Peter Bills: Caution reigned the Six Nations

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The Independent Online

In a brasserie just off the main 'Place' in Bastille, the area of Paris where they know a thing or two about revolutions, a very dramatic event occurred last Saturday evening.

A burly Frenchman was standing beside a television showing the France/England match live, and roaring his support for...... 'Les Rosbifs'. This was revolutionary stuff. He explained this dramatic state of affairs in the following words 'Ze are ze only team playing proper rugby.'

I thought I'd have to go to heaven before I heard such words fall from the lips of a Frenchman. But it was an indication of how the southern hemisphere induced changes in the law interpretations, especially at the breakdown, began to influence countries by the end of what has been a pretty mediocre Six Nations Championship.

Was it a complete coincidence, for example, that the first half in particular of Ireland v Scotland produced more attacking rugby than some of us had seen all winter? I can tell you, some pretty good judges of a decent game, the likes of former England stars Jeremy Guscott, Stuart Barnes, Austin Healy and Matt Dawson, sat drooling at the spectacle in the media centre in Paris, before the France/England match. They were not alone.

The Sexton/D'Arcy loop which led, brilliantly, to O'Driscoll's try in Dublin was a case in point. When did we last see such inventive back play? And the sight of England sweeping out of deep defence, ball in hand, and hammering downfield with support runners on either side, was another indication of changing times.

We can but hope this was the start of a new trend, for we saw too much of the attritional, defence obsessed stuff in most of the tournament. Scotland v England was a desperate affair, a ghastly advertisement for the game. A lot of other games weren't much better, although Wales's rousing comeback from the depths of 14-24 with four minutes left in Cardiff to win 31-24, raised the roof of the Millenium stadium.

But overall, caution reigned; pragmatism was the watchword. And I do not believe it was the players who got their coaches up against the wall and insisted those words be the mantra for their respective seasons.

If you want to find the real culprits for a situation whereby rugby in the northern hemisphere has atrophied in recent years, look at the coaches. Wales defence coach Shaun Edwards has made the rush defence his 'raison d'etre' but what a legacy to inflict on the game, to be forever known as the bloke who killed a million attacking, back line moves with his negative tactics.

England aren't much better. Between them, Martin Johnson, John Wells and Graham Rowntree, that old Leicester triumvirate, induced a steady, cautious, thoroughly unexciting brand of rugby. Honestly, how can you ask people for £80 to watch that tripe? Yet Paris on Saturday showed us that England can play another way. Why on earth haven't they done so all season?

Wales have sparked and misfired like an electrical plug on the blink. Sometimes they have been brilliant, then for no reason, suddenly gone. True to their traditions, they finished top of the table for offloads in the tackle with 60. England, true to theirs, finished bottom with 30, and 8 of those came in Paris. You only have to look at that statistic to see England's problem.

Ireland did remarkably well to bounce back from so heavy a defeat by France, yet things are far from right in their team. They cannot go on any longer trying to mask a technically inadequate front row. Better props than the Scots, who exposed them on Saturday, await the Irish at the World Cup, Australia included.

France ground out a Grand Slam and are clearly adding consistency to their well known armour of power and invention. At their best, which they were close to against Ireland, they are formidable. At the opposite end of the scale, Italy again struggled, despite their win over Scotland.

The Scots' season was rescued by their victory in Ireland last Saturday. And strangely, they perhaps more than any other nation, stand to gain most from the new law interpretations. They have long sought to play a fast, wide ranging game with a quick back row able to roam. These changes should encourage them to do that, as we saw in Dublin.

An interesting Six Nations, then, if not a classic. But it is what happens next that is most intriguing of all.