2003 Six Nations
Mighty England show that All Black arrogance ... Wales show nothing at all
April 3, 2003
England finally ended their wait for a Six Nations Grand Slam © Getty Images
You will never get a neater RBS Six Nations Table. England at the top with 10, Wales at the bottom with 0 and in between an orderly descent with every team having beaten all those below them.
It also paints a pretty accurate picture of who's where and what's what in European rugby.
There can be absolutely no argument about the top of the table. England delivered at last and, in their final match, in style. At last Clive Woodward was prepared to concede that it was, after all, vitally important for England to win a Grand Slam to keep the momentum going towards the World Cup in the autumn and to prove the days of fluffing their lines on the big occasion are over.
It was a superlative performance against Ireland because the men in green were also up for it and gave everything they had until they could give no more. In the first half they met steel with steel and played for long periods at a higher pace than ever before.
In the end it was not good enough but that was because England are now the real thing. They defend as if they are repelling an invasion and attack with a range of weapons few, if any in the world, can match.
It was compelling stuff and the final try, when they knew they could have kicked the ball away and finished the game but chose to put together phase after phase of attack until Ireland ran out of defenders spoke volumes for their confidence, ambition and ruthlessness. I am paying them the highest compliment when I say they matched the arrogance of the very best All Blacks' XVs.
Those who complain that they lacked sparkle in the earlier rounds do not understand the nature of the game. Sometimes things just do not come easily. They showed they could dominate and dog it out against France, were always in control against Wales and then the rose really began to blossom.
It was only for 20 minutes against Italy but what a sublime 20 minutes. Josh Lewsey confirmed his potential as yet another strike runner against Scotland and there was the added bonus of seeing Jason Robinson's potential as a centre while Mike Tindall was arguably the star against Ireland.
With the tournament condensed into seven weeks we saw the importance of strength in depth and Woodward has it in spades. It was the perfect rehearsal for the World Cup and now, as he admits himself, his biggest problem is who to leave out of the final party. He has the summer Tests to fine tune and every other coach in the world is probably green with envy.
That is not to say the World Cup is won, but he is in very good shape and the only major casualty was Charlie Hodgson.
Ireland would give anything for a few of the cast-offs. The longer the campaign went on the more question marks were raised about their attacking potential, in particular.
After sweeping aside Scotland and cruising past Italy they scraped past France and that was really the high point. Wales were desperately unlucky not to be awarded a penalty in front of the posts in the final seconds (Justin Bishop's one handed, wood-chopping, knock down was the perfect example of a professional, deliberate knock-on, punishable by a penalty and a yellow card according to the referees' own bible and Steve Lander saw it immediately but he simply chickened out) so Ronan O'Gara's drop goal kept the Grand Slam dream alive. But they hardly deserved it and there were signs that the back division lacked penetration despite the presence of Brian O'Driscoll. So it proved against England.
They are now fit, professional and a good competent side but they need a bit more magic if they are to really cause problems for the bog boys.
France never recovered from losing to England in their opening match. They were not helped by losing Fabien Galthie, their inspirational captain, but the back-row gave away far too many penalties (incurring the public wrath of Bernard Laporte which cannot have helped team spirit) and the wonderfully talented back division never quite clicked. They have reached two World Cup finals and have the potential to make it three but only if they can find the right half-back pairing over the summer.
Scotland were pretty poor. They are struggling for quality players at the moment and might well have lost to Italy if they had not been at Murrayfield. It is difficult to see how they can boost their squad before the World Cup.
I seriously doubted whether any New Zealander could understand the Italian temperament well enough to coach them successfully but all credit to John Kirwan. Perhaps it's because he is a wing. Whatever, he has transformed them into a highly competitive side.
It was not just the victory against Wales, much more the quality of their performances against England and Scotland. The way they competed against England after that 20 minute blitz was quite amazing given their history and they must feel confident they would have beaten Scotland if they had met them in Rome. Now they will be fancying their chances of finishing second behind New Zealand (ahead of Wales and Canada) in Pool D of the World Cup.
Finally, Wales. Surely, they are now really at rock bottom, but sadly, there is little to suggest they will not stay there. The abject surrender of the forwards against Italy was unforgivable and they were little better against Scotland. It was a different story against Ireland but once again the effort was poor against France. Even the coach seems to have written off the immediate future but the fans need a lift.
The only suggestion I can make is to seriously consider the proposal I put forward a few weeks ago. Appeal to the national pride of Scott Quinnell and Rob Howley to get them on board for the World Cup and only start thinking long term after that.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and currently the managing director of London Welsh