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Guinness Six Nations: Why data shows England can compete for the title

By Nick Bishop
SIX NATIONS PREVIEW

It is almost time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the biggest official attendance in rugby history – almost. It is now 49 years since 104,000 people crammed into Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh to watch Scotland edge Wales 12-10, with Aberavon lock Allan Martin missing a last-minute conversion to draw the match for the visitors.

That figure was 20,000 more than stadium capacity. Thousands more – many with legitimate tickets – were excluded when the SRU realized there was a problem and shut the gates against the press of humanity. They streamed away to watch the game in nearby pubs, or clustered around BBC outside-broadcast vans to listen to Bill McLaren’s rich Border-burr commentary, relayed via loudspeaker.

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There may have been even more people present at the same match in 1971, attending one of the great games in [then] Five Nations history. On that occasion, Wales converted their customary last-ditch score out on the right by wing Gerald Davies, and this time John Taylor converted it from the same fateful spot where Martin would miss four years later. Wales won the game, 19-18.

The supporters on both sides rippled along the side of the pitch, barely able to mask the mixture of expectation and anxiety, not 10 metres from the kicker.

Taylor picks up the story: “I was certainly fully aware I was going to be a villain or a hero in front of 105,000 rugby fans lining the pitch,” he told WalesOnline.

“It was then the magnitude of the kick hit home and I was thinking to myself: ‘My God, this is a biggie’.

“The atmosphere that day, or at any game when we went to Edinburgh, was just incredible. That bank on the far side from where I was kicking was the only part of Murrayfield those days where you could pay on the gate.

“That is why all the miners and steelworkers in the Seventies took the week off and went up [to Edinburgh]. There were certainly more Welshmen than Scotsmen over there judging by the roar when the kick went over.”

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The Six Nations remains the most unapologetically tribal spectacle in the international rugby calendar. Therein lies its charm, and its enduring attraction for broadcasters. The quality of the rugby is often secondary to the urgent need to berate your neighbours and rout your local rivals.

As the saying goes, ‘never mind the quality, feel the width’. The heady level of anticipation which rises at the beginning of a new year and at the start of a new World Cup cycle cannot be dampened. There will be new players and fresh planning put in place, the widening gyre of debate and conjecture impossible to resist.

The Probables: England, France and Ireland

England – the style counsel

The big problem for Steve Borthwick remains. The risk-averse, data-informed style he espoused at Leicester, and which he believes will win crunch games, is the opposite of that demanded by the English media and the Twickenham faithful. Borthwick’s England:

  • Kick the most – an average of 34 per game in last year’s Six Nations, increasing to 36 at the World Cup.
  • Build the fewest rucks, with the slowest average time-of-delivery from them – an average of 96 per game dropping to 71 at the World Cup, with a delivery-time of 3.8 seconds dwindling to 4.7 seconds.
  • Generate the highest ratio of collisions to offloads by a distance – one offload every 26 collisions, reducing even further to 1 every 30 in France.

With those figures, it is no surprise England average fewer than two tries per game in their three encounters with top 10 opponents at the World Cup, and the five from the last Six Nations combined.

Can Borthwick pick Marcus Smith and Alex Dombrandt in his starting XV, and then tell them not to offload, expect quick ball from the ruck or watch as the ball is kicked away time and again? I doubt it.

England – key personnel issues

  • Finding a long-term replacement for Dan Cole at tight-head prop. Cole cannot go on holding up the England scrum into his forties – Will Stuart or Cole’s Tigers’ club-mate Joe Heyes?
  • George Ford or Marcus Smith at 10? Will Henry Slade or Tommy Freeman claim the 13 jersey? Can Borthwick really sacrifice the aerial command of Freddie Steward at full-back to accommodate a better link-attacker in George Furbank?
  • Who will fill in for now-retired ace Courtney Lawes? If Borthwick continues to pick Ben Earl at number eight, there is nobody else with Lawes’ lineout authority, unless he shifts Nick Isiekwe back to the blind-side flank. Chandler Cunningham-South/Dombrandt/Earl, or Isiekwe/Earl/Ben Curry?

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France – the style counsel

Even without all-world scrum-half Antoine Dupont, the French approach is unlikely to change. Where England like to kick two-thirds of their ball short to reclaim [and kick again], Les Bleus prefer to use their long kicking game and expertise at defensive breakdowns to create turnover ball and score explosively, early in the phase-count, from anywhere on the field. France:

  • Do not emphasise possession of the ball. They had the lowest active time-in-possession and the fewest rucks built of any Six Nations side at the 2023 6N/World Cup, at a combined average of only 17 minutes, and 72 rucks per game.
  • Will kick long to get the ball back on better terms for their razor-sharp backfield. They average 30 kicks per game but unlike England, will keep the ball alive on the counter – a mere eight collisions [compared to England’s 30] for every offload made!
  • Will scrum for penalties through their huge right side of 145kg tight-head Uini Atonio and, when back from injury, 140kg Emmanuel Meafou – a +9 in penalty differential at the World Cup [best in tournament] giving them easy field position in the opposition half.

