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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Welsh shock rounds off 2010 Six Nations

Wales - runners-up and Triple Crown winners last season - have finished bottom of this year's Six Nations after a shock 19-15 home defeat to Italy today. The result was the first time Wales have ever lost to Italy, and only Italy's second win their Six Nation's history and only their third away win in their entire history. Wales had the game fully under control in the first half - 12-0 ahead - but in the second everything went horribly wrong. (See Scrumqueens for a full report). Non Evans finished as the tournament's top scorer, but that is unlikely to be any consolation.

And so the final table looks like this:

PositionNationGamesPointsTable
points
PlayedWonDrawnLostForAgainstDifferenceTries
1England5500156151411710
2France5302974750156
3Ireland530269521796
4Scotland511331108-7743
5Italy511344129-8563
6Wales51044995-4662

So where does this leave the teams, with the World Cup now barely five months away?

England had a reality check in France, but to their credit survived and look in perfect shape for August. Coach Gary Street has taken every opportunity to "blood" as many players as possible (fifteen English players got their names onto the scoresheet during the tounament!), has played around with various combinations, and  could not be better placed. In fact so well prepared are they, if England do not win the title this summer it is difficult to see how they ever will.

France have also hit form at just the right moment. A team that had in recent years seemed directionless and almost embarrassing - barely escaping with a draw against South Africa last summer - came within two plays of a Grand Slam. If they could have kept Scotland out for the final few seconds in their opening game, and if AurĂ©lie Bailon's kick had gone just a few metres more against England, this would have been a remarkable triumph. What is more they have that vital feature of a successful team - the ability to win while playing badly, at least that seems to be the case if the comments of defeated coaches are any judge.

As for the World Cup, France have been given an excellent draw - only Canada stand in their way and, in practice, both could well qualify from their group - and given the huge lift this Six Nations has given them who knows how far they might go. On the down side they will not be playing at home, and their away form remains fragile.

Ireland get better and better, their third place this year being at least as impressive as last year's. New home ground Ashbourne is now an impregnable fortress, while away from home they were impressive - and maybe even a little unlucky - against France and England. They were also unlucky with their draw for the World Cup, but if they can keep the score down in the opening game against England then the "best runner-up" spot could be there for the taking. They certainly have the confidence - and ability - to go further than any Irish team has ever gone before.

Scotland started so well, but then then faded away incredibly quickly. After a historic win over France anything seemed possible, but a few weeks later they were scraping a draw in Italy, being thumped by Wales, humiliated by England, and rolled over by Ireland where the score was - by all accounts - only kept down by the weather. In the World Cup they will face France, Canada, and Sweden and on current form are more likely to be battling to avoid bottom place than a semi-final berth.

Italy ended up with their best Six Nations ever - so they will be ruing their failure to qualify for the World Cup. Instead all they have to look forward to is the European Trophy in May where they will take on the likes of Germany, Russia, Sweden and France A. They should reach the semi-finals at least, but as a Six Nations side should really be challenging for the title.

And so we come to Wales, which is where we came in. Quite what Wales do now is difficult to see. Even based on last season's form a draw that pitted them against New Zealand, Australia and South Africa looked a tough ask, but now its more Mission Impossible. The person with the most questions to answer must be the coach, Jason Lewis, who stayed loyal to the same team despite defeat to Ireland last week. It was a risky strategy as the problem Lewis now faces is where he goes from here. After successive defeats to Ireland and Italy he perhaps knows which team he should not pick for the World Cup, but will have few clues about which team he should be selecting.

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