An sensational day of rugby called a close to what has been a memorable Six Nations tournament, with all three games providing maximum entertainment.
For forty minutes Italy looked like a totally different team than the one that bumbled about against France, but when they returned from the intermission they somehow regressed back into a catatonic state, and Wales put on a show. At half time it looked like any hopes of a Welsh claim to the throne were dead and buried. Liam Williams kicked the doors off their hinges and George North piled in with an incredible three tries in 10 minutes to completely change the complexion of the game.
By the 74th minute, Wales had racked up 50 unanswered points, 47 in the second half, and looked set to pull off the impossible, but a last minute try to Leonardo Sarto dampened the mood somewhat. The eruption of points was the type of thing you might see in a mismatched club fixtue. To see Wales on all-out attack was a shock to everyone, evidently Italy included, who totally capsized until the final moments of the match. Sending two players to the sin-bin didn’t help matters, and perhaps they might feel somewhat aggrieved by their treatment from referee Chris Pollock, who seemed intent to scrutinize every last detail of their defense.
Ultimately the result would not be enough, but it was a terrific way for Wales to end the championship and undoubtedly played a major role in both the style and outcomes of the remaining games. Warren Gatland will feel better about his team’s potential after the strong finish, Jacques Brunel probably the exact opposite. Italy were horrendous for a large part of the match and look in complete tatters, dropping below Georgia in the world rankings for the first time ever. Their new coach, whoever that will be, will have some work to do to pick up the pieces after the big event in England this fall.
Italy – K. Haimona 1p, L. Orquera 1p 2c, G. Venditti 1t, L. Sarto 1t
Wales – L. Halfpenny 2p, D. Biggar 1p 6c, G. North 3t, J. Roberts 1t, L. Williams 1t, R. Webb 1t, S. Warburton 1t, S. Williams 1t
Italy – A. Masi yellow (53), Q. Geldenhuys yellow (65)
L. McLean; G. Venditti, L. Morisi (E. Bacchin 74), A. Masi, L. Sarto; K. Haimona (L. Orquera 5), E. Gori (G. Palazzani 74); M. Rizzo (A. de Marchi 53), L. Ghiraldini (capt.) (A. Manici 53), M. Castrogiovanni (D. Chistolini 53); G. Biagi (Q. Geldenhuys 53), J. Furno; F. Minto, M. Bergamasco, S. Vunisa (R. Barbieri 70).
L. Halfpenny (S. Williams 34); G. North, J. Davies, J. Roberts, L. Williams (R. Priestland 70); D. Biggar, R. Webb (G. Davies 70); R. Evans (R. Gill 53), S. Baldwin (K. Owens 56), A. Jarvis (S. Andrews 74); L. Charteris (J. Ball 74), A.W. Jones; D. Lydiate (J. Tipuric 56), S. Warburton (capt.), T. Faletau.
Referee: C. Pollock (NZRU)
Assistants: J.P. Doyle (RFU) & L. Pearce (RFU)
TMO: S. McDowell (IRFU)
Ireland must have been prepared for this situation, as the specter of being three scores behind Wales before kickoff seemed to pay them no mind whatsoever. Their approach was absolutely professional, executing moves with precision and methodically breaking down an over-committed Scottish defense. Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton steered the ship but it was the forwards who laid the platform, dominating their opposites in virtually every aspect of play.
By the break the gap had been reduced to one score, and Jared Payne’s try in the 50th minute put them ahead with plenty of time to build their lead. They only managed to put another 10 points on the board, but it was enough to keep piling the pressure on England, who started the day with a 4 point lead but before kickoff were down by 26. Scotland were simply nowhere to be seen in the second half, with a tremendous Jamie Heaslip tackle on Stuart Hogg denying them a certain try and quite possibly saving Ireland’s championship.
The wait for the result at Twickenham would have been agonizing, particularly given the scenes that would emerge, but it was an appropriate ending for the best side in the championship. Paul O’Connell’s final Six Nations run ends by lifting the trophy, replicating the feat of his old commander-in-chief Brian O’Driscoll just 12 months ago. Ireland are in now in fine form heading into the big tournament, and will enter their strongest ever side in terms of international ranking. Scotland meanwhile must continue to rebuild, and will likely need some re-tooling if they are to improve their stuttering performances.