France – key personnel issues

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  • Who will replace Dupont at scrum-half? Canny Bordeaux-Begles strategist Maxime Lucu, or the brilliant instincts embodied in Racing 92’s Nolann Le Garrec? Neither has Dupont’s physical presence around the fringes and that will force France to modify their plan of attack.
  • Can Meafou reproduce his outstanding club form for Toulouse at a higher level? The very big men in the French domestic game – Will Skelton, Meafou, even young gun Posolo Tuilagi – are fast becoming a point of difference in the Top 14.

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Ireland – the style counsel

Just like France, there will be major post-World Cup upheaval for Ireland. There is 90% continuity of personnel, and an improvement in the coaching booth with the addition of Andrew Goodman, the attack coach at Leinster. And like France, they have ‘only’ one generational talent to replace – their on-field coach and fly-half Johnny Sexton, instead of Antoine Dupont.

Leinster Sexton future hope
Ireland must soldier on without their totemic leader, Jonny Sexton, who has now retired (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

Ireland remain the best pure ball-control nation on planet rugby, and in terms of playing style they are diametrically opposite to France:

  • Where France only keep ball for an average of c17 minutes per game, Ireland maintain possession for over 20. Where Les Bleus score 70% of their tries in phases 1-3, Ireland only score 50% in the first three phases. Where France build an average of only 72 rucks per game, Ireland can expect to build around 100, at an average speed-of-delivery almost one whole second quicker. The contrast is like chalk and cheese.
  • Ireland’s web of attacking sophistication helps keep pressure off their defence, which only conceded six tries in five games at the 2023 Six Nations.
  • When the coaching staff look at the stats, they may be concerned the proportion of offloads to collisions fell from 1:12 in the Six Nations to 1:21 at the World Cup, and the importance of the kicking game was largely sidelined in the quarter-final loss to New Zealand.

Ireland – key personnel issues

  • Replacing Sexton adequately remains the ‘biggie’. Where France know Dupont will eventually return to the international fold, Sexton’s like will not be seen again. Which of Munster’s Jack Crowley or Leinster duo Harry Byrne and Ciaran Frawley can provide the navigational nous to steer the men in green around the paddock?
  • The three ‘training panellists’ – tight-head prop Oli Jager, second/back-row hybrid Tom Ahern and fly-half Sam Prendergast – are all significant additions. They illustrate the three positions where Ireland is in a key transitional moment, at numbers three, four/six and 10. The two Tadhgs [Furlong and Beirne] will not go on forever, and the Irish coaches will be especially keen for 6ft 9ins Ahern to come through. Giants do not grow on trees in the Emerald Isle.

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The Possibles: Scotland, Wales and Italy

It may not be the case of a first and second division, but there is still a need for all of Scotland, Wales and Italy to take a step up [big or small] to become serious contenders for the title.

Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend will have been privately disappointed with his side’s showing at the World Cup. His charges never really got close to winning either of the two key pool stage matches against South Africa and Ireland.

Scotland need to shed the tag of ‘poor man’s Ireland’. The Scots tend to enjoy a similar dominance of possession and score over 40% of their tries after third phase. They know how to generate lightning quick ball, and they offload more [one offload to every eight collisions] and kick less [only 19 kicks per game at the World Cup] than the Irish. But there is still a lingering sense they are following the Irish footprint and yet to establish global leadership in any single area of the game. Townsend needs a defibrillator to jump his men off the flatline.

Grant Gilchrist
Scotland endured a brutal Rugby World Cup exit but have a talented squad at their disposal (Photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images)

Warren Gatland’s Wales are undergoing the largest turnover in personnel of any nation. The reliable old guard – Tomas Francis, Ken Owens, Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric and Josh Navidi up front; Liam Williams, Leigh Halfpenny, Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar behind – have finally disappeared from the scene over the last 12 months, and none of the replacements [except arguably new skipper Dafydd Jenkins from Exeter] come from a winning culture.

Wales will not be easy-beats – competitive back-five forwards will see to that – but it will be an uphill struggle for Gatland in his second coming as Welsh coach. His charges will play like mini-England, kicking 30 times per game and defending like dervishes under the guidance of ‘the new Shaun Edwards’, defence coach Mike Forshaw, but the set-piece, and lack of connection in phase attack are long-term fixes.

