England finished second for the fourth consecutive year, but it was Ireland who came out on top of one of the most impressive Six Nations weekends ever.
Four teams still had a mathematical chance of lifting the trophy going into the last day, three of whom equal but for their points difference. Wales, sat in third place, opened against perennial underachievers Italy, needing close to a record-breaking performance to challenge the top of the table. Then, as the dust settled in Rome, eyes would turn to Edinburgh, as Ireland took on Wooden Spoon side Scotland, knowing only what they would need to do to trump Wales, and having to try and set a target for England, who were playing after them. Also in the equation were France, with victory possible, but only if the other results went their way.
An uneventful opening 20 minutes saw Italy & Wales tied at 6-6. Soon after, Jamie Roberts caught a marvellous little chip to score in the corner. Italy soon replied with a try of their own before a few penalties for each side meant the teams went in at half time with Wales 14-13 up. For everyone but the Welsh fans, this was fantastic news, as Wales needed well over 20 points to be able to challenge the top of the table. But whatever Warren Gatland and his staff had said during the break clearly had the desired effect as Wales ran in a stunning seven tries in the half, including a hat trick for the talismanic George North, amassing a 61-13 lead in the process.
However, this 48-point difference wasn’t to last. An incredible run from the Italian 22-m line by Leonardo Sarto saw Italy take a crucial chunk out of their point difference by scoring in the corner. But with the final score still reading an impressive 61-20, it was advantage Wales in the title race.
To take the lead, Ireland needed a 21 point margin against a Scotland side whose promising autumn form had ultimately come to nothing. Given their lowly position, all their fans wanted was a contest, while all the Irish fans wanted was a rout. Almost immediately, Ireland set the standard, Paul O’Connell crossing the try line after only four minutes. Twenty minutes passed with only penalties, before Sean O’Brian took a line-out and went straight for the line, with seemingly no Scots in his path. Ireland were edging ever closer to the 21-point target, and in the bar, the growing number of England fans grew nervous, as every score after that would make the England team’s job increasingly difficult.
Scotland brought themselves back after 30 minutes, with Finn Russell scoring what would turn out to be the only Scottish try, and at half time, there were only 10 points in it. Unfortunately for England however, it was only upwards for Ireland therein, running in another two tries on their way to a comfortable 40-10. victory The 30-point difference ended Welsh hopes there and then, and presented England with a 27-point target for victory.
In the bar, you could just hear statistics over the crowd: England had only beaten France by 26 points three times, and France had only conceded two tries in the entire series. The omens weren’t promising, but it was in England’s hands.
Such knowledge can often work wonders and so it proved here, with England taking the initiative in the early exchanges. Ben Youngs scored after just 90 seconds, but France weren’t out of it for long and duly took a 15-7 lead, with Noa Nakaitaci placing the ball down the instant before stepping out of play to score an incredible try. This woke England up, and both Youngs and Anthony Watson crossed before half time to give England a 12-point advantage, 15 points shy of the title.
The second half saw a never ending flurry of tries, with both sides throwing caution to the wind. England’s chance came when the French kickers started to miss the posts, while George Ford was slowly ticking over the scoreboard to extend the gap. With minutes left in the game, England led 55-35 and had possession on the French goal line. A converted try here would seal the championship, but it was not to be, as France turned over the ball.
Ireland had won the Six Nations by a mere six points.
It was heartbreaking for England, and tense for Wales and Ireland. Questions have been, and will continue to be asked about concussion, scheduling, and simply, “how?” But for the neutral, the indifferent, or the person just watching whatever was on, it was an incredible advert for rugby union. Amongst the 221 points scored in the final weekend, 27 were tries, amounting to over a third of the try count for the entire tournament.
It was the day that northern hemisphere rugby shone and, as many will hope, a sign of what is to come in September when the Rugby World Cup comes to the UK.