Six Nations: Winners and losers
Published 17/03/2014 | 12:34
Ireland the champions, Scotland in disarray despite avoiding the Wooden Spoon and Wales and France left with soul searching. Here are the winners and losers from the 2014 campaign.
'The magician', as dubbed by Ireland boss Joe Schmidt, conjured both a carnival Dublin send-off and a victorious title-winning international farewell ahead of his summer retirement. Only the master craftsman centre himself could have forced the storybook finish to come good, as Ireland edged out France for their first title since 2009.
For so long the Harlequins full-back was the outcast, typecast as the street urchin with talent but a short fuse. For the entire duration of this tournament, the reborn counter-attacking king was a cut above all others. His peerless all-round play has added a vital extra dimension to England's back-three.
Rugby's foremost forensic analyst has given painstaking a new name as Ireland boss. The former English teacher's devilish detail sets him apart as the clear coach of the tournament. Schmidt concocts NFL-style plays specific to each opponent, often paying dividend. Such flip-chart brainwaves included the maul-fake crossfield chip against England at Twickenham where Rob Kearney almost scooted home, and Andrew Trimble's try against France, Conor Murray exploiting a manufactured weakness around the hosts' ruck defence.
The former Leeds boss vowed to reignite England's attacking intent, and several bold selections have born handsome fruit. Championing Billy Twelvetrees to replace defensive lynchpin Brad Barritt has relieved a huge weight of playmaking expectation from Owen Farrell's accurate but unadventurous shoulders. Danny Care's reinstallation at nine adds extra attacking instinct around Farrell, whose pinpoint kicking game remains a crucial weapon. Compare and contrast England's collected, controlled approach with the post-2011 Rugby World Cup wreckage and Lancaster's work speaks for itself.
Constant mind games and blase media attitude undermined the hard work of Scotland's honest, committed players. Vern Cotter cannot arrive soon enough from Clermont Auvergne: an interregnum most horrid.
The beleaguered France boss fought at once with external critics of his pragmatic gameplan and internal dissenting voices. As loyalties wavered among his troops, Saint-Andre was left without full backing from sections of his squad - a worrying development. Despite protests of progress - France finished fourth as opposed to sixth in 2013 - this is a side that continues to underperform, to leave a nation underwhelmed.
Where last summer the 'Warrenball' jibes from the Australian press on the British and Irish Lions tour seemed short-sighted, Wales' ageing warriors have shown Gatland's gameplan has clear limits. Without the requisite crash and bang, Wales got walloped by Ireland, then outgunned by England. Lions fatigue maybe, but the great concern is that Wales' glittering generation is losing its lustre.
Scotland's great hope heading into the tournament shouldered the shame of a nation heading out. No matter the beating, rugby prides itself on keeping cool: talented full-back Hogg lost his head entirely with his rightful red card in the final match against Wales. His late shoulder barge into Dan Biggar's face was not only dangerous, it was downright dirty, and worryingly blatant. His post-match apologies would do little to soothe his 14 team-mates left to suffer the ignominy of 51-3 defeat at the Millennium Stadium.