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What we learned about each team in Six Nations

Mon, Mar 20, 2017, Posted by   print

2007 World Cup

4:00 PM GMT

Another enthralling Six Nations championship has come and gone with England worthy winners for the second successive year.

After plenty of pundits predicted the trophy to be decided in the final match in Dublin, Eddie Jones’ side wrapped up the title with a game to spare after Ireland, Scotland, Wales and France all suffered two defeats by the conclusion of the penultimate round.

Those four all managed significant wins against each other but none of the quartet could summon a real challenge to England, while Italy’s struggles from the opening whistle saw their future in the tournament questioned.

Our ESPN rugby experts take a look at all six countries to see how they fared, and where areas of improvement are needed.

England

Joe Launchbury and Maro Itoje were two of England’s stand-out players in the tournament. Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

For the second year running, the Six Nations trophy sits proudly in the Twickenham cabinet. Players have sweated blood for the cause, and England have cemented themselves as the greatest challenge to the All Blacks’ crown of No.1 side in the world.

But it was not a straight-forward tournament for England. They struggled against France, Wales and Italy before then cutting loose against Scotland. Against Ireland, they failed to get on the front foot at any stage, unable to counter Joe Schmidt’s game plan.

The basic facts of the tournament see England being champions again but their 18-match winning run has come to an end. Eddie Jones will spend the time between now and their summer tour of Argentina — one where they will be without a number of frontline players due to the Lions tour — debating key positions, and maybe looking at giving fresh faces a chance. Figures like Dan Cole and Dylan Hartley may well be in New Zealand, but as Jones talks about establishing depth ahead of the 2019 World Cup, he could look to alternatives against the Pumas. The same goes for the back-row, and their lack of depth at fullback and scrum-half.

The positives from this tournament lie in the second-row with the brilliant Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes having memorable campaigns, while Maro Itoje is adjusting to life at blindside. Elliot Daly was also superb, and already looks to have booked his place on this summer’s Lions tour and for the Japan World Cup in 2019.

There were plenty of positives for England in this championship, they were worthy champions, but they are still some way off fulfilling their limitless potential. On the whole, Jones will take that. — Tom Hamilton.

Ireland

Johnny Sexton starred upon return from injury for Ireland. Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images

Joe Schmidt’s men started as favourites after ending the All Blacks’ world record run in November in Chicago. They did not look entirely comfortable with that tag, though, as their Championship hopes suffered a setback on the opening weekend with a surprise defeat to Scotland. Yet by the end of the tournament, they looked sharp in ending another world record run at 18 as well as denying England a second successive Grand Slam.

Jonathan Sexton showed why he is central to Ireland’s hopes but surely the IRFU, Schmidt and Leinster have to consider giving him a sabbatical in the build-up to the World Cup in 2019. It is what Sexton needs and would benefit Ireland in developing a few backups at fly-half.

At centre, the rise of Garry Ringrose continues. Imagine: but for the injury to Jared Payne, this gem would most likely still be awaiting a continuous run of games in an Ireland shirt. Ringrose and the likes of Kieran Marmion and Andrew Conway showed Ireland have depth, but it has to be used. Craig Gilroy grabbed a hat-trick off the bench against Italy and we never saw him again. Expect Gilroy and Tiernan O’Halloran to make hay on the summer tour to Japan.

A frightening back row has Ireland in good stead, but if Niall Scannell is Rory Best’s heir at hooker, he needs game time. The continued low penalty count is an immense platform in defence and a constant, as Schmidt strives for further consistency in results. — Killian O’Connor.

France

France ended the tournament on three wins after their 20-18 defeat of Wales. Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

It is quite difficult to summarise France’s tournament.

It is their best finish in six years, yet their style of play, paired with the controversy surrounding the way they beat Wales in the 99th minute in their last match, leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

Having promised to showcase some French flair under Guy Noves, their attack never really got going with Les Bleus scoring just eight tries (four of which came against Italy) across the tournament, while the fact Camille Lopez finished as the championship’s top points scorer shows how reliant they have become on his boot.

The big positive for France was the impressive form of Northampton Saints No. 8 Louis Picamoles, while Kevin Gourdon put in some big shifts at openside flanker.

A three-Test tour of South Africa — who do not have their troubles to seek — in June provides Noves and Co. a chance to instill more confidence and find a real identity for this team. — Nick Bewley.

Scotland

Vern Cotter departs having led Scotland to wins over Ireland, Wales and Italy. Stu Forster/Getty Images

As Vern Cotter packs his bags for France, he may well rue a missed opportunity.

Scotland were overwhelmed by England as their title aspirations were torn to shreds at Twickenham, but collecting three wins for the first time in more than a decade is still a sign of progress.

The manner of victories against Ireland and Wales cannot be ignored, and there were far more positives than negatives contained within their fourth-placed finish.

The Gray brothers, Johnny and Richie, did their British & Irish Lions hopes no harm, while Finn Russell, Alex Dunbar, Stuart Hogg and Hamish Watson were all excellent.

Huw Jones continues to look every inch the Test centre, while 21-year-old prop Zander Fagerson impressed in the absence of WP Nel.

Scotland might not quite have been ready to challenge England for the championship, but the future looks bright. — Martyn Thomas.

Wales

Wales’ best performance of the championship was against Ireland. David Rogers/Getty Images

Ill-feeling and frustrations from a dour autumn spilled over into what was a frustrating championship for Rob Howley’s men.

A worst Six Nations finish for 10 years tells its own story, but it could have been a very different tale. Had Wales been able to hold out against England and France then their Six Nations may have finished in glory. But ultimately they weren’t able to, and every result — bar the rousing win over Ireland — was greeted with opprobrium.

Alex Cuthbert was on the receiving end following Elliot Daly’s last-gasp try in defeat to England, but the vitriol had no respect for reputation and Leigh Halfpenny, George North and Howley all found themselves in the dock.

There were positives: the form of Jake Ball, Rhys Webb and Scott Williams being three. But it would seem highly unlikely now that Howley will be handed the job on a full-time basis once Warren Gatland steps down. — MT.

Italy

Sergio Parisse and Conor O’Shea have plenty to work out after Italy’s campaign. Andrew Matthews/PA Images via Getty Images

This Six Nations was about improvement rather than results for Italy, but it is fair to say the Azzurri failed to inspire as Conor O’Shea’s side were consigned to yet another wooden spoon.

Their most memorable moment was at Twickenham when their ruckless rugby tactics — dubbed ‘The Fox’ — bemused England, but all the record books will show for that day is a 36-15 defeat.

It was the nature of their defeats that was most disappointing as calls for Georgia’s inclusion in the championship grew louder by the week. Italy continually kicked the ball away rather than attempting to roll the dice, while their lack of a decent goal-kicker meant they struggled to muster any scoreboard pressure.

Italy next face Fiji and Australia in June where signs of progress are paramount. -- NB.

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What we learned about each team in Six Nations
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