DUBLIN, IRELAND: Days like Saturday are how legends are made. Going into the day, hopes were high for a display of attacking rugby which rarely pokes through the Six Nations’ traditionally conservative hide. For years, critics have lamented the lack of try-scoring bonus points, the tournament’s winter placement, and other factors which contribute to the attritional tendencies of the Northern Hemisphere’s premiere tournament. All of those criticisms were blown away in the course of three matches, with Wales, Ireland, and England all competing to top one another in fantastic displays of skill and passion. And we haven’t even touched upon the Women’s Six Nations. Akweley Okine and Audrey Youn have that covered – click here.
Wales v. Italy
For the first forty minutes of the day, it looked like fans were in for disappointment. Wales came out of the starting blocks misfiring, and Luciano Orquera proved to be a calming influence for the troubled Italian offense. Even without talismanic captain Sergio Parisse, the Italians played their best half of rugby in the tournament. Going back into the locker room, it was 14-13 in favor of the Welsh, who needed to score points in a hurry if they were to have any hope of prevailing in the tournament. Warren Gatland’s team talk must have been something to behold. With nerves jangling, Liam Williams crossed the line in the 47th minute to put Wales ahead, 21-13. Just like that, things started clicking for the Welsh back line. George North completed an extraordinary hat trick in the ensuing eleven minutes, scoring in the 49th, 54th, and 59th minutes and putting Wales back on track.
From there, England and Ireland began to hold their breaths, wondering just how many points the Welsh could score. Wales added on three more tries, coming from Sam Warburton, Rhys Webb, and Scott Williams. However, they gave up a last minute try to winger Leonardo Sarto, who may have been pushed into touch by Dan Biggar. In all, Wales scored an amazing 47 points in the second half, putting pressure on Ireland, who were visiting Murrayfield. The defeat pushed the Italians to 15th place in World Rugby’s rankings, beneath Georgia. After yet another dismal tournament from the Italians, there have been renewed calls to institute some form of promotion and relegation system into the European championship. If anything, Jacques Brunel’s side appears to be moving backwards, and their second half capitulation was both visible and embarrassing. No credit should be taken away from Wales, who performed admirably in the face of pressure. The powers that be will surely have a long, hard look at the tournament’s future structure if Italy cannot assemble a credible showing in the upcoming World Cup.
Ireland vs. Scotland
A victory always seemed to be beyond Scotland’s reach, even at home. When the match kicked off, Ireland needed to win by at least 20 points to stand a chance of retaining their championship. However, they showed the heart of champions when Paul O’Connell crashed over after nine bruising phases inside the 22, scoring within the first five minutes. However, Scotland managed to hang around the fringes of the match for the remainder of the first half. Ireland were clearly playing an unfamiliar style, having to put points on the board rather than controlling the flow of the game in their accustomed manner. Joe Schmidt and Johnny Sexton did not needlessly panic. Rather than going for the corner at every opportunity, Sexton kicked four penalties, three of which came before Ireland had overturned the necessary point differential.
The teams went into the half with Ireland only ahead by 7, courtesy of a Finn Russell try. As was so often the case in this Six Nations, Stuart Hogg shone for Scotland, only to see niggling mistakes undo the home team’s torturous progress. In the 50th minute, Connor Murray marshaled a rolling maul and sent Jarred Payne thundering through with a clever switch. With a 30-10 advantage, Ireland let their foot off the gas pedal a bit over the last half hour. They added ten points through a Sean O’Brien try and an Ian Madigan penalty, and the general feeling was that they had done enough by leaving England with a 27 point gap to close. Jamie Heaslip made a vital tackle in the last five minutes, robbing Stuart Hogg of a try and forcing him to knock on. England would later rue their northern neighbors’ wastefulness.
England vs. France
When he took the reigns in 2011, Stuart Lancaster explained that he wanted Twickenham to become a fortress by the time the World Cup rolled around. England supporters have answered his call. Though there have been bumps along the way, England’s emphatic victory over France would have been the finest of Lancaster’s tenure, were it not for the bittersweet failure to close the points gap. As it was, Lancaster’s troops and the supporters had to settle for an extraordinary 55-35 match that will go down in rugby lore.
For the first twenty minutes, it did not appear that England would come anywhere near the championship. Much like their Welsh and Irish counterparts, England started nervously, and were down 15-7 in the 24th minute when Courtney Lawes laid a spectacular hit on France fly-half Jules Plisson. After an extensive review, referee Nigel Owen proclaimed that the hit was clean, and momentum swung to the home side. They rampaged up the field over the next twenty minutes, turning the match on its head with tries from Anthony Watson and Ben Youngs followed by a penalty from George Ford. Swing Low rung out around Twickenham as the crowd frantically tried to urge their team on to a first championship in four years. France and England traded blows, setting up an astonishing final ten minutes. With England ahead 48-35, George Ford sent Jack Nowell over for his second try of the afternoon. England had five minutes to score a final try which would give them the most improbable of titles. At 79 minutes, France managed to concede a scrum penalty from their own put-in. Ford put the ball within six meters of the line. Predictably, Robshaw called for a maul, pulling all his backs in as well. Referee Nigel Owens had the last word, calling a penalty which could have ended the match. Instead, France attempted to run the ball out, before Scott Spedding’s cooler head prevailed. He booted the ball into touch, and one of the best days in Six Nations history finally came to a close.
Over the coming weeks and months, these matches will be dissected to analyze teams’s strengths and weaknesses ahead of the World Cup. All parties should remember that this was a truly special day, with circumstances that may never be replicated. No team played in their “typical” fashion, and it could be the only time England, Ireland, and Wales play with such reckless abandon. As an advertisement for the sport, it is difficult to imagine anything better.
Feel free to comment below, look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter@: RugbyWrapUp, Nick Hall, Junoir Blaber, James Harrington, Jamie Wall, DJ Eberle, Jake Frechette, Scheenagh Harrington, Jamie Loyd, Cody Kuxmann, Karen Ritter Audrey Youn, Akweley Okine and Declan Yeats, respectively.