Triple Frowns, Cards Galore and Penalties Aplenty: Main Takeaways From the 2021 Six Nations
Lauded as one of the most exciting tournaments of recent years, the 2021 Six Nations kept everyone on the edge of their seats from start to finish. The red (and yellow) mist descended as referees dished cards out like croupiers. For some, the Championship was more Triple Frown than Triple Crown. And for others, it was yet another case of ‘what if?’ Whatever your allegiance, sit down, grab a waffle and enjoy our main takeaways from the 2021 Six Nations.
The tables well and truly turned in 2021. The 2020 edition of the Six Nations, sliced in two by the Covid-19 pandemic, eventually saw England crowned champions in October. The other major talking point of that edition was Wales’ struggles as they limped to a fifth-placed finish. Roles were reversed in 2021 however, as Wales rediscovered their winning ways and Eddie Jones’ England couldn’t find any consistency, mirroring Wales’ finish from 2020 at the wrong end of the table, finishing only above beleaguered Italy.
It was a sixth Six Nations title for Wales (only England, with seven, have more) but just the second time they’ve won the Championship and not secured the Grand Slam. This time it was France who denied them the ultimate glory, whilst Ireland in 2013 proved the party-poopers. England’s tournament was definitely not one for the ages, a seemingly rusty squad struggled to get out of first gear with the exception of their match against France. Everything clicked against Les Bleus, and they looked like the team that had reached a World Cup final 18 months before and then gone on to do the clean sweep of the Six Nations and Autumn Nations Cup in 2020. Those memories felt a lifetime away as England stumbled to their joint-worst Six Nations performance. Defeats to each of Wales, Ireland and Scotland saw them complete the reverse Triple Crown.
Scotland still only finished fourth in 2021 but some memorable wins against England and France bookmarked a thrilling tournament. Gregor Townsend may well be thinking once again what could have been, though. Four of Scotland’s five matches were decided by five points or fewer, two going their way but two slipping out of their grasp against Ireland and Wales. Had they seen out those two matches then a first Six Nations title could have fallen their way.
It was definitely a tournament where things could have worked out very differently for plenty of the sides. Except Italy. Oh, Italy. The Azzurri conceded 239 points, 34 tries and had a points difference of -184. These are all the worst tallies for any team in an edition of the Six Nations. And they achieved all this whilst extending their record losing run in the competition to 32 matches, their last victory coming way back in 2015.
Ireland had arguably the most subdued tournament of the six sides. An impressive win against England and a narrow victory over Scotland were tempered by frustrating defeats to Wales and France.
Overall in the tournament, eight games were decided by a margin of five points or fewer, more than in any other previous edition of the tournament. If ever there was a year for ‘what ifs?’ and ‘maybes’ then this was it.
It’s impossible to write this piece without focusing on one of the biggest themes in the tournament. It’s one which undoubtedly played a significant part in the fortunes of all the teams. New directives around player safety – specifically head and neck injuries – have led to the enforcement of tighter regulations around the ruck and tackle areas. Inevitably this has led to more players getting penalised for infringements in these areas as they adapt their technical skills to abide by the new parameters. Quite simply, the players did not adapt quickly enough. To illustrate this, in the 2021 Six Nations there were five red cards brandished, as many as had been shown in the 14 previous editions combined. But we can’t just ‘blame’ these new rules as all the sides conceded plenty of penalties for other offences as well.
Paying the Penalty:
England’s combined tally of penalties (67) and free-kicks (6) saw them concede 73 infringements in all, the most in the tournament and the second-most any side has conceded in an edition since 2002. Despite their eye-wateringly high penalty count, they only picked up one yellow card and no reds across the tournament. Billy Vunipola was the culprit for the yellow, given for being offside although it was more of a ‘team card’ for persistent infringements rather than specifically punishing the innocuous nature of the offence in the middle of the park.
Breaking down how each side conceded their penalties gives us a better understanding of why teams were getting penalised and specific areas they must work on in the future.
Team Penalties Free Kicks Reds Yellows Defence Attack % Defence England 67 6 0 1 41 26 61% Italy 67 1 0 7 46 21 69% Wales 55 1 0 2 40 15 73% Scotland 55 2 2 2 33 22 60% Ireland 47 5 2 1 31 16 66% France 47 1 1 3 33 14 70%
Starting with Wales and we can see that the champions had the highest ratio of penalties conceded in defence, perhaps highlighting the value they put on keeping possession. This mantra is emphasised by their excellent red-zone conversion rate, where they averaged almost four points per 22 entry, the best of any side.
In contrast, England and Scotland both conceded a higher ratio of their penalties when in possession of the ball, no doubt causing frustration among coaches and fans alike seeing their team give away the ball when on the front foot.
England were fairly consistently penalised across the board, but the most notable areas of ill-discipline were at the ruck (34 penalties against) and set piece (13). Breaking down those ruck penalties even further shows us that England were pretty poor across all areas at the breakdown.
Team Wrong Side At Ruck Hands In Ruck Off Feet At Ruck Not Releasing Not Rolling Away England 4 2 10 9 9 Italy 2 2 6 7 9 Wales 2 0 7 7 9 Scotland 3 0 7 11 4 Ireland 3 0 3 7 10 France 1 1 3 5 7
Looking at the Wooden Spoon ‘winners’ and we can see that Italy’s once-dominant weapon, the scrum, has evaporated from their armoury. Not only did they concede more penalties than any other side at scrum time (12), but they had the worst success rate on their own feed.
Team Scrums Won Scrums Lost Scrum Success % Italy 21 5 81% England 22 3 88% Scotland 23 3 88% Ireland 21 2 91% France 25 1 96% Wales 25 1 96%
The Azzurri’s eagerness in defence also proved their downfall as they were penalised 13 times for being offside, more often than anyone else. It was Wales however that were penalised the most in one game for being offside, four times falling foul of Luke Pearce as they desperately attempted to hold France at bay in a game where their discipline finally got away from them, ultimately costing them the game and Grand Slam. Wayne Pivac’s men also struggled more than anyone else to perfect the tackling technique, conceding seven penalties for poor tackles, four of which were from high hits.
Discipline really is the cornerstone of any successful rugby team, and giving away either the momentum in attack or points and field position in defence can prove costly. All international rugby players play on the edge of the law and there is a fine line between success or failure in this regard. What is a strong jackal turnover one second can be an illegal attempt to steal the ball the next. A dominant tackle at one height is a reckless red card offence a few centimetres higher. Players (and coaches) shouldn’t be lambasted for straying on the wrong side of these margins on occasion, but persistent digressions will only cause more harm than good in the long term, both on the scoresheet and, more importantly, to player welfare.
Design by Ruben Diaz. Data viz from Jon Manuel.