Scotland – G. Laidlaw 1p 1c, F. Russell 1t
Ireland – J. Sexton 4p 3c, I. Madigan 1c, S. O’Brien 2t, P. O’Connell 1t, J. Payne 1t
Scotland – G. Cross yellow (56)
S. Hogg; D. Fife (T. Visser 11-21), M. Bennett (T. Visser 71), M. Scott (G. Tonks 69), T. Seymour; F. Russell, G. Laidlaw (capt.) (S. Hidalgo-Clyne 56); R. Grant (A. Dickinson 31), R. Ford (F. Brown 52), E. Murray (G. Cross 11); J. Hamilton (T. Swinson 52), J. Gray; A. Ashe (R. Harley 56), B. Cowan, D. Denton.
R. Kearney; T. Bowe, J. Payne, R. Henshaw, L. Fitzgerald; J. Sexton (I. Madigan 71), C. Murray (E. Reddan 79); C. Healy (J. McGrath 58), R. Best (S. Cronin 62), M. Ross (M. Moore 46); D. Toner (I. Henderson 62), P. O’Connell (capt.); P. O’Mahony, S. O’Brien (J. Murphy 73), J. Heaslip.
Referee: J. Garcès (FFR)
Assistants: P. Gaüzère (FFR) & F. Anselmi (UAR)
TMO: G. Hughes (RFU)
The grand finale was everything the stakeholders could have hoped for, minus an English victory for those invested in dollar or mind. With an improbable 26 point gap to overcome, Stuart Lancaster gave his men free rein to throw caution to the wind, and the result was a try fiesta at both sides of the pitch. When Noa Nakaitaci went over – whether he legitimately touched down is subject for debate – is looked like the strategy had backfired, but eventually the French defense wilted under the pressure and the points began to pile up.
The two halves were almost identical. England would score, France reply, repeat. The difference was the home side were putting two scores in for every French effort. Both Vincent Debaty and Benjamin Kayser finished what would be frustrating moments in the post-match debrief, tries that ultimately contributed to the shortcoming in points, but the same could be said for any number of incidents throughout the championship. James Haskell’s senseless yellow card for a trip also falls squarely in that category. That in essence one moment altered the final table is a testament to the quality of the competition this year.
England are in an odd spot now. They remain a very good side, with depth at key positions, but are still short in others and there is a sense that Lancaster remains unsure of his top side. It’s been the hallmark of his selections over the past 18 months or so, and that’s not a good thing. They will be in decent position come September, but of the three contenders both Wales and Ireland look more likely in terms of team cohesion.
France are hopeless, utterly despondent. They have no trajectory of any sort to react to, no consistency in selection, and no sign of change before the World Cup. That they can still upset any side on their day is a moot point. That the entirety of their dreams depend on a random reversion to emotional recalcitrance is symptomatic of the failure in their system, both domestically and at national level. Like Italy, they must close their eyes and hope that 2016 comes quickly and painlessly, unlikely that might be.
England – G. Ford 1t 2p 7c, B. Youngs 2t, J. Nowell 2t, A. Watson 1t, M. Vunipola 1t
France – J. Plisson 1p 2c, R. Kockott 1p, S. Tillous-Borde 1t, N. Nakaitaci 1t, M. Mermoz 1t, V. Debaty 1t, B. Kayser 1t
England – J. Haskell yellow (57)
M. Brown; A. Watson (D. Cipriani 62), J. Joseph, L. Burrell (B. Twelvetrees 72), J. Nowell; G. Ford, B. Youngs (R. Wigglesworth 72); J. Marler (M. Vunipola 62), D. Hartley (T. Youngs 52), D. Cole (K. Brookes 62); G. Parling (N. Easter 67), C. Lawes; J. Haskell (T. Wood 67), C. Robshaw (capt.), B. Vunipola.
S. Spedding; Y. Huget, G. Fickou, M. Mermoz (M. Bastareaud 72), N. Nakaitaci; J. Plisson (R. Talès 72), S. Tillous-Borde (R. Kockott 49); V. Debaty (U. Atonio 61), G. Guirado (B. Kayser 47), N. Mas (R. Slimani 47); A. Flanquart (R. Taofifenua), Y. Maestri; T. Dusautoir (capt.), B. le Roux, L. Goujon (D. Chouly 62).
Referee: N. Owens (WRU)
Assistants: J. Lacey (IRFU) & L. Hodges (WRU)
TMO: B. Skeen (NZRU)