Mar 19, 2017
England remains the king of European rugby and Italy is still the punch bag on the continent's top table
MANCHESTER, England — So, after another compelling and hard-fought Six Nations competition, England remains the king of Europe and Italy is still the punch bag at the continent's highest level.
Meanwhile, it appears there's currently little to choose between the other four teams — Ireland, France, Scotland and Wales.
Here's a stock-check at the end of the tournament:
Is England's glass half-full or half-empty?
There should be immense pride at winning a second straight Six Nations title and matching New Zealand's world record of 18 straight wins at the top tier of world rugby.
Yet, it spoke volumes that there were forced smiles all around the winners' podium as Dylan Hartley lifted the trophy in front of his England teammates at Lansdowne Road, minutes after the final-day loss to Ireland that denied them the Grand Slam.
Jones has implanted a winner's mentality into England's deep and talented squad, which is just over a year into a four-year cycle. But New Zealand is still No. 1 in the world rankings and still the team to beat.
It took the visit of England in an epic final match of the competition to bring the best out of the Irish. How they love to spoil a party.
In the space of barely four months, they have stopped both New Zealand and England dead in their tracks on 18 straight wins.
Yet, Joe Schmidt's side largely underperformed in the Six Nations, losing meekly in Scotland and then in Wales. There were hard-fought wins over France and England in Dublin, which should ensure there are still a healthy number of Irish players on the plane to New Zealand for the British and Irish Lions tour in June.
The term "French flair" should perhaps be changed to "Fighting spirit," considering how much this France team has gained in resilience and determination during a tough campaign.
Coach Guy Noves desperately wants to rediscover France's traditional running game. While the team has shown fleeting glimpses of that, notably in the narrow opening defeat away to champion England and the 40-18 win over Italy, the players are too inexperienced and error-prone to sustain that style over a whole game.
However, as they showed by breaking Wales' resistance with a try 20 minutes into injury time, self-belief is slowly creeping back.
The next task for Noves? Instilling greater consistency.
It was an encouraging competition for the Scots — except in the match that mattered.
Once again, they struggled when the pressure was on the most, failing to handle raised expectations that came with a trip to play England in Round 4. Scotland was smashed, 61-21. Fifteen months earlier, Scotland also blew it at Twickenham in conceding a late penalty to lose a tension-filled Rugby World Cup quarterfinal to Australia.
These will be the pivotal matches that define Vern Cotter's three-year tenure as the New Zealander returns to club rugby in France. Cotter does leave, however, having brought a cutting edge to the team's previously blunt back division, which led to three wins — all at home.
There are more questions than answers for the Welsh at the end of a campaign they finished in fifth, for a lowest placing since 2011.
Has Wales got the backs to prosper as it looks to add more flair behind the scrum? Should interim coach Rob Howley have rotated more to see what depth there is behind the front line? Has Howley done enough to prove he could be the rightful heir to Warren Gatland?
Flankers Justin Tipuric and Sam Warburton excelled but few other players can say they performed at their best level in the Six Nations. That might be reflected when the British and Irish Lions squad is announced, even if Gatland is running the selection process.
There was optimism going into Italy's first Six Nations under coach Conor O'Shea, but little appears to have changed after the team lost all five of its matches for the third time in the last four years.
However, there were positive signs with Italy leading at halftime in matches against Wales and England. The match at Twickenham also saw innovative tactics that were met by both scorn and admiration.
"If you just look at the results it's very difficult to see positive aspects," long-standing Italy captain Sergio Parisse said. "But as captain, as an athlete who is experiencing this from the inside, I see the growth and progression of these past few months."
AP Sports Writer Jerome Pugmire in Paris and Associated Press writer Daniella Matar in Milan contributed to this report.
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80