By Felix Bolton | Contributor
Pandemic life and the lack of fans did nothing to detract from this year’s Six Nations. Whispers of a stagnating sport have all but vanished after a tournament filled with attractive, tense rugby from the outset. The final weekend was no different, breaking the hearts of a nation and showcasing the absolute best of European powerhouses.
Scotland sweep aside the Italians
Super Saturday kicked off as Scotland put eight tries past Italy, who seem to have steadily declined as the tournament has progressed. Although starting the brightest through a well worked driving maul try, a lack of aggression and poor discipline proved to be the Azzuri’s downfall once again, as they picked up three yellow cards. Seven cards in the last three games stands out as a worrying stat for Franco Smith and his coaching set up, who need to gain control over a thuggish Italian side. Saturday’s loss cements Italy’s place at the bottom of the table, failing to secure a single point during the campaign.
For Scotland, the bonus point was reached in just under half an hour, as Huw Jones cantered over following slick hands from Van Der Merwe and Stuart Hogg, who orchestrated his team at fly-half. Duhan Van Der Merwe picked up two tries of his own, bulldozing through the Italian defenders with ease, posing a threat throughout and developing a reputation as a top class winger. Scotland looked comfortable and assured with the ball in hand, exploiting wide channels with aplomb. Regimented attack was paired with a stubborn defence that became harder to break down as the game opened up. Gregor Townsend’s men must wait until Friday to finish their tournament as they play the French in a rescheduled fixture. If Saturday’s performance is anything to go by, France should be weary.
England stutter again
A monumental win against France last weekend failed to be replicated for an England team who will finish this year’s Six Nations in fifth place. Ireland’s reliable keep ball game plan suffocated England, who were kicked to death by the boot of Johnny Sexton. A perfectly executed lineout move gave Keith Earls the space to pierce England’s defence, stepping Jonny May and scoring the game’s opening try. Ireland’s second score was equally impressive, as they patiently inched forward in a passage of play lasting 22 phases before Jack Conan reached over the line. A commanding 14 point lead at half time put the hosts well and truly in the driving seat, giving England no space or time for a significant response.
Both England tries came in the last quarter, as they were helped by a reckless Bundee Aki red card and a yellow for Connor Murray. Ben Youngs and Jonny May capitalised on the numerical advantage, but it was too little too late for a side looking a shadow of their former selves. At times, their overzealous approach led to the concession of needless penalties in dangerous areas, which were converted by an Irish team showcasing experience and quality. Their once sturdy defence showed signs of fragility, whilst their one dimensional attack rarely penetrated the immovable Irish. A poor tournament to say the least for the Red Roses, who will surely be contemplating Eddie Jones’s role in the England set up.
Welsh heartbreak at the death
With the undercard played out, it was time for the main event. The all important fixture under the dark Paris sky. With only three minutes to play and a ten point lead, Wales looked sure to complete the most unexpected Grand Slam in Six Nations history. But the French had other ideas. Yellow cards for Taulupe Faletau and Liam Williams in the dying stages gave France a platform to attack. A converted Charles Ollivon try reduced the margin by seven, and with the last touch of the game, France struck again as Brice Dulin skated over in the corner. 32-30.
A game played predominantly in either side of the 22 saw expansive, experimental rugby, with France starting strongest through a close range effort from second row Romain Taofifenua. The first half saw both teams exchanging blows at a frenetic pace, with nothing to separate them at half time. Wales managed to steady the ship in the second half with excellent performances from Dan Biggar and Josh Navidi, however it was France that ultimately snatched Wales’s Grand Slam away. It is fitting how the final originally scheduled game of this year’s tournament proved to be the highlight of the competition, with two world class teams battling it out for national bragging rights. Whilst Welsh Grand Slam dreams are over, the prospect of a Championship is most definitely on the cards, a feat unimaginable for Welsh fans just twelve months ago.