Six Nations serves up tries and tribulations
March 25, 2009
The Six Nations produced some breathtaking action and admirable personal triumphs © Getty Images
Ireland won it, Wales lost it, England wanted to fight about it, Italy couldn't handle it and France didn't seem to care about it. Whatever way you look at it, the 2009 Six Nations is in the bag with Ireland claiming their first Grand Slam in 61 years. It was a rollercoaster ride for all involved, and here are our top seven memories of a hectic six weeks.
Jamie Heaslip's best Phil Bennett impersonation
Ireland's Grand Slam season began in the most thrilling fashion, with first Brian O'Driscoll and then No.8 Jamie Heaslip and centre Gordon D'Arcy crossing for stunning tries in a 30-21 win over France at Croke Park.
Heaslip's try, a storming run with a sidestep that left French fullback Clement Poitrenaud for dead, signalled his arrival on the world stage and was arguably the catalyst for Ireland's surge in confidence. Ireland laid to rest the ghosts of their last-gasp loss to the French in 2007, lighting up a dour opening weekend in the process.
A superb and ferociously committed flanker, Bergamasco was horribly out of his depth at No.9, hurling passes over the head of fly-half Andrea Marcato and giving away tries by burying his head in the ruck. It was ugly, and only lasted for 40 torturous minutes before Bergamasco was offered the shepherd's crook.
"The worst international performance I've seen by a player in decades," commented former Wales international and BBC pundit Jonathan Davies. Click here to see Mauro's scrum-half stint in all its...ahem...glory.
Wales come unstuck in Paris
Friday night is not a traditional night for international rugby, but underneath the lights of the in Paris, France and Wales produced a spectacle to remember. The fans, media and coaches grumbled beforehand about TV rights, ruining the traditional Saturday showdowns in the Six Nations, but all reservations were forgotten as the opening whistle signalled 80 minutes of scintillating rugby.
With Cedric Heymans and Imanol Harinordoquy crossing the whitewash France produced their most complete display since their win over the All Blacks in the 2007 Rugby World Cup quarter-final. Warren Gatland's Wales saw their Grand Slam dream ended as France proved to be an irresistible force on their home patch. The Welsh slipped from Grand Slam contenders to a fourth place finish over the course of the tournament - it all began here. The experiment is set to continue with Wales set to face Les Bleus under the lights in Cardiff next year.
Mark Cueto sends England on their way
Sluggish, ill-disciplined and devoid of attacking ideas, England enjoyed a torrid opening to the tournament. But just seconds in to their fourth game against France their fans had forgotten the drudgery of preceding weeks. The reason? Mark Cueto's rasping try. Created through quick turnover ball the Sale wing hared clear of a mismatched French defence to set his side on their way to a 34-10 victory.
Some England fans are already proclaiming that their side are back to their world-beating best, which they of course aren't, but Cueto's blistering contribution at least showed they are back on the right track. Many will also have enjoyed the sight of Martin Johnson punching his hand in delight rather than a fit of rage.
The best there is - Sergio Parisse
If you ask someone to describe Italian rugby they'll likely give you a string of adjectives that paint a fairly depressing picture. Ask someone to do the same for their skipper Sergio Parisse however, and you'll hear a list of superlatives as long as your arm. Combative, skilful, quick, inspirational, the Stade Francais man has it all. The best No.8 in Europe, maybe the world, Parisse deserved better than to see his side humiliated week on week during the tournament.
In their final game, a 50-8 drubbing at the hands of France at the Stadio Flaminio, Parisse was again on mercurial form. To add to his Man of the Match award from the narrow loss to Wales, Parisse bagged Italy's try after bursting on to a pass from openside Mauro Bergamasco. It was a fitting way for a great player to finish his Championship. If only they could clone him.
The old cliché - so near and yet so far
International sport is defined by fine margins. Wales fly-half Stephen Jones's last-minute kick against Ireland, a kick that would have won the game and Triple Crown for his side and condemned Ireland to yet another failure when in sight of a Grand Slam, fell mere metres short of the target.
As the Irish supporters inside the Millennium Stadium entered into raptures, Jones held his head in his hands. The moment was made all the more special by the reaction of Jones's opposite number, Ronan O'Gara. The man who had won the Slam for Ireland with a drop-goal moments earlier was immediately at Jones's side, to commiserate on the miss and congratulate on what was a superb personal performance.
Wales coach Gatland had earlier in the week stirred the pot by declaring that Wales "hated the Irish the most", a misguided comment greeted with offence both in Wales and Ireland and a soundbite rendered worthless by the sportsmanship of O'Gara.
In BOD we trust…again, and again, and again
What a tournament for the Irish skipper. From his try against France, with echoes of his magisterial score for the Lions against Australia in 2001, to his burrowing effort against England, he was on hand whenever Ireland were in need. He capped a resurgent Championship with Ireland's first try in their Grand Slam-clinching win over Wales, winning his second Man of the Match accolade in the process and inking his name on to the Lions' Test team-sheet.
Currently approaching his peak form O'Driscoll blew away the cobwebs of recent tournaments, showing all and sundry why he was still one of the best players on the world stage. The sight of him lifting the Six Nations trophy alongside the magnificent Paul O'Connell, an unofficial second skipper if ever there was one, will live long in the memory.