This years Six Nations has been one of new beginnings and farewell cries. England say hello and welcome to three outstanding young players, as Ireland bow down to the legend and idol that is Brian O’Driscoll. The Irishman played his 141st and final test cap against France, a fitting end to his career that really started in the same place it finished, fourteen years ago.
Ireland played ugly but they won all the same. The last minute decision by referee Steve Walsh to deny France a try for a forward pass meant Ireland were champions. But it was never meant to be for France, as with the whole tournament, they had shown flair and passion but when it came down to it they just couldn’t muster the points. Coach, Phillip Saint-Andre admitted his devastation at watching his side pipped at the post, but on the basis of the previous matches, Ireland deserved every last bit of celebratory confetti.
France had a bumpy tournament, their last minute win over England was in some ways undeserved and the game against Scotland should have been Scotland’s in the end. However against Ireland we saw the French qualities that rugby fans love – power, determination and downright clever play. Dulin, Huget and Bastareaud dominated the midfield, drawing in Irish players from all over the pitch, needing two or three of them to bring down any one Frenchman. France played hard in what was their best performance of the tournament and in the end were unlucky not to win.
There was sun in every stadium on the final day of the Six Nations. Cardiff welcomed a down-hearted Scotland but Wales themselves had something to prove. The competition for them has been, I feel, out of sorts. The star names we all expected to hear – George North, Leigh Halfpenny, Sam Warburton – were all but silent. Granted there were moments of excellence from Wales but generally the reigning champions were unimpressive and unmotivated. The game against England had hit the team hard and the win against Scotland was thoroughly needed for confidence purposes. It has been said the famous front row of Jones, Jenkins and Hibbard are still fatigued from the Lions tour last summer, and were regularly taken off after the 60 minute mark. However it wasn’t just the forwards that dampened the Welsh play, it was the whole team. Mike Phillips has had a rough couple of months and didn’t command like he has done, Warburton has struggled with injury and is now out for the rest of the season. Generally the team seemed down and out before the final whistle blew, despite some wins, it wasn’t the Welsh panache we are used to seeing.
As for Scotland, their defeat yesterday was the heaviest they have ever encountered in the tournament, and just followed in the vein of their previous poor matches. Stand in coach Scott Johnson, who took a lot of criticism over the defeats to England and Ireland, is moving to a director of rugby role this summer, making way for Vern Cotter. The Australian has not smiled all tournament and with good reason. Despite the narrow loss to France and the victory in Rome, Scotland have showed no sign of improving over the past couple of years, and this year will have shoved them straight back to square one. It was humorous for some fans to give Scotland and Italy the wooden spoon before the Six Nations even began, but as Italy show signs of progression, Scotland look nowhere near good enough to play the European teams, let alone the southern hemisphere.
However, the Six Nations were not all doom and gloom, England, Ireland and most importantly Italy all showed some outstanding quality. Italy have always been one of my favourite teams. Yes, I agree they are not to the standard of the others, but their playing style and pure passion always has me backing the men in blue. Against England they were simply outplayed but they started the tournament against Wales with good intentions and outstanding play. McLean, Esposito, Campagnaro, de Marchi, Forno and of course Parisse showed their all-round abilities, being able to kick, tackle and run well in the loose are all you need to be a good rugby player and Italy showed these skills by the barrel.
Now to the two best teams of the tournament. England and Ireland battled it out over the past months to win the Six Nations championship and it was a mighty battle to the very end. There was no Grand Slam up for grabs but this did stop the teams playing with every ounce of energy they had left. Some may say England had it easy in the end, it was more than a convincing win in the Italian sunshine but to get there they had faced fierce competition. The only game they lost was the very first game in Paris. The French dominated the first half but England came back to take the lead until the dying seconds of the game. Unfair some may say but others requested more stamina from Lancaster’s team, and for the following matches that is exactly what England gave. Burrell, May and Nowell all had their England debuts and stunned fans by their calm heads and blistering speed. Along with Launchbury, Lawes, Care and man of the tournament Brown, England have a very bright future and will go to New Zealand with extreme, and rightly deserved, confidence.
Despite England’s hard fought games it was Ireland who took the trophy. The most experienced, consistent and hard-working team shone brightest for me and a lot of other rugby fans. It was coach Joe Schmidt’s first tournament and he served them well but it was the men on the pitch that deserved the most credit. Trimble, O’Mahony, Toner and the Kearneys were outstanding every match and gave their all to make Ireland pretty unstoppable. Despite their loss to England, their amazing points tally won it for them in the end.
England were gracious in defeat and Ireland magnanimous in victory and that is due to one man – Brian O’Driscoll. The 35 year old has played 800 more minutes than any other in the history of the tournament. He has taught, led and captained some of the best Irish players of today and it’s all down to his big heart and clever head. There will surely be an O’Driscoll shaped hole in next year’s competition but his team will be out to defend their title and I have a feeling they won’t go down without a fight.