Peter Bills: Six Nations proves southern hemisphere has little to fear at World Cup

Ireland had its Captain Fantastic, Wales a wily ball boy who slipped an important pass to a Welsh player for the illegal match winning try against Ireland.

Italy had its moment in the Rome spring sunshine with victory over France; England had its day of reckoning in Dublin.

As for Scotland, they had a bulldog English coach who talked them up, while the French seemed to be like a rooster that had nothing much to crow about.

If ever the 6 Nations rugby championship was a mixed bag it was in 2011. But the overriding message to emerge from five weekends of hectic international action is that the leading countries of the southern hemisphere have little to fear at this year’s World Cup.

The overall standard of rugby played was at best ordinary, but more often poor. In a technical sense, it was often lamentable. Scotland v Italy in Edinburgh last Saturday looked as though it was being played at half pace.

Much had been made of England’s so-called renaissance. Alas, it lasted only until Dublin when the Irish, as delightfully perverse as ever, produced the performance of the entire championship to sweep away any prospect of an England Grand Slam.

Ireland were as good against their oldest foe as they had been poor in defeat against France and Wales. But then, that trend was seen over and over again.

No country could sustain a level of excellence for long. Some never managed it for an entire 80 minutes all season; others did in one game but then slipped back in the next.

Inconsistency, technical errors and indiscipline abounded. Only in rare moments was any excellence to be spotted. England earned close victories over Wales, France and Scotland while Ireland struggled even to put away the limited Scots and Italians.

Indiscipline was notorious in Irish ranks, until their last game against England. Until then, they were handing out penalties to opponents like mothers offering sweets to children at parties. But the prize for the greatest moment of humour in the entire tournament goes to Welsh coach Warren Gatland.

Prior to the Wales-Ireland match in Cardiff, Gatland kept a straight face and told the media he was deeply worried about Ireland’s indiscipline, promising to discuss it with match referee Jonathan Kaplan. What he omitted to say was that, at that time, Wales had conceded more penalties than anyone in the Championship.

Gallows humour of that nature was to be welcomed for it was largely a joyless tournament. With every coach wearing an expression most humans reserve for the hangman, how could it be otherwise? Scotland coach Andy Robinson prowled his coach’s box like a caged lion; Martin Johnson thumped his fist onto the table when play went wrong during England games.

As for French coach Marc Lievremont, he greeted the shock single point defeat in Italy, France’s first ever to the Italians, with the words “cowardice” and “betrayal” to describe some of his own players. The French camp became as happy a place as Dunkirk, in 1940.

In general, the level of ball skills was atrocious. Passes were thrown at colleague’s feet or behind their ears, whilst the recipient often took the ball standing still. Brian O’Driscoll, supposedly one of the world’s best centres, threw a pass straight over a colleague’s head into touch when presented with a simple 2 on 1 advantage near the Italian try line.

Pace and dynamism were rarely seen, Ireland’s all-action display against England on the final day of the season, the only really serious exception.

That old northern hemisphere trait of flopping over the ball at the breakdown was still in evidence while most referees ignored the constant infringement of players encroaching beyond the rear-most feet at the breakdown which meant any real attacking play among the backs was at a premium.

Off-loading, the oxygen of continuity in the modern game, again came second to the macho inclinations of players to charge the tackler. Even after all the evidence from New Zealand and Australia, too many northern hemisphere players are still searching for contact first, space second.

All things being equal, this all ought to come home to roost at the World Cup this September. The sides who have properly embraced the new game with its attacking possibilities ought to sweep aside all these inferior opponents.

But northern hemisphere countries continue to hope that New Zealand won’t be able to play so dynamic and attack-minded a game in a World Cup. Thus, a country like England could yet go a long way, by focusing on defence and kicking penalties, as they did in 2007.

But what the northern hemisphere needs for its own long term prosperity and success is to see the light at this World Cup. There is only one way that can happen.

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