Whilst some stout defence and pinpoint kicking from Ireland prevented England from securing back-to-back Grand Slams, nothing could stop Eddie Jones’s side from retaining the Six Nations.
The tournament was one of the best in years, with most games proving that on their day, anyone could beat anyone (well, other than Italy, who seem incapable of scoring, let alone winning). The game between England and Wales was edge-of-the-seat viewing, whilst Scotland and Ireland’s clash had the sort of ebb and flow to entice any neutral. Particular highlights include Michele Campagnaro’s solo try at Twickenham and CJ Stander’s sacking of Rome.
Many had talked up Scotland’s chances of a maiden Six Nations triumph and Vern Cotter’s men stoked those fires with an exemplary 27-22 victory over Ireland in the tournament’s opening game. Two tries from Stuart Hogg sent them on their way and despite a credible fightback from Ireland, the Scots secured a memorable victory.
That was followed by a drab England performance against France (a common theme throughout the tournament), one in which England won 19-16, and a rather attritional game between Italy and Wales, where three late tries helped Wales ease to a 33-7 victory.
Ireland managed to rebound from their opening day disappointment to dispatch Italy 63-10, a game which saw Joe Schmidt’s men score 9 tries, including hat-tricks from CJ Stander (who became the first forward in Six Nations history to score a hat-trick) and Craig Gilroy. That left them with one win and one loss after two games, a fate that also befell Wales, France and Scotland after Wales went down 21-16 against England after a last minute Elliot Daly try and some excellent kicking from Camille Lopez (who eventually finished as tournament top-scorer) helped France beat Scotland 22-16.
A 29-13 victory for Scotland in the opening game of the tournament’s third weekend gave them some real momentum ahead of a potential title-decider against England and it also helped them move up to 5th in the world rankings. The weekend also saw Ireland edge France 19-9 and Italy attempt to outfox England with some careful interpretation of the ruck laws before eventually being found out and beaten 36-15.
Calcutta Cup games usually have their own unique buzz but interests were piqued this year, as Vern Cotter’s side went to Twickenham with their best chance of victory in a generation. However, England produced their best performance of the tournament and put seven tries past a Scotland side that resembled a pack of rabbits caught in Twickenham’s unforgiving headlights – the game ended 61-21 and ensured England won the Six Nations, something that was almost confirmed the night before after Wales beat Ireland 22-9 in a very physical encounter.
Four sides were locked on two wins and two defeats going into the final round of games, meaning there was much more than just bragging rights at stake. Scotland overcame a sluggish start to beat Italy 29-0, meaning they had won three games in a Six Nations for the first time in 11 years, whilst France scored a try 19 minutes and 55 seconds after the clock had gone red to win the longest ever game 20-18 against Wales.
England have had numerous opportunities to win Grand Slams before, often being thwarted in the last game and more often than not the chief culprits have been Ireland. History repeated itself at the Aviva Stadium, a try from the recalled Iain Henderson being enough to secure a famous 13-9 victory that carried shades of that famous night in Chicago. England’s winning streak was ended at 18, thereby inflicting a first defeat on Eddie Jones as England coach.
That defeat seemed almost inevitable from the opening exchanges with France some six weeks before. England looked sluggish, often lacking cutting edge in attacking positions. They still won though, a hallmark of champion sides, and this defeat is likely to put them in good stead for the summer series against Argentina and the autumn internationals. Their tournament can only be considered a mixed bag, with some players excelling and some disappointing. Joe Launchbury, my player of the tournament, definitely belongs to the former – his 85 tackles a tournament record and his ball-carrying was essential to England. Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes showed immense maturity and both performed well in their makeshift roles at flanker, offering more options to an already overloaded Eddie Jones. Lions hopefuls Anthony Watson and George Ford, however, may have jeopardised their chances with poor tournaments in which they were nowhere near their best.
The only team to beat England, Ireland, also had a mixed tournament. For the excellent performance against England and the discipline shown to beat France, there were the lapses in concentration against Scotland and Wales that cost them a chance at a third title in four years. The emergence of Garry Ringrose and Kieran Marmion, as well as the continued development of CJ Stander and Tadhg Furlong, are bright spots for Joe Schmidt.
Progress was the buzzword in the French camp pre-tournament and that was evident in their performances. The offload game that Guy Noves wants to implement was present, but the loss of Wesley Fofana before the tournament undoubtedly hampered their efforts. However, Camille Lopez seemed to grow into the 10 jersey and now looks like a proper replacement for Frederic Michalak. Around him, the very exciting Gael Fickou and a very strong scrum, secured by the axis of Guilhem Guirado, Yoann Maestri and the human battering ram, Louis Picamoles, are excellent foundations to build on.
To finish fourth after three wins is immensely disappointing for Scotland, but they cannot really have many regrets after an excellent tournament. It was the perfect send-off for Vern Cotter, whose contribution to Scottish Rugby is almost immeasurable, and it is rare that a coach can leave a side in such a strong place. Gregor Townsend will bring even more development to a team that is strong from 1-15 and carries the most potent backline of all the Home Nations. Too many players excelled for them to be listed by name, but Stuart Hogg was excellent, as was Finn Russell, who seemed to mature even further in the unfortunate absence of Greig Laidlaw.
To be frank, Wales were poor. They lacked discipline and Alun Wyn Jones’ performances seemed to drop with the weight of captaincy on his shoulders (by contrast, Sam Warburton had a very average tournament despite forfeiting the captaincy earlier in the year). Questions also have to be raised about Rob Howley in what was essentially a trial for the permanent job after the inevitable departure of Warren Gatland. He used very few players during the tournament and it does beg the question: why call up exciting players like Sam Davies and Thomas Young if you don’t intend to use them? Ross Moriarty, who proved himself more than just a replacement for Toby Faletau, Justin Tipuric and Rhys Webb starred but there was little else to write home about.
In a tournament where their Six Nations future seemed to be at stake, Italy did themselves few favours. 154 missed tackles, 14 Lineouts lost, 6 tries scored, 26 tries conceded. The stat lines don’t make pleasant reading for Conor O’Shea and the performances did not tell a different story. They were indicative of one another, reaching a crescendo like a fine operatic suite in Murrayfield. Being kept to 0 points was shambolic (Carlo Canna missed three first-half penalties, which itself speaks volumes) and they were as toothless as a newborn baby when provided with a try-scoring opportunity. The spectre of Georgia loomed large for Italy (Georgia lost 8-7 to Romania in the deciding game of the European Nations Champioship, a result that may be a reprieve for the Azzurri), and for that reason their tactics against England were both understandable and wholly commendable.
Of course, it would be remiss to finish without discussing the implications of this tournament on the Lions squad that Warren Gatland has to pick in a matter of weeks. Discussing potential line-ups is something that will spill on for the weeks and months ahead, so I will just offer my line-up here.
(1) Jack McGrath – Ireland, (2) Rory Best – Ireland, (3) Tadhg Furlong – Ireland, (4) Maro Itoje – England, (5) Joe Launchbury – England, (6) CJ Stander – Ireland, (7) Justin Tipuric – Wales, (8) Billy Vunipola – England, (9) Conor Murray – Ireland, (10) Owen Farrell – England, (11) George North – Wales, (12) Robbie Henshaw – Ireland, (13) Jonathan Joseph – England, (14) Tommy Seymour – Scotland, (15) Stuart Hogg – Scotland.