How are the 6Nations teams shaping for the Rugby World Cup?
LONDON (AP) — Wales, and not Ireland, will lead the northern hemisphere's attempt to break the southern hemisphere's dominance at the Rugby World Cup in Japan this year after sweeping the Six Nations.
Wales used a favorable draw, notably home matches against title rivals Ireland and England, a terrific defense, and the confidence of coach Warren Gatland to grind through the championship and prevail. Gatland believed they will be ready to take a crack at winning the Rugby World Cup for the first time.
Ireland started the championship as the defending champion and favorite but crumbled against England and Wales to finish third. But coach Joe Schmidt wasn't overly worried.
So, were the Six Nations teams really in good shape for the Rugby World Cup, where they were blocked out of the semifinals in 2015?
We review the teams in the order they finished.
The team that couldn't get over the line in big, tight games has now forgotten how to lose. After 14 straight wins and a Grand Slam in the Six Nations, Wales has risen to No. 2 in the world — it's highest ever position in the rankings — and is a genuine contender for the Rugby World Cup. The Welsh are running at peak efficiency and such is the strength of their mighty defense that they are always likely to be in a game, even if they aren't playing their best. Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones said after lifting the Six Nations trophy that there is plenty more to come.
Jones, the only survivor from Gatland's first Grand Slam with Wales in 2008, remains the pillar of the team, his relentless work rate setting an example for his younger teammates. Strong at the basics and effective rather than scintillating, Wales shouldn't change a thing heading to Japan as that's its most likely route to the Webb Ellis Cup. Flanker Josh Navidi and flyhalf Gareth Anscombe are new members of the team who appear to have secured starting places at the World Cup through their performances in the Six Nations. There's good depth in most positions. The rugby-mad Welsh are right to be getting excited.
— By Steve Douglas
A bad 30 minutes against Wales, and an even worse 40 minutes against Scotland, undid most of the good work done by England in the Six Nations. Eddie Jones didn't hide his concern at the end of the tournament after England threw away a 31-0 lead before needing a last-gasp try to salvage a 38-38 draw against Scotland in the closing game. Jones said his players had problems with their mentality and that he'll have to bring in "the right help" to fix it. Six months out from the Rugby World Cup, that has to be a worry.
All is not lost, however. England's strength in depth is impressive in many positions — primarily at lock, front row, wing — while the return of powerful center Manu Tuilagi and emergence of winger Joe Cokanasiga gives Jones an X-factor behind the scrum. Few teams in Japan will overpower the English. But there's a frailty to the team when it is put under pressure and nowhere will that be shown up more than at a Rugby World Cup. Tom Curry and Mark Wilson had a decent Six Nations but they look to be a rung below the world's best flankers. And can Billy Vunipola, pivotal for the team at No. 8, stay fit? There are as many questions as answers from the Six Nations.
— By Steve Douglas
They call it second album syndrome. The first album is a smash hit, and the follow-up isn't. Ireland knows the feeling. Rugby's best team of 2018 was close to those lofty standards in the Six Nations against only flaky France. Ireland was crushed by England and Wales, was the beneficiary of Scottish charity, and was lucky to beat Italy. Asked in Cardiff if opponents had figured out Ireland's attack, coach Joe Schmidt said, "I'm not sure." Schmidt defended accusations during the championship his team didn't have a Plan B. But where was it? And where was the on-field leadership?
Schmidt, not being his usual ruthless self, persisted with trying to play key halves Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton, coming back from injuries, into form but after five games they still weren't there. Their lack of confidence affected the backline. Jacob Stockdale, player of the Six Nations last year with seven tries, scored only two this time. Too many others, notably forwards, were playing on reputation. Remarkably, Schmidt was upbeat about Ireland finishing third, where his team has also dropped in the world ranking, but his team appears to have peaked in 2018. On paper, Ireland is strong, experienced, and deep. But something is off. By June, the Irish will have been micromanaged by Schmidt for six years. He drilled into the Irish the tendencies of Wales flyhalf Gareth Anscombe, and yet his chip behind the defense wasn't covered in the first minute and Wales scored a try. Perhaps a new voice will be welcomed after the Rugby World Cup. In the meantime, Ireland will be hoping this is all part of another cunning Schmidt plan to peak for Japan.
— By Foster Niumata
France, a three-time Rugby World Cup finalist, looks like it will just be making up the numbers in Japan. Les Tricolores will be very much up against it in the same group as England and Argentina. A chaotic Six Nations campaign was perfectly summed up near the end of Saturday's lucky win in Italy. Officials asked France's assistant coach if anyone could play hooker and contest a scrum. Eventually, startled prop Dany Priso was nominated while center Mathieu Bastareaud propped up the back row. Jacques Brunel replaced the sacked Guy Noves to improve France, but has only five wins in 16 tests, and the team is still sliding. Missed tackles, casual errors, points recklessly conceded moments after scoring them, a painfully slow midfield, and a first-choice halves pairing ruthlessly dropped for speaking out were problems glaringly exposed. The team's confidence is worryingly low. While the 2019 Rugby World Cup looks too early for this team, the 2023 tournament could be perfectly timed. Out of the wreckage of this Six Nations, Brunel has deployed talent a team can build on, such as new halves Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack, workhorse lock Felix Lambey and powerful right winger Damian Penaud.
— By Jerome Pugmire
Scotland regressed in the championship, and not just in the standings. The comeback against England was as much about England becoming complacent as Scotland deciding to limit its humiliation and show some pride. Even then, Scotland couldn't finish off. The lack of instinct to finish off chances and let others get on top has become a bad habit for the Scots. Plus, switching off in defense. Scotland's best period was the first hour against Italy, when it was in complete control. Then it conceded three tries. The Scots wasted matches against Ireland and France, both teams low on confidence, and undermined themselves against Wales. Their record away from home remains pitiful. They haven't beaten anyone apart from Italy on the road in nine years. And to make the Rugby World Cup quarterfinals, Scotland will have to go through host Japan. To be more than just a quarterfinals side, Scotland needs all of its best players. This Six Nations exposed Scotland's lack of depth, not surprising when it relies on only two professional teams. The starting XV was changed by seven by the end, but at various points Willem Nel, Sam Skinner, Finn Russell and Sam Johnson were injured and came back. The captaincy changed, too, but Greig Laidlaw makes a great backup to the more lively Ali Price.
— By Foster Niumata
Italy finished bottom of the Six Nations for a fourth straight time, and for the 14th time since 2000. Its losing streak, at 22 since 2015, has become the championship record. And, yet, the Azzurri and coach Conor O'Shea had positives to grab on to. They led Ireland 16-12 at halftime and gave the visitor a major scare, and should have been out of sight against France but let that visitor escape as another winner. Wales was also relieved to get out of Rome with a win. Italy, as usual, played tough at home, but it will be far from home at the Rugby World Cup in Japan, where it will expect to beat Namibia and Canada in its pool, and give a good account against New Zealand and South Africa. Another impressive newcomer appeared in the Six Nations, center Marco Zanon, who bombed two tries against France and surely won't make those mistakes again. But it will be veterans O'Shea will rely on, especially unrelenting captain Sergio Parisse. Another centurion, lock Alessandro Zanni, should be there, and O'Shea will be hopeful veteran hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini is available after he appeared to suffer a serious-looking knee injury against France.
— By Daniella Matar