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Six Nations Championship 2008 - Overview
PA Sport's Andrew Baldock
March 17, 2008

The 2008 RBS 6 Nations Championship was a tournament lit up by Wales as they collected their second title and Grand Slam in four seasons.

New coach Warren Gatland and his trusty lieutenants Shaun Edwards and Rob Howley transformed Wales from World Cup flops to kings of Europe in less than six months.

They simply grew and grew after beating England at Twickenham on the opening weekend, leaving their rivals floundering.

England, despite two defeats, were best of the rest as they claimed the runners-up spot - their best finish since 2003 - but Ireland crashed, France experimented, Scotland struggled and Italy collected the wooden spoon.

Here, PA Sport's Andrew Baldock delivers his Six Nations end-of-term report.

WALES

What a transformation! 168 days after being dumped out of the World Cup by Fiji, Wales were crowned Six Nations Grand Slam champions after responding magnificently to the demanding standards set by Gatland and his coaching staff.

Intensity, commitment, determination, structure, skill - Wales had the lot - and in captain Ryan Jones they possessed a leader who moulded everything together on the pitch.

Six-try wing Shane Williams proved the tournament's most exciting player, but Wales had heroes everywhere you looked. The challenge now is to keep improving and keep winning.

Points scored: 148 (average per game 29.6).

Points conceded: 66 (13.2).

Tries scored: 13 (2.6).

Tries conceded: 2 (0.4).

Star player: Shane Williams.

ENGLAND

The 2007 World Cup finalists found themselves playing catch-up once they suffered a first Twickenham defeat against Wales for 20 years, but highlights included a notable victory over France in Paris and a stylish success against Ireland.

The lowest point came at Murrayfield - where a clueless, rudderless England crashed 15-9 to Scotland in arguably the poorest-quality Six Nations game ever seen.

Head coach Brian Ashton paraded fly-half prodigy Danny Cipriani for the final game against Ireland - and he ran the show like a seasoned veteran, rather than the 20-year-old Test rookie he is, and that image represents England's future.

Points scored: 108 (20.8).

Points conceded: 83 (16.6).

Tries scored: 8 (1.6).

Tries conceded: 5 (1).

Star player: Andrew Sheridan.

FRANCE

No one quite knew what to expect from France coach Marc Lievremont - and he did not disappoint, using a total of 34 players during the tournament, but making change after change possibly hindered - rather than helped - Les Bleus' progress.

Wing Vincent Clerc's explosive finishing power proved one constant theme - he scored five tries - and full-back Cedric Heymans, when he played, at times looked a world-beater.

Problems were laid bare up front, though, where France's lack of world-class props was horribly exposed by England - and it is that critical area Lievremont needs to concentrate on.

Points scored: 103 (20.6).

Points conceded: 93 (18.6).

Tries scored: 11 (2.1).

Tries conceded: 7 (1.4).

Star player: Vincent Clerc.

IRELAND

World Cup failures, Six Nations failures. Who says Ireland aren't consistent?

After failing to deliver last autumn - they arrived at the World Cup among the top two European contenders - this season's Six Nations offered a chance for redemption, but Ireland again fell short.

Coach Eddie O'Sullivan is possibly just days away from losing his job, and several of Ireland's older brigade could conceivably have played their last Test match. A troubled Six Nations campaign will inevitably bring major fall-out.

Points scored: 93 (18.6).

Points conceded: 99 (19.8).

Tries scored: 9 (1.8).

Tries conceded: 10 (2).

Star player: Rob Kearney.

SCOTLAND

Scotland, yet again, relied on Chris Paterson's boot as their principal scoring weapon - claiming just three tries in five games, with two of those arriving in the final match against Italy.

Paterson kicked the Scots to a richly-deserved Calcutta Cup win against England. But in terms of victories, that was it as France, Wales, Ireland and Italy all toppled them.

Coach Frank Hadden might not be in O'Sullivan territory when it comes to a lack of job security, but he will know considerable improvements have to be made.

Points scored: 69 (13.8).

Points conceded: 123 (24.6).

Tries scored: 3 (0.6).

Tries conceded: 13 (2.6).

Star player: Nathan Hines.

ITALY

New Italy coach Nick Mallett will review a mixed bag of a Six Nations when the Azzurri, at times, played some thrilling rugby but all too often undermined it through careless decision-making, poor kicking or weak defence.

