10 things we've learnt at the Six Nations
Hugh Godwin reflects on a tournament in which the players got younger and bigger – and the French never got any better
Learning from the bad times
A Welsh tortoise can sometimes outstrip an English hare, which left the England captain Chris Robshaw in Cardiff last night having to reappraise where his team stand. "It's tough but as hard as it is to lose to Wales, we must learn from it. It would be easy to brush it under the carpet but in order for this team to get better we need to have a good, hard look at it and make sure this hurt makes us better. I think the coaches will go round all the clubs, be smart with the players and work on individual things. You learn most from the bad experiences."
It's bigger and bigger
The obsession with gigantism continues to, er, grow. When France's 21-year-old, 6ft 7in second-rower Sébastien Vahaamahina heaved his 262lb frame on to the pitch in Dublin for his Six Nations debut last Saturday, the tremble could be felt in his New Caledonia home. Indeed we suspect Vahaamahina is New Caledonian for "tackles like a wardrobe falling on top of you". Matches lurch from crunching tackle to breakdown to penalty, and wings are so biceped up to the max they can barely bend over to pick up another useless pass from their centres. Vahaamahina, humbug.
... and younger and younger
It's a big man's game more and more, that's for sure. But is it also a young man's game? Not a single 30-year-old played for England this time. "Someone like Joe Launchbury comes in and he looks about 12," Geoff Parling (the old man of the squad at 29) told us. Most teams value that sliver of experience, but England are looking resolutely towards the 2015 World Cup, leaving the greybeards either pensioned off in the Premiership (Nick Easter, Mike Tindall, Charlie Hodgson) or exiled in France earning a ton and sporting a tan.
Twickers looked a picture
Going to a match can feel like visiting an upmarket souk, dodging the peddlers. Still, the fun and bonhomie remain among the greatest in sport. George North's dad, David, got carried away, invading the Stade de France pitch to hug his son. The best marketing gimmick was the O2 blimp's 360-degree photo of Twickenham during England v Italy, at 30 billion pixels no less, so every spectator could find themselves in the crowd. Fine unless you were yawning.
Overlap and out
North's was the championship's best short-range try, to go alongside the best from long distance: Wesley Fofana's for France at Twickenham. But the boot dominated, and the most prescient quote belonged to England's skills coach, Mike Catt, before the 18-11 win over Italy: "If we have to kick every penalty to win games, we will take that." Toby Flood kicked six penalties as blundering England butchered surely the "Biggest Ever Overlap Wasted in International Rugby" (strangely, a statistic yet to be provided by the ever-more-ubiquitous computer analysts) with seven men on two after the second-row Joshua Furno (6ft 7in, 251lb) tackled Chris Ashton.
Eddie at the ready
That overlooked overlap left poor Eddie Butler on television stranded in the "And Smith must score" commentary territory twice in one move with his "Now Ashton is gonna score… No he's not" and "England should go left and open up the scoring… Goode… Flood… held up!". Mostly the BBC pundits were good value when given a prod. Keith Wood was on the mark when he said of Ireland's coach, Declan Kidney, before the draw with France: "There is a feeling that he's come to the end of the road."
Yesterday's ending was gripping but overall the championship was much less satisfying than last year's. Dodgy southern-hemisphere referees – particularly when dawdling over the "crouch, touch, set" sequence – was one hindrance. Another was the boggy pitches in Paris and Dublin, seemingly perfectly timed for Saracens in London to show off their newly laid fantastic plastic. In fact the half-plastic, half-grass weave of Twickenham is the best way to keep the majority of purists and modernists sweet, and achieve the best rugby mix of grind and grandeur.
Also-rans in slow lane
How fared the also-rans? Italy are getting there. The front row needs replenishing and it would be great if they could find a couple of fly-halves with the attacking flair of Luciano Orquera – outstanding in bursts for Zebre and his country this season – and the defensive obduracy of an Andrea Masi. Uncertainty reigns in Scotland. Interim coaches Scott Johnson and Dean Ryan presided over a thrashing of Italy and a thoroughly jammy win over Ireland. But Ryan insists he is now going to return to his television work.
Sacré bleu for Les Bleus
As for France, well, mon dieu and zut alors. They managed to pull back from the brink of only their second whitewash since the 1920s, but the inability to build on their nightclub bouncer of a No 8 Louis Picamoles and the magic feet of Wesley Fofana (at centre – at least some of the time) was a source of major frustration. A June summit between the French league, clubs and national union is aimed at buying more time for international preparation. Are big wages and a glut of foreigners turning the French Top 14 into rugby's replica of England's Premier League?
And so to the summer
So what next? The six weeks until the announcement of the Lions squad and captain will see the 2009 skipper, Paul O'Connell, return from injury for Munster. And can anyone offer a worthwhile explanation for the match that the Lions are expected to play in Hong Kong en route to Australia, especially when it butts up against the French Championship final, which might restrict Lions head coach Warren Gatland's selections? Meanwhile Saracens, Harlequins and Leicester are flying the England flag in the Heineken Cup, even while no one knows if that wonderful competition will exist after next season.
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