten by Italy a week later), and the narrow, unconvincing win against Italy.
Ireland were even worse than England, which says a lot. They beat Scotland and Italy, which was expected, but were outclassed by the rest of the field. The Irish are an aging team low on confidence and bereft of ideas. It’s sad to think that just over a year ago they had thrashed England 48-18 and were serious World Cup contenders. The reality is they peaked in 2006 – when they beat the Boks – and have been on the decline ever since. Coach Eddie O’Sullivan has had seven seasons with the national team, and the IRFU would be crazy if they gave him an eighth.
Meanwhile, Scotland and Italy simply don’t have sufficient talent or depth to win the Six Nations. They are competitive because their players have big hearts, but passion doesn’t win titles in the professional era. Scotland will be proud of their win against England, and horrified with their loss to Italy a week later. Nick Mallett was delighted to claim a victory after his side had limited the damage against the big guns, and rightly so. One Six Nations win for a team like Italy is very good; two would be outstanding.
Considering the above, Wales were simply the best of a bad bunch. Any one of the Tri-Nations teams would have won this Grand Slam had they been involved, and even Argentina could have done it.
The fact is we will only know how good Wales are in June, when they play the Boks in two Tests.
By Simon Borchardt