Captain Sergio Parisse proved an outstanding leader, while prop Martin Castrogiovanni delivered world-class consistency, but there is a considerable talent gap between Italy's best and much of the rest.

The highlight was a 23-20 victory over Scotland on the tournament's final weekend. But there is much to be done, and Mallett will be the first to acknowledge that fact.

Points scored: 74 (14.8).

Points conceded: 131 (26.2).

Tries scored: 6 (1.2).

Tries conceded: 13 (2.6).

Star player: Sergio Parisse.

SIX NATIONS TEAM OF THE TOURNAMENT

Wales were the dominant country in this season's RBS 6 Nations Championship - so any team-of-the-tournament selection must reflect that fact.

Champions by four clear points from second-placed England, Wales provided most of the individual stars - from wing magician Shane Williams to captain marvel Ryan Jones.

15 - LEE BYRNE (Wales): The Ospreys full-back was a revelation in a revitalised Wales team under Warren Gatland's supervision. Scored a crucial try against England, then two more during the 47-8 victory over Italy. Also rock-solid in defence.

14 - VINCENT CLERC (France): The Toulouse express raced to five tries in four appearances, following up his double against Scotland with a hat-trick when Ireland arrived at Stade de France. A brilliant finisher.

13 - TOM SHANKLIN (Wales): Shades England's Jamie Noon for the outside-centre role. Strangely overlooked when Wales launched their campaign at Twickenham, but then made four successive starts. Solid and dependable.

12 - GAVIN HENSON (Wales): A midfield colossus for Wales, he produced a career-best sequence of performances during the Grand Slam march. Immense in defence and also an inventive attacking presence. You still feel the best is yet to come.

11 - SHANE WILLIAMS (Wales): Pure genius. Scored six tries in the tournament as he overtook Gareth Thomas' all-time Welsh Test record of 40, which included critical touchdowns against Ireland and France. Williams had the Midas touch and more.

10 - DANNY CIPRIANI (England): The gifted 20-year-old did more in one game - against Ireland at Twickenham - than any other fly-half managed throughout the entire tournament. An astounding talent who could become world rugby's hottest property.

9 - MIKE PHILLIPS (Wales): The tall, abrasive Ospreys scrum-half offered Wales a complete package in attack and defence, consigning Dwayne Peel to a bench role. It was like watching Terry Holmes in his pomp.

1 - ANDREW SHERIDAN (England): World rugby's most destructive scrummager, he underlined that reputation when England destroyed France in Paris. Can dominate a match when he is in the mood.

2 - ROSS FORD (Scotland): The 23-year-old Edinburgh forward provided a rare Scottish highlight during a hugely-disappointing campaign, combining consistently impressive work in the loose with strong set-piece play.

3 - MARTIN CASTROGIOVANNI (Italy): Uncompromising, technically outstanding and a prolific try-scorer who claimed touchdowns against Ireland, Wales and France. Enhanced his reputation as one of the finest front-row operators around.

4 - IAN GOUGH (Wales): Sealed a memorable Six Nations season by winning his 50th cap in Wales' title and Grand Slam-clinching victory over France. Central to an outstanding collective effort by the front five, he also tackled like a centre. Magnificent.

5 - NATHAN HINES (Scotland): At 31 years old and with more than 50 caps collected, Perpignan lock Hines knows the ropes at Test level - and he used all that experience to maximum effect, especially against England, when he rattled and hassled them into submission.

6 - SERGIO PARISSE (Italy): The Italy captain switches from number eight to blindside flanker for this particular XV. Too good to be left out - his consistency, alone, warrants inclusion - and there can be no doubt the Azzurri are in safe hands under his leadership.

7 - MARTYN WILLIAMS (Wales): Often sensational, never less than brilliant, Williams again proved himself a master of the openside flanker's art. Talked out of Test retirement by Warren Gatland before the tournament, Williams then did
his talking where he always does it - on the pitch.

8 - RYAN JONES (Wales, captain): Five games into his reign as Wales captain - and he has overseen Six Nations title and Grand Slam triumphs. Led from the front, producing a staggering tackle count and an off-loading game that had few equals in this season's competition.

Replacements
16 - Huw Bennett (Wales).
17 - Gethin Jenkins (Wales).
18 - Alun-Wyn Jones (Wales).
19 - Jonathan Thomas (Wales).
20 - Mike Blair (Scotland).
21 - Stephen Jones (Wales).
22 - Cedric Heymans (France).

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