Gonzalo Quesada’s Italy will be taking a new turn, away from the unquestionable entertainment value added by Kieran Crowley during his tenure. They will shift away from the Ireland model and towards France/England, and the Azzurri do badly need to prioritise defence above all else.

They conceded 149 points in five games during the 2023 tournament and 156 points in two World Cup matches against France and New Zealand. It began to resemble a spectacular rugby suicide, a new version of the ‘death before surrender’ principle prevalent in Roman culture. Quesada does have material to work with on his new journey, particularly captain Michele Lamaro and full-back Ange Capuozzo, but it will be a long and winding road to Six Nations respectability.

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The verdict

Ireland and France will sustain their continuity from the World Cup. In both cases, there is the solitary need to replace one huge player. The fate of the entire championship will probably be decided on opening night in Paris this Friday.

England are running a close third, but all the monkeys which Borthwick shook off his back at the World Cup are likely to climb back on with a vengeance. Scotland and France away, and Ireland at home, all represent significant hurdles to a head coach looking to deliver a new England which can make the most of its attacking talents.

Of all the six nations, Scotland are probably the team which most urgently need to break into the ‘first tier’ of the championship, and stay there as a serious contender. ‘No man’s land’ is no longer a viable option for Townsend. Two wins out of five probably represents a reasonable return for Warren Gatland in the second edition of his second coming, while Italy will be looking for defensive credibility – no more, no less.

Sage is the Official Insights Partner of the Guinness Six Nations, enhancing the fan, player and coach experience through innovative new technology and enhanced insights to the game. Find out how Sage can support your business at sage.com and discover more rugby insights at sage.com/rugby.

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38 Comments
F
Francisco 145 days ago

Hello Nick, it's good to read your analysis a few days before the kick off in 6N2024. Due to my full-time job (marketing analyst) I do not find any contraindication in guiding England's 2024 campaign based on numerical objectives. The NFL is a great cultivator of this way of building results. I think it would be vital for England to agree on analytical thinking (based on data) with practical thinking (based on evidence) to set up a powerful gaming machine, please its fans and win. My team for this 6N...? Scotland, once again.

D
Derek Murray 145 days ago

Terrific preview. Got all I need to clear the couch Friday night and Saturday. Thanks Nick.

M
Mzilikazi 146 days ago

Excellent preview of this year’s Six Nations, Nick. I would think both France and Ireland are approaching this game with a degree of nervousness. The home advantage can work both ways. The majority of the crowd behind the team can provide a huge lift. But then the expectation is high, and if things are not going well, the crowd, especially the French crowd, can become a big weight on the team.

France should hold the edge at scrum time. And on top of that Andrew Porter has work to do, to dispel the view referees may start with, that he has problems at the set piece. He also needs to improve his decision making at the defensive breakdowns.

The absence of Dupont is a big plus for Ireland, I feel. His work right across his game is immense. He won’t be replaced this year. But against that Alldritt brings an equally immense game. How good a leader he will be remains to be seen.

I am not concerned that there is now no Sexton at 10 for Ireland. The reality is that he had reached the end of a glorious road….time now to move on. I would hope Jack Crowley starts for Ireland. He looks at this stage to be one who can grow to be a very good 10. It would also be my hope that it is Munster 9, Craig Casey, sitting on the bench. Conor Murray has, in my view, also reached the end of the road at this level. Casey has looked so much sharper, has a far faster and longer pass, and shows a lot more flair.

England should be a threat, but probably won’t be. I would suspect the coaching team is not going to get the best out of this group. I actually think Scotland could be real dark horses. I think they are a far better team than their RWC games showed.

Wales and Gatalnd ? Well, so many old hard and wise men gone. This will a tough one for them, one would think.

Italy, with abetter defence, and attacking as they did last 6 Nations could get a win, probably over the Welsh.

H
Harry 146 days ago

Howzit Nick. Just posted my 6N preview and am glad I did not see this one before I did because it is so good and I would have experienced rare self-doubt. Hoping Marseille ends in a draw with equal tries scored, so Le Crunch decides it in the last match.

L
Lucio 146 days ago

“A new version of the ‘death before surrender’ principle prevalent in Roman culture”. The other 5 teams, on the opposite, do they surrender before death?

d
d 146 days ago

Thanks Nick, hard to see this being wrong. There was hope that Scotland would step up and maybe they suffered from a tough pool at the cup? Or like you say it may just be a poor man's Ireland or poor man's wallabies!

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