Peter Bills on rugby

Peter Bills is a rugby writer and commentator

Peter Bills: Six abomi-nations not worthy of tying Crusaders' bootlaces

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Ireland had their Captain Fantastic, Wales a wily ball boy who slipped an important pass to a Welsh player for the illegal match-winning try against the Irish.

Italy had their moment in the Rome spring sunshine with victory over France; England had their day of reckoning in Dublin.

As for Scotland, they had a bulldog English coach who talked them up, while the French were a rooster with nothing much to crow about.

If ever the Six Nations was a mixed bag it was in 2011. But the overriding message to emerge from five weekends of hectic international action across the Northern Hemisphere is that the leading countries of the Southern Hemisphere have little to fear at this year's World Cup.

The rugby being played by a team like the Crusaders is in another stratosphere from this stuff. Todd Blackadder's men would beat every international team in the Northern Hemisphere at this time, given their exceptional form.

The overall standard of rugby played in this Six Nations was at best ordinary, but more often poor. In a technical sense, it was often lamentable. Scotland v Italy in Edinburgh last Saturday looked as though it was being played at half-pace.

Much had been made of England's so-called renaissance. Alas, it lasted only until Dublin when the Irish, as delightfully perverse as ever, produced the performance of the championship to sweep away any prospect of an England Grand Slam.

Ireland were as good against their oldest foe as they had been poor in defeat to France and Wales. But then, that trend was seen again and again.

No country could sustain a level of excellence for long. Some never managed it for an entire 80 minutes all season. Inconsistency, technical errors and indiscipline abounded. England halfback Ben Youngs stupidly threw the ball into the crowd to earn a yellow card against Ireland; Wales first-five James Hook carried through with a tackle against France that was deemed dangerous. He earned a similar punishment and both acts helped put the skids under their countries' chances on the day.

Only in rare moments was any excellence to be spotted. England ground out close victories over Wales, France and Scotland while Ireland struggled even to put away the limited Scots in Edinburgh.

Indiscipline was notorious in Irish ranks, until their last game against England. Until then, they were handing out penalties to opponents like mothers offering sweets to children at a party. But the prize for the greatest moment of humour in the entire tournament goes to Wales' New Zealand coach Warren Gatland.

Before the Wales-Ireland match in Cardiff, Gatland kept a straight face and told the media he was deeply worried about Ireland's indiscipline, promising to discuss it with match referee Jonathan Kaplan. What he omitted to say was that, at that time, Wales had conceded more penalties than anyone in the championship.

Such gallows humour was to be welcomed, for it was largely a joyless tournament. With every coach wearing an expression most humans reserve for the hangman, how could it be otherwise? Scotland boss Andy Robinson prowled his coach's box like a caged lion; Martin Johnson thumped his fist on the table when plays went wrong. As for French coach Marc Lievremont, he greeted the shock single-point defeat in Italy, France's first ever to the Italians, with the words "cowardice" and "betrayal" to describe some of his own players.

That old Northern Hemisphere trait of flopping over the ball at the breakdown was still in evidence. Referees ignored the constant infringement of players encroaching beyond the rearmost feet at the breakdown, meaning any real attacking play among the backs was at a premium. Off-loading, the oxygen of continuity in the modern game, came second to the macho inclinations of Northern Hemisphere players to charge the tackler and inflict pain.

All things being equal, this all ought to come home to roost at the World Cup in September. The sides who have properly embraced the new game with its attacking possibilities ought to sweep aside these lesser opponents.

But the belief they cling to in the Northern Hemisphere is that countries such as New Zealand won't be able to play so dynamic and attack-minded a game in a World Cup. Practicalities will rule, they tell you; so much so that a country like England could yet go a long way, by focusing on defence and kicking penalties, as they did in 2007.

But what the Northern Hemisphere needs for its own long-term prosperity is to see the light at this World Cup.

- NZ Herald

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