Now that most of us have come back down to earth and put away our calculators and more importantly our defibrillators, we look back on one of the most incredible finales to the Six Nations that most of us have probably ever seen and one which certainly silenced the critics’ accusations that Northern Hemishpere rugby has become a slow ponderous affair devoid of tries. On a day where it was a three-horse race between Wales, Ireland and England (and even France having a wild card outside chance), the drama and tension was there in spades as it all came down to points differences with all teams having to make sure their defences didn’t leak points while at the same time scoring as many of their own as humanly possible. That is exactly what we got, with Wales producing a second half of one try after another in Rome. Ireland then had it all to do at Murrayfield, and proceeded to score 40 points against a bewildered Scotland and show that when tries are needed the Irish are more than capable of scoring them. That left England with a mountain to climb at Twickenham which they then proceeded to do with gusto – the only problem was that a French side that everyone had written off also decided to try and match them try for try. It was all a spectacle that many of us will remember for many years to come, but one which ultimately saw Ireland just hang on and claim an incredibly hard-fought Six Nations Championship for a second year in a row.
Italy vs Wales
Final Score – Ita 20/Wales 61
So with calculators at the ready, Saturday’s Six Nations final Saturday got underway in Rome, with Wales needing to put at least 40 points on the Italians to take the Championship while making sure their phenomenal defence as witnessed against the Irish leaked as few points as possible.
Let’s face it, Wales did not get off to an exactly stellar start and Italy after their implosion against France the week before looked up for the challenge even without the talismanic figure of their Captain Sergio Parisse who had to look on from the bench. What was interesting about the match was certainly for the first 20 minutes there seemed a certain lack of urgency from the Welsh, which considering the enormity of the task in front of them, seemed surprising. Whether or not this was a deliberate tactic to not rush the game in the pursuit of points so they could wear down the Italians early on, we will never know. Italy however were not daunted by the Welsh challenge and for most of the first half completely took the game to the Welsh, and if not for the error count on the part of the Italians which was better than against France but still there, the Welsh might have found themselves with even more to do post the half time whistle. The hapless Italian flyhalf Kelly Haimona who for once seemed to be having a marginally better day with the boot, was replaced with a broken arm within the first ten minutes. His replacement Orquera, defended well and showed some promise in attack, but Italy are still faced with the basic problem that they are without a world-class flyhalf.
Wales problems were then compounded as on the half hour mark, Welsh fullback Leigh Halfpenny took a horrendous bang to the head from the knee of Italy’s Samuel Vunisa as the Italian number eight obviously took a leaf out of his injured Captain’s book by making an impressive rush through centrefield until heroically stopped by the unfortunate Halfpenny. Halfpenny was then taken off for the rest of the match, but his loss was certainly not the end of the world for Wales, as his replacement Scott Williams ably stepped up to the task and just as he did in the Irish game, had a superb match. There is no question that in the form of Williams, Wales has superb depth at fullback. Furthermore, Welsh flyhalf Dan Biggar who impressed all tournament also ably took on the kicking duties when required and for Welsh coach Warren Gatland there is very little to lose any sleep over in this department.
In a back and forth first half, the referee’s half time whistle saw Welsh fans biting their nails as Wales led by a slender one point margin 14-13, hardly the points difference they were looking for! Italy had proved competitive and were a shadow of the bumbling side that we saw the week before. I am sure that we all would have loved to have seen the video cameras of what was said in the Welsh change room during the half time break. Whatever was said it inspired this Welsh team to produce one of the most amazing second halves I have ever seen, and one which despite all the resolve in the world the Italians were in no position to respond to as a growing sense of shock took hold of the Azurri as the Welsh didn’t just find another gear, they found an entirely new 8 speed transmission.
The first eight minutes of the second half were evenly matched and the Italian defence continued to hold firm – and then it happened. Liam Williams spotted the gap at the 48th minute and rushed under the posts and it was suddenly game back on for the Welsh. What then happened was a mesmerizing final thirty minutes in which Welsh runners continually found space and the Italian white line. The man who had threatened to make a difference for Wales all tournament finally showed up on the day and singlehandedly took the game from Italy. Welsh winger George North had been booked to set the tournament on fire from the beginning but opposition defences recognised the threat he posed and for much of the Six Nations kept him ominously quiet. However, in Rome the man was on fire. At the fifty minute mark, acres of space opened up for North on the right and he was away. He then proceeded to do this two more times in quick succession, putting Wales into a commanding 42-13 lead. All of a sudden the points difference that Wales were after was back on.
