A historic Grand Slam
March 16, 2008
If the last Saturday marathon is any guide, the BBC duty log will be full of complaints from license-payers with other interests following six hours of undiluted rugby on the final day of the RBS Six Nations.
For fans, though, there was pretty much something for everyone - unless you happen to be Irish. Three decent games played in a more open style than some of this season's offerings and a fair outcome - not, as Max Boyce used to say, that I am biased.
There could certainly be few complaints with the outcome in Rome. Italy deserved something from their season, but Scotland did not deserve to be bottom.
Italy's 23-20 win, sealed by a late drop-goal from Andrea Marcato, one of the finds of a season of promise, accomplished both ends. Gonzalo Canale finally got to score after his mishaps against Wales and France and the reaction at the end from crowd, players and Nick Mallett's coaching team showed that it was the win, rather than evading last place, that really mattered.
Of course it was disappointing for Scotland, but there was a little more life in attack and a fine performance from Alastair Strokosch - if only some of that extraordinary back-row depth could be traded for a little bit of midfield creativity.
And the Scots will certainly feel happier than the Irish, whose season ends with its highlight their comeback in defeat by the French.
Their first defeat by England in five seasons will leave the IRFU wondering whether it wants to continue with Eddie O'Sullivan, renewed contact or not, while fans ponder the possibility that Ireland's most gifted generation in at least 20 years - some might argue 60 - will end up with only Triple Crowns to show for their years of consistent championship contention.
They had the ideal start with Rob Kearney, whose rise has been the bright point of their season, scoring an early try. But if there was any wobble in English self-belief, Ireland were unable to capitalise. From 10-0 up, Ireland conceded 33 points without scoring themselves.
Brian Ashton should now, by contrast, hang on - saved, it could be argued, by the player he had dropped for disciplinary reasons a week earlier.
There'll certainly be few dull moments with Danny Cipriani around, on or off the field. The speed and variety of his passing injected life into England's attacks, he kicked as reliably as Jonny and topped it all off in wholly un-Jonnyish fashion by having to apologise for dropping a four-letter word - about the only thing he did drop - on live television.
A word of caution, though, before proclaiming a new dawn - something English fans have become also as prone to as the Welsh in recent years. It isn't so many years since they were acclaiming a lightning-quick newcomer who terrified opponents and seemed set to be a force in world rugby for the next decade. Anybody know what happened to Iain Balshaw?
One answer to that is that his well-timed arrival in the line helped create a try for England on Saturday, and there was little to complain about in his all-round performance. If not the player he threatened to become in 2001, neither is he the fumbling idiot perceived by those English fans who always need a butt for their thwarted expectations. But experience of Welsh rugby, never mind English, counsels prudence in hailing instant saviours.
So England finish a bizarrely inconsistent tournament in their best position since their resounding Grand Slam of 2003. That was thanks to France dropping below them on points difference after losing 29-12 in Cardiff. And third is probably about what France deserve. They played some of the best rugby during the tournament and probably have more depth of talent. But they made it clear that winning the title wasn't their priority. Finding new talent was. On that basis Messieurs Parra, David, Ouedraogo, Floch, Picamoles, Trinh Duc and others too numerous to mention, plus third place, looks a fair return.
If there's a worry for Marc Lievremont it is that none of the best newcomers play in the front five, which is where he is really in need. That Wales, rarely regarded as terrifying eight, were able at a pivotal moment to drive France off their own put-in epitomised France's problems throughout the season.
Nor during a half-hour either side of half-time when they were clearly in the ascendancy, did France - for all their attacking talent - look like scoring from open play. This included 10 minutes when the otherwise impeccable Gavin Henson, who has had a better if quieter tournament than in 2005, was sin-binned, and a particularly hairy three when Gethin Jenkins was receiving treatment and play continued with Wales down to 13 men.
But here you have to look at the reasons why Wales are champions by the largest margin since 1992.
Look back to that opening win over England and you see not only a narrow escape, but the template for all that would follow.
Wales were successful because their defence and organisation minimised damage during periods when the other team was on top, while they had the creative ability to take maximum advantage of their spells of ascendancy.
France took only a couple of penalties from their half-hour, Wales scored two tries - Shane Williams's score taking him past Gareth Thomas to become the all-time Welsh record holder with 41, matching Maurice Richards in 1969 and Will Greenwood in 2001 as the highest single-campaign scorers since Ian Smith's eight for Scotland in 1925, and far from incidentally tilting a tight contest definitively in Wales's direction. Player of the Tournament is the least he deserves.
Unreserved congratulations to Warren Gatland, the remarkable Shaun Edwards and the rest of the Welsh coaching team for an astonishing job done in a very short time.
And the very best of luck to them. As recent history shows, the really difficult bit comes next.
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