You couldn’t predict it. If you think you did, you’re wrong. 240 minutes of rugby and not a single one went as anyone would have expected. We knew that Gatland would have his Welsh squad fired up of course and that they have one of the best backlines in Europe, but we didn’t know that Italy were going to collapse as spectacularly as they did. Nobody could have seen Ireland coming out of the traps like that either, matching their best ever winning margin over the Scots. Of course, England and France, thank you. Quite simply the best game of rugby I have ever seen and Welcome back France, you have been missed.
Wales had the biggest mountain to climb, travelling to Rome with a 40-50 point winning margin likely to be their only hope of a title win. Come half time that looked extremely unlikely with Italy showing up and Wales resembling Ireland last week, falling under the weight of the game. It seemed insane, the Welsh had been so rock solid in defence for 32 phases against Ireland yet Italy managed to run a set piece try of sorts right in past them. Going into the half time break leading by only a point it looked like Wales were going to be of no concern to Ireland and England. And then it happened.
Come 2.30pm on Saturday, the second half of Wales V Italy was one of the most complete performances of the tournament – every turnover a score, every Italian mistake made to prove costly, every Welsh player acting like a rabid dog. With an extremely green front row, who were in fact on a card warning in the first half, and with Leigh Halfpenny going off injured Wales looked set to flounder. But come the second half the Welsh were securing penalties from the scrum and the resurgence of George North from something of a dry spell meant Halfpenny was barely missed. Once again though, Leonardo Sarto comes to Ireland’s rescue and with his last-minute try and indeed Luciano Orquera’s huge conversion, the task got seven points easier for Ireland. So off we go to Murrayfield.
Italy 20- 61 Wales
As a subscribing member of the tin foil hat brigade, I firmly believe this was all part of the Joe Schmidt plan. Play conservative, not because it is all Ireland can do but because if it yields a Grand Slam then Ireland could go the entire Six Nations and not show their hand before the World Cup. The loss to Wales led to plan B. Show some of the flair, play the way Ireland will be playing this September in England and earn the required score. Scotland weren’t great but they couldn’t have had any more incentive to win. No wins from four games, Vern Cotter going up against his former coaching compatriot and above all else, good or bad as they were yesterday Scotland are better in 2015 than they have been for some time.
When the colossus that is Paul O’Connell crossed over for his second ever try against the Celts after less than five minutes had elapsed it became clear that magic was in the air. Ireland were more up for the game than any side I have every seen. The penalty count looked a little unnerving initially especially after what had come the week before, but it took no time at all for Ireland to correct that and indeed after they first quarter only two more Irish penalties followed. Tommy Bowe got more room to play in this game than we have seen all tournament and over the far side of the pitch Luke Fitzgerald more than justified his selection with a ferocious display but the day belonged to Sean O’Brien. Over every ruck he could like a rabid animal but it was on the Scottish try line he made his money. O’Brien missed out on the Six Nations last year and as a result is one of the few who received his first winner’s medal this weekend. He was set for a triumphant return from injury against Italy until the hamstring let him down. Against France he was fierce but cautious and against England he was a barnstormer but again, subdued. Wales, and Wayne Barnes but we won’t talk about that, wouldn’t let him play rugby so he saved it all for the Scots. How big a testament to the man that after nearly a year and a half out and the disappointment in Rome that he proved so decisive for Ireland.
Two tries from him and supplements from Jared Payne and the aforementioned O’Connell meant that Ireland won with a thirty point margin (helped hugely by Jamie Heaslip making that supernatural tackle on Stuart Hogg at the death, all is forgiven for last week Jamie). Wales were out, England would know what they had to do against France but what they had to do was win by 26 points, surely it couldn’t be done? I mean, how many times have England beaten France by more than a dozen points?
Scotland 10 – 40 Ireland
Well if Wales had gone against the script and Ireland had rebooted with the sequel, England and France went into full spin-off mode and I’d watch that movie any day. 160 minutes of pulsating rugby preceded events and the conscientious was that England would certainly beat France in Twickenham but a 10-15 point margin would be most likely. When Ben Youngs crossed within minutes of the kick off there was a fear that France could go the way of Italy and Scotland and to be fair, nobody implodes quite like the French. George Ford nailed the conversion and seven nil never looked so scary. What followed however was pure carnival. France remembered just how good they are around the ten minute mark and they struck some minutes later with their first try, closely followed by a second even though Noa Nakaitaci did his very best to butcher it by running into the dead ball area.
England came back through a penalty and a try and led again with a score of 17 to France’s 15. This was thirty minutes into the game. One more try made it England 27 – 15 France at half time, you know, the kind of score you usually see at full-time. It took two minutes for France to put smiles on Irish faces again and the game was well and truly on. Around the fifty minute mark the game reverted back to something from the late nineties as it got more loose than any fixture from recent memory and both teams wanted to play. Another try for England, followed by a French penalty and….I’ll be honest, I can barely keep track of where I am. It was just end to end rugby and for once that statement is completely correct. The sight of Vincent Debaty running support and scoring a try from a breakaway was just something to behold, so much so that his substitution straight after was something of a mercy killing. England 48 – 30 France, eight points and England have the title. Nope, France maul their way to being back in contention for the game. So England secure a penalty in front of the French posts and go to the corner…and France steal the lineout. Pure and utter insanity right to the death. And speaking of that death…
For once, around the seventy mark, both sides went without scoring for more than five minutes, until England brought their tally to 55 in the final minutes and at that point they were six shy of stealing the title from Ireland. I say stealing but it couldn’t possibly have been more deserved. Certainly the highest combined score I have ever seen in a Six Nations fixture, contributing to a total of 221 points scored over the entire day, a record for any single weekend in the history of the competition. It did reach a point where the winner of the cup was nearly irrelevant, the privilege at having seen such incredible displays of rugby was enough. But then the twists kept coming. England were absolutely hounding France on their try line. A 5m lineout, somehow France resisted conceding at the resulting maul and then won the turnover from the ruck. Rory Kockott went absolutely ballistic (though not for Ireland as some have suggested, more so because he knew well they had taken the title from England). Then Yoann Huget happened. He was entirely correct to take the quick tap as France would have wanted one last score as a final insult to the English, but at the same time he was doing his best to try to give the entire country of Ireland a heart attack. Thankfully, Kockott was still just happy with the English denial and he cleared the ball off the pitch, giving Ireland the first back to back Six Nations title since 1949. The trophy presentation was odd to say the least but massive credit must go to the Scottish union for screening the England V France game and for letting the support back into the stadium so Ireland got to revel in front of their most faithful.
England 55 – 35 France
And so that’s that, the Six Nations is put to bed for another year. Ireland came away victors in a nail-biting fashion once again. The Irish Women thankfully did more for the blood pressure today as they took on Scotland needing a 27 point win and came away with a seventy point one instead. Niamh Briggs and Allison Miller were inspirational as always, Briggs in particular when she was obviously playing through a lot of pain. Miller topped of a hat-trick with arguably one of the tries of the tournament and Ireland were never really in any doubt after the first quarter that the trophy was theirs. Sophie Spence methinks could go toe to toe with any forward in world rugby, male or female, after the performance she put in today too. Bruising stuff from the towering second row. With this win now the women cap off an incredible period since 2013 that has included two Six Nations championships and a sensational victory over New Zealand in a World Cup where they reached the semi final only to fall to England. Every single year has seen progress from them, more so than we have seen in any other Irish side. What they can do as the women’s game progresses will be a delight to watch.
Ireland 73 – 3 Scotland
Images courtesy of rbs6nations.com