With the first 6 Nations of the new decade fast approaching, it seems a good opportunity to dust off the anorak, the thick-rimmed glasses and the stats book and plunge into the history of this great tournament. The superstitious among you can look for patterns, omens and branches of hope to cling to; the cynical can dismiss it as an irrelevant and pointless exercise; the nostalgic may shed a tear for halcyon days and the sensible will regard it as a bit of fun to whet the appetite for the weeks ahead.
1980 – Bill’s boys
England had been hopeless for at least a decade and nobody gave them a prayer. Yet they had plenty of good players if only they could get them all on the pitch at the same time. This finally occurred in 1980 and took them to an unexpected Grand Slam. Led by Bill Beaumont and with such stalwarts as Tony Neary, Fran Cotton, Steve Smith and Dusty Hare among their number, England comfortably beat Ireland and then, thanks to 2 John Horton drop goals, beat France in Paris.
A last minute Dusty Hare touchline penalty saved them from defeat against 14-man Wales after Paul Ringer was dismissed early on leading to D-day at Murrayfield. A hatrick from John Carleton secured a 30-18 victory and England’s first clean sweep for 23 years. Nobody else won an away game in the whole tournament.
1985 – Near miss for Ireland
Ireland narrowly missed out on a first Grand Slam for 37 years. They took the Triple Crown and only a 15-15 draw against France in Dublin (in a game they lost 2 tries to nil) deprived them of a clean sweep. Keith Crossan, Trevor Ringland and Brendan Mullin provided the cutting edge, Michael Kiernan the boot and Donal Lenihan and Phil Matthews the grunt as they won in both Cardiff and Edinburgh. But they had to wait a further 24 years to end that wait for a Grand Slam.
France also went unbeaten, drawing with England and beating Wales and Scotland. The Scots followed up their Grand Slam the previous year with the Wooden Spoon, despite a cumulative points difference of only minus 18. England scored a solitary win and Wales won 2 games.
1990 – Murrayfield Mayhem
Another final day face off between Scotland and England and probably the most momentous of all. England had been dominant throughout the season, seeing off Ireland 23-0, France 26-7 in Paris and Wales 34-6 with Rory Underwood contributing 4 tries and breaking the English try-scoring record in the process. Scotland meanwhile edged past Ireland and Wales either side of a convincing display against France. But nobody really gave them a prayer.
Then David Sole led his team on to the pitch at a funereal march, a crowd came alive and there was the unmistakable sense that something special was afoot. Three Craig Chalmers penalties and a Tony Stanger try sent Scotland into ecstasy as they secured their 3rd ever Grand Slam, just 6 years after their second. For England it was a hiccup at the start of a glorious era but the defeat of the auld enemy on such a huge stage etched it into Scottish folklore.
Meanwhile, Wales took another wooden spoon in another final day play off with Ireland as the clouds really descended over Welsh rugby.
1995 – Carling makes it three
England cruised to their 3rd Grand Slam in 5 years as Will Carling became the first player to captain 3 Grand Slam winning sides. They won every game by at least 12 points with the Underwood brothers sharing 5 tries. The final day saw Scotland and England face off for the Grand Slam but Scotland were never in it, Rob Andrew kicking 24 points to seal the title. In a miserable decade for them both, Wales and Ireland found themselves head-to-head doing battle for the Wooden Spoon on the final day. Ireland scraped home by 4 points in Cardiff.
For the 2nd time running, England won a Grand Slam in World Cup year and really fancied their chances in South Africa but their momentum was brought to a shuddering halt by 19st of very fast-moving South Sea Island meat calling itself Jonah Lomu.
2000 – 5 becomes 6 and England bottle it
The Five Nations became the Six Nations and Italy marked their arrival with an emotional victory over Scotland on the opening day. While it proved to be something of a false dawn, the Azzurri immediately showed that they belonged. England meanwhile swept everyone before them. Skippered by Matt Dawson, they racked up 170 points in their first 4 games (including a hard-fought win in Paris), 70 of them from the boot of Jonny Wilkinson and including an Austin Healey hatrick against Wales.
Ostensibly they merely needed to show up at Murrayfield to clinch the Grand Slam against a Scotland side who had lost 4 from 4. But after 80 minutes of rain, wind, English complacency and Scottish passion, their dreams lay in tatters as Scotland ran out 19-13 victors. England did themselves no favours by refusing to collect the 6 Nations trophy afterwards. France, Ireland and Wales won 3 games each.
2005 – The Dragon roars
As a stodgy game in Cardiff, notable only for Gavin Henson’s demolition of the schoolboy Mathew Tait, drew towards its conclusion, England were clinging on for dear life. But up stepped Henson at the death to nail a monster of a penalty and put in motion the first ripples of a wave which Wales were to surf all the way to a Grand Slam.
The highlight was undoubtedly a magnificent win in Paris, inspired by Martyn Williams and they polished off the job against Ireland. Wales looked to have finally turned a corner but within a year coach Mike Ruddock was out of a job and they fell in the pool stages of the World Cup in 2007. But it reignited that inimitable Welsh passion for the game and announced the arrival of an outstanding generation.
Elsewhere, England disappointed, nowhere more so than against France at Twickenham where they contrived to lose to a dreadful French performance, courtesy of Dimitri Yachhvili’s boot. France somehow mustered 4 wins, Ireland 2 and Italy took the wooden spoon.
So in summary, keep an eye on the Scotland v England game, Wales may get on a roll if they beat England but if they don’t they will probably get the Wooden Spoon, France will be largely anonymous, Ireland could go either way and England could win the Grand Slam or they may mess it up. And who knows about Italy. Or none of the above. Possibly.
By Stuart Peel