Wales Lose in Paris; England Beaten in Dublin but are Crowned Champions

The final day of the 2017 Six Nations promised much, but in my opinion turned into quite a low-key affair that was pretty light on tries and indeed quality. The closing day of the 2015 tournament still resonates, the pulsating try-fest that it was, and last season’s Grand Slam victory for England capped an impressive trio of final day match-ups. Wales’ thrilling 30-3 victory over England in the closing round of the 2013 tournament provided a fitting finale.

This year, a very competitive and thoroughly enjoyable Six Nations ended on a pretty peculiar note, with England falling agonisingly short of winning consecutive Grand Slams and setting a new world record for the number of consecutive test wins (for a tier-one team). Ireland claimed the match-day win, 13-9, but England’s unassailable lead at the top of the Six Nations table saw them retain their crown in Dublin regardless. It really sums up how tough this competition has been in 2017 – indeed, back in February, I predicted England would win the tournament, but miss out on a Grand Slam. This was an intriguing match between the tournament’s two best teams, a brutal and low-scoring encounter. Both England and Ireland have, in honesty, shown only flashes of the brilliance seen in the November series, but then again, the Six Nations is a very different beast. There can be little doubt now that these two nations will – and absolutely should – make up the bulk of this summer’s British and Irish Lions squad.

Scotland v Italy often promises to be a fiercely competitive game, although on this occasion, Italy were absolutely blown away in Murrayfield, failing to even get on the scoreboard as Scotland cantered to a 29-0 victory. The Scots now bid farewell to Head Coach Vern Cotter, who has overseen a gallant resurgence in Scottish rugby. Cotter is a gentle giant of a man, and was visibly emotional as he paid tribute to his players yesterday. He has instilled something in his team that has been missing for far too long: belief. Glasgow Warriors Head Coach Gregor Townsend will replace Cotter over the summer, and will be looking to continue where the big man has left off. Given Townsend’s success at Glosgow over the last few seasons, we could be entering a golden era of Scottish rugby.

It’s been a frustrating season for Italy. In fact, they’ve been frustrating to watch, too. There is a small group of strong players around which Conor O’Shea is trying to build a highly competitive Italian team, and there’s no doubt it will take time. With far too many unforced errors and inaccuracies, Italy seem to have fallen even further behind the other teams in the Six Nations. O’Shea needs to get them competitive for the full 80 minutes, which I understand was one of his goals for this season. If they work on their attack and improve their handling, and have a successful summer tour, Italy could become a real nuisance of a team by the next World Cup, but until then I can’t see them posing any real threat to the likes of England and Ireland in particular.

I’ve left my judgement of the France v Wales game until last because, quite simply, I don’t really know what to say on the matter. It was possibly one of the most bizarre games of rugby I’ve ever seen.

Sadly the game itself was a rather forgettable contest between two sides that have been struggling to find form during this championship, both trying to reinvent themselves in attack, and both desperately searching for a third tournament victory. The game took place in the curious back-drop of a proposed merger between two of France’s Top 14 teams that was announced earlier this week. I was angered and upset by the news that European heavyweights Stade Francais and Racing 92 were planning to merge amidst financial difficulty (the latter in particular gaining a recent  reputation for marquee overseas signings, such as Dan Carter). Italian back-row legend Sergio Parisse, who plays his club rugby for Stade, wore the team colours in the form of a pink armband during yesterday’s Scotland v Italy game, in a bid to protest the merger. The latest updates suggest the merger is off, which is great news, given the history and tradition of these two wonderful teams.

I digress. France v Wales proved to be a very close game with few great attacking opportunities, although I will say George North put in another huge shift on the wing for Wales. The visitors were restricted to six penalties from the accurate boot of Leigh Halfpenny, who also looked sharp in attack and defence.

Wales looked set to win the game until a five-metre attacking scrum for France yielded penalty after penalty after penalty. The clock turned red for 80 minutes, but play continued as the hosts were awarded the advantage time and time again, but were continually repelled by a defiant Welsh wall.

Samson Lee got yellow carded, sat out ten minutes of the game, and even returned to the field after the 80 minute mark! There was a claim of a bite on George North, but the Television Match Official could find no evidence of the incident, so play continued. France reversed a substitute, and referee Wayne Barnes asked the medical team on to the field to confirm whether the original substitution was for assessment. The game ended on a staggering 99 minutes and 50 seconds – twenty minutes after the game ought to have entered its final play, when the clock turned red. Extraordinary scenes! I always hate it when Wales lose, and the French supporters were understandably elated to have squeezed a victory with the eventual push-over try. It was a completely bonkers finale. Barnes will undoubtedly take a lot of criticism for this ending to the match. It wasn’t a very pretty end to the game, and certainly not a good advert for the Six Nations, especially when you’ve got the Super Rugby tournament producing some blistering rugby and staggering score-lines in the South at the moment. Just look at the Hurricanes, who scored over 150 points in their opening two fixtures! All right, I know it’s not test match rugby, but with a statistic like that, you have to tip your hat to them.

The most confusing thing about this whole ordeal was, for me, why on earth didn’t Wayne Barnes simply award France a penalty try after Wales conceded a yellow card? There had already been half a dozen or so penalties by this point! Really bizarre. I must point out, I actually rate Barnes very highly – he was quite excellent in last week’s Wales v Ireland game, allowing attacking play to continue and a nice flow to the game. I appreciate great officiating, and I think of Barnes as one of the world’s top referees in general, but there’s no doubt he had a bad day at the office in Paris.

So, what of Wales? This loss condemns them to just two wins from five games, and fifth place in the final standings. It was our worst tournament since 2010, and lowest position since 2007. Alun Wyn Jones has suffered a baptism of fire, with public confidence in stand-in Head Coach Rob Howley running dry. The summer tour to the Pacific Islands will afford a much-anticipated opportunity to blood some new talent, try out some fringe players and some new combinations. In other words, we could see a very different looking Wales team in this year’s November series.

On a more positive note, there have been a few brilliant performances across the tournament: Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric have formed a formidable back-row pairing, Rhys Webb has been in fine form, and George North is back near his best, answering his critics. Ross Moriarty has been great, too – a real hard hitter. All these guys, as well as Alun Wyn Jones and Ken Owens, are on the radar for a Lions spot when the squad is announced next month.

So that’s the Six Nations over for another year. It’s been big, bold, brutal, controversial at times, but it’s been a belter, and it’s still my absolute favourite.

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