Six Nations provides dramatic finale
March 18, 2007
Results went France's way on the last day to allow Les Bleus to retain the Six Nations crown ©
Martin Castrogiovanni Vincent Clerc Gordon D'Arcy Raphael Ibanez Alun Wyn Jones Denis Leamy Kevin Morgan Lionel Nallet Carlos Nieto Brian O'Driscoll Ronan O'Gara David Strettle Simon Taylor Alessandro Troncon David Wallace
It is hard to think what could have made their loss of that long-pursued title in the final seconds of France's match against Scotland much crueller.
There was the raising of hopes by that devastating display against Italy, then again in the late stages in Paris as Scotland prop Euan Murray put himself in line for a lifetime of free pints in Ireland.
There was the questionability of that final French score, the wait (it seemed interminable, even if shorter than many television adjudications) for a decision and the frank absurdity of any international rugby player, most of all a Frenchman, being called Elvis.
Spare a thought also for one particular Irishman, television match official Simon McDowell. It was intolerably unfair that he should have found himself making a decision that he must have known had such implications for his own country.
Then there are the might-have-beens - Paterson's kick that struck a post, O'Gara's comparative off-day with the boot.
There was also the built-in unfairness of the final day, great cumulative drama though it may have been. France started knowing exactly what they had to do to win the title and were able to play accordingly.
All Ireland could do was to score as many points as they possibly could, and hope. Had they known that a 34-point victory over Italy would have been enough, they might have reined in and played conservatively in the final 15 minutes.
Instead they pressed for more and the Italians, whose greater resilience in the later stages of matches has been their conspicuous improvement this year, hit them with late scores.
Then there is the memory of that earlier last minute last-gasp play by the French, at Croke Park. To be denied twice in that manner in the same season is brutal.
But there is another way of looking at that. Twice this season France found themselves in the final seconds of a Six Nations match, once away to their greatest rivals, knowing that they had to score on this possession.
They did so both times. Such resilience and composure, so at odds with traditional British stereotypes of the French under pressure, compels admiration. They're not the finished article - standing among other things in desperate need of an authentic open-side to balance their back row - but they're certainly the men for a crisis.
And did Ireland really perform like champions for much of the season? They were utterly compelling against England and dazzled against Italy, but performed poorly against the weakest teams, Wales and Scotland, and suffered that scarifying opening against the French.
Ireland certainly deserve a championship - they've earned it over eight years in which they averaged 3.62 wins per season and been second five times, three of them on points difference. Whether they deserved this particular championship is another matter.
All of which reduced Wales v England to the status of a hugely enjoyable sideshow, matching two teams of positive intent. A lot depends, of course, on whether you see a previously winless team beating the team who had inflicted the champions only defeat six days earlier as evidence of depth and competitiveness, or simply that nobody this season has been terribly good.
My own view is that there's a little of both - nobody this year was terribly good, but that competitiveness and unpredictability are the essence of the Six Nations' particular charm.
One thing we do know now is that James Hook is the real thing. Wales can look forward with a little more optimism and, vitally, pressure has been eased on Gareth Jenkins. Just so long as they don't fall for the chronic Welsh tendency to assume that all is well just because England have been beaten.
And there's no reason for England to despair. They weren't and aren't about to turn into the All Blacks overnight. It didn't help that the all-Wasps backrow lasted only eight minutes as a unit and the scrummage looked decidedly rocky.
But Toby Flood reacted with admirable composure to giving away a second-minute try and there was similar resilience in the way they erased that early 15-point deficit. The mobile style pioneered against France is a way forward, capable of worrying the best teams in the way that the static, relying on Jonny's boot, approach tried earlier in the campaign is not.
Which is not remotely to say that there is no place for Wilkinson in such an approach. Working out what it might be is one of many conundrums facing Brian Ashton as he - and we- look forward to the World Cup.
Player of the tournament: Alessandro Troncon (honourable mention Gordon D'Arcy and Dave Strettle).
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