No Grand Slam for England; no Championship for Wales; no Wooden Spoon for Scotland.
The lack of a Grand Slam in 2011 suggests a closely contested tournament and indeed that was the case. There was little to separate the top three, England, Ireland and France this year, with all three churning out results, despite not playing particularly well, with England managing it that bit better. While Martin Johnson has brought a stability and cohesion to England, they were by no means the stand out team as their battering at the hands of Brian O’Driscoll’s Ireland suggests. They were more consistent than the French and not subject to a ridiculous decision from the officials as the Irish were. Nonetheless, the back three of Cueto, Ashton and Foden functioned exceptionally well and Toby Flood and Ben Youngs looked assured at half back. Stability at half back is perhaps what set England apart. Ireland tinkered at both 9 and 10, Wales at 10 and France at 9, and did so at their peril.
Where England played stable and solid, France were anything but. The usual implosion after the chance of a Grand Slam squirmed through their grasp was bigger than ever with a historical defeat to Italy in Rome. Only six weeks earlier had France demolished Scotland in Paris with two tries of sublime skill and panache and only a week after humiliation in Rome would they cruise to victory against a Wales side in with a shout of the Championship. Stellar showings from the likes of Francois Trinh-Duc, Maxime Medard and Vincent Clerc were matched by atrocious displays from Clement Poitrenaud and the massively over-rated Sebastien Chabal. Where France were consistent in their unpredictability- there’s a paradox- Scotland were consistent in boring anyone who dared watch them. Despite the emergence of the promising Ruaridh Jackson at outside half, Scotland continued to plod along with a backline of ‘averages’, Max Evans apart. The rise of second row, Richie Gray, is also worth a mention, a Scottish captain in the future no doubt. The Italians showed clear signs of progress, Sergio Parisse was as superhuman as ever, and Andrea Masi announced himself a genuinely world class back, but with Mirco Bergamasco missing kicks that most barrels would kick, they won only one game, when it perhaps should have been four.
Ireland and Wales had rather mediocre tournaments. Ireland merely plodded along, not playing well in victories over Italy and Scotland, but not playing particularly badly in defeat to France and Wales. Brian O’Driscoll, as ever, was outstanding, as were the whole team against England. Not only did they beat England, they destroyed them all over the field. James Haskell was finally found out as an ineffective openside as the veteran David Wallace exposed him time and time again. A tale of what might have been for Ireland, especially after the Ballgate scandal against the Welsh. Three wins in a row for Wales, admittedly two of them against Italy and Scotland and the other highly controversial. The performances of Dan Lydiate and Sam Warburton in the back row was perhaps the high point for Wales, though Shane Williams’ exit from the international scene would have been a bigger disaster had George North not stepped up so impressively to give them hope. Wales were a step behind the English, Irish and French, lacking the cutting edge behind the scrum that is so fundamental to the Welsh game.
Looking to the World Cup, France are likely to provide the sternest test for the southern hemisphere triumvirate of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Despite their soap opera of a set-up, on their day they are untouchable, and more importantly have beaten the All Blacks in New Zealand in recent times. For England, the World Cup will provide experience for a young squad, and a serious challenge in 2015 will surely follow. The form of Ireland and Wales suggests a quarter final place but little more, while Italy and Scotland might have to tone their ambitions even lower.