Sadly for Italy, discipline broke down in the the last 20 minutes, yellow cards were seen and Italy basically started to retire. They were consistently outmuscled and with the Welsh running at them from all angles right across the park, they found it hard to hang on to the ball for more than one or two phases and once again the error count kept creeping up. Wales big loose forwards in the form of Alun Wyn-Jones and Captain Sam Warburton were causing all kinds of problems for a rapidly tiring Italian defence, and Wyn-Jones in particular was outstanding and deserved man of the match. Warburton showed just how dangerous the Welsh loose forwards are as he stormed from almost the halfway mark to score Wales seventh try. Wales kept up the tempo and as the referee blew the whistle for full-time, despite a last-minute surge by Italy through the impressive Leonardo Sarto resulting in a try, it was 61-20 to the Welsh. Having been asked to climb a mountain they did that and then some and suddenly found themselves in a commanding position on top of the Six Nations table, with a significant benchmark set for England and Ireland to topple later in the afternoon. This Six Nations was set to go to the wire, but could Ireland and England really outdo the Welsh miracle in Rome?
It was a spectacle and one of the greatest second half performances I have ever seen. It was thrilling stuff and when you actually consider that most of Wales’ bucketload of tries came in just the last thirty minutes makes it even more remarkable of an achievement for Wales. It was devastating for them that ultimately this superhuman effort didn’t win them the Championship, but nevertheless they can take enormous heart from this as a team performance. Italy fought bravely for the first half but once the floodgates started to open, you could see their resolve in the face of a seemingly unstoppable Red Machine start to falter dramatically in the last thirty minutes. Whether Wales can reproduce this kind of performance against stronger sides at the World Cup later this year remains to be seen. However, one thing they have shown this tournament is that their old bugbear of fading in the last ten minutes is now very much a thing of the past. Wales has depth, strength and the ability to play a full intense 80 minutes of rugby – this is a good side – a very good side! The rest of the world is watching and waiting.
Scotland vs Ireland
Final Score – Sco 10/Ire 40
So next up were Ireland to play for the Six Nations title, needing to score at least 20 points over Scotland to get them the Championship providing things went their way in regards to the England/France game later in the day. However, as I have said repeatedly a mere twenty points wouldn’t be enough, especially if they simply came from Johnny Sexton’s boot. What Ireland really needed were tries and plenty of them. Firstly to put the title comfortably out of reach of the English and secondly to silence Ireland’s critics that they couldn’t score tries and thus as a result are not really a World Cup contender. Add into this mix a glorious day for running rugby in Edinburgh, a Scottish side who knows how to score tries especially in the form of their star fullback Stuart Hogg and a team desperate to salvage some pride out of a disastrous Six Nations in front of their Murrayfield faithful. Scotland may have been the side staring at the wooden spoon but they were by no means a pushover and Ireland were fully aware of this!
Ireland came out of the blocks blazing with their Captain Paul O’Connell, leading the charge in the first four minutes crashing across the Scottish line. Scotland came back at Ireland and managed ten minutes of sustained pressure on Ireland which resulted in a penalty through Greg Laidlaw’s boot. Scotland may have been shocked but were still very much in contention. However, with Rory Best seeming to have recovered from some of his wobbles in the throw in to the lineouts that we saw in the Welsh match, Ireland were soon back in the Scottish twenty-two where they would increasingly stay for the rest of the match. Sean O’Brien at number 7 finally made a dramatic return to form that Irish supporters had all been eagerly anticipating, and at the 23rd minute from a textbook lineout, weaved his way through some wrongfooted Scottish defenders and set the scoring tone for Ireland for the rest of the match. Scotland would have flashes of brilliance, but with O’Brien playing as a man possessed, constant Scottish lapses in defence and errors on attack, the game was set to be Ireland’s.
