Ireland and France are different class but I still believe England can make the World Cup semi-finals: SIR CLIVE WOODWARD’s verdict on every team as the Six Nations comes to a close
- The Six Nations has been a big reality check for England after fourth place finish
- Ireland can beat any team in the world but must show it at the 2023 World Cup
- France are thriving playing superb rugby and will relish a home World Cup
- Scotland are not at that level yet but they are getting closer and can beat anyone
The final Six Nations table showed Ireland and France are way out in front of the opposition, Scotland are going in the right direction, and England are in the bottom tier with Wales and Italy.
We have seen some brilliant rugby and now the focus turns to the World Cup later this year. Here is my Six Nations review and where I see the Northern Hemisphere teams going into the global showpiece.
Steve Borthwick and his team have so much work to do. The Six Nations has been a big reality check and showed how far England are behind Ireland and France.
But it is not too late for England to compete at the World Cup and the main reason I say that is because they are in the right side of the draw. Realistically, England will have to beat Argentina to top their pool and then either Australia or Wales to reach a semi-final.
That is eminently achievable. However, to do so England need to get their star players back to their best. That did not happen in the Six Nations.
England captain Owen Farrell (left) caught up with his dad Andy after England’s loss to Ireland
It was a disappointing campaign for new boss Steve Borthwick after they finished fourth
Maro Itoje is a talisman for England but he had a very poor tournament. It is amazing how good a coach you are when your best players are going well.
That is not the case with England right now. Borthwick will have a lot of thinking to do in the coming weeks and months. He has had a steep learning curve in his first campaign in charge but he will be all the better for it, even if he doesn’t feel it right now.
England are at the start of a rebuilding phase and it is rare now for an international coach to come in and start winning straight away. Eddie Jones did it with England, but as a far more experienced coach and at a time when all teams were ‘starting again’ after the 2015 World Cup.
But if you look at Ireland, even they had a few struggles when Andy Farrell first took over. I am sure the jury will still be out for many on Borthwick. But I believe he is the right man for the job and will get England firing.
The whole of English rugby really needs to get behind him. I believe he will double down on the basics and nailing the set piece. His biggest learning curve will have been in selection and getting the best players in their best positions.
We may not see an all-court game from England for a while, but if Borthwick can get the England pack snarling and open their eyes to the opportunity they have this autumn, there is an exciting year ahead.
He will know the France hammering at Twickenham was unacceptable. But England put pride back in the shirt in Dublin, even if it was not enough to stop an Irish Grand Slam.
A big part of the improvement we saw at the Aviva Stadium was down to Owen Farrell, whose leadership provided clarity for the team that was badly missing against France.
Ireland deserved to win a Grand Slam. They are the top-ranked team in the world and showed that by sweeping all before them in this Six Nations. It has been an incredibly competitive Championship — the most competitive I can remember for years — so for Ireland to win all five games, four with bonus points, shows how good they are.
I am pleased for Ireland and Farrell, and Johnny Sexton in particular because they deserve all the accolades coming their way. But now comes the really interesting part. Ireland showed they are a formidable side long before this Six Nations by winning their tour in New Zealand.
Johnny Sexton helped Ireland secure the grand slam and became the Six Nation’s all-time leading points scorer
Ireland were a dominant force throughout winning all five of their games including France
But it remains the case they have never won a knockout game at a World Cup. Ireland have been rightly accused of peaking between World Cups in the past and I think that has been a fair comment.
They lost to hosts Japan in the last tournament. Four years later, I think Ireland, France and South Africa are joint favourites for the 2023 competition.
I was talking to Brian O’Driscoll about this after the game in Dublin at the weekend and I told him Ireland need to walk forwards with their chests puffed out and embrace the pressure and expectation of being world No 1.
They can’t see it as a burden. Ireland have a world-class coach and world-class players from one to 15. They have proved they can beat any team, anywhere. Now, they must show it at the World Cup —although unlike England, their draw is very tricky.
The game in France is thriving and the national side are playing superb rugby. The attacking verve showed by Les Bleus in their demolition of England and win over Wales was a joy to watch.
The match between them and Ireland in Dublin was of the absolute highest quality. I liked France head coach Fabien Galthie’s comments this weekend. ‘I hope teams are scared of us now. We’re certainly the team to beat,’ said Galthie after beating Wales.
I am not convinced Ireland would have won in Paris if they had played there this year. To say ‘we are the team to beat’, despite Ireland taking the Grand Slam shows France are confident going into the World Cup — as they should be — but also that they have the right mentality to embrace the pressure.
As the host nation, there will be huge expectation to deliver a first World Cup. This is the mindset any team serious about winning the World Cup needs to embrace. Doing so is something they are perfectly capable of. The French backline with Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack, Gael Fickou and Damian Penaud is extraordinary. It can cut a defence to ribbons with ease, as England saw.
The French meanwhile also look a dangerous force ahead of the 2023 World Cup on home soil
Despite finishing second, the French team dazzled especially in their landslide win vs England
What set Ireland and France apart from the rest was their ability to play with a pace their opposition could not live with. Scotland are not at that level yet, but they are getting closer.
To finish third was impressive. Gregor Townsend has plenty of speed in his team and now the on-off Finn Russell saga has been sorted out, there is a stability to the side.
Scotland at their best can beat anyone. But when Russell and Stuart Hogg were absent at the weekend, they struggled against Italy. Scotland are in the same pool as Ireland and South Africa.
There is every chance they could not make the knockout stages, which would be tough to take given the progress and skill of their team. I hope they take it to both sides with attacking intent and be the wild card.
Gregor Townsend has lots of speed in his side and on their day can be a dangerous opponent
But Warren Gatland (right) had a difficult return to the Welsh side during the tournament
Warren Gatland has had a seriously tough return. You do not want distractions and Gatland has had millions of them. Welsh rugby has had to deal with sexism allegations, a player strike threat, and all sorts of contractual and financial issues. And that is before you talk about Wales’ on-field problems.
They will improve going into the World Cup but at this stage I can’t see Wales making a World Cup semi-final as they did in 2019, though that largely depends on the improvement England make. Even a vastly improved England would not fancy meeting them in a quarter-final.
Kieran Crowley has undoubtedly improved Italy. Their attack is capable of causing any team problems. We saw them trouble both Ireland and France at times. Equally important, Italy now do not leak lots of points in defence.
They are showing signs of progress but for all the above, Italy’s 2023 Six Nations was worse than 2022. Their next challenge is to convert some of their narrow losses into wins.
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