Mission accomplished for Les Bleus
March 21, 2010
France captain Thierry Dusautoir leads the celebrations after his side captured the Six Nations title and the much-prized Grand Slam © Getty Images
Super Saturday rarely fails to deliver in terms of excitement and emotion and the latest Six Nations feast day did not disappoint.
A Grand Slam was won, a Triple Crown was lost, we said goodbye to a stadium and hello to a star of tomorrow. Amid all that drama the northern hemisphere bragging rights were set in stone for another year.
The action kicked off in Cardiff where Wales began the day in fear of being dragged into the wooden spoon mire but ended it on a high with arguably their most polished performance of the campaign. Desperately in need of a result to put some gloss on a faltering campaign and a performance to silence those critics who have suggested the side are going backwards, Wales bounced back from their capitulation in Dublin last time out to notch a 33-10 victory over Italy.
Fly-half Stephen Jones was at his commanding best and kept the scoreboard ticking over early on as other opportunities came and went. As usual, the Italians manned the barricades valiantly throughout but the Welsh finally picked the lock in the second half with centre James Hook bagging a brace to cap an eye-catching display and the prolific Shane Williams adding to his record try tally. Italy's efforts were rewarded with a late score for Luke McLean but it was too little, too late.
Teenager Tom Prydie made his Test bow for the hosts and in the process became Wales' youngest ever international - eclipsing the record of Norman Biggs which dates back to 1888. He may have been limited to a supporting role but when drawn into the action he looked nothing but assured and will surely get further opportunities in the summer when this latest Warren Gatland recovery will face a stern test against South Africa and then New Zealand.
The focus then switched to Dublin where Ireland were hoping to wrap up the Triple Crown against Scotland in the last game at their temporary Croke Park home before their move to the new Aviva Stadium later this year. The stage appeared set for an emotional and victorious send off for the Irish and an early try from captain Brian O'Driscoll only emphasised that feeling - but their Celtic rivals had obviously not read the script. The Scots were in no mood to roll over - far from it.
A try from Johnnie Beattie gave the visitors the lead and the trusty boot of fly-half Dan Parks ensured they scraped home. A try from Tommy Bowe offered the hosts some hope but a 78th minute penalty from Parks set the seal on a 23-20 win. The attacking edge may still have been there but the intensity was not with the players subsequently admitting that the occasion had got the better of them. But take nothing away from the Scots who were good value for the victory - the first Championship success for coach Andy Robinson.
Ireland's defeat guaranteed France the Six Nations title before a ball was kicked in Paris but that knowledge failed to ease the tension building to a crescendo at the Stade de France where the game was all about the much-prized Grand Slam. The lure of the Championship crown on the 100th anniversary of their entry into the competition and the opportunity to end a three-game losing streak against England were very much secondary to the prospect of Les Bleus' ninth clean sweep - and more specifically the chance to show they have the mental strength to win big matches.
The French were wary of an England side that had written off by many and those fears materialised in the opening minutes of the game when the visitors produced a refreshingly attack-minded approach which led to a try for fullback Ben Foden. But the rain put a dampener on the game as a spectacle and in particular England's expansive start, forcing countless handling errors. There was also very little flair from the usually crowd-pleasing French who adopted an England-like approach which underlined their determination to get the job done.
For the first time in this year's Championship the French ended the game try-less but they still had the reliable boot of scrum-half Morgan Parra who steered his side home to spark wild celebrations amongst the Stade de France faithful who had obviously come to party. The relief was palpable.
No one could deny that France were deserving of the Six Nations crown having dominated the Championship from the outset. Coach Marc Lievremont has weathered more than his fair share of criticism in the two years since taking charge due largely to his conveyor belt of a selection policy. But that extensive experimentation appears to have served him and his country well. Having since settled on a core squad of players, he now has strength in depth at his disposal with which is set power his side's bid for even greater honours at the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand next year.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.