Six Nations produces vintage year despite the usual winners and losers | Six Nations 2024


At first glance not an awful lot changed during the men’s Six Nations championship this year. Ireland and France occupied the table’s top two positions, as they did in 2023, with Wales and Italy in the bottom two and England and Scotland once again the meat in the club sandwich. Ireland, for the third year in a row, had the meanest defence and only the winless Welsh, strangely, managed to score more tries than last year.

Yet if this was not a vintage Six Nations in absolutely all respects, the old tournament is enjoying a refreshing renaissance. The competition is now so tight that 10 of the 15 matches were decided by four points or fewer, including all three of the final-round games. If Netflix cannot stitch together an award winning series from the stunning “Super Saturday” footage alone it should abandon its fly‑on‑the‑wall cameras and walk away.

Because, if the ultimate definition of sporting appeal is to wake up the following morning and wish the tournament could instantly kick off all over again, the 2024 Six Nations passed the time honoured test. Maybe that is what the organisers had in mind when they scheduled the women’s Six Nations to start this weekend. The entertainment bar, either way, has suddenly been set pretty high.

Games of rugby do not come much more rollicking than France’s 33-31 thriller against England in Lyon, up there with the barely believable 38-38 Calcutta Cup draw at Twickenham in 2019 for fluctuating thrills and spills. Nor do they come more head-clutching than Italy’s agonising draw with France – complete with the ball falling off the tee as Paolo Garbisi prepared to land the winning kick – or Scotland’s controversial near miss against the same opponents. Had Sam Skinner’s disallowed “try” been awarded, the tournament might have panned out very differently.

What if England had begun the tournament in the rip-roaring manner in which they finished it? It turns out England actually scored exactly the same number of tries – 13 – as they did last season but their intent to play a more multifaceted game did much to illuminate the final fortnight. Not only are their supporters enjoying it more but, crucially, so are the players.

There is, of course, still a distance to travel before they can aspire to be where Ireland are now. But over the course of the campaign England made more incursions into the opposition 22 than any other side and, despite being behind at half-time in all five games, look in a much better place. When Jamie George, their impressively honest captain, says he senses exciting days ahead he is not simply referencing the Under‑20 Six Nations title England lifted on Friday night.

Paolo Garbisi reacts after landing the winning kick for Italy against Wales at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff. Photograph: David Davies/PA

Credit clearly has to go to Steve Borthwick for freeing his players up mentally and encouraging them to go out and maximise their talent. All you need to know about Borthwick’s desire to maintain this improvement can be extrapolated from his decision to head to New Zealand this week for a reconnaissance trip before England’s summer tour. An overdue nap in an armchair or a leisurely trip to the garden centre is not for him.

The award for coach of the tournament, though, should go to neither Borthwick nor Andy Farrell, despite Ireland securing back‑to‑back titles. The Irish did wonderfully well to roll out of the World Cup and defend their Six Nations title, albeit without a grand slam this time, but the most impressive transformation has been the one quietly engineered by Italy’s Gonzalo Quesada.

To watch Italy outclassing a disjointed Wales was one thing; to see them put away Scotland, draw in France and lose narrowly against England after a traumatic World Cup campaign was to sense the Azzurri are genuinely on the verge of something even more striking. Quesada, the former Argentina fly‑half, has instilled a more balanced approach and, with Benetton Treviso and Zebre improving and Italy’s under-20 side also competing hard, a top-half finish inside the next two years is by no means out of the question.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said about Wales. A first wooden spoon since 2003 is actually testament to the consistent job Warren Gatland has done over the years but their current problems extend way beyond one individual. Small wonder Abi Tierney, the new Wales chief executive, turned down Gatland’s post-match offer to resign from his post. How many potential replacements would relish the role with the Welsh regions on their uppers and the pool of available quality players growing ever shallower?

Marcus Smith helped England to ruin Ireland’s dream of another grand slam by kicking the winning drop goal at Twickenham. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Admittedly, they ran England close at Twickenham and have injured squad members to come back but even their extraordinary second‑half recovery against Scotland and the dogged breakdown defiance of Tommy Reffell could not mask the widening cracks elsewhere. Without a solid set piece and greater authority at fly‑half there will be every chance of further trouble ahead.

All is not entirely fine and dandy from a Scottish perspective, either, despite the sweet sugar rush of beating England for a fourth successive season. The issue, as ever, is a mental one, with the game in Dublin on Saturday the latest case study. An off-key Ireland were momentarily there for the taking, only for Scotland to make familiar little mistakes at vital times. The unfortunate defeat against France could have been avoided had they shown more composure earlier in the game and, perhaps even more pertinently, the Scottish Under-20 side cannot, at present, buy a win.

France, on the other hand, should be stronger in 2025 with Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack both back involved. While some of us underestimated the extent of their post-World Cup hangover, the raw material is definitely still there. How long Fabien Galthié stays at the helm is another story but never mind that: the 2025 fixtures are already out. England face Ireland away and France at home in the opening two rounds and two of Italy’s first three games are in Rome. Could the Irish achieve a treble? In an uncertain world we can still rely on the Six Nations to refresh the parts other tournaments cannot reach.


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