Furthermore, what was exciting to see for Irish fans, was their team at long last spreading the ball wide and running and making some terrific offloads. What we saw on Saturday was Ireland getting the finishing from the possession they have enjoyed all Championship. Once this was sorted the tries were sure to come. Also as mentioned above, with Sean O’Brien back to his very best, you really got to see the attacking prowess he lends to the Irish especially in quick go-forward ball – long may it continue!
Stuart Hogg continued his dangerous form and his searing breaks led to the only try for Scotland at the half hour mark. Even though Hogg was brought to ground, quick play ensured that space was gained through the territory gained by Hogg and Scottish fly half Finn Russell made from Scotland’s only foray across the Irish white line.
Ireland had a comfortable lead at half time, 20-10 but the Scots had shown plenty of enterprise at times but the ghosts of indiscipline were starting to haunt them in defence as they became increasingly frustrated by Ireland’s constant sniping attacks and ferocious intensity at the breakdown. You sensed that Ireland were getting ready to stamp their traditional seal of authority on the match in the second half, while at the same time showing that this can also include tries as well.
We were not disappointed, as Irish scrum half Conor Murray who has had a truly outstanding tournament, along with Johnny Sexton (even though some of his trademark accuracy was missing on the day against Scotland) quietly applied the noose to the Scots. Ireland’s halfback pairing were providing plenty of space for their forwards especially the rampaging Sean O’Brien while the Irish backline were getting more opportunities to weave their magic. The centrefield pairing of Henshaw and Payne was working well, with a superb snipe from Payne to score Ireland’s third try. Sean O’Brien took final honors with 9 minutes to go, to cap a truly superb performance from the Irish number 7, as his sheer strength and quick vision caused him to crash through Scottish defenders and just touch the ball down from a quick Murray offload at the breakdown. Ireland had more than they needed and looked set to have the Championship sewn up.
However, there was still drama to come that could have almost ruined Ireland’s party. At the 75th minute Scottish danger man Stuart Hogg made a blistering break down the right hand side, and just as he was about to cross the Irish white line, Ireland’s number 8 Jamie Heaslip made the try saving tackle of the Championship and caused Hogg just to lose the ball forward as he was touching down. From an Irish perspective it was heartening to see Heaslip at the forefront of such crucial game-saving plays after his nasty injury in the French game. Ireland could breathe again and as the final whistle blew, they knew they had done more than enough to get their hands on the Six Nations trophy in three hours time provided things didn’t detract too much from the script at Twickenham.
One couldn’t help feeling sorry for the Scots. They hadn’t necessarily played badly this tournament and at times had provided us with some genuinely exciting rugby, and there is no question that fullback Stuart Hogg was one of the players of the tournament. However, time and again their discipline let them down, particularly in defence and take away Hogg’s brilliance and the Scottish product starts to look a tad ordinary. There is promise aplenty there however, with plenty of young talent emerging, witness Sam Hidalgo-Clyne’s try saving ankle tap on Tommy Bowe, and Finn Russell’s superb breaks and snipes through various Six Nations defences. Furthermore, Scottish coach Vern Cotter is a class act and still has plenty more to bring to this Scottish side. It may have been a tournament that promised so much for Scotland but delivered so little, and yes the wooden spoon is a harsh injustice, but expect to see this Scottish side continue to improve, making them a problem side for any opposition come the World Cup. Dare I say that if Vern Cotter is still around for the 2019 World Cup in Japan, Scotland might even be where Ireland is now? We wait and see.
England vs France
Final Score Eng 55/Fra 35
By this stage in the afternoon most people were reaching for the strongest drink they could find in the house, as yet another cliffhanger match was set up. The Championship was England’s for the taking if they could outscore Ireland and run riot against a French side that for all intents and purposes was a mystery as to how they would perform. In the end, it was as close as you could possibly get in terms of England running Ireland as close as possible in terms of the points difference.
Knowing what they had to do, England started this match with pace, energy and full of intent. At no point were there leisurely walks to the lineouts or scrums. Urgency was the key word of this match for the full eighty minutes, and as a result we the fans had a fitting spectacle for the finale of an incredible day of rugby.
