When Nigel Owens blew his whistle for the final time last night at the Parc des Princes, it was clear something momentous had happened in English Rugby.
England had won their first Grand Slam since 2003, ending 13 years of hurt, and this triumph was only their second since that win in 2003, adding to their success in 2011 where they lost the Grand Slam game to Ireland.
England’s domination of the tournament, winning all five games, was a marked contrast to their abject performances at last autumn’s Rugby World Cup, where England, despite being hosts, were dumped out of the competition in the group stage after defeats to Wales and Australia. That tournament saw the end of Stuart Lancaster’s reign as head coach and saw Eddie Jones, mastermind of Japan’s impressive display, come in as head coach. Jones was the first non-Englishman to hold the role and with his appointment came a lot of possibilities for this tournament, which would offer a first glance at what he had done with the team and the new way in which they would play.
Of the initial 33-man squad called up by the Australian coach, 13 of those players were uncapped for England but were rewarded for their strong club form. This meant highly-rated players like Maro Itoje and Jack Clifford were included alongside experienced veterans like James Haskell, Mike Brown, Chris Robshaw and the new captain Dylan Hartley. It was clear from his squad selection that Jones was going to make changes to the England team but it would not be a complete overhaul of what his predecessor had done.
The tournament began in rather uninspiring fashion, with England edging out Scotland 15-9, a result that would have been more emphatic had Owen Farrell been more accurate from the tee. Against a woeful Italy, England made a slow start, but turned it on in the last half an hour to run out 40-9 winners in Rome. Those two games rewarded Eddie Jones with two wins but there were still question marks of a team that had failed to completely convince in the first two games, especially with key games against Ireland and Wales ahead.
England were clinical against Ireland without thrilling the Twickenham crowd, with late tries from Bath’s Anthony Watson and Harlequins full-back Mike Brown securing a 21-10 victory. The real test though was still to come against Wales, a game billed as the tournament decided. England had a poor recent record against Warren Gatland’s side and their World Cup defeat to them loomed large in preparation for the game. An early try from Watson and some brilliance from the tee from Owen Farrell put England in a dominant position and despite a near collapse towards the end, with Wales scoring three late tries to make it 25-21, England won the game and had secured the Six Nations title.
That win was a big mental triumph for the team but one test still remained, a clash with France. France themselves were trying to recover from that defeat to New Zealand at the World Cup and had lost already to Scotland and Wales in the tournament, beating Ireland and Italy by one and two points respectively. It was obvious though that Guy Noves’ side would turn up against England and would look to spoil the Grand Slam for Eddie Jones in his maiden outing in the Championship.
England were good but not great against France but ended up winning 31-21. There were numerous mistakes made by England, as shown by the seven penalties scored by French scrum-half Maxime Machenaud that continually kept the game alive. Tries from Danny Care, Dan Cole and then Anthony Watson, his third of the tournament, secured a first Grand Slam for England but there is still room for improvement and the summer series with Australia will be a real test of how far they have come under the former Australia coach. Maro Itoje was great again but showed his overzealous nature at times and that will have to be toned down against Michael Chieka’s Australia. George Kruis was excellent against France and it was his and Itoje’s success at the lineout that really helped England win. Their victory was attritional but by winning several lineouts against the throw and winning scrums, England prevented France from getting any real momentum and limited them to penalties.
The whole game was a microcosm of England’s championship – there were moments of sheer brilliance, some attacking verve with attrition the order of the day in defence but clearly room for improvement. Whilst the room for improvement was clear, England’s victory was deserved and they can be proud of their achievements. That game came at the end of a final day of a great tournament. This tournament saw an average of 4.73 tries per game, a tournament record, and just free-flowing rugby that entertained the fans. This is not really a surprise given that it is immediately after a World Cup, something that always raises the level of the game. Farrell and Itoje were two of England’s stars, whilst Dan Biggar, George North, CJ Stander, John Hardie and Stuart Hogg all impressed as well.
Wales: The Welsh came second in the tournament which was a good return for some excellent displays throughout. The England game highlighted their main problem – they were not clinical enough in the big games and were slow starters. They only really impressed in the last 20 against England and it was too little, too late for them and against Ireland they were sluggish out of the blocks and it meant they only came back to draw the game. They have bright prospects and a great team and can look forward to a summer series against New Zealand which should produce some great rugby.
Ireland: A win over Scotland meant that Ireland secured third place in the final standings. Question marks hang around the future of head coach Joe Schmidt, but it was clear that he is the right man for the job and the tournament was always going to be hard with lock and leader Paul O’Connell having announced his retirement. CJ Stander was outstanding in his debut campaign and the foundations are there for a strong tilt next year with a bit more experience, especially if they play with as much freedom as they did in the last two games. Ireland take on South Africa in their summer fixtures.
Scotland: Vern Cotter and his players can look back on an excellent tournament for them that showed real progress and maintained their strong World Cup showing. Their losses against England and Wales took their tally to nine in a row, their worst ever in the competition, but then back-to-back wins over Italy and France saw them record multiple wins for the first time in three years. They looked great going forward, with Stuart Hogg continuing to mature into one of the world’s best full-backs, whilst the defence seems to be steadily improving as well. Cotter is still to get his 1st XV certain and their discipline needs to improve as it cost them dear against Ireland yesterday, but they can look forward to two compelling tests in the summer against Japan.
France: 5th place is definitely not what Guy Noves will have wanted in his first campaign as the national coach but it is not all doom and gloom. The World Cup was a bad one for the French and this tournament was always going to be a transitional one and against England they put in their best performance to date under the former Toulouse coach. A summer series with Argentina will be a good test for them and hopefully they will continue to progress. In Scott Spedding, Wesley Fofana and Maxime Machenaud they have a strong backline core, with the latter proving to be an excellent kicker under pressure. Up front they have Guilhem Guirado who was superb in the tournament and a return of Louis Picamoles should be a big boost for them.
Italy: Simply put, that tournament was awful for the Italian side who seem to have regressed if anything over the last couple of years, undoing the great work done by Nick Mallett to make them more competitive. Jacques Brunel is leaving in the summer and whoever comes in to replace him has a lot of work to do. Maybe changes are needed at the regional level to make them more competitive but something has to change as they have simply not been good enough. Their conceding of 224 points was the most since 2000, their first year in the competition and that year they actually won a game. In the summer they play Argentina, Canada and the USA and these games will say a lot about where Italian rugby is going.