High drama, questionable quality
March 24, 2011
Chris Ashton's swallow dive was one of the images of the Championship © Getty Images
England's loss to Ireland last weekend brought the curtain down on the 11th season of Six Nations rugby, with Martin Johnson's men bombing a Grand Slam but prevailing overall. It was a Championship blessed with high drama and controversy but very little rugby to stir the soul. Nevertheless, it was another rollercoaster ride of passion, fierce rivalries and hangovers, so we've collated some of the biggest talking points in our latest Scrum Seven.
One swallow does not a summer make
Chris Ashton's opening try against Wales at the Millennium Stadium seems like it was a long time ago. Cast your memory back…there was a horrible hole in the home defence, Toby Flood was through it and then, shock, horror - a swallow dive from Chris Ashton! We've never seen the like… only, we have. We see it all the time. Even Shane Williams used to do it. The debate raged on however and the immensely likable Ashton was accused of disrespecting his opponents and endangering his scoring chances. A cheeky act meant for the fans and to nudge certain authority figures quickly became a widespread 'scandal' and it was well and truly blown out of all proportion. There were more interesting things to talk about in the opening weeks of the tournament but this was everywhere, and will remain an abiding memory whether we want it to or not.
Italy's day in the sun
They went close against Ireland and Wales, but sealed the deal against France in round four. It was the big one for Nick Mallett's Italy and under the blue skies of Rome, they kicked off one hell of a day out for their fans. Theirs was a performance of passion, grit and no little style as Andrea Masi bagged a well-worked try and Mirco Bergamasco put technique and form aside to show great nerve in landing the winning points. The likes of Sergio Parisse, Alessandro Zanni and Martin Castrogiovanni deserved a big result to underline their contribution to the tournament and thankfully, their team-mates more than delivered on this occasion. There was more joy when fullback Andrea Masi scooped the Player of the Championship award, albeit thanks to some dubious criteria.
After the Italian debacle, France coach Marc Lievremont reacted as any sane individual would; by accusing his players of cowardice and betrayal. It was brilliant. He was forced into a climbdown later in the week but his off-the-wall criticisms were those of a man shocked to his core. France were again maddeningly unpredictable in this year's Championship, beating Scotland and Ireland, thanks in no little part to their opponents, before losing back-to-back games to England and the Azzurri. It was his second outburst (after the standard 'we all hate the English' diatribe) but this one hinted at a lack of harmony, of the possible reason why his outrageously talented squad were not delivering. With the Rugby World Cup a matter of months away it also led to calls for his replacement and also the dreaded vote of confidence from above. Can he right the ship for the World Cup? The fate of Raymond Domenech, his footballing counterpart this time last year, casts a large shadow.
Thrown to the lions
Peter Allan, woe is you. The Scottish touch judge found himself at the centre of a storm of criticism after his mistake - telling referee Jonathan Kaplan that Wales had scored against Ireland with a quick throw using the correct ball, rather than the closest one to hand - cost Declan Kidney's side the match. It was a game of very little quality, played out under drizzle and featuring few, if any, moves of note and a controversy was the only thing that could lodge it in the memory banks. Sparking debate of the TMO's powers and whether they should be extended, this one will not go away and is likely to be referenced almost every time a 'quick one' is taken. IRB types - dig out the thinking caps. You'll have to share if there isn't enough for one each.
Life in the old dog yet
Ronan O'Gara landed one for the old breed with his winning drop-goal against Italy in round one, and this proved to be Championship to savour for those a little closer to their free bus pass than others. Scotland fullback Chris Paterson, author of two magnificent try-saving tackles against England and Ireland, Wales winger Shane Williams and Ireland skipper Brian O'Driscoll all lit up the tournament at some stage, reminding some of the old adage that 'form is temporary, class is permanent'.
Some players deserve a farewell
Shane Williams' last act in the Six Nations should have had greater fanfare. His boot into the stands for Wales to beat Ireland initially meant little more than that, it was only after the full extent of his knee injury came to light that the realisation hit - it was his last act in the Six Nations. One of the game's great free spirits, his loss will be felt keenly by Wales and also by their fans - it's hard to think of a player who has given more to the Championship since his bow back in 2000. If you're one of the grumpy few who mutters, 'he's too small' whenever he pops up, you've most definitely missed out.
The Lansdowne roar returns
Ireland saved the best for last and in the process did what none of their rivals had done to date - beat England. Declan Kidney's men did it in some style too, playing the game at breakneck pace and placing the visitors under unbearable pressure. As the likes of Donncha O'Callaghan, Sean O'Brien and David Wallace tore into England the home crowd also found their voice, creating a cauldron of noise (with a little help from some drumming piped through the PA system) that recalled the grandest occasions at the old Lansdowne Road. The later leaking of England's 'Grand Slam champions' video will have made the win just that little bit sweeter, too.
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