England got the game off to a cracking start within the first minute, as they set to lay down a marker to France. Indeed their reaction was so swift through their scrum half Ben Youngs, who had a truly outstanding game and has surely made the number nine shirt for England his, that you felt that England were set to blitz a hapless French side and easily take the Championship. It was a superbly worked series of phases starting in the back line and England looked on fire. Thereafter, it was all France who hit back with two tries in rapid succession. France looked strong and were using their rolling maul with the charismatic figure of Captain Thierry Dusatoir at the back to full effect.
It was furious back and forth stuff and had Jules Plisson playing for the injured Camille Lopez at fly half for France been more accurate with the boot then the resulting scoreline could have been much different. Plisson did receive a truly MASSIVE hit from England’s Courtney Lawes, which as horrific as it looked was perfectly legal but no doubt knocked some of the stuffing out of him. Just before half time however, England reasserted themselves and took the lead through a try from Anthony Watson. George Ford’s boot made the conversion count along with a subsequent penalty, so that at half time, England were leading comfortably at 27-15, but still with it all to do regarding beating Ireland on points difference.
The second half was equally as furious and just as England looked set to run away with the game the French would come back at them and score to force England to have to start the points chase all over again. France’s centre Maxime Mermoz was having a truly superb game, and he has often been seriously underrated by France in my opinion. In addition, French winger Noa Nakaitaci was truly a revelation scoring a try that almost went awry as he just got the ball down before his foot touched down outside the dead ball line in the first half, and setting up some sublime breaks down the touch lines for his teammates to capitalise on throughout the match. The sight of Nakaitaci speeding down the left wing with of all people, French prop Vincent Debaty in hot pursuit is a sight most of us will remember for a long time to come, especially as Debaty then went on to score a superb try from Nakaitaci’s sublime offload.
England, throughout the match showed why they have comfortably taken the mantle of the most impressive attacking team of the tournament, with the halfback partnership of George Ford and Ben Youngs showing some superb vision and pace. Ford himself through his own try, showed that not only is he exceptionally reliable – he now definitely has that X factor that England has so desperately been looking for at number 10. As I have said in these pages since the November Tests there should be absolutely no question in the England coaching department that Ford should be their starting number 10 for the World Cup. However, in the urgency to attack at all costs this match did show some of England’s defensive problems on the wing and in the centre channels. Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph have impressed all tournament, the latter in particular but have had some serious defensive lapses in the process. Jack Nowell has been a revelation and in this match in particular showed that he has an extraordinary attacking prowess. Mike Brown seems to have recovered much of his form since the Scotland match, but even he at times faltered once or twice when the French started to attack from all angles. England are a superb team and on paper probably have more spectacular players at an individual level than any of the other Northern Hemisphere sides. However, where perhaps they struggle still is in organisation and cohesion as a unit – an area where Ireland who may not have been as flash seems to have got the upper hand.
For France they can take heart in showing the world once more that once you have written the French off they are at their most dangerous. The last year has been an exceptionally trying one for this traditional giant of the Northern Hemisphere. While I don’t see many of the coaching problems currently plaguing the side disappearing much before September – what we did see is plenty of talent that with the right organisation could become a very dangerous side. On the basis of this French performance I would think that Ireland are certain that their last pool game at the World Cup against France and thus the decider for which of the two teams will face a quarter final with the All Blacks, is going to be a barnstormer in which both teams will have to be at their sharpest after a relatively easy ride up to that point.
In short what we witnessed from England on Saturday was an incredible if not awe-inspiring performance against a French side that has potential when they decide to play. If England can play at the same intensity and with more cohesion come the World Cup, then there is little or no question that on home ground they will be a serious contender for the Webb Ellis trophy if they can get past the initial hurdle of competing in the toughest of all the four pools. England may not have won the Six Nations and still have plenty of work to do before September, but Stuart Lancaster and his staff are in the enviable position of having some pretty impressive foundations to build their strategy on. They have the depth, they have the talent, all that remains to be seen is if they have the mental fortitude. On the basis of what we saw on Saturday, I am sure we all wish them well!